Cost/Benefit

The question which is, when attached to outdoor gear, the most relevant (and certainly most interesting) of all. Is item X worth it?

The first photo ever posted on Bedrock & Paradox: me riding my old Gunnar Rockhound on Mt Elden, AZ in the summer of 2006.  It’s a good point of departure. wondering if the thousands of dollars I’ve spent on bike stuff in the years since has been well spent.  Most of the stuff pictured is no longer in my possesion: the helmet was busted the next summer, the shoes and shorts worn out, the frame, fork, wheels, and tires sold or given away when that winter I switched to 29ers.  The non-driveside crankarm is still in use, as is the  30t Surly chainring.  The 140mm Salsa stem and red Titec bars on on M’s mountain bike.  The blue Capilene 2 tshirt is still going strong.

Even with clipless pedals, full suspension, and a few years more experience I rode that roller with much less fluidity and confidence.  I also rode with much more fluidity on my spendy Lenz, and with much more confidence and speed.  My original question can thus be cut into two:  1) is the cost of advanced, new technology worth the performance and fun benefits?  2) is the benefit of improving via technological acquisition worth the cost of making the learning process easier?

In two years of long rides on the rocky trails of Utah and Arizona I went from the above bike to two 29ers, one a rigid SS which save the wheelsize, front disk brake, and clipless pedals is very similar to the Gunnar, and a geared full suspension wonderbike.  The full suspension bike (the Lenzsport Leviathan) remains the most expensive thing I’ve ever bought that wasn’t a motor vehicle or a student loan.

New and unblemished.

Insofar as question 2 is concerned, this bike (and especially the suspension fork to go on it) was absolutely worth it, as the path I was going down (riding rigid bikes on long rocky rides) would have (for me) led to nerve damage in my hands.  That lack of pain helped increase the fun factor, very important.  Finally, the benefits of suspension gave me the confidence to ride much closer to my limit than I ever would have otherwise, which in turn made me a better rider on the rigid bike.  I smile everything I see it (every though it hasn’t been ridden since October), and have no desire to replace it.

On other gear items, the questions are simpler.  Alpackas are still the only packrafts that can hope to get the job done (the job including a bit of whitewater and the full spectrum of weather), thus the only choices are: whether you need one, what size to get, and what color.

But the subject which brought these musing to the fore is skiing.  Ski gear is expensive.  For those like me, unenlivened by bro deals, a skins/skis/boots/dynafits setup would run 1600-2000 dollars (100/5-800/6-1000/3-500).  Somehow, I hesitate to spend that on a ski rig, moreso than on a bike frame.  Part of it having less money (due to student loans).  Part of it is having bought out three current skis rigs less than 1000 total, skins and bindings included.  Part of it is that skiing is such a harsh task master, and I suspect that my abilities have much further to go, and while different equipment might help, I’d almost prefer to keep life simple and the learning curve harsher.

Money is of course only money, and hearses do not have luggage racks.  But a new pair of AT boots is a round trip plane ticket to Alaska, and experience continues to fill one up long after gear has been worn out and replaced.  In summary, I like gear, in general.  Some pieces of gear I more than like, their beauty and elegance combine with the way they embody memory and possibility to become the very best of what material objects can be: practical, personal works of art.  I am also, increasingly, suspicious of my own preoccupations with gear.  A lot of that has to do with the fact that, after so many miles and so much learning, my simple rigid Karate Monkey remains my favorite bike.

The Karate Monkey at Granite Basin, back in the flat pedal days.  Nostalgia.  I’ve tried to go back to riding flats on real mountain biking terrain, and can hardly imagine how I used to do it.

Future plans

Bill Hatcher photo; the legendary Dial-Tobin-Adkins Alaska Range bike traverse.  Look at that tiny pack!

The past weekend of fun and the extensive germ exposure of my job caught up to me, and I’ve spent the past two days feeling achey and sluggish, trying to not get any more ill.  Hopefully it works.

Life up here in the Flathead can feel claustrophobic.  The ever present (unless it’s below zero) fog from Flathead Reservoir is the number one factor, how I ended up living somewhere so not like the desert southwest in terms of sun exposure is a matter of some speculation.  We’re also two hours from the interstate (my parents found out there’s a surcharge to mail stuff here v. Missoula), which makes a hypothetical escape all the slower.  Beyond that, this is a forgotten corner of the world, an attribute made very evident at my job.  Folks move here because they want to get away, and somehow the not inconsequential concentration of people and the consequent trappings of civilization (Super Walmart, mini-malls, ski resorts) only serves to make more obvious the extent to which the normal denizon of the Flathead is a few standard deviations removed from any broader standard of normalcy.

It’s also been since July of ’09 and the Markagunt epic since we’ve been down to canyon country.  Far, far too long. I’d like to go soon, and fulfill some longstanding plans in the process.  First on the list involves biking and packrafting.  Doing, in essence, Doom’s route with minor variations, and doing it faster.  Moab to Escalante, or vice versa.  So, I have two questions:

-Who has a bike and raft and wants to go with?

-What are you, my rabid readers, dreaming of for the coming year?

Cases for and against Armstrong

Call it “physiologically believable” (which many don’t like, but I use it with its obvious intention), or call it signs of change, I do believe that the Tour is slower, and that the days of 6.3W/kg for 40 minutes are now the stuff of highlights and commemorative DVDs.

-Science of Sport, 7/23/10

 

For a while now, I’ve believed that Lance took performance enhancing drugs during his seven-tour run.  Not a shattering thought certainly, and perhaps evidence that in sentimental cases my optimism goes too far.  In the end, irrespective of the details, I find the whole affair to be a very sad one.

While writings like the recent Sports Illustrated article take a legalistically nit-picky tack on developing a case against Armstrong, I find analyses like that which the excellent Science of Sport engaged in during the 2010 tour to be far more compelling.  Rather than focusing on accusations from exceptionally biased people (the affair has proven, if nothing else, that Lance Armstrong is a very unpleasant person to have as an enemy) or on a weight on circumstantial evidence, the scientific case against Armstrong (more exactly, against his claim that he never used illegal performance-enhancing drugs) boils down to several largely inarguable “facts”:

1) The most talented, best trained, and most motivated cyclists of the current, post-EPO testing era are significantly slower (~5%) than those of the Armstrong era up the same TdeF climbs.

2) EPO, homologous blood doping and the like are estimated to give a 5-10% performance boost for an athlete already in peak condition.

3) Virtually all Lance Armstrong’s contemporaneous rivals (Riis, Ullrich, Hamilton, Landis, etc) have either admitted to or been implicated in illegal performance-enhancing drug use.

Two conclusions are then possible: that Armstrong was in his prime almost categorically better (for reason of physiology, method, and determination) than anyone else; or that Armstrong was doping.  I see no third option.

I also think that both are almost certainly the case.  Armstrong doped.  To think otherwise seems to go against a massive weight of evidence.  I also think that many of the prerequisites for Armstrong’s success have nothing to do with drug use, legal or otherwise.  The 2010 tour only served to highlight that winning such a race is a game of manufacturing your own luck.  Frank Schleck failed to do so well enough on the cobbles, and his brother may well have lost because of it.  Evans and Armstrong both crashed out of contention.  Yet for seven straight years Armstrong managed, by skill moreso than luck I would argue, to go against the numbers and do everything right.

It is certainly not unprecedented for an athlete to operate, if only for a season, on a level far beyond anyone else.  In almost all respects Armstrong must have done so, and thus I think it sad that such a great human achievement will, to a certain extent, be lost amid the noise.

2010: in review

Running through all these Christmases is the sense of an emotional cadenza at the end of the year, a braiding of feelings like hope, renewal, nostalgia, love, joy and exhaustion. Yet in the stories about this holiday, it’s surprising how often we’re reminded of a darker life, full of isolation, penury, greed, despair and the fear that traps emotion within us.

-The NY Times editorial page, today

2010 will stand out in my mind for many things; I finished my masters, got a good job, raised my gear making and photography to a new level, met many great people, and achieved a paradigm shift in how I view outdoor adventuring.  But above all, 2010 was the year in which I finally became an adult.

About time, eh?

In my post-MSW world, there is no longer some hypothetical future achievement which can (abstractly) be expected to categorically alter my life.  What I have and am now can reasonably be expected to be, with subtle variations, what I have and am in the future.  Reflecting on this has gone well with the expected, end of year, seasonal introspection of which the Times speaks.  It has been the cause of both satisfaction and angst.  And while there are many thing with which I am not satisfyied and which I hope to change in an enduring fashion, there are also many things of which I am proud.  Examining the first 29.8 years of my life is, from this comfy chair on this quiet morning, majorily a fulfilling experience.

This year I learned, primarily through school, that there are still important things that I’m quite bad at, that there are things in life that I thought I might be that I will not be doing, and that choices I’ve made in the past have already limited choices I can make in the future.  Most importantly, I’ve learned to embrace this more accurate, full, realistic poirtrate of my existence.

This year I learned that cultivating friends and partners, for today and for days in the future, is essential.  Finishing up the second video this morning was an emphatic reminder of this.

This year a long dormant in interest in artistic expression and the sharing it allows was reawakened.  I’m very pleased with the photography, videography, and writing I’ve done in the past 12 months, and the responses it has engendered.  Thanks to all of you for being a part of that.

This year I learned that day trips are, to be blunt, bullshit.  18 months ago I was still quite uneasy with overnight trips.  This year I sought out that uncertainty and looked at it right up close.  And while I’m still afraid of solitude, I’m longer afraid of that fear.  If I were to seriously ruminate upon and draw up a futile list of the 10 most significant outdoor adventures of my life, I think that half of them would have taken place this year.  And while some of the packraft trips may have been more sublime, there is no question that the Thorofare trip in May was the greatest outdoor adventure of my life to date.  It is just not possible to drink as deeply of the wilderness if you don’t spend the night.  When I plan trips now, the ones which capture my interest the most are days long.  When I write this essay a decade from now, I’m certain that adventures will be categorized as pre or post Thorofare.

This year I learned that making gear and sewing can be deeply satisfying, and that while I may come up short on detail work, I both enjoy and excell at big picture design work.  I think about gear design and fabric science in categorically different ways today.

And this year I learned that packrafting rules.  I’m not doing a list of best gear items, because there is the packraft, and then everything else.  Get a raft, but at your peril: you will never look at outdoor adventures the same.

I expect great things from myself in the year to come.  My job suits me perfectly, and I have no reason to suspect anything but better things as I continue to learn.  But it is the vast wilderness complex to the east that really inflames my imagination.  Winter is still something I’m working on and learning about, but come spring and summer, my confidence is large and my plans grandiose.  After almost 30 years of walking in the woods my summer skillset is nearing completion, and I am very much looking forward to exercising it to the fullest extent.  I suppose that, having found maturity at last, I am enjoying its benefits.  2011 should be a good year.

Adventure film-making after Youtube (Banff World Tour review)

I’ve been lucky enough to see the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour three times now; in LA in 2008, Missoula in 2009, and here in Kalispell last night.  Even in that short time the dynamic of the films showcased seems to have changed.

The world tour makes a wide selection of films shown at the original festival available, and local promoters pick which ones they wish to show, based on whimsy and their expected demographic.  When you attend the world tour, you never know quite what you’re going to get.  I’m going to list and comment briefly on each of the seven films we saw last night, before moving on to a more general discussion of how Youtube (both as a website and a cultural phenomenon) seems to be shifting the Banff films.  In the order seen last night:

1) Dream Result

You can see a trailor at the website, above, but it bears only a passing resemblance to what we saw last night.  We did not see the full film, but rather an edit, about 15-20 minutes long.  Whether the film makers or Banff folks did the edit is unclear, but whomever did should be mildly taken out to the woodshed.  Sturges et al secured some astonishing footage, and while much of it is in the traditional, “radical” vein of bigger is better, some of it went beyond and showcased the personal, narrative side of kayaking.  Chiefly, that running the brown (aka schralping the super gnargnar) can be terrifying, and beat the shit out of you.  Our clip consisted of a biographical piece about Tyler Bradt, many minutes of the most outstanding and gut wrenching boating carnage I’ve ever seen, and a brief narrative of Bradt’s world-record-breaking run of Palouse Falls.  In short, good stuff, but the edit we saw came up emphatically short.

2) As It Happens

You can watch this one (or a version very close to the festival one) on vimeo!  I’ve discussed this one before, both because I went to college with one of the makers, and because the project is one of the more interesting ones to come out in 2010.  The premise, that editing footage as close to the moment as possible will produce a superior artistic product, is a great one, and Renan and Cory pulled it off in great style.  Unfortunately, the edit shown on vimeo and at the festival underwent quite a lot of editing to make it one single work, rather than 5 dispatches (you can view the originals on Renan’s account, which I recommend).  A lot of the immediacy has been lost in the polish, which is unfortunate.  This film also highlights the ways in which things that succeed online and in the Youtube idiom of social media marketing (TNF did well with this one, I reckon) fail on the big screen.  Each dispatch had an amount of local-color/cute cinematography/intro-extro material at the beginning and end, sandwiching the meat of the narrative.  It all sort of works online, but put up on the big screen, in a different context where expectations are different, the lack of a tight narrative with meat on the bone stands out starkly.  I enjoyed this, but think that either the original film(s) should have been preserved, or an even more complete transformation should have taken place.

3) Eastern Rises

This is by far the best film I’ve seen at the Banff world tour.  By far.  It balances all the elements the make adventure films work: great cinematography, compelling micro and macro narratives, humor, idiosyncrasy, and an interesting and exotic subject.  And the film wears its confidence very well indeed, as evidenced by the trailer.  A fly fishing film trailer without a single fish visible!  Be warned, this will make you think about taking up fly fishing.  This is a film worth buying.

4) Chimaera

Also fully viewable on vimeo.  Great shooting, completely boring content.  I think the least interesting film I’ve ever seen at Banff.  A walking, talking cliché that gives great evidence that the Youtube format flops out of the computer.

5) Azadi: Freedom

A film about skiing in Gulmarg, Kashmir, India.  Good material, but unfocused.  It has some nice skiing footage, which is particularly refreshing because the lack of a helicopter obliged the filmers to avoid many of the modern clichés.  It has even better local culture material, which to a certain extent gets lost amongst the ski porn and historical/educational diversions.  Greater focus and a time restriction would’ve helped this film a great deal.

6) First Ascent: Fly or Die

This work, by the super-team of Peter Mortimer and the Lowell Brothers, wins my award for most disappointing.  (I had low expectations for Chimaera from the first few seconds.)  Five years ago their work was indeed at the cutting edge of climbing films, but the effects used by the Camp 4 Collective crew and the material had by Hot Aches and Posing Productions leaves this film feeling stale.  The fact that the series was made for National Geographic TV is largely responsible, leaving the narrative structure dumbed-down and stilted.  Dean Potter is an extraordinarily cinegenic figure, and by that virtue alone this work should have been much better.  Perhaps the other films in the First Ascent series are better, or perhaps Sender Films just needs to step up their game.

7) Kranked Kids (or something)

The seventh film was a goofy, hilarious little spoof from the producers of the “Kranked” series of mountain biking films.  It involves their kids.  I can’t find the name or trailer.  Darn.

Overall the evening was entertaining, and “Eastern Rises” alone was well worth the price of admission.  Unfortunately for the rest of the films, the fly fishermen led by example and showed that good material is not sufficient to make a truly great adventure film.

Rises would not have succeeded had it been standard, 5-15 minute Youtube length.  The interest was in the arch of the storytelling, and the characters which drove that process.  Humor, scenery, and nifty camera work made the medicine go down easily, but were in the end secondary factors.  By contrast, “As It Happens” would have been quite boring without the exceptional camera work, because the storytelling was so thin.  If the material in “Dream Result” had not been so remarkable, the loose character development and barely-there narrative would have never been paid attention.  Without HD video and truly gratuitous slo-mo, “Chimaera” would have gone beyond the realm of the soporific and into the realm of the unbearable.

All of which makes me wonder how Youtube culture will continue to change adventure cinema.  On the one hand, 5 minute attention spans reward visual and athletic pyrotechnics above all else, providing little incentive for auteurs to step back and focus on that which, for me, is most interesting.  Athletic achievement and the dreaded process of “progression” (going bigger, faster, and so forth) are significant because of the mental processes at work for the participants.  “Dream Result” hinted at the fear involved in kayaking a 60 meter waterfall, and the psychological and interpersonal effects of such a process is in the end the story of modern adventure.  As Steve Fisher notes in the “Dream Result” trailer linked to above, in the absence of unexplored continents adventure exists more purely than ever as a pyschological construct.  Telling this story in Youtube-friendly bites, with the immediacy and quick turnover that social media marketing demands, will be a tall order.

I look forward to seeing how my generation measures up.

When in doubt, ride

I came home in an evil mood. There is one direct solution: get out.

It worked.  It’s not Missoula, but we have some ok riding.

I also gave my new Homebrewed Components Nut Tugger.  I prefer the simplicity of track ends (not that I’ve owned a bike with an EBB or sliders), and while the bolts on a Hope hub always held without moving, both quick releases alone and the standard solid axle bolts that came on the above Surly hub moved enough to cause problematic chain tension.  The Surly chain tug works, but is a clumsy, poor design.  The nut tugger is lightweight machined aluminum, and at first ride seems dead-on perfect.  It slots perfectly into the dropout, and seems to hold well.  I’ll keep ya’ll posted.

Election night good omen: Obsidian Stout on sale for $5.98 a sixer at Super 1.

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.