Rab Novak

For several years now I’ve been looking for an ideal fleece insulating layer, with only modest success.  This layer should be warm enough for stand-alone use in many three-season conditions, as light as possible, have minimal to no lycra in the fabric, fit over a baselayer but under a shell, and have a few pockets as well as a functional hood.  Until recently almost all men’s fleece jackets were either hoodless, or not as warm as desired.  The old Patagonia Los Lobos jacket came close to this ideal, but the hood was baggy, taking up too much space under a rain jacket and blocking peripheral vision.  I bought an XL women’s Retool hoody from Patagonia, which fit when modified and had ideal fabric, but the kangaroo pocket on this pullover was made from moisture loving mesh, and I could never make the hood fit quite right.  Then a few years ago Rab came out with the Novak hoodie, and all my problems were solved.


The Novak hides in plain sight as part of Rab’s “Escape” lifestyle line.  It’s a solid coffee shop or bouldering jacket, but this winter and spring I’ve been using it as a technical layer with great success.  The hood, fit, and features are classic Rab.  The sleeves and torso are long, the hood covers my brow and stays put with nothing more than tailoring, and the jacket has two hand pockets and one left chest pocket.  Hem drawcords, good non-absorbent mesh in the pockets, and plain finished cuffs round out the package.

The cuffs are the one aspect of the Novak’s casual intent that come up short in the backcountry.  The sleeves run from the elbow to cuff with minimal taper, making the large wrist opening a significant source of heat loss.  Thankfully the arm seam is plain finished, and the cuff seam serged with only two lines of thread, making it fairly easy to rip a few inches of the cuff seam and 5 or so inches of the arm before giving the lower sleeve quite a bit more taper when sewing it back together.  In the above photo I’ve taken almost two inches of circumference out of each cuff compared to stock, and there is still enough room and stretch for the sleeves to be rolled up above my elbows.

The Novak fabric is 270 grams/meter, 100% polyester “honeycomb” fleece Polartec has been pushing lately.  The exterior has a somewhat dense, rough texture, while the inside is as soft and a bit denser than traditional fleece.  This fabric is a bit thinner than traditional 300-weight fleece, and has a hair of wind resistance.  It dries quickly, and moves moisture fast.  The only downside, relative to the more fluffy heavy fleeces (e.g. Patagonia Synchilla) is that it’s substantially less cuddly for anyone you might have occasion to hug, especially when the Novak is new.

I’ve worn the Novak to work and the brewery plenty, where the warmth and understated look are appreciated.  I also used it as my only insulating layer on this trip, and my primary insulation for this trip.  For outings where internal and external moisture are both probable issues, fleece works better, and when the cold is serious, a thick fleece like the Novak is my preference.

Beyond that, I think there is a good case to be made for something like the Novak as an outright replacement for a light synthetic fill jacket (such as the Rab Xenon) in all circumstances.  The Xenon has an edge in weight (roughly a half pound lighter), packed size, and in having integrated windproofing.  The Novak has the edge in better moisture management, not loosing insulating value with use (or only doing so very slowly), and in being less than a third the price.  When you combine the lower price of entry with how quickly fills like Primaloft loose insulating value, I find the Xenon option hard to justify, both from an economic and aesthetic perspective.

There are now a couple of good, heavier, technical fleece hoodys on the mens market.  Most, like the current version of the Patagonia R3, are a bit lighter than the Novak, but most also approach synthetic fill jackets in price.  At $70 the Novak is a bargain, and it being so functional only enhances the deal.  My only wishes for improvement are the cuff fit, as mentioned, and for the fabric which backs the hem drawcord to not be more absorbent than the main fabric.  Otherwise, the Novak is about as good as fleece gets, given current technology.

The 2016 Bob Open: all about me

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The Bob Open started undefined years ago, at whatever time in the early to mid oughts I first heard about the Wilderness Classic.  That skillset was far enough away that I couldn’t really identify how to get from where I was to where I could go to Alaska and cross 150 miles of wilderness, quickly and safely.  That desire stayed in the back of my head for years, as I went through a bunch of different outdoor pursuits.  Then in 2009 we were living in Missoula and Ryan Jordan at BPL posted about Le Parcour de Wild, an October traverse of the Bob complex from south to north.  I teamed up with Kevin Sawchuk, and while he was the experienced and more fit side of the team, I held my own and we finished the trip in some tough conditions.  The next spring I did an aborted crossing of Yellowstone, which showed what was possible.  That summer, in 2010, I finally got a packraft, and by the following spring I was well into the final preparation for the Classic.  This trip was the prototype for the Bob Open, and proved the integrity of the concept which continues to this day.

All of which is to say that I had no excuses this year.  In my seventh year of this kind of trip, and sixth straight Memorial Day in the Bob itself nerves, mistakes, and anything other than solid execution of a solid plan would just not do.


Plenty of folks, 18 in total, showed up Saturday morning to toe the line.  I recognized plenty of potentially fast folks, and plenty of the nerves I felt acutely in past years.  Les and Micah, the Helena ultrarunners, as well as Abby, Jason, and Fred, the Teton adventure racers, took off running.  Derek took off in the opposite direction as everyone else.  Most of us settled into a solid 3.5 mph walk down the hard and scenic dirt road along the Dearborn River.  This felt pretty fast once the same speed translated to the singletrack along the Dearborn.  A lot of people had, on the forum in the weeks before the start, professed to be on a three day plan for the crossing over to Cedar Creek.  I was as well, M was set to meet me there at 7 pm Monday night, and had few illusions about just how fast that schedule would require each hour to be.  So I kept pushing as Adrian from Minnesota drifted off the front.

A coffee and ramen break was in order once I broke off to cross the Dearborn and go up Whitetail Creek, into the very headwaters of the North Fork of the Blackfoot.  Good speed is one thing, calorie debt four hours in another.  Mike, John and Thad arrived as I was putting my stove away.  They were in good spirits indeed, but I was in a mood to just walk, and didn’t wait after wading the very cold stream.

Oft-used horse trails in the Bob are generally not pleasant walking, either broad, dusty, and hard enough to abuse the legs, or narrower, muddy, and ankle-twisting.  The Whitetail Creek trail was not either of these things, and obviously used more frequently by elk and bears than anything else.  It had been rerouted in the last decade or so, to in the modern style actually have switchbacks, and in some places the critters obviously favored the old way, which caused confusion.  I went 50 meters down the wrong way to make certain, and seeing fresh elk sign followed the old trail uphill.  There was deadfall but the 15 foot corridor through the pines was obvious, and led up into a steep sage sidehill, with a dozen bull elk visible at 80 meters.  Traversing to get a better view I caused an explosion in the scrub 20 meters up to the right; an enormous Grizzly ass, running away from me, spring fat vibrating furiously.  Apparently bull elk aren’t too fussed by big bears at medium distances.  Said elk were far more bothered by me as I followed their tracks, contouring up through aspens and an open hillside, from which I could here Mike et al down below, and contour back down to meet the trail with minimal bushwacking.


Yesterdays video might not make the boating on the North Fork of the Blackfoot seem appealing, and the willow bashing and watching out for portages was constant.  I completely missed that mountain goat until I was reviewing clips days later.  But, it was fun, the sort of low-volume, moderate-speed, busy boating I love and with which I’ve become so familiar.  The five miles I floated until the river gorged up and the wood got much worse were no faster, or slower, than walking the good trail, but the value of an hour long alteration in mental and physical exertion was massive.  I took out, hiked another hour, cooked dinner high above the North and Dry Fork confluence, then kept rolling up the valley into the evening.

Initial planning had me thinking about making the foot of Danaher the first night, and hiking into the dark to do so, but I had miscounted those miles, and had very tired feet after a long and speedy day with a not-light pack, so I made camp at dark, at the first spot near water.

One bar before bed was not enough; my body couldn’t make heat well, and I woke after 45 minutes, shivering, and procrastinated a bit longer before stumbling out into the dark in socks, pulling my food bag down, eating more chocolate, and firing up the stove to make a hot water bottle.  Which ensured I fell asleep quickly and slept well, at least until a little after 5am when it got light and the birds woke up.  A further hour of rest did little to prevent packing, and the initial miles over the Dry Fork divide, from being a clumsy affair.  My mind was not sharp, and my ankles wobbly, and the miles came slower than it seemed like they should have.


Danaher Meadows is a magic place, emblematic of the Bob in its expanse and blend of the gentle with the rugged.  Whitetail and Mule Deer ran ahead of my wake, and sandhill cranes crooned roughly from the far side of the bog.  I have plenty of nostalgia for the place, having passed through in 2009 with Kevin and 2011 on the proto-Open.  The weather was immaculate, but my feet were still slow, and the morning continued to pass faster than I wished.

So I did what often happens in the face of fatigue, but solo in the backcountry never should: I made a stupid decision, and put in on the creek shortly after the end of the meadows.  Things were fast for about 500 yards, before the oxbows bends began at the level of the spruce forest, with the predictable result of massive compound logjams at each bend, usually accompanied by a slow portage through the willows on moose trails.  After over an hour of flailing I gave up and headed back to the trail, having confirmed at last that the conventional wisdom concerning Danaher was correct.  I was hastily rerigging the boat, at the usual putin, when some trees cracked and Tyler walked up.  He and Seth had walked over Straight and Elbow passes the day before, and camped on the far side of the Observation that night.  That morning they had followed the tracks of the Teton crew, benefiting from the nights hard freeze.  It seemed obvious to me that if his mindset held he’d finish, and I felt bad about being cranky and anti-social.  We went our separate ways, he on trail, me at last rafting a stretch I knew to be efficient.

Lower Danaher isn’t short, or short on deadfall to avoid and occasionally portage, but is beautiful, quick, and highly entertaining.  I certainly had less water than five years ago, and barely more than July two years ago, but that was mostly fine.  It would take longer to float the 30 miles down to Little Salmon Creek than I had anticipated, but now I was content with that.

Never during the Open have I run into so many people in the heart of the woods.  First Tyler, then the Teton trio on the nice bench before the White River, and not long before dark Derek, responding to my “hey bear” call.  The Teton folks, running three to a Gnu, had come to grief in the same rapid which got Spencer (and almost got me) on that July trip.  I convinced the stretch down to Little Salmon was acceptably mellow, and floated most of the way with them, before running a rapid they portaged and taking out further down river.  They had put in a 48 mile day on Saturday, and if they wanted to catch me that evening could plainly do so.


Derek’s “road warrior” route had given him a similarly huge first day, but mentally he looked a little done in that night, having missed the navigation a bit on White River Pass, and facing if anything a more complex task up Lion Creek.  My head was tired, and I saw no value in pushing on beyond dark, and told him so.  So I found the first mossy spot off the trail clear of brush, pitched my tarp, and built a little fire right on the trail to dry out and ensure good sleep.  Which worked, though the thunder woke me up in the middle of the night, along with Derek’s oaths as he re-rigged his tarp to be above rather than below him.

In theory we were not quite 30 miles from the end; 2 or so miles to the Palisade Lake Trail, a little over 5 miles to the pass, 10 miles to the trailhead, 3 or 4 down the road to the Swan River, and 8 miles of river to the Cedar Creek bridge.  Waking up I had the sense that these would not be fast miles.  We were on the trail a bit before six, with the weather looking pretty good, and put a few miles down before shit got real on the Palisade Creek trail.  If a path in the Bob is both below the alpine and “not recommended for stock” you can assume this means both skinny and muddy as well as with plenty of deadfall.  We put forth good effort, but the miles did not pass quickly.  We hit solid snow a few hundred vertical feet below the lake, and contoured up towards the pass on decently supportive crust, following the same pair of tracks we’d seen traces of all day.  Good hiking, but still the miles did not come quickly.  At last we made the pass, and even on the way down the miles did not come quickly.


The first rule for going fast in the Bob Open is to not do anything silly.  The second rule is that when you do something silly anyway, try to slow down and not make it worse.  I made two poor decisions in about an hour, and thankfully neither went too far wrong.  From the pass a goat trail crossed the talus into some ledges, with the summer trail visible 500 feet below.  A swath of steep snow cut through some trees to our left.  Rather than crossing the talus to some skiable scree and going down the obvious way we detoured to the snow, which as it was north facing was hard and between 35 and 40 degrees.  I quickly found out that Derek is both not a terribly experienced snow climber and a bit afraid of heights, as his descent involved a bit of swearing.  But we made the trail fine and were shortly headed downhill efficiently, following grizzly shortcuts from snowy switchback to snowy switchback.

The second poor decision was when we crossed Lion Creek and ended up in a massive, pounded out outfitter camp with a faint leading downstream.  After a few hundred meters of vague going it seemed obvious to me that such a well used camp could not be logically connected to such a small trail.  I assumed, incorrectly, that the well used path we saw going uphill from the camp led to the main path, and we killed 20 minutes up the hill in the snow and alders trying to find it.  As it turned out the left branch before the creek crossing, which I did not take, went to the main trail, which we eventually found.  All this points to three things: evaluate all your assumptions before making navigational decisions, the fact that Cairn choose to leave outfitter spur trails off their maps is pretty lame, and the level of use the FS allows stock outfitters to inflict on the Bob is unacceptable.

But we had miles to make, and still those miles did not come quickly.  I was a bit frustrated at the deadfall, and more frustrated by the steep and rocky trail which pounded my feet, but mostly frustrated by my inability to capture the mentality necessary to grind out the miles present to details of efficiency without excessive attachment to outcome.  The Lion Creek trail is very scenic, with some spectacular waterfalls, cedar forests, and boulder gardens, but I was too preoccupied with the miles left to the road, and the probability I’d be late to meet Meredith.

In the end I was not late to meet Meredith, as the universal rule of constant forward motion dictated.  Derek let me go in the final miles of trail, and I pounded out the road walking refusing to go any slower.  The Swan, which I had never floated, was actually great; fast but easy, with enough logjams and weird channeled sections to keep me awake, which at that point was a serious concern.  The river was the only part of the day which went a bit faster than I had thought, and at 5:55pm I floated in, done.

More than anything I’m thankful for what the Bob and Bob Open trips have given me over the years.  As ever, it is great fun to watch the stories roll in.  It seemed to me the first night of the trip, as it does today, that the current arrangement for the Open is close to ideal.  A time slot which is convenient for most folks and gives a built-in holiday, and a time of year which will over years provide a variety of conditions.  The last two years have been low on the snow and water, but 2011 and 2012 were much tougher, so who is to say what 2017 will bring?  Right now my intention is keep things as is, and be there next year so veterans and newbies alike can show up if they like.  I will keep praying for snow, however.

2016 Bob Open video and lessons

Executive summary:
I did more miles faster and had more fun than any previous year, even though my 2015 route is still tops when it comes to scenery. I hope the exuberance is captured in the video.

As you’d hope on my sixth consecutive year, I had the equipment pretty well nailed. The weather, far milder than anyone had a reason to expect, didn’t push clothing too much, but 40 hours moving out of 56 will show a great deal quickly, no matter how kind the conditions. The only things which fell a bit flat were my last minute move to BD modernist rock jeans (my Patagonia pants had problematic holes I only noticed at the last minute), whose waist closure doesn’t cinch quite tight enough now that I’ve lost weight compared to last year; as well as my food. After a demanding first day I ate a ton to recharge, and found myself tolerably short on day three. Derek gave me a few bars, which restored a comfortable margin. I also would have preferred a bit more salt and a bit less carbs, due to the warmer weather.

Highlights were the Sitka Core LW hoody and BD Alpine Start combo, which I wore exclusively about 95% of my moving time. Together they achieve a broader range of quick-adjust comfort than anything else I’ve tried. My foot system (Hydroskins, Smartwool UL knee high ski socks, Montbell spats, LaSportiva Bushidos w/o insoles) was also bulletproof; I had no foot issues of any kind save general fatigue, and used no tape or lube, ever.

The Seek Outside Divide and Osprey Grab Bag combo was also immaculate, with just enough features for daily efficiency, and effortless carry of a relatively heavy load. As I’ve told the designers at Seek Outside, the bottle pockets only need to be made a bit taller and wider (to easily hold a 1 liter nalgene when the pack is stuffed) for perfection to be at hand.

In spite of the weight the MSR Windboiler was essential. A few hot meals refuel me better than cold food, and hot coffee is good for moral. I also slept with a hot water bottle both nights; on the first night this was the only reason I slept much at all, as my depleted body was having a tough time producing enough heat to warm up my sleeping bag. If anything I’d pack a third Mountain House and even more coffee, the midday breaks absolutely added to overall speed and efficiency.

Of the several navigational and tactical errors I made the only one I can’t forgive was putting in early on Danaher Creek. Just below the meadows the water looks so inviting, but all the reports about it devolving into a spruce-choaked portage fest I now know to be quite accurate. I burned at least an hour over just walking down close to Basin Creek, as I did five years ago. I was frustrated by the slow pace my wobbly legs had set over the pockmarked trail in the upper meadows, and acted out of immediate need, rather than judgment. My second regret is less coherent, and that is not being able to better recover after that first day. Calf sleeves overnight and better nutrition the first day probably would have helped keep my pace from dropping as much as it did. I fueled and hydrated aggressively once I was out floating the South Fork, which allowed me to keep a good pace up Little Salmon that evening.

Overall I’m incredibly pleased at how enjoyable and low-drama the whole affair proved to be. I had good moments of frustration, notably during the Danaher detour, as well as when lower Lion Creek proved so damn long, but finishing was never in doubt and the only source of stress was the prospect of not making it before the time I had arranged for M to be there. It was just fun to be out in the woods, moving all day, discovering new terrain and revisiting old, seeing a bunch of critters, and solving problems as they came. I’ve talked about moving the Open earlier to produce more challenge, but it was very clear this weekend that the things works very well as is. I all but made up my mind concerning 2017 while I was walking through Danaher Sunday morning, and the event will stay on Memorial Day, waiting for newbs and veterans to show up and discover that wonder for themselves.

Until next year.

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.

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.


  • 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


  • 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.


  • 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.


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.



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.


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.


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


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.