2016 Bob Open gearlist

No video this year. The array of stuff is so familiar that writing it out seems redundant, but folks have consistently expressed value in the video versions, and I like them for future reference.
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We had a mild winter and early spring in northwest Montana, but the last week has brought record precip, which fell as rain in the lower and middle elevations and snow in the highest.  With temps warming a bit the next two days it shouldn’t be a very snowy traverse, but it will be a wet one.  Forecast is for rain, maybe a touch of snow Saturday and Sunday, overcast skies, highs in the 50s, and lower in the 30s.  Mild temps, but if conditions twist just a bit to the harsh side almost ideal hypothermia weather.  The only mild touch is that in the southern half of the Bob early melt has made the rivers lower than usual, even with a fair bit of rain.

Basics

  • Seek Outside Divide 4500 with homemade lid/packraft bow bag
  • Feathered Friends Vireo Nano w/ 3 ounces of overfill in the upper section
  • Thermarest Prolite XS
  • Homemade spinnnaker tarp and Sea to Summit Nano bugnet
  • Homemade trekking poles

Clothing

  • Patagonia Rock Craft pants, Sitka Core LS hoody, BD Alpine Start Hoody, First Lite Dobson boxers
  • Buff, Coal beanie, Arcteryx visor, Rab Novak hoody
  • Sierra Designs Elite Cagoule, BD Liquid Point pants w/ neoprene waistband
  • NRS Hydroskin gloves and socks
  • LaSportiva Bushido, Montbell gaiters
  • Two pair thin go socks, one pair thick sleep socks.

Rafting

  • Alpacka 2015 Yukon Yak w/ thigh straps, cargo fly, WW deck
  • Werner Shuna
  • Inflatable snorkel vest
  • 1 cargo fly drybag, inflation bag

The rest

  • MSR Windboiler
  • Food, bear hang rope, food drybag
  • 2x Voile straps
  • Repair and first aid kit, Petzl Tikka XP, Fenix E11
  • Cairn Bob south map, compass
  • Osprey Grab Bag
  • GoPro w/ spare batts and mounts, Ricoh GR, camera drybag
  • Nalgene bottle with Capcap

This will be my sixth consecutive Memorial Day trip across the Bob.  It will be the first such trip were I’ll be carrying a pack I did not make myself.  In the closet I have a pack I built for this weekend, which is a hair lighter and made of a spiffy prototype fabric, but the Divide is just better.  Better built, and better designed.  I can’t improve on the Seek Outside suspension so until I think of a new idea I’m done trying.  The lid isn’t needed for space, but is handy for organization both on the trail and on the water.

My clothing arsenal is geared for everything being wet, at some point.  Everything is well tested and was an easy choice.  Having three hats and hoods on all four upper body garments is not overkill for this sort of trip.

I’m really looking forward to enjoying the enhanced performance and dryness of the 2015 Yak.  Those characteristics, along with unusually low water, is why I’m leaving the foam PFD at home.

The Windboiler is heavy, but after becoming used to its low-drama speed over the past six months I just can’t leave it at home.  During the Bob I’ve always run out of feet and willpower before I run out of daylight, so taking hot food and foot-resting breaks is an efficient strategy.  I am planning on hiking later than normal this year, hence the double lighting for enhanced bear warning.  And yes, there should be a video next week!

As usual, fire away with questions.

 

 

The objectivity of vertical gain

Objective data for evaluating hiking and backpacking performance is a useful thing to have.  Day to day and year to year your perception of speed and exertion can change, often significantly, but fast is fast and when heading towards a tough trip confirmation of progress can help formulate realistic expectations.

When hiking there are two ways to go fast, vertically and horizontally.  Significantly, they need to be trained independently.  I’ve found that when running is taken out of picture, the point of diminishing returns comes quickly with respect to horizontal speed.  On anything other than exceptionally smooth terrain cultivating speeds beyond 3.8 miles per hour is for me a waste of energy.  Working to accelerate cadence in rougher terrain is productive, but for rough trail and especially off trail hiking I put most of my time into going up faster.

I’ve owned a Suunto Observer watch for almost a decade, and found its elevation logging feature invaluable.  The log will give cumulative gain and loss over a given period of time, as well as average rate of climb and descent.  It also gives in-the-moment rate of vertical gain, which resets as an average every 10 seconds or so.  Aside from early (pre-blog!) efforts like my first Grand Canyon double crossing (Dec 2005) or first White Rim in a Day (March 2005) I’ve worn the Suunto for every major endurance outing of my adult life.  I don’t write anything down, but I have an extensive mental log of vertical gain rates, for hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, and skiing, and can draw upon them when I want to know where I am at a given moment, physically.  GPS allows one to do this, as does the low-tech option of using a chronograph and consulting a topo map and calculator after the fact.  I recommend using this method, at least occasionally, to everyone.

For me, things start getting interesting at 10 vertical meters/minute (m/min), which is a little less than 33 feet a minute, or a hair under 2000 vertical feet an hour.  On trails this is a minimal acceptable speed for being in shape, sorta.  It’s a rate of gain I like to exceed over extended periods of time, and on scrambling and off trail routes.

18 m/min equates to 3600 feet an hour, and as of today is the fastest rate of climb I’ve ever been able to sustain over an extended period of time.  I hit it for 20+ minutes at a stretch during the final climb of the 2011 Wilderness Classic, for instance, which was a true pinch-me moment.  This is the benchmark I strive to achieve, insofar as genuinely being in shape.

22 m/min is 4300 feet an hour, and is my ceiling thus far.  I’ve never seen the watch go higher for more than 30 seconds at a time.

This summer I’d like to change these last two statistics.  Folks who win local skimo races, for example, can sustain close to 20 m/min for close to an hour.  According to this analysis top skimo and mountain runners average 23-24 m/min for a 30-35 minute race, which with a personal point of reference is amazing to contemplate.  The internet tells us that the vertical kilo world record, set over 1.9 horizontal kilometers, is 29 minutes 42 seconds (Urban Zemmer, 2014), a mind-bending average of nearly 34 m/min.  I don’t have the genetics for that level, but 20 m/min for an hour ought to be doable; a little under 4000 vertical feet in an hour.

Making this happen will be simple and difficult; threshold work, and loosing weight.  Recent research has confirmed the remarkable extent to which our metabolism adapts to stress, and therefore how ineffective increased exercise is as a method of loosing weight.  Sadly, for most of us adding something, especially something fun, is more palatable than taking things away.  I’ve always been fond of beer, ice cream, pizza, and most especially eating just a bit more than I need to.  Getting older and having Little Bear, along with the closing schedule that has involved, has made it abundantly clear that stopping the adipose creep towards middle age will demand significant and permanent diet changes.  I gave up sugar for all of Jan and Feb, which remarkably did nothing to blunt the addictive response to it come March.

I was able to touch 18 and 19 m/min this morning, without undue strain.  I’m hoping to keep my current fitness and weight as a basement, never straying to far, and most of the time in the better direction.

BD Alpine Start hoody: the final word

Black Diamond’s Alpine Start hoody hasn’t changed much in the two years it’s been on the market (and since I first wrote about it). The material, a light and tough softshell with excellent breathability and darn good weatherproofing, is unchanged and remains the heart of what is (still) the most versatile and all-around best outdoor garment I’ve ever worn.  The features have changed just a bit, with the hood having gotten better for 2016, and some of the fitment oddities (stiff front zip, odd neck cut) having remained the same.  It’s still a brilliant piece, but it is also, frustratingly, still short of perfection.

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The number of occasions in the past 26 months when I haven’t had the Alpine Start along are very few, and the only reason I can recall them so well if that almost without exception I regretted not bringing it.  I find it windproof enough for fairly cold and windy ski touring, breathable enough for summer hiking, and airy yet bugproof enough to serve as an anti-sandfly layer while fishing.  My original grey one has been canyoneering and bushwacking a bunch, and has yet to get it’s first hole.  For fabric which is 88 grams per meter that is nothing short of remarkable, and I’d suggest that anyone who suggests otherwise is operating in the realm of theory rather than reality.

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My gripes with version one concerned the hood, which had a floppy brim and cinch cords which didn’t do a good job of preserving peripheral vision, and a neck which felt narrow and set back.  This last thing didn’t bother me as much as a lot of folks, but was noticeable.  Smaller issues were the stiff #5 main zipper, and a torso which was a little shorter than ideal.  As can be seen by comparing this photo with the very first, the hood is the major object of revision.  Instead of perimeter cords which cinch near the jaw, and no rear cord whatsoever, the newer (for me, black) version has perimeter cords which are routed back to a single cordlock in the rear of the hood.  Tightening that cord cinches around the side of the face, and under the ears.  This system keep the hood tight to the head no matter how many hats you might be wearing, and work whether the coat is zipped all the way up or not, but it also pulls the hood back away from your cheeks when tightened (below I’m pointing to where the cord travels back from the edge of the hood to the cordlock).  It’s an improvement, though not ideal.  I’d prefer the extra weight of a true three-point adjustable hood, but can see why BD went a different direction.

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Unfortunately the weird neck fit still exists.  I did an experiment with my new, black Alpine Start, and used some material from the hood of my old one to add a dart to the back of the neck.  This makes a noticeable improvement, and confirms my suspicion that BD just needs to add a bit more material to solve this issue definitively.  Doing this is not a beginner project, but does help with fit.

Other objections come down to durability (the #5 zip has been flawless and smooth, so I can live with the stiffness), and preference.  The Alpine Start fits like a shirt, with sleeves and a torso which are trim and just long enough to cover baselayers, when you wear your “normal” size.  For me this is medium.  Last fall I bought a large, thinking that it’d be nice to have a more parka-like Alpine Start.  Going up a size solved the neck issue, but also made the whole thing baggy and very much not to my liking.  So I sold the green large, and bought the current black medium, which aside from larger zipper pulls and the aforementioned neck dart I intend to leave unmodified.

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Lastly, plenty of folks were curious how long the (very effective, when new) Nanosphere DWR would last.  Just this afternoon I retested my original shirt, and can say that Nanosphere does indeed wear out.  When I reviewed the original after a few months of use four ounces of water hardly leaked through the fabric during the cup test, even after two hours.  After 2+ years of use all four ounces leaked through in just over five minutes, while my new coat next to it held all the water in suspension for the full two hours, save a few drops.

So nothing lasts forever, though I still count the Alpine Start as money well spent, and would not be without one, for just about anything outside.

Nine years of fear

I learned a while ago, and have re-learned many times since, that fear before a trip rarely has much to do with conditions or hazard, and has everything to do with the concern that you’ll soon have to do something difficult.  To perform close to the known ends of your abilities.  The sooner that fear grows large, and the further out from said trip it starts to disturb your sleep, the further your perception of your limits is about to be pushed.  Experience suggests that sleep disturbance a week or more in advance strongly correlates with a good trip, one you’ll remember vividly for many years.  Hazard in the backcountry is rarely much about direct threats to ones life, and is almost always about talking yourself down from what you’re most likely capable of.  Ignore 98% of the in-print chatter about safety being the same as fire starters and extra layers, safety is being content with where your footsteps went, years after the fact.

R0002062Relaxed during the last night of the 2015 Bob Open.  It was a long journey to get so I could be that content in that time and place.

My recent retrospective showed me that experience, and complacency, had taken the edge off things in the last couple years.  It was easy to think of prominent instances of fear between 2007 and 2012, and less easy for the last three years, especially 2015.  That can’t last much longer, and to that end I’ve been loosing sleep for the last couple nights, trying to decide how much of the desire to trim the route I’ll take through the Bob Marshall next week has to do with fear, and how much has to do with legitimate concerns over horrid snow conditions.  Such a debate, over the origin and reason for fear, is always a healthy one.

That being said, the following are prominent sources of fear from the past decade, along with links to the original accounts, and outlines of the lessons which have persisted through to today.

2007: Moab Rim Ride

The Rim Ride was a gnarly, technical, ~90 mile “race” during the golden era of self-supported mountain bike racing.  We had moved to Arizona, the mecca of mountain biking, the year before, and I got sucked into the endurance scene via the MTBR forums.  I had done plenty of long dirt rides before this, but 3/4 of the original Rim Ride route was singletrack, and most of the 12,000 feet of climbing were slow and techy.  It was a huge step up from anything I’d done before, and that I could not only finish such a thing, but do so faster than a bunch of people who were far stronger riders, just by being deliberate and not making mistakes (in either route finding, nutrition, or pacing).  That perspective, to ride or hike smart with an eye towards the long game, is a piece of confidence I’ve carried around prominently ever since.

2008: Kaibab Monstercross

In the 15 months between the Rim Ride and the second running of the Monstercross I did a lot of 100+ mile dirt rides.  That distance, on technical terrain and with five digit vertical gains, quickly became as close to routine as that sort ever can.  What I hadn’t mastered was the mental aspect; my inclination to push myself consistently came up short relative to my ambition and logistical abilities.  Just for example, I (mentally) limped through the 2007 Kokopelli Trail Race, outright bailed from the 2007 Kaibab, and came up short in the 2008 KTR due to dehydration and not being acclimated to climbing on a geared bike.  For the ’08 Kaibab I put everything together, in what is still one of my top-five all-time athletic performances.  Having accomplishments like that in the bag empowers like little else.

2009: Le Parcour de Wild

Hiking across the Bob Marshall during a brutal cold spell in October of 2009 is a big leap from mountain biking in Arizona in June, 16 months prior.  I signed up for this with a rather imprecise understanding of what it would entail, and powered through based on inertia, grit, and Kevin Sawchuk’s excellent attitude.  Being able to mostly hang with a 20-time Western States finisher and former JMT record holder was another empowering experience, and set up very well just about everything I’ll mention below.  Even more empowering was having my feet get trashed and not having that do more than make the second half of the trip a lot more painful.

2010: May in the Thorofare

Trying to cross Yellowstone, solo, in May was a big mental jump and a major step towards applying everything I’d learned in the three years previous to a wilderness context.  I was scared in the days before I set off, the commitment highlighted by M driving all the way back to Missoula immediately after she dropped me off.  Alone the first night, with the grizzly tracks and pouring rain, the mystery ahead was massive, and little more than the huge inconvenience bailing would have entailed kept me pushing on the next morning.  Thankfully the bulk of the ambiguity was dispensed with the next day, in what is still the hardest single day of backcountry travel I’ve done.  I was too tired that night for much introspection, and when I woke up the next day all evidence suggested that the worst stuff was over, provided that the two creek crossings didn’t get me.  They didn’t, and the certainty that I could get through the mental hurdles such a trip entailed, alone, set the bar high for all future endeavors.  My excuses got a lot shorter thereafter.

2011: The proto Bob Open

That first May trip in the Big Wilderness of the northern rockies was so much fun I just had to do it again (and every year since), and Monture Creek to Holland Lake in the Bob was the most logical option.  It worked, surprisingly to plan, though the navigational and physical challenges during the over-snow sections were considerable.  The Yellowstone trip suggested that late spring trips in the big Wilderness was possible, this confirmed it, and led to the Bob Open as we know it today.

2012: The second Wilderness Classic

There was a lot of fear before and during my first Wilderness Classic, in 2011, but the Wrangells course was a big step up in difficulty and commitment, and was the first time I realized the fast progression I’d been on the previous three years might have passed some important details by.  I had all the pieces necessary to complete this course, but wasn’t physically or mentally ready to put them together, hence the flight out and business left unfinished.  Today I am ready for that trip, but I needed the rest of 2012 and much of 2013 and 2014 to consolidate my skills off trail and further hone my mental game.  If you never fail you’re not trying well enough, and while I do regret not seeing the alpine first hand on this trip, I don’t regret going.

2013: Spotted Bear elk hunt

As mentioned 2013 was on its face a slower, more modest year than those previous.  In fact, I did more backpacking and skiing than any year before or since, a record which will probably stand for quite a while.  All of these trips were great, but most stand out as fun/learning as opposed to truly limit-pushing.  Instead, my first serious backcountry hunting trip stands out as the most intimidating of the year.  I was initiated into the complex, uncontrollable variables that are an essential part of a successful hunt.  We did some things right, namely finding a spot used by elk and deer, and some things wrong, namely camping too close to the spring and not going higher into the meadows to investigate bedding areas.  Those days back in the steep tributaries of the Spotted Bear caused a paradigm shift and showed me just how different hunting actually was, compared to all the stuff I’d been doing before.

2014: The Grand Eight loop

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One of life’s greatest pleasures is seeing spectacular places for the first time, and just about the only way to better such an experience is to do it via an elegant, original route which marries plenty of unknowns with minimal logistical snags.  Brendan and I absolutely nailed this one, with Todd Martin’s guide providing just enough beta so that we knew things would be possible, if not always exactly how.  Not bring any written descriptions or detailed maps along enhanced this, and the whole process provided a road map for how I want future trips to big areas unknown to happen.  But I don’t ever expect to top this route in overall quality.

2015: Tahr and Chamois in New Zealand

See above, in all detail, but applied to hunting, whose success is more difficult to achieve.  To this day I’m as proud of how our research and planning worked out as I was nervous we’d be skunked right before.  This was a big confidence boost for hunting generally, and a reminder that much is possible with the right information.  It also continues to be a good reminder to celebrate success and good weather when you get them, because no matter what they do not hang around for long.

Today, much unknown revolves around how to manage the logistics and fear of taking our budding family out into the woods.  How many miles, and how far afield, is enough to satisfy ambition, but not so much that it eliminates fun (and wiggle time)?  Evaluating the limits of a thing which cannot yet talk is a while new adventure.  And how are we to carry him, and all that gear.  We’ll be continuing the investigation soon.

The most important backcountry skill

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The above is a screen grab from the latest episode of Meat Eater.  Whats significant here is not the episode itself, which is an excellent one, but what Steve Rinella is doing here.  A few minutes prior he shot a large-antlered, mature mule deer, fulfilling a decades long quest with a perfectly placed 392 yard shot.  After watching to make sure the deer is dead, he packs up and sheds layers for the hike over to the animal, and after taking three steps away from his shooting spot, turns back to examine where he had been, making sure nothing has been left behind.

There is no more important habit to practice, every time, in the woods.

I’ve heard of people leaving behind the usual stuff, like knives, headlamps and water bottles, more times than I can recall.  And for obvious reasons this can be a major bummer, especially as with the exception of water containers and maybe a tiny secondary light you probably don’t have spares.  I’ve also heard of rain jackets, maps, cameras, and even large percentages of remaining food left behind on accident while out backpacking.  This could be an inconvenience, or depending on circumstance could be a good deal more serious.  So in addition to always buying small, frequently used items in bright colors, always look back at the spot you used for a lunch, map, photo, or glassing break.  Make no exceptions, not for 2 hour dayhikes or ten day traverses, and you’ll be well on your way to avoiding problems before they happen.   As Steve shows, even the most exciting moment does not excuse you.

The closest I’ve come

This post the other week got me thinking about the fact I’ve never called for or thought about calling for a rescue, on what occasions I’ve been closest to doing so, and what things prevented me from doing so.  The following is a fairly hasty and not especially hierarchical overview of the incidences which came to mind.

On two occasions have I forced by conditions/ chosen to bivouac out without prior planning, and with marginal equipment.  The first was in the summer of 2009 during a high altitude mountain bike “race” in Utah, where poor route choices and lack of a map or GPS track saw me wasting hours on an absurd buskwack that in turn saw me top out the very end of a big plateau right in time to get soaked by a massive thunderstorm that blew in with twilight.  Bad decisions were, as mentioned, going out with minimal navigational tools, making silly choices (read: not following Dave Harris’ obvious tracks), and being a bit underguned with clothes.  I had cycling shorts and jersey, arm and knee warmers, a Houdini, and probably a light hat and gloves.  Good decisions were staying back in the trees to maximize shelter as the storm rolled in, and having a space blanket and fire starters in my pack.  Without fire, which was hard to start, that night would have been dangerous.  With it, I was surprisingly only a bit uncomfortable.

I didn’t call for a rescue on that occasion because I didn’t need one, an assessment made easier by the fact that it was July, not that cold (even at 10000 feet in the rain), and I had just enough of the right kind of gear.  Had I wanted/ needed one it would have been difficult to arrange in a timely fashion.  I had a phone and minimal service, probably enough for a call to 911, but I did not have a precise grasp of my location.  Fire starters and enough peace of mind to suffer through the night made the difference here.

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My second forced bivvy was two years earlier, on a technical canyon descent in Zion.  M, Phillip and I got a lateish start to a route with a complex beginning and end, and made that late start a bit worse by initially dropping to the wrong drainage.  We made it to and then down the big wall rap sequence into the Narrows in daylight, but the long walk down the Narrows was all in the dark.  Mentally and physically knackered by the time we got to the road at ~2300, and with the shuttle no longer operating and our cars eight miles of pavement away, we slept in the relative warmth of the handicapped bathroom.

Our mistakes consisted almost entirely in not being at the trailhead earlier, and taking this still-obscure canyon with substantial technical challenges a bit lightly.  Even though we took plenty of time making sure we had the right drainage, and in arranging a good route down the continuous 700 feet of rappelling at the end of the slot, I’d do the same again.  Such things just don’t allow mistakes of any kind easily.  Otherwise we were equipped to sleep out, and had we not been the cars were only a straightforward, if footsore, 2.5 hour walk away.  As I mentioned at the time, the space blanket was very nice, if small for three, and that use of it was probably why I had one two years later, when I needed it far more.  No real probability of a rescue here, and I don’t think we could have called one had we wanted, back in the days before Spots.  Indeed, and think M and I only had one cell phone between us back then.  Phillip’s girlfriend (now wife) Ariel knew our plan and would have called had we not checked in by noon the next day.

On a few other occasions I’ve been close to spending an unplanned night away from either car or camp, one of which I detailed here.  The common threads are that route finding down cliffs in the dark is hard, but that patience, a decent light source, and warm clothing will eventually sort those issues out.

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More recently, I can’t think about this trip without scratching my head at how close things could have been on day two.  We had only been in the Flathead a few months, and in early November there was plenty of snow, plenty of precipitation in the forecast, and not much daylight.  I determined that M would drop me in Two Medicine Saturday morning, and pick me up at Lake McDonald Lodge Sunday evening.  Right around 60 trail miles separate the two, and back then I had hiked exactly zero of them.

Day one went well, with some hairy drift busting up to Triple Divide Pass, and hiking well into the dark to camp on the shores of St Mary Lake, where the wind played havoc with my shelter and my sleep.  Shit got real on day two, heading up to Gunsight Pass, which wasn’t hazardously snowed-in, but was totally invisible in the rain.  I found the little shelter cabin at the pass by braille, and got into my (thankfully synthetic) sleeping bag to make my last tea and warm up.  I was already wet, and already wearing all my clothes save an extra pair of socks.  Snowshoeing through the slush was draining.  Those familiar with the traverse of the Lake Ellen cirque, especially the cliffy bit up towards the little pass over to the Sperry basin, can well imagine the potential route finding pitfalls.  The trail was invisible, and only an intuitive sense of the invisible abyss down to Lincoln Lake sent me in the right direction.

I had a Spot by then, and could have holed up in my bag and tarp had I got into a dead end, but with the weather no help was coming quickly.  The only solution was to keep moving, and thankfully years had educated my intuition enough to find the way.  A more detailed topo, which I did not have, would have been good insurance.

I sure thought about rescue during the 2011 Wilderness Classic, and did call for a non-emergency bail in 2012, which as I’ve detailed elsewhere was mentally and physically the right thing to do.  My big take-away from both Classics is that having a sat phone and the infrastructure to support flying out makes bailing a whole different game, psychologically.

My lessons from considering all of the above:

  • Safety begins in the mind.  Being prepared for the adventure at hand, and for the unknown when things go wrong, makes the biggest difference by far.
  • Fire isn’t always the answer or possible, but it often is, and when you need it you don’t want to be messing around with non-nuclear options.
  • A space blanket or tarp, for use as a weather shield and vapor barrier, is very handy.  I’ve settled on a tarp as more versatile.
  • Never go anywhere without a decent headlamp with fresh batteries.  Never ever.
  • Being under-mapped isn’t always a problem, but it makes the margins a lot thinner.
  • You can get by with less insulation than most would think, but in crucial moments those extra few layers can make the different from continued forward progress and being stuck until night and/or the weather breaks.
  • Then again, with too heavy a pack you’ll probably never get there in the first place.

In the last five years I’ve either gotten a lot better at staying out of trouble, or haven’t been pushing myself as much.  Probably both.  My resolution for 2016 is to both stay safe, and have a few more epics.

 

 

The Best Snowshoe binding yet

Snowshoes have two reasons to exist: miles which cannot be skied due to terrain, circumstances, or lack of skill; and trips where the snow miles are exceeded by non-snow miles, as snowshoes should not require anything other than ideal hiking shoes.  Because this second reason accounts for the overwhelming majority of my snowshoe use, I evaluate all snowshoe attributes on those grounds.  In this respect I’m fortunate to live where I do, as while steep singletrack in thick timber is occasionally a part of a ski trip, it’s usually a fairly brief stretch.  Folks in New England, for example, might have very different demands on and ways of conceptualizing snowshoes.

Snowshoe bindings for backpacking must be free pivot, that is the binding and snowshoe must move independently with limited or no resistance.  Running snowshoes, otherwise ideal for shoulder season backpacking due to weight, usually have recoiling bindings, which in slushy conditions is a great way to soak the back of your legs from heel to pack.  They must also be immune, as far as possible, from icing, which translates as having no uncoated nylon or fabric components.  MSR snowshoe bindings, and the other companies like Northern Lites, which use a similar design, do both of these things well by using rubber straps with metal buckles, and a urethene or PVC frame.  Unfortunately these bindings fail at the third and equally important task, having a secure yet pressure-free attachment to soft trail running shoes.

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I’ve used current MSR snowshoes quite a bit with trail runners, and this combo gets the job done until conditions are cold or you have to snowshoe for more than four hours straight.  Do both at the same time and your feet will not be pleased, especially if any sidehilling or steepish terrain is involved.  The main MSR straps have to be in a constant state of tension to keep the tooth of the metal buckle from detaching, and with soft shoes and cold weather these bindings are a recipe for frostnip.

Thankfully I found a 50 dollar solution at the best used gear sale on earth a few years ago, in the form of some very old MSR Denalis.  As the photo shows, the midfoot binding is a piece of urethene with metal hooks riveted to the top, through which a urethene strap laces.  This bindings provide a secure fit that doesn’t slip or freeze, doesn’t require a tight fit, and is comfortable in soft shoes for a whole day.  Using them for the last few years has shown that my snowshoe needs are for the moment met definitely.

I’m not sure how old these Denalis are, but they’re darn old.  The oldest Wayback capture with a good picture is 2004, and by then the bindings already resembled the current versions.  Apparently I was fortunate to find these in such good condition, as I’m not aware of anything equivalent which is currently made.  If someone does, please let us know.

As for the other two snowshoe decision points: size and traction, I tend to be an all or nothing sort of person.  If you want ‘shoes for deep winter in the trees where the snow is likely to be light, you really cannot go too big.  36 inchers are not excessive in powder, even for light folks.  You can however have too much traction, as extensive crampons and steel rails add weight and tend to make that nice downhill powder slide jerky.  For spring and early summer you want the opposite; compact, agile, light, and plenty of traction.  The snowshoes shown above have enough traction for morning passes, though they’re a fair bit behind the class-leading MSR Ascent series, and are a bit on the large (specifically, wide) side.  In the end I’m content to have a fatbike and quiver of skis, but only care to have one pair of snowshoes, and these are it.