Seeing Rocks

Hunters are fond of saying that success correlates with time in the field, that it only takes one (more).  Numerically this is true, but not all hours afield count the same.  Animals use the landscape deliberately, and substituting brute math for knowledge uses cliche as fiction; that even given time and attention native logic is beyond us.

My chief hope for this fall is to hunt deliberately, getting into the essential facts of each place as my quarry sees it, resigning as needed based on my own shortcomings plainly seen, rather than perseverating in the name of blind hope.

First up, unlimited sheep, district 300, to be specific.  I did this hunt 5 years ago, and have long intended to return.  The area is sublime, and the 10 day season fits nicely into the autumn, provided one is content giving away the first weekend of archery deer and elk.  The operant cliche here is that it is a game of coincidence, that some years no legal rams are to be found outside Yellowstone.  Indeed, in both years I’ve hunted, no sheep were shot.  But if a ram were to be found, where would it be?

In every outdoor activity I’ve pursued with any seriousness there has been a tipping point, where learning has flattened and often, where interest wanes.  First, it was 18 years ago on a 22 foot plywood wall, and a series of opposing, textureless pinches and the smallest left foot chip we had, a stab up out and left to a sloper at the lip of the four foot roof, and when after six weeks my foot stuck, and inverted heel hook rockover to full extension slap to the top.  Well into 5.13, I later realized, and likely the most difficult thing I’ll ever climb.

Another instance may well have been the bison last fall, a trip whose innocuous profundity looms ever larger with each passing month.  Competence and preparation dulled epicness out of existence until well after we were back on pavement.  My hope for sheep this fall was a day or two of the same, playing a clean glassing game after a big hike in, leaving the most probable collection of ridges and swells with the greatest available certainty I had seen what was there.

Skills were tested straight away, as after an 8 mile hike I arrived high to rolling fog, which for hours only opened beyond 50 yards for irregular seconds.  First I saw the family of goats feeding along 70 yards below, and with nothing else to do besides make coffee again, I glassed their feeding and urination habits intently.  Then I saw a dozen cow elk, a few miles away, pushed from the timber across a bald ridge.  They stared back intently for minutes, each clarion pullback from the fog revealing little alteration in their position or mood.

And finally I saw some sheep.  Three white rumps, stoutly obdurate in a way only sheep butts are, a mile away on the other mountain, for four seconds only.  The fog didn’t truly clear for another half an hour, though it gave enough glimpses 8 times over of the intermediate ridge, such I could plan and replan my approach, and well consider the virtues of charging on over before discarding that in favor of patience.  And at last patience was rewarded, early afternoon winds cleared fog for good, and I saw one sheep after another after another.

I did not shoot anything that day.  I pounded water and had dinner for lunch, but fatigue spread out from behind my eyes as the evening flowed into the valleys and I ended up cliffed out atop a conglomerate pillar, which sat off the far end of the mountain like Klimt redrawing the Argonath.  The sheep and goat shit which had, hours and miles earlier, reassured my judgement now just annoyed me, mostly at their substandard trail building.  Traversing along to the real trail, barnacled to the cliff, my feet popped shards of rock from the dirt, and one hasty handhold parted itself out, a melon of history absent in my hand.

I saw over 40 sheep in one day.  None of them were mature rams.  In the last five years since I decided to actively learn about bighorns I’ve seen them across the state, and seeing more in one day was only a secondary benediction; the first invocation of hunting competence was finding them exactly where I had assumed.  Sheep favor a defined edge, the littoral where abundant feed snaps into steepness, or escape terrain.  Reading a paper five years go that detailed the significant majority of Montana bighorns observed within 500 meters of escape terrain is one thing.  Knowing what that looks like first hand is another.  And for this year, that is enough.

My ultimate hunting pack

Last month a reader contacted me about a pack bag for a Seek Outside frame, mentioning these bags as inspiration.  Primary use for the pack would be elk hunting in the Olympics, with capacity and simplicity as main design priorities, along with side pockets which would hold a sizeable tripod and 80mm+ objective spotting scope.  After some discussion, we agreed that I’d try to thread the needle and make side pockets which could both hold these hefty optics, and provide on the fly access to water bottles, backpacking style.

This was a enjoyable project, being in essence the 6th or 7th refinement of a set of dimensions I’ve settled on as ideal for an expedition pack, while tweaking features and materials based on experience.  Hunting, and then packing, elk in coastal rainforest is one of the more demanding activities I can imagine in terms of pack durability and weatherproofing, making the excellent X50 tactical fabric (in ranger green) an easy choice.  In the tactical series the x-ply is a kevlar thread, and far flatter than the traditional dacron, in theory removing it as an abrasion point.  Is does add tear strength, though I can’t see this being useful in the field given the toughness of the face fabric.  The base reinforcement is 500D Cordura, and wraps up the top a few inches for max security while sliding down talus and alder thickets.

Side pockets are 500D Cordura, and 20 inches tall on the front face.  They attach to the uppermost compression strap, and are fully dimensioned with square bases, 5 inches deep on the front edge, 4 inches on the user edge.  I don’t own a big eye, but as seen below they swallow two 48oz nalgenes with room for at least another, when the main bag is crammed full.



Bag dimensions are almost identical to the packs in the bison post; 42 inch lower circumference (8 inch depth), 50 inch upper circumference (12-13 inch depth), and a 40-42 inch unrolled height against the user.  This large amount of upward taper makes the ~90 liter at full height bag more like 55 liters when rolled all the way to the top of the frame.  This makes a smaller load less floppy, and enhances carry in meat shelf mode, as the lower part of the bag can’t get cantilevered that far out from your back.  The customer asked, in response to my commenting that this was a moderately large bag, what one could do to make a pack even bigger.  A lower circumference approaching 50 inches would add a huge amount of volume, and you could certainly make the bag taller, which I’ve never tried.  Presumably even with stiff xpac fabric and a roll top, at some point you reach a literal tipping point where stability goes downhill.  With Seek frames you can stack extensions, and a custom job on a 30 inch frame could probably get close to 50 inches without issue, in the process truly getting into bivy bag territory.


Truly custom pack building is the most satisfying type, as well as the most nerve wracking.  Perhaps with enough experience I’ll cease to worry so much about meeting expectations with brand new designs, though at that point the fun level might decline in tandem.  For the moment it’s hard to resist adding a personal anxiety tax each time I agree to such a project.

And hey, it’s September.  Time to go sheep hunting (in only a few days).  Almost sad I won’t be getting this bag dirty myself.

Introducing North Fork Packraft straps

The astute will have noticed months ago that I’m in the process of launching a pack company, North Fork.  I’m pleased to report that it is going very well indeed, in spite of no overt public evidence of progress.   Two years ago I sketched out a detailed idea of the two packs I wanted to build, and have spent the time since making prototypes to re-examine every relevant detail.  Just because I’d spent the prior decade as a hobbiest settling on my own preferences for wilderness packs did not mean those ideas were the best way of doing things.  This experimentation and development process has been immensely satisfying, largely because I freed myself from all time constraints.  I’d make as many packs, and do as many trips, as necessary for me to be content.

That process is, for the smaller of the two packs, beginning to wind down.  I’ve refined a simple, light, and supportive suspension system that can carry 40 pounds sustainably, involves minimal moving parts, and can be stripped down to completely frameless.  A protracted, 18 month diversion into complex side pocket design brought me right back to the basic design I started with.  Features and bag design took numerous diversions, and got back quite close to my original ideas.  That part is gratifying, that the first decade of experimentation was not misleading, but the assurance I bought in recent years only makes the original knowledge shinier.

I’m aware of exactly how full my days are, and have no intention of going down the solo cottage shop road of over committing and watching the wait times grow.  Thus, the bulk of North Fork packs will be sold as stock, and in batches, which will be available when they are available.  If things go as anticipated, the first run of Tamarisks (40 liters, technical multiday backpacking or race pack) will go live in time to be a winter solstice gift.  Development on the big, UL mission pack will continue into next year.  Ideally I’d like to sell some before next summer.

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To shake out the administrative kinks, and sell a simple thing whose value I’ve tested for even longer, we’re releasing the first run of packraft straps.   A ~70 inch length of 1 inch polypro webbing with a stout ITW buckle (each straps is ~72 inch tip to tip with buckle).  I made the first versions (red, immediately above) back in the pre-cargo fly days.  They weren’t quite longer enough, so I made the second (blue, all other photos) and final version, of which several have been in use for the past seven years.

A really big, really full pack will just about max them out.  The sweet spot for the length is a full 55 liter pack, maybe 36 inches in circumference.  The poly webbing is noticeably lighter in field use than nylon.  One inch webbing provides enough friction on both the buckle and against the pack that a cobble scrapping flip will not tear your gear loose, even if that gear includes a mountain bike (been there).  I have also found out, the hard way, that just because you can fit it inside your packraft does not mean, in the name of maximized puncture resistance, you should, making packraft straps relevant for all boaters.  The straps are also handy for keeping your boat rolled tight, for tying a serious overload to your pack (bear can?  100 meter static line?), and for taming awkward loads generally.  I used one last fall to roll up a bison hide for transport, and chained three together the other week to get our new-to-us (1950s Corona, ‘natch) range tight to the dolly and down many stairs into the kitchen.

Packraft straps are shit that works.  So buy some, or make some yourself.  Small item shipping rates meant that total charges for overseas customers are a bit excessive, even with us (M and I) cutting the profit margin a good bit.  You can bartack poly webbing on a home machine, and if you do enough stitches even poly embroidery thread will hold.  I use bonded nylon tex 90, the bartacks will hold long after the buckle shatters.

This is the long-awaited second phase of what began with our stickers and guidebook 2.5 years ago.  Straps today, with stock and (occasional) custom packs to come later this year.

PS: Half the straps sold over the weekend.  Much gratitude from us for the support, and the interest in the packs to come. 

Layering in 2019: insulation

Moreso than with most categories I feel sympathy for beginners trying to come to terms with understanding insulated garments for the outdoors.  Staying warm outside, on the face, shouldn’t be so complicated, and while the nuance and especially implementation of staying warm outside can be hard to hew closely with, having warm enough clothing shouldn’t be much of a mystery.  If action layers are for staying warm during various permutations of on-the-go, pure insulating layers are for keeping you warm while you’re still.  Plenty of concerns usually associated with action layers almost always bleed over into pure insulation, and indeed one of (in two more years I expect to be able to way the) the major recent developments is using lessons from active insulation in warmer garments designed for static activities.

To know how warm a jacket will be, you need to know what kind of insulation it has, and how much is there.  I tempted by the analogy of no one buying a new house from a builder who couldn’t give you the R in the roof without thought, but I’m sure there are plenty of folks who have and will do just that.  Don’t be that person, don’t assume attributes into a jacket based on marketing copy or a pinch test.  I’m loath to buy any insulation from a company that doesn’t list numbers front and center, but if they don’t (looking at you First Lite) they should at least be able to dig them up readily.  If a company can’t do that, run away quickly.

Knowing fill type and weight doesn’t help too much without a half dozen well worn garments in your closet to which you can compare.  Even so, knowing you need more then 4 ounces of down and less than 10 doesn’t help much if you’re in the market for synthetic.

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I haven’t used that many insulated jackets; the above is my best approximation of functional and equivalent warmths.  You can dive into seemingly more precise detail with clo ratings, but shell fabrics bias these rating significantly, and lab findings do not generalize well to the field (below).

Even if you have the necessary amount of insulation along on a trip, implementation can easily sabotage your plans.  Being tired, poorly hydrated, and badly fed can when combined take a huge percentage off the value of your insulation by robbing your body of the ability to make heat.  Bad technique, such as allowing yourself to get too cold during the day and/or letting your base and action layers to take on too much moisture can similarly kill the practical value of insulation.  Not maximizing your mental state also makes it hard to stay warm, both insofar as good psyche is linked to not making the aforementioned mistakes, and in that mental and physical well being cannot in my mind be meaningfully separated.  Embracing discomfort makes a cold, wet night seem warmer.

All that said, some moisture in your action layers is inevitable, and for this reason I now highly prize insulating layers which can not only not degrade significantly when damp, but move moisture.  The Hyperpuff seems like the way forward here.  I’ve had plenty of synthetic jackets which dried fast, but none which dried so well from body heat alone.  How much of this is the insulation, and how much the liner and shell fabric?  My hope is that continued development here will provide more answers.

In summer, I can make do with a lighter insulating layer.  Often this is down, as longer and warmer days make drying out easier, or just an active insulating jacket, as long days make it easy for ones sleeping bag to be the only actual static insulator.  Outside the warmest months of the year I rarely regret something as warm as the Hyperpuff, with a rarely used massive down parka the only other thing needed for those below 0 days.

Layering in 2019: mid and wind layers

Since 2011 I’ve owned around two dozen windshirts, and while a third of those were for larger reviews and garments in which I didn’t have an inherent interest, this still amounts to an extravagant total.  As of today there are only four in regular rotation.  In the same period I’ve had at least the same number of fleece pullovers, vests, and hoodies, including half a dozen items in current use, on top of a couple active insulation pieces.  I could, by contrast, cut baselayers down to two or three pieces without issue, and gladly go the whole year with a single hardshell.

All of which is to say that the task of additional weather protection for on the move is far more complex than any other.  The most relevant question is thus which items provide for the greatest range of use/comfort, and why.  Not only will versatile items better trim the closet, using generalism to frame our inquiry makes for more incisive answers.

I call wind and mid layers, which collectively are generally used for added protection while on the move in the backcountry, action layers (nod to Twight and Extreme Alpinism).

Thinner baselayers made with faster wicking fabrics and construction (as discussed previously) best fit and indeed demand action layers that prioritize breathability.  For example, take the opposite extreme, a 200 grams/meter 100% merino shirt which was “cutting edge” 15 years ago.  Hike uphill hard with a pack, even around freezing, and the shirt will get quiet to very wet.  Pop above treeline and get hit by wind, or turn the crest and head downhill with the associated drop in heat production, and you’ll want something to moderate evaporation, least you get cold.  Traditional windbreakers work well here, with limited breathability (<5 cfm, say) making for something of a wetsuit effect.  The disadvantage is of course that further measures will be needed to get ahead of the moisture curve, and if kinder ambient conditions don’t help you out, external heat of some kind, in the form of a fire or added insulation, will eventually be needed.  Modern layering seeks to avoid this, with systems that retain far less moisture under adverse conditions, and need far less input to dry.

There is a broad range of functionality here, with individual metabolism providing heavy influence.  Smaller folks, leaner folks, and those with slower metabolism often need a vastly warmer and more protective action layer.  For every case their is emphatically such a thing as too little or too breathable protection.  A case of too little protection would be the aforementioned thick merino and windbreaker combo, which in most cases has too little insulative value and too much protection against external forces, which makes the body work to hard to maintain equilibrium, which is in turn a poor use of calories and morale.  Too much protection would be a thin synthetic t-shirt and a 100 weight fleece pullover in the same conditions.  This combo is good at moving moisture, statically warm, but provides little protection against external conditions (e.g. wind).  This past fall I revisited using 100 weight fleece in place of a windshirt, and it only took one brisk day and one cold and still morning to think that the lack of control with respect to the wind and transpiration generally was stressing my metabolism more than seemed necessary.


This is why the nylon 20D mechanical stretch nylon Patagonia developed for the Nano Air series, a fabric found on its own in the Airshed pullover, might be the most significant development in outdoor apparel in the last decade.  The insulation used in the Nano Air Light (above) is different that Polartec Alpha, but the reason it and the regular Nano Air are utterly different in use than other active insulation I’ve used is the shell and liner fabrics.  Not only are they very (but not excessively!) breathable, but the thin, mechanical stretch (spandex free!) fabrics retain amazingly little moisture.  A few weeks ago I was out in -15F on consecutive days.  On one the least breathable component in my system was my BD Alpine Start hoody, with a couple hours work putting a fine coating of frost against the inside.  On the other, a Nano Air over a baselayer (the LaSportiva Troposphere) stayed dry after three hours of hard trailbreaking.  The Nano Airs are even more versatile companions for people who run cold.  Since getting one in late October M has hardly taken hers off.

There are times when a windshirt which blocks a lot of wind has no substitute, including (at least for me) a hardshell.  The sadly discontinued Rab Windveil continues to be my all time favorite here, due mainly to fit and features but also to toughness.  The Alpine Start also remains a favorite, and oddly the windshirt I use most but the one I might let go first.  The fit is frustrating, as is the way it hangs on to just a little too much moisture when conditions are truly challenging.  On the other hand it’s durable, balanced with respect to weatherproofing, and looks good.

If I had to pick only two items from all the action layers I’ve had or have, they would be the Windveil and Nano Air Light.  The Alpine Start would be hard to give up, and the Airshed hasn’t been in my closet long enough for permanent consideration.  The fourth item would be Haglofs Pile hoody, not because it’s more performance oriented than something like a Nano Air hoody (or what the Tough Puff, which I’d love to try), but because fleece still beats active insulation on intangibles, if not on performance.


Actions layers are the other area, along with baselayers, where I think premium items can be worthwhile.  The Nano Air series, along with the best modern wind layers, are astonishingly efficient.  The premium is steep, when comparing for instance a $35 fleece shirt and the $250 Nano Air Light, but just with baselayers when you’re wearing it almost year round, action layers are a good place to put dollars.

Layering in 2019: introduction and baselayers

Any discussion of layering has to start with it being somewhat of a misnomer; the point of a good layering system is to provider a few solid pieces which cover as great a range of conditions as possible.  If you have to swap, add, or remove layers often, you chose poorly for the day.  That said, technical outdoor clothing is both better and more expensive than ever, so if you pick well a small arsenal can work on almost any day of the year.

Base layers should move moisture quickly, and keep abrasion and sun off your skin.  We’re into the second decade of merino being full fashion in the outdoor realm, and I’m ready to call it ready to die insofar as backcountry performance is concerned.  The virtue of merino was always the extent to which it controlled evaporative cooling by absorbing some of the moisture burden as it moved from skin to the garment surface, with odor control and heat of sorption* being tangential benefits.  As the paradigm of all outdoor garments has shifted towards faster moisture transport and greater air permeability, moisture buffering in base layers has made less and less sense.  There is no point in effectively storing moisture in your base layer when the mid and/or wind layers are not working at full capacity.  Thin wool minimizes this disadvantage, but the continued experiment with introducing synthetics into merino is all the evidence required that merino durability is below 180 grams/meter substantially problematic.

Where wool continues to shine is as lifestyle wear for the urban jungle.  A mildly sweaty 3 mile bike commute makes the odor control of merino highly relevant, and while the aforementioned hybrids don’t hold up to brush and backpack abrasion, they do hold up to repeated laundering.  All my merino shirts have been shunted into daily use under dress shirts, which keeps the -10 degrees mornings a bit more at bay, and allows me to chase kindergarteners at will without being stinky for 3pm meetings.  Insofar as growth in the “outdoor industry” is largely confined to lifestyle or near lifestyle segments, merino has a bright future.

I revisited merino this winter, and quickly got sick of the outer layer of my hats and shirts frosting up, something which was under similar circumstances eliminated by going back to synthetics.  The last six years trend in synthetic baselayers has continued, with fabrics getting ever thinner, and mechanical/structural variations making for increased performance.  Polartec High Efficiency, popularized by the now-classic Capilene 4, has remained the touchstone cold weather baselayer, while sub-100 grams/meter garments have made this the new cutoff for light weight baselayers.  Old tech is also making comeback, in the form of the original synthetic baselayer, polypro.  If poly has won out in baselayers most significantly due its low moisture regain (.5%, roughly), poly ought to do far better with a moisture regain many times less (.06%).  This fall I’ve spent a lot of time in a nylon/polypro/spandex knit, and have been impressed that a not prodigiously light fabric could wick so efficiently, even under difficult (high humidity, near freezing) conditions.  The blend and modern anti-odor treatments seems to have dealt with the old polypro issues (stink, shrinkage at normal laundry temps) quite nicely, with the only downside of this particular piece being the emphatically euro styling (size up).

For the time being my recommendation from two years ago, that with a Cap 4 (now thermal weight) shirt and a Sitka Core LW shirt I could do everything, anywhere holds true.  The Sitka fabrics changed a bit and the features got more complex, but plenty of good options (e.g. the OR Echo series) has come on the scene since.  Most significantly, I continue to recommend that newcomers building a technical wardrobe sink money into quality baselayers, not so much because the performance gain over cheaper ones is massive, but because the gain/$ ratio is the best, and you’ll notice the refinements in function and fit most often, as your baselayers get used more often than anything else (save socks, another area to not skimp).

Next, the fraught world of mid and wind layers.


*Of sorption is the phenomenon where energy is given off as liquid water (in this case within the wool fibers of a garment) passes into a gas during evaporation.  It is popularly cited by wool boosters, and I remain skeptical that the effect is for one significant enough to be relevant in the field, and for another, consequential enough to overcome the downsides of having a bunch of water on board your garments.  The largest number I’ve found associated with of sorption in wool is 1 gram of water generating 277 joules (which is roughly .26 BTUs).  That would be a compelling figure, but the study was of carpets in residential settings, where the thermal load and mass presumably made the findings of limited generalizability.  I assume anyone who claims of sorption as a benefit of merino baselayers, without significant caveats, has not given the subject much thought.





The perfect pole; revised

These poles have worked very well in the 5.5 years since I put them together.  They’ve been light enough, bomber, and the ability to swap lowers and have a pole longer enough for nordic skiing (or pitching a mid with a single pole) has been very handy.


Shortcomings have been two fold.  While the grips themselves have aged well and certainly have the rest of the decade in them, the lack of a solid end plug resulted in dual issues.  The pole with less glue, at right, started working its way out the end of the grip around 3 years ago, and while strategic epoxy stopped progress, the end has never since been as comfy.  At left, the pole with the more solid glue cap bent over under the combined weight of a rain, snow and wind during a magical January night in Choprock Canyon two years ago.  I also want straps, a vaguely controversial admission.  This is mostly for nordic skiing, but after using the Fizan compacts over the past year and a half I’ve come to appreciate having the option of tying in and not dropping poles when I’m tired.

I couldn’t think of a clean way to integrate adjustable straps into the GGear grips, nor a totally satisfactory way to alleviate the above issues, so I looked elsewhere for a solution.  Massdrop ultimately sent me three different sets of Fizans trying to find a pair which didn’t slip (they all did, at least a hair), so I decided to sacrifice one.

img_7121It took a lot of boiling, cutting, and work with pliers, but I separated the plastic core of the grip (above) from the rest of the pole.  The foam part of the grip was a loss, and the brittle alloy of the shaft made extracting it in one piece tricky (and required a LOT of the heat).  The OD of the BD upper is a bit bigger, but the plastic here is maleable enough that some inner sanding and a hammer got them seated.


Next, the grip body.  In the same of simplicity and not leaving the house I used some leftover handlebar tape, doing a short wrap for the lower pommel, and then wrapping the whole thing with more.  If one had more tape and was so inclined, the fashionable grip extensions could be added.

img_7124I’ll update on longevity in a year or so.  My assumption is the tape will need replaced every few years, and my hope is that the plastic grip cap won’t ultimately split after being forced onto the pole.  Regardless of how well this arrangement works, these poles have been one of my more satisfying projects, in that they’ve been a simple and no-compromises solution to (literally) every trip across the seasons., one which has yet to be exceeded by anything commercial, and shows every sign of being equally relevant for another 5 or more years.


The present of synthetic insulation

Last year I wrote about my lasting dissatisfaction with synthetic insulated jackets.  Today I’m happy to report that substantial progress has been made, in the form of the Patagonia Hyperpuff.

I bought a Hyperpuff jacket last spring, during the annual 50% off sale, and tested the most intransigent concern for a synthetic insulated jacket, durability, by wearing it as often as possible since, including daily wear.  I’m happy to report that after consistent use durability appears to be at least adequate, that is to say, it is at least as good as the current benchmarks for synthetic durability (e.g. Apex and Full Range).  The insulation is also a good bit warmer for the weight than any other synthetic insulation I’ve worn, including Apex, bringing the Hyperpuff into direct competition with all but the most efficient down coats in the ~1 pound class.

Beyond that, the Hyperpuff is exceptional in every respect when it comes to featuring and fabrics, and is as good as any piece I’ve used to yardstick just how much better outdoor apparel is today compared to 10 or 20 years ago.  The cut is long, slimish, and the articulation of the sleeves and shoulders excellent.  The long tail and longer cuffs, along with the internal elastic and drawcords, stack the deck in your favor when it comes to keeping and maximizing warmth.  With my usual medium I have enough room for a Nano Air Light or other light mid layer, but not enough for a heavier layer (like the Haglofs Pile hoody).  You could make the case that a bit more room would be ideal.  On the other hand, you could make the case that such a slim fit is darn handy in that it can fit under a hardshell, for things like nasty cold packraft floats or excessively windy summits.  It’s also more urban-sexy than the baggy, straight cuts many such jackets still sport.


The fabric is also noteworthy both for being coffee shop-approved (nice and matte) as well as a bit more breathable than the expected, downproof light nylons.  It’s impossible to say how much of the performance is due to the shell, how much to the liner, and how much to the insulation, at least without dissecting the jacket, but the whole package modulates across a temperature range and disperses moisture in a way we’ve come to expect from active insulation, but has heretofore never been a feature of serious insulating garments.  I’ve put a few pin holes in the arm with embers, but haven’t had any rips or pilling, which is perfectly adequate.


The pockets are also on point, with the chest pocket not being so deep things get lost, and hand pocket zippers running smoothly, and the one drop pocket having a perfect little mesh drain window in the bottom.  In an ideal world I’ve have two chest pockets (for keeping little things warm), and two drop pockets, but in practice one of each has worked out just fine 99% of the time.

Another year will tell more about how well loft will be retained.  Aside from that ongoing variable, the level of warmth, breathability, and features are all pretty much perfect.  After 11 months of use I’m more content with the Hyperpuff than with any other puffy I can recall owning.

Terrace Mtn hunting fatality report and analysis

(photos/maps pulled from the discussed report)

Many of you will have at least heard of the death of hunting guide Mark Uptain in a Grizzly Bear attack this past September, in the Teton Wilderness not far south of Yellowstone.  Wyoming Game and Fish recently completed their report on the fatality (full text here), and for folk who hike, backpack, and especially hunt in Grizzly country it is worth reading in full.

A few things stand out, some obvious, others less so.  The center of discussion has been on the failure of the guide and client pair to effectively use any of their available weapons.  Both men had bear spray, while the guide had a 10mm pistol and the client a crossbow.  Only Uptain’s bear spray was immediately accessible, and while it was used against one of the bears, in the judgment of the WGF personnel the use was too late to prevent Uptain’s death:  “Evidence suggests that after the attack was stopped by the bear spray, Uptain traveled under his own power about 50 yards uphill from the attack site to where he succumbed from his injuries.” (p. 9)  Perhaps Uptain would have sustained less than fatal injuries had his client sprayed both him and the sow quickly, or been able to shoot the sow.  This incident underlies just how fast a Grizzly attack is likely to happen in his and other situations, and how even accessible weapons may have situational shortcomings.

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Time and location are also relevant factors in promulgating the attack, though by no means a definitive ones.  Corey Cubon, the client, stated that he had shot the elk at some point the afternoon/evening before, and after failing to find it he and Uptain had ridden back to the trailhead (and the lodge in which he was staying), and returned the following day, leaving the TH at 0800 and finding the elk around 1300.  He called 911 at 1634, reporting later that they were almost finished butchering at the time of the attack.

Based on the above photo the elk died in a spot which would have made me rather nervous.  The visibility looks poor, while the location on a small hill at general high altitude would make for increased scent transport.  The general environment is stereotypical Grizz habitat, and if barstool biology is held at face value, bears in that area are drawn to hunting terrain in the fall due to the year-over-year availability of carrion.  All of this makes it difficult to not conclude that leaving a carcass on the ground for possibly 20 hours or more is a less than safe practice.  Archery hunting lends itself to more protracted blood trailing, which can increase both retrieval time and the scent footprint.  The assumption, in this case and surely many others, that the hunters will be returning to the road every night increases both of these yet again.  This is not to say that had Uptain and Cubon bivvied in the field and found the elk at 0700 things might have gone differently, simply that increased time between a shot fired and starting the pack out necessarily increases the possibility of a bear encounter, even if that increase can never be coherently quantified.

The various accounts of Uptain’s condition appended to the main report make for a sobering read.  Uptain died from massive blood loss, primarily due to bites to the upper legs.  He did not suffer fatal head trauma, but his head was nonetheless bitten such that “The blood was so thick on his face that it was like the victim was wearing a black mask.” (p. 28)  Not that anyone needs more concrete reason to avoid a bear attack…

It is also worth noting that any non-resident of Wyoming may purchase (or attempt to via lottery) an elk tag, but could not legally hunt where Mr. Uptain died without either hiring a guide or having a resident friend along as a guide/sponsor.  While I don’t think it is reasonable to criticism Mr. Cubon for his conduct during the attack, it would not be reasonable to not discuss how a cooler and/or more experienced hand might have saved Mr. Uptain’s life.  The state of Wyoming officially prohibits non-residents from hunting in federal Wilderness due to safety concerns, already an absurd position given that anyone may backpack, ski, boat, birdwatch, or hunt small game in the same areas without a guide or chaperone.  The real reason for this prohibition is of course to protect the territory of guiding services, like the one which employed Mr. Uptain, and the partial monopoly they enjoy on some of the most productive and sublime elk terrain in North America.  This incident seems decent evidence that encouraging the less competent to hire their way into a potentially dangerous situations is necessarily making their guides, and likely the clients as well, less safe.



Hunting with style

Climbing writer Doug Robinson wrote (in paraphrase) that technology forces itself upon the landscape, while technique looks for a way through.  Climbing is on matters of style an illustrative pairing for hunting, especially in the 21st century, where the later is on the cusp of a new wave of popularity which will likely substantially reinvent the pursuit.  In 30 years I expect hunting norms to have drug the laws which govern its practice far from where they are today.  Climbing remains largely unajudicated, aside from raptor closures and ongoing ambiguity about fixed anchors in Wilderness areas, but starting half a century ago was subjected to substantial and in many cases overwhelming ethical debates, which have passed through consensus into the background structure of the pursuit.  Hunting has in North America been adjudicated for so long that ethics, to say nothing of style, is most often discussed in a stunted fashion, tied narrowly to the propogation of the discipline with an uneasy, if not outright hostile, relationship with any broader cultural import or responsibility.

Robinson made is name in the 1960s, at the vanguard of the clean climbing movement in Yosemite.  Two decades before camming units became commercially available, the move away from pitons to nuts, chocks, and hexentrics was an intentional leap, which put environmental and aesthetic concerns above ease and security.  As Robinson wrote; “Personal qualities- judgment, concentration, boldness, – the ordeal by fire, take precedence, as they should, over mere hardware.”  This set the tone for subsequent ethical debates, with things like chipping holds having since become (in North America) anathema by consensus.  The substance of the prohibition of explicit hold modification is more significant stylistically than environmentally, as things like gardening out cracks and scrubbing vegetation off boulders remains common practice, as does reinforcing chossy rock so climbers don’t pull off too many holds.  Then again, maybe climbing at Rifle is inherently poor style.

The relevant point is that climbing, the most obviously, inherently absurd and pointless of all outdoor pursuits, is also the most aesthetically pure, and that purity and coherence is maintained by consensus rules which promote and prioritize, even venerate, style.  And by style here, we mean recognize that technology has, decades if not centuries ago, exceeded exponentially the challenges imposed by the world and its means.  This is not to say that in mountaineering the gradation of acceptable helicopter access are entirely settled, but when someone like Uli Steck or Liv Sansov wants to enchain peaks in good style, they do so entirely human powered.

Hunting is far more tentative concerning matters of style.  The closest the community gets is when technology forces the hand, on fair chase matters such as drone use (which most western states have banned), and “tracking” scopes which auto-correct for user error.  But hunting is experiencing perhaps the most significant and most concentrated growth in technology since the iron age, with a corresponding paradigm shift in mindset.  And this is the key point when it comes to intentionally defining style, the recognition that technology itself is meaningless, and the way it alters user perceptions and practices, and thus redefines the activity itself, is of central importance.

With hunting, laser rangefinders are an ideal example.  Their existence helped create long range hunting, with both bows and rifles.  Prior to exact yardage being available at the push of a button, hunters were limited by their skills judging yardage, and more commonly to the range within which the speed of their weapon made such judgments more forgiving.  Now, more people are shooting further, more accurately (one assumes), and more often.  Distances viewed as rarefied 15 years ago, such as 400 yards with a rifle and 60 yards with a compound bow, are today approaching the common.  Truly functional ability at these distances does not enhance success in a linear fashion.  Anyone who has spent plenty of time chasing animals knows that different species provide different cut points, with big jumps in efficacy happening in a 20 yard jump.  Whitetails, for example, are wary enough that getting within 30 yards is exceedingly difficult outside an ambush situations (e.g. blind or treestand), with a 50-80 yard distance being by no means simple, but far more consistently achievable.  Similarly, mule deer have eyes and ears and a general tolerance for disturbance which makes being within 3-400 yards exponentially more probable than closing under 200.  In the former case, fastish compound bows and rangefinders make for many more possible shots, while in the later case rangefinders open up the possibility of many conventional rifle chamberings being accessible for their owners to at least develop the skill to take shots at deer who are unaware, or at least more relaxed.

The ethical complication with technology in hunting is that ease often goes hand in hand with humane-ness.  There is a compelling case to be made that taking a leisurely, studied, longer shot at an unaware animal will result in a clean kill more often than a pressured shot using a hasty rest at an animal which might turn at run at any moment, even if the distance is half or less.  At the same time, questioning how much chance ones prey has to even notice the existence of the hunter must be allowed.  There is a stylistic difference between shooting a goat at 400 yards, who knows you are there but has yet to learn to worry about such distances due to terrain and circumstance, and an elk 800 yards away feeding along a meadow, with hardly any plausible chance of detecting humans on the ridge across the canyon.  Well done polls generally show that those who have never hunted are sympathetic to the pursuit if two conditions are met; the animal will be consumed by the hunter, and they think the animal has a reasonable chance of escape.  This should not just be relevant as a means to minimize public hostility; the stylistic imperative of keeping the hunt in hunting should be relevant on its own terms.

The conclusion here is that if hunters do not police themselves on technology, the culture at large will do so for them, either by reducing hunter opportunity to compensate for ever increasing success rates (if 50 of 100 tag holders, on average, kill something where before it was 10 in 100, soon there will only be 50-60 tags given), or by constraining hunting methodology, most likely via ballot initiative.  That hound hunting for mountain lions or bears is more efficacious than spot and stalk or baiting is not in the end behind these methods being banned in numerous western states, it is the perception of their not being sporting.

I’m quite out beyond the fringe in not viewing hunting as categorically different, in either the ethics or the metaphysics, from something like climbing a mountain.  They’re both extractive activities, if the definition is viewed broadly.  If the rarefied and aesthetically sacred nature of climbing gave the community pause enough to build their rules to at least in part maintain future challenge and mystery, it seems reasonable to expect hunting, whose trust in the mystery that is our world is through the killing of charming creatures far more explicit, to do the same.

There is plenty of precedent here.  Alaska forbids helicopters for transportation to and from hunting areas, which goes a long ways towards functionally safeguarding specifies such as sheep.  Plenty of states have made at least partial attempts towards keeping primitive weapon seasons intact; things like allowing muzzleloaders to only shoot round balls, and forbidding optical and magnified sights on muzzleloaders, shotguns, and bows.  Regulating center-fire rifles provides for few if any straight forward options; I’ve never heard anyone discuss something like an upper limit on scope magnification or cartridge velocity.  Other areas of stylistic growth are obvious, just painful to contemplate.  Hunting has, for a long time, been far too wedded to trucks, ATVs, and horses.  The best way to keep wilderness wild is to make access physically harder, and the plain good this does for large animal populations makes it all the less justifiable that hunters haven’t done more to lead the charge on closing roads and generally making access tilt more in the animals favor.

Guiding is another area where hunting has refused to look at itself.  The extent to which the practice is accepted can be traced directly to the colonial era, which provides examples that should give us all pause.  In climbing hiring a guide is widely accepted, if you’re looking to break in to the pursuit without killing yourself, or a rock climber learning to swing tools, or a sport climber learning to plug gear, or an alpine skier wanting to learn about avalanches.  If you’re a climber using a guide to push above your skill level on a regular basis, and not just for educational purposes, you’re viewed as a tyro at best, a poltroon at worst, and generally not taken seriously.  Given how much of hunting has to do with finding the animals and learning the terrain, paying someone to shortcut all of the for you, be in by hiring someone to lead you around in the traditional manner, or by paying someone to e-scout and provide you with a portfolio of photos and waypoints, is nothing short of cheating.  And when it comes to animals who for most serve as symbols for how the world could be better, cheating to kill them should not be ok.

The idea with style is not for laws to force action, it is for norms to change and force a consensus.  Hunters venerate the biggest set of antlers or longest and fattest bear not just because the masculine imperative compels it (though anyone who doesn’t think this remains enormously significant is kidding themselves), but because the oldest of a species is often the craftiest, the most difficult to find, the most likely to detect you, as well as the rarest.  Shooting a six point bull elk requires both the skill of long study and practice, as well as the kind of luck made only by many days out in the field.  And that recognition of patience and a multi-year, even multi-decade learning process is rarely far from the surface of a good hunting story.  Hunters are just good at hiding such things.

I’d like to see that narrative brought to the fore, and the rest of the hunting universe squared to match it.  There should be no bones that walk in access is stylistically preferred to flying in.  There should be veneration and preference given to hunting in areas which due to terrain and game density are more difficult than other places.  There ought to be no apologies needed for shooting “lesser” animals, such as non-males, and particular attention given to the choice to move away from technology, while still doing all that is reasonable to ensure a consistently clean kill.  Just like climbing, hunting is great because it units primordial necessity with the most refined and elective modern absurdity, and by hunting with style we can make hunting great again.