Arc’teryx Neutro Visor review

Reviewing a very expensive hat, on a blog.  Doesn’t get more outdorky.  But if you’re not here for that exactly, best move along yesterday.

The Neutro in action. I’ve always held the conviction that whomever names Arc’teryx products wanted to be Jean-Luc Picard.

This is a 35 dollar visor.  It is also an exceptionally functional one.  I’ve always sweated quite a bit, and always liked visors because they’re cooler than any hat.  The glacially inexorable extension of my widow’s peaks’ prominence mean that when my hair is particularly short, like it was for a few weeks after my post-AK haircut last month, I can’t wear a visor without dabbing my head with sunblock.  Otherwise, I strongly prefer them to hats.

The reason the Neutro works so well is that, unlike every other hat or visor I’ve ever used, it has no reservoirs of wetness.  Most hats do, usually in fabric layers where the brim is sewn into the band, which is to say, exactly where you don’t want them.  It is not pleasant to take a break to cool off, and after 10 minutes put back on a hat which is dry save for a 4 by 1/2 inch swath above your brow.  In colder weather, when the sun and precip protection of a visor can be quite handy, these islands of wetness can become islands of coldness.

The Neutro eliminates this by having the brim made of thin and flexible foam inside a laminated fabric sandwich, and by using two layers of 3D mesh as the sole band fabric.  The seam along the brim is as a result sleek, and what fabric exists is both wicking and never more than a few millimeters from direct air exposure.  Brilliant and simple.

The flexible brim is a bit on the small side, still big enough to get the job done but less likely to get flipped off by high winds.  It will easily roll up and stuff into your pocket.  It works great under the hood of an insulation layer or rain jacket.  It even fits decently under a bike or paddling helmet.  The 3D mesh provides a bit of stretch, and unlike some elastics, shouldn’t loose its stretch over time.  Arc’teryx makes the Neutro in two sizes, and it is conceivable that those with exceptionally large or small heads might find themselves left out due to the modest adjustment built in.

Otherwise, I’m happy to temporarily check off one of the infinite boxes in my search for perfect gear.

The Jackson-Norris traverse

Late Friday, on the mile and a half of continuous down from the Sun road to Reynolds camp, I ran into a ranger at dusk. He checked my permit and warned me about some guys coming up not far behind. Apparently they saw the little tent sign on the map, not far off the road, hauled in duffels of gear and a cooler. Whether they knew they needed a permit I cannot say, but someone ratted them out and at dusk they were rousted back to the road. Such is life in the national parks. The remains of their fire, six inch diameter logs and all, was still warm. I made camp quickly and went to sleep.

The next day, walking up to Gunsight, I passed three groups of six+ before 900. Getting back to a cheeseburger is a powerful motivator.

The civilized trail ends at the start of the Jackson Glacier spur. The mile and a half before the tread is lost to the alpine flowers is steep through tight forest.

The scenery in the basin is just unbelievable.

The Jackson and Blackfeet glaciers used to be one, but in the last century split in two and are now cloistered vestiges of themselves, sitting high up on east-facing shelves staring out at the polished wreckage of their former reign.

A miasma of the unexpected, I embraced the mood and wandered haphazardly, traversed across the ridgetops of terminal moraines to maximize perspective and snaked a path between the lakes, slabs, and ledges which seemed most intriguing.

The cascades down the steeper slabs were a serious consideration, the polished rock is better than any slip n’ slide. I took many detours to cross through cracks or on dry patches.

The stiff breeze and my slim, 15 pound pack were most welcome as I headed up and across to Almost-a-Dog pass. A few of my detours edged into 5th class terrain, and I never took my pack off for scrambling all trip, save on skinny chimneys up Norris.

The snaking moraines and unpredictable, hanging basins formed whimsical terrain. A lot can be planned from a distance, but much of the route finding needs to be done from near eyes as it unfolds from your feet forward.

The view from the 7900′ pass into Red Eagle was all-consuming: just when it could not get any better.

Looking back towards the route down from Almost-a-Dag. Easily the route finding crux and the place which stretches the usually intuitive route finding of Glacier the most.  The gully through the cliffs terminates in the small snow patch, half in shadow, and ascends left at 45 degrees, hidden behind.   (In reverse) Go straight up through the vegetation, traverse straight left under all the snow, climb a small cliff band, and take the goat trail left on the obvious systemic break around the blunt pinnacles to the flat top just south of the pass itself.  Crossing those gullies, filled as they are with broken shale, on that goat trail felt like the most tenuous part of the whole route.

Fitting then that the meadow walking which comes after is simple.

My plan had been to camp near the pass, complete the traverse the next day, stay at Atlantic Creek in the Cut Bank valley the next night, and meet M the morning after. Yet even with my wanderings and moderate pace I was far ahead of schedule. I investigated the meadows and thought about going over to Red Eagle pass itself, but didn’t fancy the bushwack through dwarf willow and dense krummholz. The sun was intense late in the afternoon, the wind had died, and it was a bit buggy. I just didn’t want to stop yet, so facing a dry stretch I stopped, made dinner, drank lots of water, and filled my 2.5 liter platypus.

There were lots of tracks around, from moose to this guy (weasel?), but no evidence of people. To keep the adventure high I had brought only a fuzzy print out of an old topographic map, and limited beta. I didn’t know exactly where to go around the first knob on the ridge, but figured the normal Glacier mode of take the obvious weakness and watch for goat traffic would do.

It did. A ~thousand feet above the meadows a coherent collection of tracks trending east turned into a bomber trail wrapping around the north face between cliff bands. I was at the first saddle in a blink, staring at a highway of a trail leading from one to the next to the next.

The light was in every direction, stupendous.

I kept moving, driven by joy, until the renewed presence of trees reminded me that it was getting late. First good spot, I promised myself, and I would stop.

This looks good. Great turf for taking stakes, a tight tarp to deflect the gusts, soft grass for sleeping, and an overhanging cliff off the end of the ridge to hang food.

Perfect. I slept well.

Sunrise, brewing cowboy coffee with the alcohol stove on a polished prow, on the very continental divide, looking 4+ thousand feet down in Nyack and Red Eagle, washed out what was left of my mind. Clean.

I was motivated to get going, despite the show. It was obviously going to be a hot day, the terrain ahead looked inviting, my camera battery was almost dead, and doubt lingered in my mind if the texts I had tried to send M the night previous had gone through. The phone said they failed every time, but three bars alternating briefly with none had me thinking that might not be the case. If so, she would be expecting me, with my revised plan, to call from St. Mary that afternoon before catching the shuttle back to the west side. The sun is up! Go!

So I went. The summit of Norris, chimneys leading to the same providing the technical crux, by nine. Triple Divide pass by ten oh five. Red Eagle Lake, 5k below Norris, by one. Hot and sweaty though the dead globemallow and dehydrated on the bush Thimbleberries and on the shuttle at the St. Mary visitor center by four. A double scoop of huckleberry ice cream in Apgar by six thirty. Home in bed, clean and asleep and content, by ten.

Quite the same? Never again.

The lazy loop

The idea: hike the Highline to Ahern Pass, drop over Iceberg Notch down the Many Glacier. Stay in a cabin at the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, hike over Piegan Pass, maybe hike a peak, take the shuttle back to the car. The appeal was first in the route, which takes in a massive helping of prime alpine terrain, and second in the relative ease of logistics. Not just in not having to carry overnight gear, as we had enough beer and other crap that any weight advantage was largely nullified, but in that this is just about the only reasonable way to do an overnight through Many in high summer. There are several spots within the campground reserved for backpackers, but you can’t get them as the first or last night of a trip. The hotel is expensive, and the drive in camp spots fill well before noon.

Our cabin reservation shortcut worked well, but we were destined to fight the crowds in other ways. We arrived in Apgar at 640, which was far too late to get a spot on the 700 express shuttle to Logan Pass. Some folks arrived an hour before we did.

It was all worth it.

It had been three years since I was on much of our route, including the northern Highline and Iceberg Notch.  It was interesting to see what memory had wrought.

GP Chalet employees on the dirt bypass of the Ahern drift.

The Highline was better than I remembered it. The flowers on the climb up to Ahern Pass itself more profuse and riotous.

The view northeast, past Helen and Elizabeth Lakes, irretrievably sublime.

The talus from the pass up to the notch, burly and tedious.  That’s what you get when memory recalls it as taking longer than it seemed like it should.

Chalet employee on the talus, with M below talking up the Pikas.

The notch itself is a cool spot, with two of the most gobsmacking lakes in a park visible at the same time.  The drop to Iceberg looks absurd, or at least firmly 5th class, until you swing lookers-left and the ledges open up in a continuous but not too bad route.

Overall it flirts the line between 3rd and 4th class; almost anyone would do the individual moves a few feet off the ground, but really fall anywhere and you’ll probably die.  And true to Glacier form, the rock is totally chossy, if interestingly varied, limestone.  Lots of dinner plates to kick off.

Easy and fun if you don’t let it get to your head.

The other thing my memory did not recall with perfect accuracy was the scree traversing and gully which forms the second half of the 2000 foot descent from notch to lake. Of course, a cursory ‘net search reveals that other people go other ways, but three years ago I had almost no beta, and my route worked well enough. This year, M and her sandals were not amused.

She did find Iceberg Lake itself, and the impressive beargrass on the hike down, redeeming.  Compared to her’s my pictures are quite poor, so I’ll defer that sight to later.

We had packed first dinner with us, and fired up the stove on the lakeshore to rejuvenate for the 5 mile hike down to civilization.  Checking in to our cabin, and taking a hot shower, were very nice.  The loop may be lazy in concept, but it is not in execution.  Later on we made our way to the hotel bar for a second dinner of salad and cheeseburger.

When M approves of waking you know you’ve done well. Nonetheless, we were both a bit creaky and slow, and while the journey over Piegan Pass featured the usual inspiring unicorn habitat, when the road came into sight everyone was pleased, and there was much rejoicing.

Overall just another weekend.

Pack mods and rain pants

12 months ago I owned no waterproof pants. The Classic last year made me a believer when it showed just how much heat can be lost through soaked legs. Today I have two sets of rain pants, each meant for a rather different use.

Shown above and below are my fully homemade sil/epic pants. The red fabric is bog-standard silnylon, the gray stuff a light Epic-treated nylon ripstop. Testing ponchos and rain chaps last spring taught me that sil is a great fabric for rain wear: it never wets out and due to the slippery surface is a lot more durable bushwacking than any other fabric of a comparable weight (abrasion from rocks is another story). Some people find full sil pants tolerable, but I work up a massive sweat in them, even in cool weather. Hence the fabric placement; sil in the areas which get most wet most often, and breathable epic everywhere else. They’re baggy enough to easily put of over shoes, and the short length facilitates the same and keeps them from dragging during stream crossings.

For most hiking these work amazingly well. I’ve yet to have any noticeable condensation, and it takes some serious weather and especially sustained wet brush to get me wet. If I did them over again I’d make the full front out of sil, as water running down the front of my anorak will soak through the epic on the crotch in severe conditions. The hydrostatic head of the epic fabric is also low enough that it will not keep my butt dry while packrafting.

I thought a wet butt while packrafting was inevitable with anything short of a drysuit, but that was before I got a pair of Kokatat Tropos Deluxe Boater’s pants. The key feature is the high-rise waist and big neoprene waist band, but the thicker taslan face fabric and sophisticated, articulated legs are equally important. They wear well and are waterproof, even when sitting in a puddle.

I bought larges to have plenty of room for insulating layers, and as a result they were a bit long. I also found that the stock neoprene and velcro cuffs did little to keep water out, but did let it pool once inside. I cut them off and sewed on sil cuffs with a drawstring. They’re now just a touch high-water, which keeps them out of the mud.

I tamed the baggy lower legs and found a use for those little Rab hood retainer buckles all at the same time. They take the diameter in by two inches, and unlike snaps and velcro won’t come loose no matter how swift the water you’re wading. Even though these pants are 12 oz and the sil/epic ones are only 3, I’ll be taking these to AK next week for the bomber security.

Part of the fun of making packs is using them, and figuring out what you would have done differently with the hypothetical gift of perfect foresight. In the case of the Black and White pack the answer has been very little. The internal compression strap would probably work a bit better if the front were anchored 4-6 inches lower, and the load lifters needed fiddling.

Yes that is a blatant copy of McHale. Please don’t sue me Dan. With bigger packs I find load lifters handy for adjustment of load distribution (less so if the torso size is correct), and invaluable for load stabilization. I can’t explain the virtue of this system better than Mr. McHale himself, so go read about it on his site. It works incredibly well. Bravo sir.

Last week I became a bit obsessed with making the smaller pack, right, work for the Classic this year. It’s taller than the too-big Jam I used last year, but much narrower. Problem is that this year I want to bring a foam PFD, more clothing, and maybe a bit more food. At the same time a full Jam can fit inside the B&W pack, and that would encourage me to pack too much. But the first mod was replacing the old shoulder straps, which rubbed both my neck and armpit, with Osprey Talon 11/22/33 straps, whose J shape fits me perfectly.

I love the Osprey design, but under heavier loads the strap stretches quite a bit (several inches total), the gaps between foam bits elongate over the shoulders, and pressure points happen. The Talon 44 straps solve this partly with cut outs which don’t run the full width, but I had a eureka moment: add a daisy chain and the problem is solved. Easy, and very effective.

Next mod was making the upper compression straps removable.

Then I built a beavertail compression panel out of piece of old pack. This will hold my PFD and rain gear at the beginning of the Classic when my food bag is full, and give me a good place to put crampons for the rest of the mountaineering trips this summer.

Since I replaced the shoulder straps the functionality of the 610 pack has just been awesome. The shape is perfect for scrambling and bushwacking, the lumbar pad is fantastic, and when combined with the simple 1.5″ webbing belt carries far better than I ever thought such a small belt could. I’m confident it will deal with the 20+ pound load at the start of the Classic just fine.

One addition feature not mentioned in the original post has exceeded expectation; the way I cut the side panels. In the B&W pack the taper from the base to above the shoulder gradually gains two inches over the whole length. On the little pack I made most of the cut straight, just tapering the side panel out starting 3 inches below the shoulder strap attachments, and continuing 3 inches past before straightening out. It’s hard to explain this and harder to photograph it on the completed pack, but the result is that the pack contours to the shoulders extraordinarily well, even if overstuffed. Subtle things of inestimable value.

As always, comments and questions welcome.

The pass at the pass

The cliche of like two ships passing in the night is itself easy to unjustly pass over, until you’ve been awake on a ship in the middle of a calm night, watching another well-lit island of humanity go the opposite direction.  Logan Pass is another cliche of human experience; it’s difficult to strip away the disneyland environment created by traffic jams and absurd people sliding around the snowfields in flip flops and see what an amazing piece of earth it is by absolutely any standard.  Had the park road been built up Nyack and over Red Eagle pass Logan would be a venerated backcountry destination, spoken of today in internet whispers.

It took us awhile, walking away from other people, to dispense with the mental fog of the long slow drive up with an almost overheating truck and lurking fear of no parking spaces.  A pity that it took as long as it did, because on a bright day which pushed the limits of our sunglasses the endless snow, melted into subtle swirls hundreds of meters long by windblow grit, was too much for even an ideal mind to take in.

I was tired from the previous two days so plans to climb and/or circumnavigate Reynolds were scrapped for a saunter around the extended pass over to Hidden Lake.  The ridge which runs the length provided curious two-toned marmots, loose scrambling, and head-spinning views.  Even some practice snow climbing.  In short, an awesome afternoon, highlighted by the fact that in a few short weeks the boardwalk will have melted out and the Glacier Lilies will be up in the wind and the world will, for a few months, be bare and accessible.

The hordes have the right idea: easy access to the alpine is cheating, so enjoy while it lasts.

Red Eagle Creek

When and if Glacier becomes a packrafting destination, Red Eagle Creek will be very popular during late spring and early summer.  After the the previous two years’ explorations, I came into this summer with a two-tiered list of rivers and creeks; a must-do list, and a worth checking out list.  There aren’t too many things left on the former.

The curse of Glacier packrafting, and the thing which will probably always hold it back from being as good as it could be, is wood.  Between erosion-ready spruce in soft river bottoms and burnt lodgepole snags many creeks which would otherwise be fantastic floats are nervewracking to the point of not being worth the effort, at least for me (e.g Logging, Camas below the Inside road).  So creeks with enough water for boating, a moderate gradient, and an only modest amount of wood are a big find.

Red Eagle, from the lake of the same name down to St. Mary Lake, is just such a creature.  With a few exceptions.  Early yesterday I drove over Logan Pass in thick fog, crawling at 20 mph with flashers on in 30-50 foot visibility.  In a reverse of the usual weather pattern, it was bright and sunny in the Flathead and overcast and drizzling east of the divide.  I did what will become the standard sport boater route for Red Eagle, parking near the 1913 ranger station and hiking the 7+ miles in to the lake.  It’s a great hike, old growth pines, aspen and flower meadows before the first suspension bridge (pictured above), and for the moment abundant undergrowth in a recent burn after.  A few NW facing slopes had denser growths of beargrass than I’ve seen anywhere, and in a month or so will have insane globemallow thickets.  Red Eagle lake is a destination all it’s own, with great scenery and fishing.  The state record cutthroat was caught there, albeit half a century ago.

Right before the lake you’ll hike over a series of rock ridges running perpendicular to the trail and creek.  In predictable Glacier fashion these form a burly bedrock rapid, in this case a ~150 meter long microcanyon right at the mouth of the lake.  Some one will run this class V at lower water, but it’s very powerful and has two inconvenient logs, one halfway down is river wide but could be ducked, the second barring a left-hand slot just at the end making the right line a tricky must-make move.  Impressive, but not my bailiwick.

The half mile below this gorge is bendy which, also in typical Glacier fashion, produces many river-wide logjams.  Had I not seen the clean creek lower down I might have given it up as a bad job.  Sport boaters will likely prefer to avoid this mess and take the penultimate little creek crossing on the hike in down to Red Eagle.  After Red Eagle straightens out it becomes consistently excellent, and remarkably clean for running through such an extensive burn.  After the eastern suspension bridge the gradient picks up and things get more serious, still very fun boating but scouting is all but required due to there being essentially no respite between drops.  The creek is fast enough that in spite of portaging the initial gorge, mucking around in the wood below it, and scouting plenty in the final few miles, I made it from lake to lake in little more than an hour.

Worth at least an annual visit.

The clouds were fast breaking up for my paddle back along St. Mary lake.  I had hoped for a healthy tail wind to expedite this, but in continuing with the day of backward weather, I had a gentle but unmistakable headwind.  A note of caution for prospective boaters; bushwacking back to the trail from the outlet of Red Eagle would be rather time consuming, and when the winds pick up on St. Mary the swells they build can be positively oceanic.  On the other hand, a calm day could see a trip starting at ending at Rising Sun, with a ferry across the lake to Silver Dollar beach putting you within a brief bushwack of the trail.  I was unable to just float without making retrograde progress, so after 20 minutes of flat paddling pulled over to eat second lunch.  Immediately after beaching I heard a titanic crashing and scrambled for a view, to see a big bull Moose fleeing through the ponds and willow thickets of the (very extensive) Red Eagle delta.  Proof that nothing bigger than a rodent can get through a willow bog quietly.  The paddle down the lake took longer than the creek float, but the day was fine indeed and I got great views and sunburned knees for my patience.

Driving back over the pass I couldn’t but stop and run up Oberlin, having stashed axe and crampons in the car for that purpose.  The skiers, sledders, gawkers, ptarmigan, mountaineering marmots, and scruffy goats were all out in force on a very fine afternoon.

June trip report contest (!)

Summer, whatever that may mean in your particular locale, is right around the corner. Here in NW Montana the rain has stopped, for the moment, the sun is shining and the rivers are running high. Snow is melting and the fat season of long easy days, crampons and shorts, tourists driving foolishly, and wide open fast trails is approaching. Even the most passionate skiers here get a bit manic for the next three months, just like the animals, we know that only the foolish and the half-dead do not stuff themselves with all good things while doing so is simple. Soon enough snow and cold will be back which, beautiful though it is, makes life more complicated.

Photo by Dan Durston

To celebrate, I’ll be holding my second vaguely-annual trip report contest. The rules are as follows:

-a report telling the story of a multi-day outdoor adventure must be composed/edited/etc, posted online, and linked to in the comments of this post by July 16th at midnight (MDT)

-said trip must have taken place at least partly in June of 2012

-depending on the number of entrants and my own whimsy, I will select a number of finalists, which will be posted here and voted on by readers for 48 hours

-the author(s) of the report with the most votes will win the race pack, which will be shipped at my expense anywhere in the world

The pack is pictured above, and in the linked-to post from last year.  Since that post I’ve added load lifters, an improved hipbelt (not yellow) and a few other things.   The pack weighs 22 oz, will fit torsos between 19 and 21 inches, and holds around 45-50 liters.  It’s pretty neat, and because of that I really want to see it in someone else’s hands.

As always, selection into the finals will favor creativity, both of the trip itself and of the way in which it is reported upon.  So go.  Do a neat trip and tell us about it.

The 610 pack

All packs must have a name so I can keep them straight, and DX-40 was so cool and the race pack was too big for day trips and I can never have enough packs.

29 inches tall, 9 inches wide at the back, 6 at the front, and 8 (for the most part) deep along the sides.

16 oz exactly, including the 23 by 9 by 3/8 inch foam back pad, but without a hipbelt.

Shoulder straps are from the OMM Adventure Light 20, a bit wider than I usually prefer, and set a hair closer together. Reason being I hope to avoid the need for a sternum strap.  Huge handle for hauling while climbing.  Grey VX-21 panel contains a 3/8 inch foam pad, much softer closed cell than the back pad, to prevent tailbone chafe.

Barely visible are 3/8 inch webbing loops low on the sides, to add a second set of compression straps if desired.

40D silnylon collar, 1/2 inch top strap.

Shoulder strap anchors (VX-21) double as abrasion resistant patches. 1.5 inch triglides allow for a variety of belts to be installed as desired.

And the name? A project for this summer I’ve been turning over in my head this week. Details to come.

Adventure round-up

First, Luc et al. continue to raise the bar on fair means (human powered, self-supported) expeditions by skiing, hiking, and packrafting from Yakutat to McCarthy, climbing Mount Logan along the way.  21st century style, 18th century sensibility.

Second, Joery’s trip in the Verdon Gorge looks amazing and has me reconsidering future time spent in Europe.

And third, the best climbing video I’ve seen in a long time.  The mental and historical aspects, as well as the focus on process and failure, had me at hello.

Go anyway

Logging Lake, just after the snow turned back into rain.

The weekend’s forecast was bleak, but the best answer was and always is to go anyway.  Even under less than ideal circumstances and if the trip gets cut short, you’re bound to see something cool.

The crew amongst the mud and brush.

Me, Sally/Megan, Nate.

My weekend highlight was waking up Sunday morning, after 12 hours of continuous rain, and watching the drops over the lake turn inexorably into snow.  There was much discussion over shelter choice and eccentricity of my tarp, but it was I who informed everyone else that it was snowing.  I like the tarp, especially as it was too cold for mosquitoes.

We did cut the trip short to go back to Polebridge for coffee and beer.  And there was much rejoicing.

Today it didn’t rain, and I climbed a mountain.

Stanton, to be precise. I hiked up the ridge in the clouds with 50-100 foot visibility until a few hundred feet before the top, when windows opened to the Camas drainage below. By the time I got back down to McDonald the clouds were gone.

And there was much rejoicing, except for the Glacier Lilies which got squished by all the snow which fell over the weekend.

The torturous lower bends of Camas Creek.  A very scenic, if slow, packraft.