2021 Bob Open report

Moore photo.

This, the 10th Bob Marshall Wilderness Open, took place under the influence of unusual weather.  This can be said most years, which is the point of going in late May rather than July, but was in 2021 more true than normal.  10 days out from the start a large storm moved through, with precipitation concentrated along the Rocky Mountain Front, with the original start point up the South Fork of the Teton just north of the epicenter.  Several feet of snow fell up high over a period of 48 hours, began to melt during a brief warming spell, and then saw another 6-12 inches before the end of the weekend.  Due to possible access and avalanche issues I called the start south to the Home Gulch campground with 6 days to go, and all of the 25 people who lined up had both snow accumulation and snow melt in mind.  Additionally, several prodigious wind events from the winter had left exceptional deadfall littered throughout the Bob complex.  Snow, stream crossings, and deadfall were all more urgent and variegated route factors than usual.

From the start groups split immediately three ways, majorities going either west along Gibson Reservoir or south up Home Gulch, and a few folks going west and south along the Beaver Creek road.  Most of the Gibson groups headed up either Straight Creek or the South Fork of the Sun River, aiming to access the North Fork Blackfoot drainage via a variety of routes; Stadler Pass, Observation Pass, or one of several ways up around the south flank of the  Scapegoat massif.  Stadler is noteworthy for being the longest and lowest of the options, and featured plenty of deadfall.  Word had gotten out to the Forest Service about the winter storms, and an early start to trail maintenance had the main trail cut all the way through Danaher meadows, well ahead of normal, and making this long route the likely quickest variation.  Observation Pass, and especially the ridge leading south, was an appealing blend of reduced distance and modest cumulative elevation gain.  The problem for these folks seems to have been in the trail down the headwaters of the Dry Fork, which down to the main trail proved to be very ill maintained indeed.  Fatigue, morale, and timing for floating the lower stretches of the Blackfoot made these routes more complicated in execution than may have at first seemed obvious.

The south flank of Scapegoat looks intimidating from a distance, but the upper valleys of the Dearborn, North Fork of the Blackfoot, and Straight Creek all reach 6500 feet on well graded trail, and past fire activity combines with higher elevation flora to make deadfall less of a concern than elsewhere.   Aspect proved crucial here, as the previous 3 warm, sunny days had melted off the previous weekends storms almost totally.  One route up to the snowy flanks might be on dirt up to 7000 feet, while another started wallowing nearly a thousand feet lower.  Most of the folks who went south from the start took a southern route around Scapegoat, with many getting there via Welcome Pass and Smith Creek, a route which due to the aforementioned minutia was almost free of deadfall and snow.  Mileage wise this was a slightly shorter line than any of the northern options, at the cost of significantly more minor passes adding up to twice or more the elevation change.  Moreso than in years past there was a clean split in the tradeoffs between these two larger options.

Several parties went for a variation of the original start, and went up the West Fork of the Sun to Nesbit Pass, not a low or low snow option, but a straightforward one given the neighborhood.   All these folks were understandably set on floating the North Fork of the Sun, and had good but not excessive levels for it.  Fate was kind given the circumstances, with the 2-4 days most spent on route lining up exactly between when the new snow melted off, and when the new and old snow, finally in the first grip of summer, truly swelled the creeks and rivers in earnest.  By 6 days after the start, the South Fork of the Sun and the North Fork of the Blackfoot were close to or above all time records for the time of year.  While a everyone had at least one big and chilly crossing, hardly anyone was really put into logistical difficulty by a ford.

The Bob Open is only tacitly a packrafting promoting vehicle, but being out there in late May almost inevitably favors the options and speed pocket floating affords.  On only two previous occasions has the quickest finisher(s) been on foot (2016 and 2020, though 2019 was bloody close).   This year the finish well outside the main complex presented two stark options in the final section; either head out the N Fork Blackfoot and float at least 40 miles straight to the finish, or come out through a Youngs Creek neighbor, and surf state land through the Blackfoot-Clearwater WMA to the finish.  Several public land options existed here, with none particularly obvious, something that highlights the convenience of being inside the Bob proper.  Water levels were ideal for a fast float finish, with most folks taking between 5 and 6 hours to make the 40 miles from the end of the crux whitewater on the North Fork of the Blackfoot (something most chose to portage) to the end.  Walking, on the other hand, took quite a bit longer, with most folks making the sensible choice to end things at the edge of the proper wilderness, and those who did not putting a significant part of a day into a heinous road walk.

In the end the point of this whole endeavor, and the particulars which emanate from that end, are only defined by the folks out there walking.

My 2021 Bob Open

The thick green water of the North Fork took half a mile to give in and intermingle with the flat milky water of the main Blackfoot.  Black spruce limbs, broken ragged and hidden two dimensionally in the river floated past, the breeze pushing gently upstream.  I looked backwards and saw an intact, dead tree floating 100 yards behind, dozens of limbs proud of the water by ten feet or more, the total lack of green needles and abundant flowing moss equally obvious in the perfect afternoon clarity.  Eager to stay clear I layed into my paddle for the next three bends, after which I forgot it entirely.  In that moment, new to the humbling of the river in full flood and pursued by the landscapes ghost, I could almost hear Geoffery Rush growling “run out the sweeps.”

Two facts about a fast walk across the Bob stayed in the front of my mind all last week.  One, that I hadn’t finished the Open since 2016, and two, that I had never been the quickest.  In both 2013 and 2016 I had been second, though 2015, by almost a solid day my longest route, remains the most enjoyable.  This encapsulated the dilemma well, especially as Saturday wore on.  By design the Open is not easily competitive.  I currently have compelling reason to think I was the fastest finisher this year, but I do not yet, and may never, know for certain.  In the moment it is a slippery, pointless, and yet essential end to pursue, if your goal is going fast.  Pointless because you can never know or control what anyone else is doing, and essential because the pure process goal of being efficient and quick often comes up short when your legs are dead, or you really would rather stay in bed a bit longer.

After deciding to move the start less than a week out, I had some rapid and fun route planning to do.  This ended up being a, if not the, highlight of the trip, as the first ~12 miles through Home and Lime Gulches were very pretty, on infrequently used trail, and the sort of places in the Bob to which I should go, but likely wouldn’t have otherwise.  Loosing the trail for 5-10 minutes in upper Home Gulch ended up being the only route finding mistake of substance I made the whole trip.

Road walking, especially on a hot day, makes it difficult to maintain momentum, but we (Tom and I) did well enough heading over to Smith Creek and the route up to Welcome Pass.  As the afternoon wore on I just could not square the pace and conditions with fatigue and our progress.  Doing some mental math about the elevation gain explained part of that, and better mileage calculations once home explained the rest.  I made Welcome after 11 hours on the move, at least 27 miles, and close to 7k of elevation gain.  Tom, who partially tore his meniscus in a bike wreck several weeks ago, had been hiking on borrowed time all day, and had told me hours before to go when/if he fell back.  At Welcome the numbers were not comfortable; 8 miles to go to the ~8200′ flank of Scapegoat, and maybe 3 hours of functional light to get there.  The map didn’t suggest the descent down the south side would be that troubling, but I still had a strong preference to at least eyeball the shadow before it was fully dark.

I sorta made it.  The crossings of the Dearborn were deep, fast, and very cold, that rivers headwaters being as high and hidden from the summer as is possible in the Bob.  I fired it up along the flats, saw a Moose up in a high meadow, and nailed a great route along the shoulder of Cave Creek the cheated me up to almost 7k on dry dirt.  The snow had, miraculously, already hardened nicely after a warm day, and the snowshoeing was as fast as it gets.  The wheels were starting to come off, attention wise, and my snowshoe binding breaking in the final ascent didn’t make things easier, but I crawled over the top just after 10pm, with enough light to tell I could just bomb off the other side, and enough time to have a snack and savor views out well east of the lights of Augusta.

The descent went from steep scree surfing to postholing through the trees to hitting the switchbacks just as they melted into the open.  My big goal for the day had been the porch of the Carmicheal cabin, but the darkness was quickly stretching the meters into miles, and I threw down camp in the shadow of the first flat spot my headlamp revealed.  I tried to eat some stuff, mostly failed, made a hot water bottle to aid in burning off the sweat in my layers, and fell asleep with twinging legs.  The moon woke me at 330am; I rolled over and went back to sleep until 5.

Dawn revealed the ridge sitting toothy and not far above me, evidence of slow legs after dark.  It was a cold morning, and I was covered in frost, happy to have brought a just warm enough sleeping bag.  I knocked off miles and several very cold creek fords before stopping in the sun for a hot coffee breakfast, designed to set this most crucial moment of the hike definitively in my mind.  The big day yesterday had been a good one, with no mistakes, and thus all the possibility of keeping things rolling all the way to the finish that afternoon.  Doing that just required lots of walking with minimal stops, which was as tough as it was simple, but by a bit after noon I rolled across the road bridge over the N Fork of the Blackfoot, sauntered down to the river, and sorted out my boating stuff while firing back a ton of food, knowing that I would not have to walk another step, and mostly just keep awake and inside my boat to the finish.

Staying awake ended up being much easier than anticipated, as the first stretch of the N Fork had at 1200 cfs some fat wave trains, meaty holes, and quick line choices through channels and wood jams.  Fun stuff, and plenty of potential for carnage.  I averaged around 10 mph for the first hour of floating, which slowed to a bit for the rest of the N Fork before picking up on the main Blackfoot, making for approximately 40 miles of floating in a hair over 5 hours.  I was paddling hard the final hour, racing to get into cell service in time to call M so the kids could do bedtime in the car, which they did.  I helped Hunter and his crew haul their raft up the hill, and they gave me a ride to the gas station at Clearwater Junction (I was assured the big cow, currently absent, is being refurbished and not gone forever).  I ate burritos and drank a beer in the grass, luxuriating in a still existence off my feet.

The final tally was right around 95 miles, 40 floating, in 33 hours and 50 minutes.  6 of those hours were in camp overnight.

The day after my feet were, oddly, about the only thing not sore, my mind being the worst off.  It has been quite a while since I’ve spent a day both awake and as useless.  Fun isn’t the thing with a pace like this, the thing is meaning.  And fully owning a goal as precious as doing this route as clean and fast as I was capable is as meaningful as it gets today.

The B&P mentoring program

Donald Trump has shown, more starkly than almost anything else one could imagine, how deeply structural racial bias and discrimination has been and is, and how it remains in many or even most cases the pivot point for social power in the United States. After the past four years we know more about this, which is to say more about ourselves, than we would under any other circumstances.  Structural bias will in many cases erode away in the face of history, but very slowly, and with the potential for retrograde progress.  It is our responsibility to bend the curve of history, to help social justice along, in consistency and speed.

I’ve been guilty, for a long time, of thinking about wilderness ahistorically, as something which is a precondition for social justice.  I still think this is true, but all too often my assumptions have jumped from wilderness and wild pursuits being physically democratic, insofar as accessibility is concerned, to that accessibility being literally effective.  I grew up spending time outside with my family, going hiking and boating from a very early age.  It wasn’t until I started rock climbing at 12 that I felt ownership over my own learning in the outdoors, and that experience, supported by my family background (read; privilege) allowed me to move on and teach myself canyoneering, mountain biking, hunting, skiing, packrafting, and so forth.  Making the venue and information of and for a given wilderness pursuit accessible is one thing.  Making the self-certainty necessary to teach oneself out there in the wild is another.

That matter is something I would like to help address.

So I’m looking for mentees in 2021, for a small handful of people with aspirations for the backcountry whose background and situation will make achieving those goals more complicated than would be the case for someone like me.  I’m not placing definitive restrictions on the race, orientation, class, or ethnicity who I hope to work with here, but white men are not it.  Yes there has been a lot of attention given to minorities in the outdoors and to social justice within the industry, and a lot of that verbiage has been monolithic and cliched, but the broader point about social justice, that we are neither the agent or architects of the more profound influences on our lives, stands intact.  My hope and intention is to use my experience, something both created and expedited by the circumstances of my birth, to provide an analogous bit of assistance for folks whose place in history would not do the same.

What will this look like?  I don’t know, but am eager to go on a journey with a few folks and find out.  I envision folks having significant and extensive access to my time, over the phone or via Zoom, regarding their hopes, goals, and the personal and skill development they’ll need to get there.  If someone wants to climb the Grand Teton, for example, or packraft the Middle Fork of the Flathead, it is easy to write up a list of hard skills they’ll need to master.  It is less simple to even define the mental aspects and less tangible skills that will be equally essential.  Things like dealing with loneliness and fear; managing layers and bedding during a 48 hour rainstorm; finding a layering system that works to your tastes and physiology.  I envision my roll as having more to do with helping people figure out the most important questions, rather than the more basic process of defining answers.  Perhaps, schedules and COVID concerns allowing, some combination of us might be able to go on a trip, or a few.  If you are based in the vicinity of Helena, Montana, that convenience would allow for more instructional options.

So, if you fit the above criteria and have some adventure goals you think might dovetail well with my knowledge base, send an email to dave at bedrockandparadox dawt com, with Mentorship Application in the subject line, and tell me what your hopes are and how you think I would be effective in assisting you.  This last part is important.  Any reader who has been around a while should be quite familiar with my style, and I think I can assure everyone that my writing does a decent job of representing who I am as a person.  Like any teaching relationship, the person to person dynamic is as important as any more direct factor, and neither of us should waste each others time if it doesn’t seem like we would be a good fit.  That said, in applying I ask for no commitment save to me reading and you writing your words, each with care.

I have no basis for evaluating the interest, but I don’t envision the application period being open for long.  I will update in this post, and notify everyone via email.

The death of Purple

I’ve cracked three nalgene bottles in the past two decades.  The first was a classic 1 liter in milky plastic, before lexan invaded REI and college lecture halls.  It was ancient and wrapped in duct tape, and split radially when I dropped it in the Sylvan Lake parking lot, which was sad.  I think I was relegated to old juice jugs for the rest of that summers rock bumming.  The second was a few years later, Elephant Butte in Arches, at the flat sandstone base of the exit rap.  I got lazy, it might have been the third lap that day and the 40th that year, and let a single kink in the opposite strand rise 30 feet in the air.  I spent 10 minutes trying to huck a partially full 48oz silo through that loop, tied to the other end, before it shattered into pieces striking the rock.  The third was just the other week, when I gave Purple a stout whack on a tree, to split loose the ice which had layered inside after a 10 degree evening.  Purple cracked, and functionally, was no more.

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We found Purple on this trip seven years ago, in the midst of the talus along the west side of Norris Mountain.  Purple has been around a lot, on my first successful elk hunt, most memorably.  And this is why I’ve always like nalgene bottles.  They aren’t invincible, but they’re close enough, in the face of accidents and hot water and intentional abuse, that over the years deep memories accumulate.  Purple has the sticker from our Double Duck, and the one from that place with best coffee porter, and the stack Jamie sent me after I proofed their gorgeous map.  I don’t quite have any ideas what I’ll do with it, but I’m certainly not ready to just put it in the trash.

Without Purple, we have perhaps nine or ten nalgenes in the house.  Some are hiding in dark corners.  A few sit in the mud room and are used daily.  I believe, years ago, I bought one of them.  Another was a gift.  Several more were freebz at trade shows.  The rest, a solid majority, were found in the wild, taken home, cleaned, sterilized, restickered as needed over time, and adopted.  And for the pleasure of keeping fewer gatorade or smartwater bottles out of the wild, I’ll gladly keep hauling the ounces.

Montane Allez Micro Hoodie review

Not necessarily a huge amount to say here: the Allez Micro is a hooded quarter zip baselayer shirt, made from Polartec High Efficiency, a fabric which was one of the very best innovations of the past decade.  I reviewed the Patagonia Capilene 4 hoody back in the day, when it was one of the very first pieces to use the fabric.  Later that year I bought a Capilene 4 long sleeved crew, and have used that since, when the weather gets reasonably chilly.  I ended up passing that gen 1 Cap 4 hoody along, mainly because the hood was too tight for all day comfort.  I’ve periodically missed the warmth and functionality of having a hood in that particular layer, as well as the versatility of being able to use a warmer baselayer hoody as a midlayer, too.  So I bought an Allez Micro, and have been happy.

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The main, perhaps only difference of substance between the Allez Micro and the current Patagonia Thermal Weight hoody is the hood, with the former being a single layer, and the later double.  I much prefer the reduced warmth, and enhanced moisture transport, of the single layer.  For the same reason, I much prefer no pockets on a shirt like this.  I did buy the Allez Micro in size large, which lets me wear it over a t-shirt if desires, while still being slim enough for layering.  This also makes the hood big enough to wear for days at a time, even over a variety of hats.  Sleeves and torso are very long, almost excessively so, though it makes the thumb loops fit ideally, and the fabric is light and flexible enough that some excess around the wrists goes unnoticed.

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Polartec HE was on the vanguard of the defining textile apparel trend of the past decade, and understanding how unusually, occasionally exceptionally wicking and air permeable fabrics interact as various parts of a layering apparatus.  The Allez Micro, for example, is light enough and would seem to be more than fast wicking enough to be a hot weather baselayer.  A few months ago I found myself wearing it on a windless day pushing into the 80s, even at 7000 feet, and having it rather than something like the Pulse hoody contributed significantly to my pace suffering in the heat.  Not only does the grid fabric trap air and as a result add warmth, when worn alone on a calm day, it also wicks too fast to work in hot weather, as the fabric effectively eliminates convective cooling.  That same attribute is of course it’s main virtue in the cold, and why most of the time Polartect HE works best against the skin.

Some sort of shell is often important, in cold, weather, to control evaporative rates and thus provide for some adjustment in heat and cooling.  A big virtue of HE is that it moves moisture so fast that there is a lot of foregiveness in layering.  One can, for instance wear a relatively not-breathable wind layer, to guard against stronger winds and to take advantage of the more limited moisture absorption (relative to soft shell windshirts), and get away with venting via the front zip in warmer and calmer moments.

Something like the Allez Micro also works, decently, as a midlayer over a slower wicking t-shirt, which slows down moisture transport against the skin, but speeds it up through the midlayer.  In this case, there is less wiggle room when it comes to a wind layer, but on something like a spring ski trip where one might have both hot afternoons and very cold mornings (or days), this arrangement might be the best way to cover as many conditions as possible without duplicate layers that can’t all be worn together (for instance, while sleeping).

The Allez Micro is a versatile option, and Montane did well providing the salient details, without anything extra.  Recommended.

2020 Bob Open report

Top photo by Mike Moore.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic the mass start for the 2020 Open was cancelled, a decision I made not to avoid the modest social contact at the start point but rather to discourage the still inherently problematic matter of folks traveling to Montana from out of state.  A still robust ~14 people took the start, with beginning dates spread out over roughly a week either side of Saturday, May 23.  The starting point was the Point Pleasant state forest campground south of Swan Lake; the end point the Gibson Reservoir boat ramp.

Conditions were unique, even when measured over the past 9 years of weather and snowpack.  An overall average snowpack in the Bob lingered further than usual through a cool April, and was fattened substantially by several big storms in mid-May.  Mid elevation snow was more robust than any year of the Open save 2014, and sunny temperatures had every hiker contending with the possibility of wet avalanches during alpine stretches.  Rivers saw the delayed impacts of wide temperature variations over the week of the Open, with the South Fork of the Flathead peaking at nearly 20,000 cfs on May 21, diving down to 8,000 by May 25, then climbing back to 12,000 48 hours later.  Nearly all participants avoided the highest water, and several packrafters hit the low point just right for floats of the West and South Forks of the Sun, but overarching conditions made major river fords unlikely without either a packraft or a pack bridge.

As is often the case, these crossings proved to be the major guide points of route selection, with the boat-less crossing the South Fork of the Flathead at either Meadow Creek gorge or Black Bear, and then the North Fork of the Sun at Gates park or the Klick Ranch.  Several hikers with packrafts floated the West and South Forks of the Sun River, and then Gibson Reservoir.  One packrafter floated Bunker Creek early on, and then the upper White while in transit to White River Pass.  In his words: “The short floats on Bunker Creek and the Upper White were both exciting and provided welcome rest to my haggard feet, but did not serve to expedite travel…The Upper White was skinny and fast with great views and a ton of wood. The second portage was a logjam maze that took me 20 min to navigate. In total there was maybe 10 portages, but none as shitty as that big jam. I am very pleased to have explored these sections and gain experience in skinnier water with high wood stress, but I can’t see myself doing them again.”  Nine years of the Open have shown that the major rivers, when they align even vaguely with the overall direction of travel, can vastly increase overall speed.  The second class of major creeks in the Bob are generally floatable in late May, but also generally have enough obstacles (wood, rapids) that they are rarely objectively faster than the pure foot alternative.

That said, relatively few hikers prioritized speed this year (though the speediest clocked close to 100 miles in 40 hours total time), with most taking at least one high alpine traverse for aesthetic and exploratory reasons.  Sections of the greater Pagoda ridge were most common, along with Larch Hill and the Chinese Wall, while a few folks did long ridge walks going east from the Swan Crest.  Hikers exited both Rock and Moose Creeks to the North Fork of the Sun, as well as going over White River Pass.  Cornice collapses and wet slide avoidance were consistent navigational issues up high, with many hikers either camping such that they crested passes early in the morning, or pushing on into the dark and climbing through the alpine in the middle of the night.    Warm temps made this far from a failsafe approach; as one hiker wrote: “It was 5:30 a.m. at 6,000 feet and I was in a t-shirt sweating.”  Leaving the summer trails proved essential for safe route finding.

Traditionally big fords such as Moose Creek and the West Fork of the Sun went without a hitch, due to either the window of low water or the overall experience of the most of the hikers, or perhaps both.  Though several novice teams completed the traverse, those folks were without exception long time aspirants and well prepared.  Back in early April the pandemic made the public running of an event so seemingly risky something to question, but conservative choices seemed to have been the default this year, a recognition of both the hazardous conditions on the ground and the extraordinary conditions writ large.  As one hiker wrote: “Despite many varied and unprecedented complaints with 2020 thus far, the Open felt like an unmitigated success and continues to serve as a substantial anchor for my year.  This trip was highlighted by the expected good company, a Wall ramble charged by a slightly risky line necessary to maintain full view of dramatic snowfalls, and the ever-lovely North Fork of the Sun bursting into spring.”

I did not participate in the Open this year, opting instead for a trip on totally new ground for me; the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.  This explains the less specific and personal nature of this report, as the Open is less mine than ever.  Recognizing both the continued draw of the Bob, and of the many great possibilities elsewhere in the American West, 2021 will see two Bob Opens: the traditional late May Bob Marshall traverse will continue to celebrate the place I am other have come to love so well, and an early May traverse of the Frank/Selway complex will provide a longer, less known, and potentially more technical option for those so inclined.

Expect course announcements in early 2021.

Islands of moisture revisited

“…under duress the most important characteristic of your clothing system is not the ability to keep external moisture off you, but the ability to allow internal moisture to escape efficiently without chilling you excessively.”

Me

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In the ~five years since I wrote the above post, and since Sitka popularized the concept of the rewarming drill.  In that time a number of people have produced trials, and a few significant advances in gear have become widespread.  It is worth taking a look at both.

Rokslide recently published a static rewarming drill trial; jump in a lake, get in a sleeping bag, use hot drinks and hot water bottles to see how your insulation manages moisture.  A useful exercise for the unfortunate but inevitable scenario of having to go to bed damp or wet with no other way to dry out.  This can happen in the alpine, or just because of rainy weather without respite.  The lessons from the Rokslide article are mostly old hat: the lightest possible layers (especially against the skin) with the least possible spandex are best.  Anything beyond mid single digits spandex should be categorically out for backcountry stuff in damp climates, as should merino wool.  Synthetic bags and insulating garments provide a significantly larger margin for error, though in the case of the former weight goes up enough that you can almost buy a bigger margin with a premium down bag.  It’s also worth highlighting that women, especially those who require more support than a basic shelf bra/tank provides wear a significant handicap when it comes to eliminating moisture islands from undergarments.

There are also a few versions of the various rewarming drills, static and active, that might be worth watching if you really care to geek out on specifics.  Subtle but significant lessons here are just how much redundant fabric layers (e.g. pockets) can trap moisture, along with how one poorly conceived layer in the system (most often an inartfully selected mid layer, such as a second heavy baselayer) can slow the whole system down.  This performance during a for-video trial is one thing.  The cost lagging dry time can exact on metabolism and morale on day 3 of 5 or 7 quite another.

The most important development in this area, in the last five years, has been in active insulation (Alpha Direct, left; Full Range, right).  The virtues over fleece are in no small part the much lighter fabric (not necessarily garment) weight relative, which vastly increases dry time when internal heat is driving the process.  The advances in fabrics used for shells here also makes a big difference, as they both preserve internal warmth (and thus, temperature gradient) without too far inhibiting moisture transport.  Being able to get wet, be it by falling in a river or sweating too much on a skin track, throw on an active insulation jacket, and then work yourself dry without too much attention to detail has been a game changer.

Lately I’ve been revisiting classic pieces, like the Rab Windveil and Patagonia Capilene 4, that firmly prioritize not only dry time not very low moisture accumulation even under poor circumstances.  And I’ve been impressed, all over, with how well you can do with a system whose ceiling for error is small.  Heavier baselayers, esepcially wool, can in theory do more and better than Polartec HE, just as a softshell windshirt can breath better than the Windveil and peers.  But it is darn nice to just not have to faff much, to leave the second layer on for that extra 20 minutes up the hill with minimal penalty.  If there is any alteration I’d make to these thoughts, it would be that.

Evolution of the Tamarisk: features

Or; as few things as possible.

Backpack features don’t make up the majority of a packs weight, but they do make up the overwhelming majority of the weight which is easily negotiable.  There is only so much weight to be shed with material (before you sacrifice durability), only so much with suspension or frame elements (before the pack carries poorly), and for a technical backcountry pack good side pockets (and belt pockets) are mandatory.  So the design task left is to make it possible to carry all the technical goods, along with the unexpected and unexpectable, with the least material possible. 

This includes snow gear like skis, crampons and ice axe(s), and a shovel, along with water gear (PFD), and perhaps something odd like firewood or even a bike.

I’ve settled on an extension of the reinforcing layer of bottom fabric, with horizontal daisy chains 15 inches apart.  Each daisy has a second layer of fabric inside.   Not only does each bartack thus have serious resistance to the ends pulling through the fabric, but the load is transferred to the whole fabric panel, and thus 16+ inches of seam.  The sleeve is not primarily intended as a pocket, being non-dimensioned, but is open at the top and thus not a bad place to stash pesky things like paddle blades, but the first intention is to both spread the load and provide abrasion resistance. 

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Pictured above is the full deal, for a trip which involved a 12 mile hike to even reach the skiing, and ended with steep skiing (on terrible crust) at 8500 feet.  A shorty 45cm ice axe mounted, old school, to a cord loop on the lower daisy.  The shovel shaft went inside the sleeve pocket.  Skis mounted diagonal, with ski straps, and crampons went under the top cinch strap, on top of three days of gear. 

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The final piece is the top strap, which is bartacked into the middle of the top daisy chain on one end, and with the buckle directly under the upper stay pocket on the other.  When the pack is on the empty side the angle of the strap, combined with the taper of the bag, provides compression.  When the pack is full the strap pulls the load towards the suspension, transferring the load and enhancing stability. 

And that, is it. 

 

The Bob bag

Lets get this out of the way: I won’t make you one of these.  Working with these fabrics and with stretchy Climashield is not something I find fun.  This design is straightforward and quick to make, so create your own ugly.

Ever since my first Wilderness Classic nearly a decade ago I’ve been turning this idea over; what is the lightest and fastest way to get a bit of sleep in the midst of a fast wilderness trip?  Curling up around a fire would seem to be the easiest answer, and has the advantage of self-selecting for only the most vitally needed sleep (read; you get cold and wake up).  The problems are the questionable quality of rest, and the potentially considerable time put into making a fire under unideal conditions.  Adding a tarp or bivy sort of addresses the second issue, but not the first.  In the last decade truly UL sleep items have become common enough that most peoples answer to this question has been to just bring a standard backpacking kit, or at least a light bag, tarp, and minimalist pad.  These systems can be in the 2 pound range, but usually come in between 3 and 4 all told (stakes, etc).  Not much weight, but not a tiny amount either.

The functional intermediary between these has long seemed to be a light synthetic bag come insulated bivy sack.  Enough insulation to maintain ~4 hours of warmth around freezing, and a waterproof/breathable shell with minimal seams, that sort of thing that would allow you to flop under a half ideal spruce and stay protected enough in the just the bag.  Synthetic insulation, as sub 10 oz down fills tend to be overly sensitive to moisture accumulation.  This winter a friend bugged me enough that I finally overcome my reluctance and made two such bags.  In the next few months we’ll truly find out how they perform in the field. 

I used 10D WPB for the shell, .66 oz/yard taffeta for the liner, and 3.6 oz (120 grams/meter) Apex.  The former is the obvious choice, being essentially alone at that weight.  The taffeta has a nice feel and is calendered, with synthetic insulation I reckoned that eeking out every little bit of warmth with low CFM fabrics all around was a good call, with no functional downside.  I went with safety orange for use in signalling aircraft.  I certainly could have used lighter insulation, but past experienced suggested 120 g/m was the lightest that would still be useable in all but the most specialized situations.  I made the neck cinch out of 30D ripstop, as anything lighter doesn’t let the cord run so smoothly, and in time abrades along the opening.

Using the (raw cut) dimensions in the above photo, finished weight was just over 16 ounces.  The fit is narrow, on purpose, but long enough to mostly go over the head of someone a 6 feet tall.

The main design challenge was avoiding any exposed seams in the top of the shell, as I really didn’t want to get into sealing anything.  To fix the top of the insulation to the bag without doing this, I stitched the liner, shell, and cinch tunnel together (left photo) and then folded the shell out of the way, slid the insulation in, and sewed through the interior seam, insulation, and liner fabric (right photo).  Apex is stretchy enough that you can be imprecise here with no problem.

After this, stitch around the side and bottom edges, then put the footbox together.

The footbox is a point down triangle.  The photo show it inside out (left) and then right side out (right) in both cases with the top of the bag facing up.  What you can’t see well is that the top of the footbox is longest, making the two seams run backwards, with the footbox overhanging them.  My expectation is that anything short of serious, sustained rain will not wet this out.

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The ~1 pound weight it what I wanted out of this.  It approaches down bags of comparable warmth, and should exceed them in damp conditions over a few days.  Packed size is another matter.  Squeezing air out of the bag is not a simple thing, and without tons of compression it wants to stay as a roughly basketball-sized lump.  It will go smaller, but in the game of ounces the pack space this demands is less than ideal.

Field report to follow this summer.

The Open 2020

I updated the information for the 2020 Bob Open just now.  Removing the mass start option seemed to be the most responsible solution for the uncertainty surrounding the virus.  This means that I encourage everyone for whom the circumstances in two months time make it safe to do the walk, be it the circumstances of ones family, community, or the extent one must travel.  Or in 6 weeks, if such a thing suits them better.  There is a robust snowpack up high, and it could well be a good year for an early May ski traverse.  I also emphatically encourage anyone for whom this trek seems a stretch to stay home this year.  All reasonable guesses point to the public systems in Montana being busy two months hence, making 2020 a poor year for the Open’s first rescue.

There has been much written in the past few weeks about how acceptable it may or may not be to go out and adventure, while Coronavirus is waiting to run through society.  In the last 9 days, since school and then much public business, was largely shut down in central Montana I’ve been so preoccupied with waiting, adapting, and then waiting again that a matter so far distant as the Open escaped me until today.  I’ve yet to form my own opinion, but have from the beginning been struck both by how socially entangled backcountry pursuits seemingly are, as well as how remote they are from the evident pillars of contemporary life.

The mass start has always made for great fun, and as the survey demonstrated Memorial Day is popular both for the holiday and for the conditions.  My fear since the beginning has always been that the Open would be the victim of its own success.  The fulfillment it has given me, through the learning and achievement of others, has been extreme, but further disbanding what little organization exists has always been the sustainable future.  This year will tell all us fans of the Open what that might look like.