I’ve written an enormous amount about windshirts over the past decade, their importance in a layering system, and the associated subtleties. To recap; outdoor clothing in general and wind layers in particular have over the past decade explored the range of breathability and overall weather protection in a comprehensive fashion. Specific to windshirts, the frontier over the past few years has been in making a breathable fabric which is both acceptably light and acceptably tough, and most significantly does not suck up and retain too much moisture. This last has been the primary liability of the otherwise category defining Alpine Start since in was introduced in 2014.
My 5 year old Alpine Start was getting long in the tooth, with the stock DWR all but gone and a few rips and holes. I wanted to try something different, perhaps from a company with less evil/capitalist overtones. The STP (Stretch Terre Planing) hoody is made from 90 grams/meter polyester, with a 4 way mechanical stretch. Compared to the Alpine Start, which has an 80 grams/meter 93/7 nylon/spandex fabric. 7% spandex is a lot, and all things being equal, poly should absorb much less water than nylon, while potentially (all thing being equal, which they never are) being less abrasion resistant. Dry time and moisture retention was my priority in a windshirt, so the STP fabric had my attention.
Virtues of the fabric put aside for a moment (and it is a really good fabric), the STP hoody has a bunch of virtues that well suit backcountry activities, and a few major caveats. The first and by far most significant downside is the torso volume, which as discussed here is positively huge for the size. I don’t think I could live with the STP without modifying this, making it a big caveat for folks who can’t or don’t care to cut up their new 125 dollar shell. The other caveat is the pockets, which sit right under a hipbelt. They are nice pockets, with the interior side being mesh and the zippers well anchored and smooth running. They are useful any time one is not wearing a pack, and I both don’t find them a problem under a hipbelt (so long as they’re empty) and don’t mind not having pockets on a windshell when I’m using a big pack. Around town, skiing, day hiking, or biking the pockets are useful and useable, so there is the argument for that, and it is a good one.
Otherwise the fit and detailing are excellent. The torso and arm length are both above average. The minimal cuff detailing, with just a little bit of elastic sewn in, leans in to the strength of the fabric being fast drying. The little cord thumb loops, unlike so many shirts, are actually big enough to fit over a (gloved!) thumb, and due to this and sleeve length are both useful and easy to ignore when you want to. The hood is big (not helmet big), and while it lacks a rear draw cord the patterning and soft fabric work to keep it out of your eyes, and the drawcords are external and easy to cinch. The cords are non-stretch ribbon, and the cord locks anchored bits of neoprene. They are not easy to loosen, requiring two hands, but the whole interface is secure, and very low profile. A similar system on a hardshell might go a long way towards solving the dreaded blizzard induced cord end to the face.
Anecdotally the STP fabric has been very fast drying. On colder but not frigid, humid days I get a bit of bogginess in the Alpine Start which has never been ideal. My first attempt at quantifying this difference did not endorse my intuitive conclusion, so I’ll be using the STP as a platform for further investigations there. My assumption is that I’ll use it a ton this spring and summer, and report back.
The counter argument is that pricey, esoteric windshirts like this are chasing minute performance gains which may or may not exist, and that something like the standby, nylon windshirt is the more versatile option and better investment. And it is hard to argue against that. No question, something like the Windveil (or Patagonia Houdini) get too sweaty for a lot of activities, particularly winter activities, when the balance between enough protection to not get chilled but not too much is very fine indeed. On the other hand, when the Windveil gets wet it doesn’t suck up too much water, dries fast, and still blocks the wind. My sense is still that a more breathable option better fits into the performance sweet spot, but there is also no arguing that most if not all of my windshirt acquisitions over the last half decade have been about geekery, rather than strictly about function. My aspiration this spring is to make that idea more objective.
A crucial attribute of windshirts, particularly for backcountry (which is to say, multiday) use is moisture retention and drying speed. If the most common, indeed only criticism of windshirts as a concept is that they can be viewed as redundant relative to a waterproof hardshell, the rejoinder to that criticism is that unlike a hardshell, a windshirt can be left on almost all the time. A good windshirt will have an ideal blend of breathability and weatherproofing for the given user and use case. Drying quickly nicely accompanies breathability where garment utility is concerned, and minimal moisture retention reduced the penalty of using the windshirt as an extra layer when true waterproof protection is required.
My benchmark for a number of years has been a static soak and dry test. In this case, I took four windshirts I regularly use, immersed them in a sink of water, vigorously kneeded them to ensure total saturation, then allowed them to sit drapped over a metal rack in a 62 degree (F) house for 3 hours. Weight, dry, soaked, and at one hour intervals post soaking, was taken to the nearest 10th of an ounce. The test subjects were: a Patagonia Stretch Terre Planing hoody, new three months ago, with significant potions of fabric removed from each side to bring in the torso diameter; a 2014 Black Diamond Alpine Start hoody, heavily used; a 2016 Rab Windveil, extensively used but with a good DWR still active; and a 2018 Patagonia Airshed pullover cut down to a vest, and with the chest pocket removed.
Dry time and moisture retention are, as will be discussed shortly, closely related but not the same thing. Similarly, this test is not reflective of common field conditions, and ignores the more realistic metric of dry time while under the influence of body heat (i.e. while worn). Years ago I ran the same test with both static and dynamic (worn) dry times, and found that while wearing the windshirt significantly accelerated dry times it did so at rates which hewed closely to those observed under static conditions. Variations in the heat an individual can put out in a given situation, be that due to variances in metabolism, weather, or circumstances (i.e. how tired and depleted they might be) are going to be more relevant here than anything else. A static test, such as this one, is more comfortable, less time consuming, and in my experience provides just as much actionable data.
On the face of it each of the four windshirts behaved similarly, soaking up a significant amount of water weight before taking 3 hours to become almost totally dry. There are a few significant aberrations, the first one being that the Airshed gains significantly more than the other three when taken as a percentage of dry weight. The Airshed gained 140% (2 oz up to 4.8), while the rest were in the 75-80% range. This is surprising, and the difference cannot be entirely blamed on the double layer of stretch fabric at the back hem, which as the dry test went on stayed drastically wetter longer than the main Airshed fabric. Indeed, the .4 oz from dry at the 2 hour mark was by feel due entirely due to this strip of fabric. So I need to replace this bit soon, and maybe that extra ~60% of gain was due to this little detail.
The other noteworthy variation is how much slower the STP hoody dried at hour 2, relative to the Alpine Start. Judging by feel, this was due to the more elaborate detailing, namely the two lower hand pockets and associated layers of fabric, zipper, flaps, and so forth. My biggest take away, or reminder, from this little project was that under those rare field conditions when things are getting soaked and resoaked, details like cuffs, hem complexity, and the number of pockets and flaps add up to make a big difference in dry time, and thus, warmth and overall functionality. The project also taught me that advancements or changes in fabrics may have not amounted to substantive improvements in this area. The Airshed fabric, on its own, may perhaps dry faster than similarly light fabrics, but I do not have the data to say so. And while intuitively the STP fabric seems to retain less moisture in use than the Alpine Start, I need more information before I can say that is anything other than confirmation bias.
Seems like I need to do more laps around the block with drenched clothing.
This is a logical extension of classic loop we traveled five years ago; down the Honaker trail, packraft the San Juan River to Grand Gulch, and hike that and some association of side canyons back to the mesa top. Riding a bike from any of those trailheads down the highway and Moki dugway to the Honaker trailhead is an enjoyable and expeditious way to shuttle with only one car. In my case, I left my bike at the Bullet Canyon trailhead, which made for a 26 mile bike shuttle.
You need two separate permits for this loop; one for the river, and one for Grand Gulch. Between November 1 and February 28 the later are unlimited and self-serve at trailhead kiosks. During the warmer parts of spring and fall there is a 20 quota per trailhead, per day. These can be reserved, online, 90 days out. Looking through March and April of this year, availability is widespread, save for Kane Gulch and Bullet Canyon on April weekends. San Juan permits are unlimited outside the lottery season, April 15 through May 15. I had ~670 cfs (at Bluff) for this recent trip, which for a packraft was more than adequate, if notably slow once morning headwinds kicked up. Looking at historic averages, I think this part of the San Juan is floatable year round, though isolated evidence of shelf ice suggests it might start to freeze up during the coldest depths of winter.
The top of Cedar Mesa is above 6000 feet, making snow in the upper sections not uncommon and potentially problematic, especially on north facing aspects. Pictured above is the “crux” of Bullet Canyon, after 2 inches of snow fell the night before. I went through around 3pm, after the midday sun had melted things down, and before the snow refroze and ceased to be sticky. A few hours earlier or later would have made the going trickier, as the people and dog (!) ahead of me seemed to have found (zoom in for the flail tracks). It is certainly possible that sections like this would have enough snow to be impassable without a rope and/or specialized experience. That said, the river straddles 4000 feet and overall daytime temperatures during November and February are usually quite pleasant. I did bring a drysuit, which made floating during 3 hours of steady rain tolerable.
At low flows the San Juan is mellow and accessible for almost any level of skill and any boat. I brought my small boat to save weight on the hiking, which was a good choice. The character of the river does change notably below Slickhorn Canyon, transitioning from a muddy mountain stream, with a gravel and cobble bottom and sequential riffle where you’d expect, to a true desert river with a sticky sand bottom. Much like with the Dirty Devil or Little Missouri, the San Juan could be 50 yards wide with only a small floatable channel right against either bank. I’ve long since passed the point where negotiating such things have novelty.
Grand Gulch itself is a unique canyon, and a somewhat odd companion to its neighbor, Slickhorn. Slickhorn climbs steeply and moves through its phases fast; Grand Gulch is at least 4 times as long, climbs gradually (save at the very start and very end), and has a spectacular number of bends and abandoned meanders. For varieties sake I couldn’t help climbing out the northern fork of Water Canyon and walking the plateau over to the Government Trail, which I took back into the canyon. This was a highlight, both the rugged route finding and big views up top (one can see the Bear’s Ears, Monument Valley, Navajo mountain, and Mount Ellen all at once). Grand Gulch from the Government Trail up to Bullet is remarkably uniform, with a 10 foot wide sand bottom windy between brushy banks with almost no breaks or obstacles. There is a lot of cool canyon architecture and rock art to see in this stretch, but the scenery and walking impressed with their uniformity and general turgidity. My legs were heavy after the Water Canyon excursion, and the day after, going past Dripping and Step Canyons, I had a struggle keeping in the moment and a generally positive mindset.
It is also worth highlighting that, due to limited visibility down amongst the trees and the lack of outstanding features, keeping track of your location/progress is more nuanced than usual in canyon country (that is, assuming I’m not the only backpacker left who avoids GPS).
I did find the scenery and walking up Bullet to be exceptional, a fitting highlight on which to end the trip. The history here, to be addressed later, is absolutely something to return to, even if the additional floating and walking of Grand Gulch, relative to Slickhorn, does not make it the highest quality of additions.
I did not much miss travel this past year. Or, to be more precise, I was more than content with staying in Montana (two trips excepted), and ran out of both energy and creativity before I ran out of options. As I think about 2021, my eye keeps coming back to the home state, and the many places I would still like to go, and the ways I might fit those trips into the next 12 months. My resolution from the beginning of the pandemic has only grown stronger, after a summer of a few intensely memorable trips within a couple hundred miles of home.
So why not do more of those?
There is a mountain range near to town, which tends to hide in plain sight, and has some truly exceptional canyons and trails that very few human eyes ever see. I’ve done a few trips there, each one having been exceptional, and while I’ve yet to settle on the exact route, something a little more extensive in early summer will be a priority. I’ve made a reservation to spur me along towards that end. I’ll share impressions when it happens, but never details, there being enough knows out in the world as is.
There are also a lot of rivers in Montana, with many hiding in plain sight once they put the mountains below the horizon. Again I have no definitive plans, but with the smaller child getting big enough that backpacking will become ever more difficult, the boating phase of family development should be in full force this year. We bought a canoe this past year, and have another packraft on the way in a few weeks, so we should use them a bunch. On that note, a full Escalante float really ought to happen this year.
And on the subject of packrafting, there are still two major creeks in Glacier I have yet to float. And I’m pretty certain that both of them will be very worthwhile. Restrictions in the park this past year took both off the table, so there is a special urgency and poignancy to being able to get into those pieces of backcountry, one of whom is amongst the handful of named drainages in the park into which I have never set foot. And on the subject of packrafting, a year with minimal socialization has me contemplating the privilege of being around likeminded folks. Spending the summer solstice in the center of the universe with the relevant folks and as much beer as we dare to carry is an idea that won’t quite leave my head.
I am also hopeful of, finally, having some more packs go out the door. Tamarisk 0.2, above, is headed out the door tomorrow. While I did not intend to put a full year of testing into version 0.1, having the confidence that it both works so well across applications and that the individual components hold up so well is an unexpected luxury. Mark 0.2 is a wee bit bigger (as requested) than 0.1, and than the production model will be. It scales nicely, looks good, and carries (with the final alterations to the hipbelt) even better.
On that commercial note, I should mention that stock of gold packraft straps has grown quite thin after the holiday surge. 3 pairs, to be exact. Anyone who has been wedded to that color but not moved to act ought to do so now. Anyone with thoughts about what color should appear next, to compliment the rainbow (which will be stocked perpetually), do comment.
If 2020 was a merciless device which distilled everything already there, into a cold cutting clear hypnotic as overnight ice on an alpine lake, what I learned in the past 12 months was that I did not lack for time. I lack for energy, and for the headspace to use what time I have as well as I would like. This has only accelerated in the last 5 years, as life has filled up with responsibility. Freedom without boundary flows in all directions and disappears as a quick rain in the desert. Build choice into a frame, four lines of duty, obligation, scarcity, and immanence, and coherence comes fast, making freedom comprehensible.
18 months ago I had enduring questions about what my place in adventure would be, given the shortcomings limited days in the field would inevitably bring. When backpacking big miles, there is no substitute for time on feet, and out in wild, technical terrain presence of mind equals safety. How much would my wild mind dull, as years pass and big trips became ever less frequent? A few traverses that summer, and especially the Isle Royale trip that fall, did much to put my fears to ground. In the woods my purpose was clearer and more accessible, moment to moment, than ever before, and any slowness desk hours had put into my legs were more than compensated by confidence and better planning.
I flowed through the swamps and ridges of Isle Royale, and when mid-May opened this year, the virus loomed a little less unknown, and Will invited me on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, the timing seemed ideal. It was a difficult trip, the most sustained difficult whitewater I’d ever paddled on that blurringly full first day, but the space between the challenges and what I was able to welcome had never been thinner. The stillness which lingered has lasted to this day, and ran through what was the most technically challenging and accomplished season of paddling I’ve had yet.
The process aspects of pursuits and skills have in the past been circumstantial. I’ve learned to ski and to paddle whitewater because wanted to go places and be on journeys that required these tools and techniques. This past summer of packrafting was the coalescing point for a new mindset built not just around the process of any given trip, whose better embrace is another story, but on the immediacy of the skills in question. This spring, big lonely storms amidst the height of lockdown had me avoiding objective hazard, and provided ideal conditions for getting better at flowing one turn into another on powder through the trees. This summer I read lines and placed my paddle better than ever, because that had become the first goal, and in many cases because I was paddling close enough to my limit that anything less led to some bruising swims. And this fall, with both kids obsessed with biking, I’ve looked forward to hours at the bike park, just trying to hit a berm better.
All of which sounds, when I writer it in retrospect, rather trite and obvious. Was I really so preoccupied with so much other stuff, so much external stuff, so many goals, for so long?
The answer has to simply be yes, and the trip which pushed me firmly over the line to admitting this, out loud to myself was the prairie elk hunt this September. It was on a scenically detailed bit of ground, but with the elk so legion exploration had nothing to do with getting from A to B, and everything with where along that path a bull was likely to be bedded. On the one hand that hunt was a dismal process failure, insofar as my shooting skills let me down on at least several occasions that I’ll forever regard as should-have-been-certains. On the other it was a raging success, in that opportunities were rife and I failed so close to a dead elk so many times, and was thus bludgeoned over the head with all the things I was as a hunter doing properly.
My other goals for hunting in 2020 were to kill some grouse, and put some time into being selective about a big mule deer in the local mountains. I did kill some grouse, which were tasty, and had a lot of fun days within an hour of home hiking around our northerly desert-forests looking for and at mule deer. My explicit goal, for the first time, concerned antler size, because in each year past for I can’t recall how many running I have seen one particularly large antlered and magical buck after I had filled my tag. From the perspective of inches I never saw that deer, and the one I shot was a disappointment. From the perspective of experience the kill, butchering, and walk out were everything exactly as I like about hunting, and this and the elk hunt put together clarified the blend of practice and location which makes hunting distinct from every other form of knowing in the outdoors.
It all, in short, gives me a lot of hope and interest for what might happen this year.
Add.; Not long after publishing this yesterday evening I received a text, and then an email, stating that extra vaccine doses would be available to direct care workers outside hospitals and clinics, in other words, me. So I woke up in the dark and waited in line at the fairgrounds and got Moderna stuck into my arm. That medicine went into clinical trials the first day our schools went virtual back in the spring, and is both a great story and a reminder that for all the navel gazing, flatearth mugwumpitude of 2020, contemporary science is quite amazing. Can’t really leave that off such a list as this.
For over a decade I’ve struggled to see the point of any mountain bike grips which are not either Oury or Ergon. When buying parts for the Marin I wanted to try something new, and ordered a pair of Deathgrips in thin and flangeless. The tactile experience, along with the ease of removal while futzing with components, have been very nice indeed. Nice enough that I recently put another set, thick and flangeless, of my fatbike. I don’t have enormous hands (generally right between medium and large gloves) and the thin versions are both a bit low on cushion and a bit too little to hold well in the rough. These are emphatically a gravity oriented grip, without much squish. But the ribbed thumb section is super comfy with or without gloves, and encourages body english and three dimensional steering. Not necessarily the most versatile bike grip, but a very fun option.
Under ordinary circumstances I don’t do much to restrain my coffee consumption, provided I drink it black. Caffeine being after all an almost universal performance enhancer with no socially consequent downsides, and precious few downsides at all. The chemical and psychological benefits have been even more important this year, and the Moka pot quickly makes just the kind of coffee I prefer. This fall especially it has been rare that I don’t fire it up at least twice a day.
When we moved in 3.5 years ago the little garage out back was in sad shape, and half full of odd junk. The door had long since ceased to work, and the dirt floor became vital that spring, as a record snowpack melted through the walls and flooded down under the door. Boxes stored in there were frozen to the floor for over a month. That summer I built a stone wall between the opening and the alley, demolished the door, and built a wall cutting the interior in half. The dirt floor of the bike room is handy when I spill oil, or don’t want to go back inside to piss, but a nuisance when I drop a bolt. I also dug out the three feet of wooden wall decades of erosion had placed underground, and installed layers of flashing. So now our garage keeps snowmelt out.
Among the items moved out to make way for bikes and the car was an old wooden bakers chair, which rolls, swivels and tilts on an iron base. I didn’t really look at it for another few years, until this February when I restored the base with grease, screws, and wood glue, and the seat and back with pints of linseed oil. I had intended to move it to my office at school, and finished it the weekend before the stay at home order took effect in Montana. Instead it went into the new home office, and I found that the unpadded seat was more comfortable than the succession of old and modern plush chairs I’ve used over the years. It was a happy day when I moved it into school at the end of August, and in October, when things finally got cold enough for the baseboard heater to run hot, the scent of linseed oil reemerged and lingered for days. For practical and now, nostalgic reasons, I can’t imagine ever getting rid of it.
Through both planning and luck spent more nights in lookout towers this year than any other to date. Some, like Christmas Eve in a tower just north of town, required advanced planning. Others were vacancies that popped up days in advance, and seizing them just required awareness and being flexible. Picking a favorite is not possible, as every trip was important and unique. Like this one, and this one.
In this case scarcity has always been somewhat the driver of interest, and this year more than most, the silence of the wind and a long view were especially welcome. If a lot of my internal conversation at the beginning of the summer concerned what I would do when the pandemic had passed, my looking back at these photos and memories now has me struggling to think of trips I’d find of more interest or value, and has me psyched to plan more, close to home, for 2021.
One of the sadder days of the stay at home order was when our local shut down for several weeks. They had stayed open with much of their usual range for the first few weeks, and taking the usual walk downtown in the afternoon only to find a note saying they’d be shut for at least a while did more than most things, I am sad to admit, to bring home what we had lost. Ever since they reopened I’ve been less likely than usual to shy away from an anise biscotti or slice of lemon sake, and less likely in general to take our little city for granted.
This is a nice shirt. You would not know it was polyester until it dries much faster (and stinks more) than wool. Fit and build are ideal. Durability is decent. My 14 month old one has developed a few picks at seemingly random times, none of which have impacted presentability from a distance or not been easily sorted with scissors. That shirt still qualifies as Montana formal, and is the rare thing I can both wear to the office and on a hunting trip. Neither wicking nor insulation are quite at the level of true performance clothing, but is ideal for bike commuting, winter walks that turn cold, resort skiing, and everything in the category of lifestyle. At least around here, it counts as a Zoom shirt too.
There are a lot of sweatshirts very similar to this (discontinued) piece, but as is often the case, Patagonia does the details better. The hard faced, brushed interior polyester is both more weather resistant and more cuddly than similar pieces from other companies, and the big three panel hood, roomy but not excessive cut, and pockets (there are zippered, mesh lined pockets inside each hand pocket) make it infinitely practical. I had one years ago, sold it, regretted doing so, and picked up another this summer on Worn Wear (which is a very fun place to browse). Until things get really cold around here, it is my coat every day.
Back in September I bought a new mountain bike. This ended up being of note for a couple reasons, but I should first cover why I bought this bike, and why I almost did not buy a bike at all. While M and I generally feel quite wealthy day to day, this year in particular, abundant toy funds do not count among the reasons why. A thousand dollars is often what I spend on outdoor equipment in an entire year, much of that usually going towards either materials for projects or replacing worn out items (esp shoes). The option to get a new bike was, thus, a weighty one.
The reasons to not get a new bike centered around the expense of mountain biking, which on an entry and rolling basis outstrips everything else I like to do outside, with backcountry skiing and packrafting being the only close competitors. Ski gear can be had much cheaper used than biking stuff, and packrafting gear has less maintenance cost than either. Mountain biking is also, in sharp contrast to either skiing or packrafting, in a profoundly lame period of development, with vastly enhanced technology and cost coming together with significant access issues and a thoroughly prosaic trailbuilding ethos. The result being an outdoor pursuit with an increasingly homogenized, bourgeois edge; with berms, bike parks, ebikes, and excessive travel taking the place of skill and pushing out the influence of the wild, moving mountain biking quite far towards the golf-with-sweat side of the “adventure” pantheon, where it will in the decades to come join resort skiing and whitewater (party) rafting as camp followers of late capitalism, bound for immolation at the hands of history.
Fortunately, the reasons I wanted a new mountain bike were in most cases divorced from most of the above, either by circumstance or choice. Above all else, I wanted a new bike to have something more suitable, than either my 2011 Salsa Mukluk or 2006 Surly Karate Monkey, for some backcountry riding and hellbiking/bikerafting missions I have in mind for the coming years. I had reason to believe advances in bike geometry would prove useful here, and that starting from the ground up I could have something significantly lighter, and thus easier to push and carry, than the Mukluk with a new and lighter wheelset. While there are some access concerns locally, and most of the Helena area trails are exceedingly tame, there is within a few hours a lifetime of obscure backcountry riding, and plenty of fun trails literally half a block from our back door. I also spend a multiple days a week biking with the munchkins, which usually means horsing around at either the school playground down the street or the local pumptrack and dirt jumps. A new bike may or may not have been better suited to those things, but at the very least I’d use it all the time, if not necessarily for the primary purpose.
With all that in mind I had no shortage of options. I knew I didn’t want to spend much. I knew I’d want to heavily customize any stock build (and even so, it didn’t take long to realize a complete bike would be vastly more economical than building from scratch, assuming I could even buy what I wanted frame-only). I knew that due to weight, cost, and slow-mo precision descending concerns, along with my own desire to limit my speed and thus severity of any future crashes, I did not want any suspension. I wanted slack and low geometry, room for fat tires, and at the same time a reasonably compact frame (vertical space being the primary limiter when putting a bike on the front of a packraft). I wanted a light frame, and while it was not a deal breaker, the ability to go singlespeed would be appreciated.
I considered many options, narrowing them down to the Marin San Quentin and Rocky Mountain Growler, and ultimately went with the former due to lower cost (in the base model), 27.5 inch wheels with space for 3″ tires (not claimed, but widely reported), and availability. This last point ended up being key, as the COVID rush saw 2021 bikes snapped up with unprecedented speed. My laxity here almost saw me miss out entirely, and I ended up finding a San Quentin 1, in blue and extra large, from a shop across the country, who was then so overwhelmed with orders that they took a month to assemble box, and ship the bike. It arrived (after the shop kindly bumped it up in the que) 48 hours before we left for Utah in October, barely enough time for me to add pedals, swap contact points and brakes, and convert the wheels to tubeless (which proved highly problematic, more below).
Overall I have been very pleased with the bike. Fortunately snow with staying power has held off for the past two months, as it has taken all that time for riding and tweaking the San Quentin to get the core elements sorted and begin to get a sense of its personality.
As promised, the San Quentin is radically different than any previous mountain bike I’ve owned. Granted, that list is short, but here the head tube angle is 5 degrees slacker, the seat tube 2 degrees steeper, and the top tube nearly 2 inches longer. The San Quentins wheelbase is not quite 4 inches longer than my Mukluk, something immediately apparent both visually and on the bike. Chainstays on the San Quentin are only 6mm short of the Karate Monkey, and the BB height (with the carbon fork on the SQ) is almost identical, testament to how forward thinking Surly was in those respects. The idea with contemporary mountain bike geometry is to make the bike longer, by both pushing the front axle further forward and increasing the share of the cockpit length taken up by the frame, as compared to the stem, while at the same time keeping the rider centered relative to both wheels by making the seat more upright. In my experience this approach fulfills all goals beautifully, and climbing and descending it is notably superior to anything I’ve ridden, with no downsides save a hair more planning required going around switchbacks. The bike feels stable, but never slow, and the whole package is fantastic at pumping through gullies and hitting berms. There is a bit of nervousness descending steep and loose stuff which I out down to the paucity of rubber up front, relative to the Mukluk. I am eager to put 3″ tires on it.
Fit did prove something of a head scratcher due to the relatively low front end. I had the 490mm Carver carbon fork waiting for the frame to arrive, but the stock suspension fork had a straight steerer and a reducer crown race, meaning I needed a new headset for the rigid fork, which was a needed upgrade anyway, as the open bearing stock headset did not inspire confidence. Even with this longer rigid fork, selected for both weight savings (5 pounds lighter than the stock suspension fork) and to preserve the slack head angle, the stack height (e.g. vertical distance from the bottom bracket to the top of the head tube) is on the low side, and with a 65 degree head angle stacking spacers under the stem eats top tube length in a hurry. I liked the steering of the 45mm stock stem, but getting the bars high enough made the bike far too short. A lot of measuring, virtual modeling, and riding the bike with the 85mm stem off the Mukluk had me take a deep breath and order a 60mm, 84 degree stem (which I run flipped on top of a 5mm spacer) and a 60mm rise bar. This gets me the cockpit length I’m used to, and the slicier steering of a shorter stem. Now, of course, I would really like a fat bike with similar handling.
The base model San Quentin coming with a square taper bb was a plus, as the whole fleet is to this day standardized around that design. I’ve killed a few of the cheaper Shimano cartridge models, but only after years of significant abuse. This allowed for some drivetrain futzing, as the 32:46 low gear which came stock is not quite low enough, and I can’t imagine running a backcountry bike without a bashguard. Bending ring teeth into workable shape with a rock is a field repair I don’t need to do again. Currently, and as pictured above, the SQ has most of the drivetrain the Mukluk has used for years; 26 tooth Surly ring, old XT derailleur, 11-42 cassette, and a Dura-Ace barcon friction shifting on a Paul mount. The stock Microshift drivetrain worked just fine, and reminded me that 9 speed great (and when it comes to performance in the mud, vastly better than 11 speed), so I put on a nice, nicely cheap, all steel Microshift 11-42, 9 speed cassette. This gives me enough granny gear, enough high gear for pavement cruising, and the most frequent ratios right in the middle. I like that the old derailleur is slim and light relative to the big Microshift, but the last few rides have drove home the virtue of having a clutch, so that will, eventually, need to be replaced.
While there is a lot to like about current geometry, there is almost as much to dislike about other trends in bikes. Internal cable routing seems both pointless and annoying (ting), and the level of specialization which means that I (a reasonably competent home mechanic) can’t even begin to figure out the type of headset needed seems excessive. But wide cassettes are cool, as is the clearance that comes with wider hub spacing. Complaints with the bike itself (aside from the cable routing) are minimal, confined to a derailleur hanger which seems a bit soft, and a seat tube that seems needlessly high, especially given modern trends with dropper posts. I’m on the shorter side of folks who will likely buy an XL, and while I have plenty of standover (and framebag space) I’ll max out at a 125mm dropper from any brand save OneUp. There is actually space for two bottles on the downtube, and given Marin’s boss-intensive approach with other frames it would be cool to see more storage tech on the San Quentin. Good bikepacking bikes need to be good mountain bikes first, and the SQ is certainly that.
I’ll keep riding until winter finally comes in earnest and shuts down the trails and pump track (if that ever happens). Priorities for spring and summer outings include a dropper, cushier tires, and a frame bag. When the time comes and I’ve had more than afternoon rides in the bag, I’ll update with a comprehensive breakdown.
Not necessarily a huge amount to say here: the Allez Micro is a hooded quarter zip baselayer shirt, made from Polartec High Efficiency, a fabric which was one of the very best innovations of the past decade. I reviewed the Patagonia Capilene 4 hoody back in the day, when it was one of the very first pieces to use the fabric. Later that year I bought a Capilene 4 long sleeved crew, and have used that since, when the weather gets reasonably chilly. I ended up passing that gen 1 Cap 4 hoody along, mainly because the hood was too tight for all day comfort. I’ve periodically missed the warmth and functionality of having a hood in that particular layer, as well as the versatility of being able to use a warmer baselayer hoody as a midlayer, too. So I bought an Allez Micro, and have been happy.
The main, perhaps only difference of substance between the Allez Micro and the current Patagonia Thermal Weight hoody is the hood, with the former being a single layer, and the later double. I much prefer the reduced warmth, and enhanced moisture transport, of the single layer. For the same reason, I much prefer no pockets on a shirt like this. I did buy the Allez Micro in size large, which lets me wear it over a t-shirt if desires, while still being slim enough for layering. This also makes the hood big enough to wear for days at a time, even over a variety of hats. Sleeves and torso are very long, almost excessively so, though it makes the thumb loops fit ideally, and the fabric is light and flexible enough that some excess around the wrists goes unnoticed.
Polartec HE was on the vanguard of the defining textile apparel trend of the past decade, and understanding how unusually, occasionally exceptionally wicking and air permeable fabrics interact as various parts of a layering apparatus. The Allez Micro, for example, is light enough and would seem to be more than fast wicking enough to be a hot weather baselayer. A few months ago I found myself wearing it on a windless day pushing into the 80s, even at 7000 feet, and having it rather than something like the Pulse hoody contributed significantly to my pace suffering in the heat. Not only does the grid fabric trap air and as a result add warmth, when worn alone on a calm day, it also wicks too fast to work in hot weather, as the fabric effectively eliminates convective cooling. That same attribute is of course it’s main virtue in the cold, and why most of the time Polartect HE works best against the skin.
Some sort of shell is often important, in cold, weather, to control evaporative rates and thus provide for some adjustment in heat and cooling. A big virtue of HE is that it moves moisture so fast that there is a lot of foregiveness in layering. One can, for instance wear a relatively not-breathable wind layer, to guard against stronger winds and to take advantage of the more limited moisture absorption (relative to soft shell windshirts), and get away with venting via the front zip in warmer and calmer moments.
Something like the Allez Micro also works, decently, as a midlayer over a slower wicking t-shirt, which slows down moisture transport against the skin, but speeds it up through the midlayer. In this case, there is less wiggle room when it comes to a wind layer, but on something like a spring ski trip where one might have both hot afternoons and very cold mornings (or days), this arrangement might be the best way to cover as many conditions as possible without duplicate layers that can’t all be worn together (for instance, while sleeping).
The Allez Micro is a versatile option, and Montane did well providing the salient details, without anything extra. Recommended.
This fall I’ve been wearing little other than the Astral TR1 Merge, and for the sort of walking I like to do these days, they are far and away the best pair of shoes I’ve ever had.
While they don’t have a tremendous number of miles on them, almost all of those miles have been off trail. They went elk hunting in the Montana prairie badlands, did an alpine traverse on broken granite, went hiking, biking, and climbing in the Colorado Plateau, and have spent more time bushwacking and traversing limestones ridges close to home. All of those are more abusive on shoes than average, in their own way, and the shoes are holding up perfectly thus far.
Traction across mediums has been excellent. The lugs grip loose soil, either straight on or sidehill, while having enough surface area for good friction on bare rock. The rubber is soft enough, without wearing too fast. The midsole is thick and protective enough, without any hinge points, and without feeling unnatural or slow. They’re supportive enough, for me, for technical mountain biking using flat pedals, but I can tolerate far softer shoes in all areas than most. Significantly, the modest padding and added material in the heel and toebox have improved both hold and protection; I’ve not experienced any of the unpleasant talus bites I got often in the Brewers. The only real flaw is the open mesh used in the toungue, which extends down into the toebox just enough to become a magnet for cheatgrass seeds and a conduit for sand.
For me, they’ve been supportive enough to carry a 70 pound pack on a few occasions (deer pack out, as well as a family backpack load with a toddler on top). For me and my feet, support means enough padding and structure to insulate my feet from the terrain, even when I’m suddenly 50% again my own weight, while being pliable enough to not cause hot spots. Zero drop is a big part of the later, as is the lack of illusory things like ankle support. The Merges work for me because they’re a coherent package, the level of support, degree of structure, even the sole and rubber all working to serve one particular style of walking.
That style is a light footed one, based on balancing over terrain and using weaknesses and variations for purchase. Smearing across the loose wet sidehill, rather the kicking steps. Working the stable pieces of a talus slope, rather than digging through and into the loosest parts to make steps. This style is as much about strength and ability as it is about the type and style of trip. People who regularly take big packs into rough terrain are more often drawn to stiff boots due to pace, and indeed due to their line through a place. This isn’t to say that fast line, fluid pace shoes are not compatible with a big pack, simply that melding such shoes with a heavy pack requires more than simple strength. It requires a skillset, and that combination is due to how learning conventionally evolves has historically been uncommon.
That is changing, and as fluid line choice under expedition conditions works further toward the norm, I hope shoes like the Merge remain around as options.
Last month I bought a new bike, my first brand new one in almost a decade. That one, nine years ago, was the first generation Salsa Mukluk, the first broadly available fat bike not called Pugsley. It has, because it still works great, a lot of things my new bike does not: straight steerer, one choice in headset size, external cable routing. I bought the Mukluk as a frameset, meaning I got a frame and fork in a box, bought everything else I didn’t already have separately, and put it all together. This also is an increasingly dead way of getting a bicycle, with few of the options I considered last month available frame only, and none of those making economic sense on the face of it. The new economy of scale gets you all the relevant components for less than the price of the frame over again.
And scale is another thing that has changed in the bike industry this year. I almost missed out, and ended up hunting down a shop in Mississippi which had a San Quentin 1 left, in XL. Numbers I’ll cover in a later post, save to mention that I called that shop, again, at the beginning of October to inquire if I might get my new bike before we left for the Colorado Plateau in a few weeks. I did barely, as they had sold through their whole 2021 stock in a matter of days, and were weeks behind in building them. And no, they could not (due to warranty reasons) just send me the whole mess to sort out myself. So 52 hours before we left a very large box arrived, and I had that time to assemble, alter, trouble shoot, figure out that I’d need a new headset to mount the rigid fork I’d purchased, make a trip to the local shop out of utter confusion at what headset that would be, then finish component swaps and tubeless conversion, atop packing all the other stuff we’d need for 11 days away from home.
The new bike worked great, and having it stowed day to day on the roof rack, rather than on a hook in the bike room, took me forcefully away from the discontent and the fiddling which bridge a new machine, eventually, into familiarity. Instead I rode it on an almost daily basis, often in dirt circles around camp, but also on the practice loop at Gooseberry, up the road to the lodge in Zion, on a pump track in West Salt Lake (wiggle break on the drive home), and down Thunder Mountain, the best trail in the world.
Thunder Mountain is on the west side of the Paunsaugunt, with Bryce on the east. It starts in rolling, sand bottomed ponderosa forest, snakes its way through liminal drainage heads to the ridge, above, before plunging down a few sets of steep, loose, and very dusty switchbacks and ridge drops in the process of going north to the ridge next to the road. At which point I was late, and at which point one encounters a trail sign. 1.4 miles that way, to the road, and untold miles the other way, into the unknown. Over a decade ago I experienced that unknown, and had a cold night out as part of my trouble. On this trip I tucked into the subtleties of the descent to the road, glad that it was very quick, and that my new bike came alive on it’s first full force outing.
Everyone loves a new bike, it just takes a while to finally know each other.