Layering in 2019: mid and wind layers

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

Layering in 2019: introduction and baselayers

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

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

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

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

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

Next, the fraught world of mid and wind layers.


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





The perfect pole; revised

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


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

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

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


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

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


Tiny Adventures

First things don’t happen for me at work all that often, but in one day last week I was called a nigger and filled out a police report.  First things don’t happen too often, but the variations on the unexpected never end.  Seven year olds are rarely able to articulate the despair and injustice which comes out of the long instinct towards wholeness and adulthood being denied, but first or second grade almost always gives enough socialization and social proximity to well acquaint even the most remote with just what they haven’t yet got.  And even the most stunted will find many ways to express this; hence the swearing, biting, kicking, and screaming.  Experience, cognition, and behavior speak which other in an obscure, analogue language.  It’s hardly ever up to me as to when one of our clients might have something important to say, however that gets said.  I can only be there ready to listen, whatever listening might entail, and given that my mandate is revelation and not tranquility, not only being comfortable with but welcoming the most strident and offensive ways of speaking out loud is usually the most important thing I can do on a given work day.

My least favorite thing in Helena is the curb along the center of the universe, that stretch of the west side of Park between the library crossing and the bakery.  Encompassing the library itself along with the best pizza, beer, cake, and bread in town it has everything we need most week nights.  The library crosswalk is significant, as it provides a controlled crossing of the only busy street one must navigate going from our house to the center of the universe.  Little Bear is now three and a half, and 2 years of cultivated practice has his physique eerily mirroring my own; skinny arms, barrel chest, defined quads which bulge out beyond both knees and hips.  He loves his two bikes for different reasons, the light alu green balance bike for speed and familiarity, the solid blue Cleary singlespeed (stripped into a balance bike for the moment) for predictable spoke wheels and pneumatic tires, along with front and rear v brakes whose control he firmly harnessed over the summer.  Even without cranks and pedals the Cleary is close to half his body weight, and thus a trial up hill, but with gravity in his favor he tucks feet onto the bottom bracket spindle and confidently accelerates up close to 20 mph, dodging potholes, boosting cracks in the sidewalk, and braking late but well at road crossings.  His limited height terrifies me on open roads, but take other cars out of it and I’d follow his judgment anywhere he cared to take himself and his bike.

I don’t want to say no to that, so on the many afternoons when work has my ears past overflowing into my soul and I need a reminder that the world is still there, I herd the children off downtown with the promise that LB can ride his bike.  If I push Littler Bear in a stroller or carry him on me the spirit of the ride is disrupted, to say nothing of the disconcertion we force of pedestrians and drivers when a small figure flies around the corner, no adult in sight.  So I load LlrB in the Chariot and bike along, through the tight alleys and rolling hills and the tight foot path and under the bridge, to the library and whatever parts of the center of the universe we want that night.  Policing the bear in traffic while keeping trailer wheels off parked cars is not too complicated, though the symbolic burden never ceases to exceed the pragmatic concerns.  But damn that curb and the way it encourages overparking.  If everyone could manage to hang their bumpers just a few inches over this stretch of sidewalk would have room for one pedestrian and our family circus caravan, only just.  But the typical overhangs (including mine, on the occasions we drive) exceed this, often by several feet, leaving me to keep eyes back to negotiate the 3 inches of total clearance, and forward to police the Bear as he screams up the ramp, braking at the last minute in his enthusiasm for pizza.  Some days it just seems so fraught that I want to stay home, when telling him he can’t ride his bike feels like the most wrong thing.

The revelation is now far in the past, but it took a shocking number of years for me to accept all stress as the same, functionally, insofar as metering out energy and warding off sickness and lassitude are concerned.  These days it is not that I lack interest, ideas, or certainly ambition when it comes to going out in the woods.  Today, I am supposed to be breaking trail towards Route Creek Pass, finishing a big ski traverse.  Five days was first trimmed to four, when the initial departure was 10 hours away and I had only just bought food, packed nothing, and was profoundly flat of mind from the aforementioned days of profound progress at work.  That day of rest was made less so when LlrB, who at not quite 9 months is on the verge of walking and inspired to daily increases in speed by his vertiginously energetic brother, took the early evening to totter over to the open oven and grab hold, raising a series of blisters along most of his right hand pads which came to equal the joint upon which they grew.  Their dimensional horror was equaled only by our concern for his discomfort and what that would do to our sleep.  Remarkably, the phlegmatic ways and quick metabolism of babies had him sleeping that night, and acting the next morning, as if nothing extraordinary had happened, save his right hand being imprisoned in a gauze wrap and sock (to defeat chewing).

So the ski trip was back on, until a mile down the snowy road, the official wilderness still looming in the distance, when and odd sideways slide proved to not be a rut hidden by fresh snow, but rather a front binding screw which had almost entirely backed out.  My thought first went to the irony of having written on just such a subject the day before, then to the question of what horrid glue I had used to mount the bindings last winter (which would surely have all screws loosening quickly), and then to needing to call M, quickly.  The drive between Ovando and Helena has sporadic cell service, and I hoped to catch her before she got too far, and before the walk back toward the highway took away my one bar of service.  This messaging was not effective, and M noticed my messages a mile from home.  All such tragedies are in the end small, the kids survived the many hours of driving, I got to hang out with Charlie for a few hours and share our love of cottonwood trees, and I was home the next day, rather than camped in Danaher Meadows, when the cold I’d been dodging all school year bit.

All equanimity put aside, it is impossible to not see two things as pointing towards my continued decline in adventure prowess.  In work and kids I have daily, tiny adventures the magnitude of which easily equals anything else, and by that standard my life is more adventurous today than at any other time.  It’s certainly more full of meaning, the kind which you choose once in the big picture and ever after marches towards and over you with equal randomness and inevitability.  I’ve done enough packrafting, backpacking, skiing, and climbing that familiarity has forever (?) robbed me of the novelty and fear which once made these things so compelling.  Today challenging trips first offer tranquility, in a way six years ago I would have never considered.  Less time outside inevitably means less practice, which inevitably means that things get missed.  Like a pair of skis that apparently didn’t get skied enough last year (or at all?) to reveal a bad mount.  There’s a not inconsiderable extent to which this takes away both joy, in the illusion of competence, along with wearing away at the margins of safety.

There are reasons to hold on to that which is slipping away, beyond the very large portion of my identity and ego which has been tied up there for the last couple decades.  Foremost is the kids, especially the big one, whose joy in being outside we’ve built so successfully.  Doing stuff with kids outside is hard, and complicated, and the last thing that will help that cause is the big people dulling the edge of their skill and fitness.  The question then becomes how.  How can I stay sharp in the face of declining interest and much reduced time?  That reframing of the question might well be it’s own answer.  Work and family has taken a view of adventure, and how it shapes me daily, and pulled straight the waves and ripples of my developing self.  I used to, by default, look for the soft 5.11, the fastest trail across a range, and most predictable descent.  Now I know that, insofar as your soul is willing, difficulty always teaches more and better.  You might want to avoid that bushwack if you only have 2 days for fifty miles, but ease is almost never clearly seen through the prism of knowledge per mile.

Nordic backcountry

When we moved to Montana a decade ago I knew a bit about groomed nordic skiing, and very little about in-area downhill skiing, and almost nothing about anything else.  It’s been quite the learning curve since, with the predominant question being not so much what gear and skills I need, but why there is so little gear and information aimed towards the skiing I want to do.

There are a number of good answers here.  Multiday winter travel is hard work, unpredictable, and potentially dangerous.  It gives insight into what the major North American wildernesses would look like in summer if maintenance of historic trails was not such a priority.  Backcountry alpine skiing fits with the cultures current attention span and preoccupation with visuals, as well as into short weekends.  And climate change is making good, skiable snowpack outside higher elevations an increasingly unreliable thing.

Despite all this I’ve sorted out the rig which works best for the trips which are my favorites, even if that equipment remains fraught with compromises.

Boots are the most important piece of gear, in winter and summer, and for backcountry nordic the hardest thing to figure out, and thus the best starting point.  Tech or three pin remain the only real choices.  Tech boots mean warmth and waterproofing, tech bindings mean free pivoting on the ascent, and functionally infinite downhill control.  The shortcoming is that I know of no one, not a single person, who has gotten through a longer nordic backcountry trip with tech boots and didn’t also have destroyed feet.  Consecutive long days is one factor here, but the larger issue seems to be the greater foot movement flat and rolling movement engenders, compared to the skin-up, ski down action for which the boots and bindings were designed.  I’ve been there, and had both the control on sketchy descents, and the feet still warm after being submerged in freezing temps, and the layers of blisters and bruising which tooks weeks to heal.  For the time being I’m taking flexible three pin boots, which have the additional benefit of being walkable during the bare stretches which are an increasing feature.


Fishscales are, around here, mandatory in the backcountry.  Skins only is not a viable option, even if race-style, near full length mohairs are a fantastically versatile and obligatory part of any backcountry ski kit.  Skin glue failure under harsh conditions is guaranteed, and while kick wax is often effective, over variable snows and temperatures removal becomes a time suck at best, and a creeping liability at worst (kick wax does bad things to skin glue).

My favorite generation of skis are the older Fischer S-Bounds.  They have stout construction, full steel edges, and thick, hard, sintered bases.  The 169 Outtabounds Wax I picked up used years ago has been on many trips, and has gone from being mounted with three pins to tech race and back to three pins.  I finally bit the bullet the other night, discarding many ideas for jigs, and freehanded in negative fishscales with a dremel bit.

Even with flexible boots I’ll occasionally want to skin steep stuff with these skis, so I added heel plates and lowest heel lift Voile has ever made, which is still a bit too high for efficient striding.  To mitigate this, as well as reduce the increase in ramp angle, I put 2mm of stainless washers under each mountain screw.  More would have been ideal, but even with longer screws increasing the leverage was a durability gamble I did not want to take.

Speaking of mounting, failure is not an option I ever want to experience in the field.  Gorilla glue in the holes has proven solid over the years, while still being extractable (with abundant heat on the screw).  I add a generous ring of silicone around the head of the screw before final tightening to make sure water intrusion is never a factor.

Icing is a huge nuisance in the backcountry, and avoiding it can vastly increase efficiency.  I’ve finally started going full on with all my skis, applying clear protective tape to the binding face, the heal lift, and the entire surface of the ski between the too.  Combined with a sintered base and good glide wax application, this prevents almost all ice and snow build up.

Observant folks will have noted the dimensions of these skis (90, 70, 80 mm), along with the 169cm length.  The former is a nice balance for off track conditions, while being too wide to fit in groomed classic tracks.  Wider can be nice during heavy trail breaking, but I’ve rarely found myself wanting that, often to my surprise.  It’s enough sidecut to turn, without ever being hooky.  Most significantly, that length is far shorter than my weight (easily approaching 200 pound with gear and a pack for 4 days) would ever suggest.  Longer skis are faster is straightforward conditions, which I don’t see all that often, as well as provide more float, again, for mid elevation routes often not much of a factor.  What I do value is the manuverability and ease of carrying provided by a ski no taller than my chin.  Advice which might not apply to other conditions, granted.

For broader thought, my Oversnow travel overview from a few years ago is a good place to look.

Winter trip planning case study

In Montana, when planning a trip during the lighter 7 months of the year I almost always do what I can to assess and predict conditions of the my chosen route, and adapt my gear and schedule to the anticipated.  Rivers too high or low for good floating, and very steep snow and ice, are the two major exceptions, which point more to my deficiencies in skill than anything else.

In winter my approach is the opposite.  I start with assumptions about what sort of travel conditions I want, and plan a route accordingly.  This is driven both by avalanche danger, and knowledge that in the backcountry the wrong snow can make each mile very slow, and do so in a shockingly wide range of ways.

screen shot 2019-01-13 at 8.36.54 am


In a few days I want to head into and across the Bob, and having not been in there since October, my first stop is the NOHRSC snow modeling site, which generated the three maps immediately above and below.

As the big map shows, we’ve had an odd winter.  Lots of warm snaps and a few isolated, big storms have put a decent amount of frozen water up high, and kept it around in the less sunny parts of the state.  The more sunny parts of the Bob and Glacier have melted out entirely at lower elevations (below 5000′).

screen shot 2019-01-13 at 8.37.57 am

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The first two maps show snow water equivalent, while the bottom map shows estimated snow depth.  Snotel remote monitoring stations are the next resource, and there data is central in building the NOHRSC model.  SWE and snow depth are measured using separate estimates, and when both are functioning correctly, disparities can give highly useful hints concerning the nature of the snowpack.  For instance, SWE staying constant while snow depth shrinks significantly is the classic spring sign of definitively consolidating snowpack.  Currently, we see that SWE and depth are more closely correlated in the Mission and Swan Ranges, while the Scapegoat and especially Rocky Mountain Front have significantly less SWE than the snow depth might suggest.  This snow is thus less wet/dense, which could make it easier to travel through, but could also make it less likely to cover up items such as deadfall and brush, and certainly make the cover more susceptible changes in atmospheric conditions.

Not all Snotel sights are equally useful for planning, as I discussed in detail several years ago.  As mentioned in that post, most of the Snotel sites in the Bob are at aspects and altitudes which limits their utility.  Badger Pass has been my go-to for a decade now, but with the area around it burning two years ago, the nature and thus generalizability of the data (to the past) has changed, and what I presume to be the increased exposure to wind has caused the precip spout to frequently rime closed and go off line, which explains the current lack of any readings, and the irregularity of snow depth readings over the past year.  SWE is measured via a pillow in the ground which read mass, and is thus under field conditions far less temperamental.

screen shot 2019-01-13 at 9.12.10 am

So let’s take Wood Creek as an example.  Located along the Benchmark road, in thickish timber, on a flat bench, and facing NNW, it’s a decent encapsulation of the snow you’d find in the general area (on, for instance, any of the passes traveling over the Divide between the Danaher/Blackfoot and Sun River drainages).  Currently there’s not much SWE (2.8 inches), just over a foot of snow, and max temps that last three days where into the 40s F.  It seems safe to assume that outside this sheltered location snow has been compacting and melting fairly quickly, especially for January.

In the immediate picture, thin and compacting snowpack with lots of sun exposure suggests open southerly aspects, and crusty, hard, thin snow otherwise.  Challenging, or just bad, ski conditions.  The generally meager snow everywhere, combined with lots of sunny interludes, suggests a touchy snowpack up high, with a recent avalanche fatality in the headwaters of the Teton River confirming that the usual hazards of a continental snowpack, buried weak layers and windloading, are more relevant than usual.  The forecast complicates the picture, with another three-four days of cold nights and warm, sunny days transitioning into what could develop into an extended period of cold snowfall.

The travel solution to all this is not obvious.  Down low, skiing would probably entail lots of transitions across bare spots, as well as unpleasantly fast and scary skiing on any sort of incline.  Up high, new snow could rapidly exacerbate dangerous conditions, while at mid elevations outside the Swan Range I don’t anticipate enough depth to make venturing off cut trails a practical option for making miles.  All of which adds up to me considering taking boots and snowshoes, rather than skis, on a trip across the Bob in January.  Which in another decade might not seem so unusual, which is itself not a nice thought.

As of right now I still haven’t made a decision on gear or route, and intractable ambiguity even in the face of modern data and lots of personal experience is what makes this all worthwhile.  I’m currently flipping back and forth between the current projections and those associated with past trips, hoping to make the best guess.

Premium baselayers: what you get

For the last three years my one-sized solution to any temps above really cold has been the original version of the Sitka LW Core hoody.  With ~100 grams/meter 100% poly bicomponent (grid inner) and a trim, simple fit it is the shirt I spent close to decade waiting for.  A decade ago baselayer fabric wasn’t this light, and the number of properly featured hoodies in appropriately light fabric was limited to one, the BPL Beartooth, in 150 grams/meter merino.  Heavier pieces like the Ibex Indie and Patagonia R1 never worked for me, and I tried several synthetic compression/workout hoodies from the likes of Under Armour, but excessive spandex content and cheap, poorly breathable and stinky poly made them very poor performers.

Fortunately, the logic of light baselayer hoodies has become so widespread that a number of good options exist, which allows us to have a discussion based on price point.

The current Sitka hoody is a bit different, with a deep front zip, larger chest pocket, more colors (still no non-black solid option) and a different fabric with a small amount of spandex.  It also costs $119, when (I think) the original cost $99.  I’m not a fan of any of the changes Sitka made, and either price strikes me as somewhere between excessive and ridiculous.  I’ve enjoyed this shirt, and given how directly they influence performance think good baselayers are an ideal place to use your money, but what exactly do you get compared to less expensive options?

Last month I picked up a TNF Reactor hoody from the local shop, at half off the $40 MSRP.  Made from an unsophisticated jersey knit and with a heavier 130 grams/meter fabric (which would have been the lightest such fabric available a decade ago), the Reactor seems targeted towards a wide audience.

The fit of the two is very similar.  I like the TNF thumb loops over the thumb cords on the Sitka, as they provide more warmth.  It isn’t possible to make thumb loops long enough to be truly comfortable without also making the sleeves annoying long.  The Reactor perfectly splits the difference here, and on my average arms they’re useable for mediate periods without being noticeable when not in use.  I’ve been impressed with how close the fabrics are, functionally.  Being 1/3 thicker and with a structure which doesn’t mechanically enhance wicking would suggest that the Reactor would give up more performance than it in fact does.  The Reactor does stink faster, and the fabric doesn’t feel quite as soft against the skin as the Sitka.

The real shortcoming of the Reactor is the fit of the hood, which is much baggier.  As the top photo shows, the Sitka provides good coverage without interfering with peripheral vision, or feeling tight.  This can be addressed with fairly simple sewing, but absent that capacity limits the Reacters utility, and in the wind is pretty annoying.  TNF also lined the hood, and while the lining fabric itself seems fine, the double layer of fabric significantly increases drying time.  Again, this is a reasonably simple mod, but really shouldn’t be necessary.

Thankfully baselayer hoodies are enough in fashion that almost everyone makes one.  The OR Echo is a standout, with sub 100 grams/meter fabric and a $65 MSRP.  Is something like the Sitka hoody worth the premium over these options?  It might be for bowhunting, but if you don’t need camo the case seems far harder to make.

Bob Open survey update

The initial 6 days of responses display a clear trend.

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With the mean response to question 3 being well below 1, and the slim majority of responses to question 2 amounting to “thought about doing it but don’t have the skills/experience”, it seems clear that there are lots of folks, both past starters/finishers and aspirants, who have some manner of unfinished business with the Open.  Which is awesome to hear.

I’m keeping the survey open for the rest of the week.  With the responses to question 2 largely split on timing (Memorial Day is either great for folks or terrible, it seems) I am seriously leaning towards bumping the start forward 2-3 weeks, while keeping it in the Bob, and using 2019 to test out some manner of extra event(s) elsewhere.  Trent’s link to the Ultra Pedestrian Challenge was very timely, and while I think the mass start, no route format works well in the Bob, having ITTs on set routes makes a lot of sense elsewhere, especially in places with private land and/or permit issues.  Look for more news before the end of summer.

Planning the 2019 Bob Open

It’s time to start planning the 2019 Bob Open.  If you want to cut to the chase, click here to take a 1 minute survey.

Until recently the process of picking a route across the Bob has been simple; I pick out a few places I haven’t been and want to go (often this had to do with the list of un-run or scouted creeks and rivers), identify the nice or at least decent place to camp at the start, and call it good.  Today, I’ve crossed the Bob 12-20 times, depending on the rigor of your definition, and my eyes naturally drift elsewhere.  Here moving to Helena has been a huge blessing, without the singular lure of Glacier and the Bob it’s been easy to look in all directions, and in each case I’ve only found more reasons to go back and go deeper.

The Bob is singular amongst areas in the Northern Rockies.  It is big, it lacks the logistical issues inherent in a National Park, it has lots of floatable rivers and the terrain is complex enough that facilitating multiple options is easy.  The downsides of the Bob, aside from the fact that we’ve all been there for the last 7 years, include long shuttles between trailheads, a relative lack of sustained alpine terrain and thus more technical routes, and an again relatively large amount of extent planning information.  And it lacks personal interest for me.

But this isn’t just about me.  I’ve gotten immense satisfaction out of teaching by proxy, putting people out in the Bob during the spring.  I want to keep doing what will benefit and interest the most people.  Problem with the Bob specifically include that as spring keeps getting warmer faster, the snow factor remains lower than optimal, and rivers tend towards high enough that I worry about accidents.  I also worry that as the Bob becomes more “known” in the internet sense, the probability of woefully unprepared folks showing up and not making good choices increases.  On the other hand, I worry that the other options would just not be as cool.

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For instance, the two options above.  The first goes across the Little Belts from SE to NW, and would cross a bunch of big canyons and high ridges which get a lot of snow and, once things melt out just enough to keep the sleds out, get very little traffic.  Lots of dirt roads, as any perusal of maps will tell you, which raises the spectre of both mountain bike routes, and lots of road walking.  The second option, starting on the West Fork of Rock Creek and running SE across the Pintlers, crosses some big elevation, but requires a paved road crossing, and more significantly, some dancing around private property to do so.  This last is a major issue in parts of Montana; it’d be awesome to for example end the first route by crossing the Smith and traveling through the Big Belts to York, but the west bank of the Smith River is almost impossible to manage for a diffuse event like the Bob Open.

A larger question is what kind of event the Bob will become.  Will it be something locals and semi-locals can integrate into a long weekend, a keystone events for backpackers looking to step up to the next level, or will it be a destination endeavor, a major undertaking out of which most anyone is lucky to emerge without carrying entrails and eyeballs in one hand?

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Like this one.

Making the Bob more of a ski and snowshoe affair has also been a longtime thought of mine, along with doing something in the southwest.  Those are also options I’d like feedback on, from past and prospective participants.

So fill this out, please.  Three questions only.


Holy snow

Central-western Montana has had an extraordinary winter, which is necessarily leading to an extraordinary spring.  Massive amounts of snow means massive amounts of water, and in the last month temps have yet to get too warm (which is nice, as upper 60s feels stifling at the moment), and have been punctuated with big storms which have been more than cold enough to snow up high.  The grass I planted is growing in our yard, and we’ve had flood advisories for the past week solid, with plenty more snow waiting for true warmth.  Copper Camp Snotel, near the start of the Bob Open this year, is today reading an even six feet of snow at 6900 feet.  Which is a lot, especially on a wide open, south facing slope.

Little Bear and I took a walk yesterday to investigate, among other things, if the proposed TH for the Bob Open was in fact accessible.  It isn’t, and due to parking and camping issues I’m moving the start a ways east, to the North Fork of the Blackfoot River.

We found abundant snow at very low elevations (4400′ in the above photo), with the earliest flowers and forbs just starting to emerge.  A winter like the one we’re just exiting can seem oppressive, but gives many things.  The many elk, mule and whitetail deer, and the handful of trumpeter swans we saw were doing well, and seemed to appreciate the flooded meadows and tall creeks.  Little Bear got to practice important things like postholing, not getting smacked in the face by willows, and eating ramen with a stick.

It will be an interesting trip across the Bob in a few weeks.