My best time of year

At work we have three recesses a day.  The kindergartners would not mind another, and from a no-window office my sense of the how the day evolves is generally driven by these three openings, which together add up to just short of 90 minutes.  Some days I hardly make it out of my cave, and I rely on second hand evidence of the world outside.  One day last week first recess was brisk, but pleasant; no rain and just warm enough to climb the monkey bars bare handed.  Second recess, at lunch, saw unusual kids lingering long over their food, and more clients than normal requesting to play inside with us.  By the end 50 pound children came inside soaked skinny with snow piled on their shoulders, and by the time I drove home things were heavy and thick, with windshield wipers barely keeping up.

That evening I hiked to the top of the backyard mountain, where snow was drifting 8 inches deep.  Visibility went between 100 yards and 1 mile with each gust.  A few scoured places up on the ridge revealed prickly pear already swollen and ready for summer.

Up until last year I would have said autumn was my best season.  Delicate, colorful, nostalgic.  You can find the same yellow emotion in desert cottonwoods as mountain aspens as hillsides larches.  Plus, hunting season.

But now I know that spring is for me.  The days are long, and on this side of the Divide, mostly bright.  Valleys dry out, hopefully over weeks rather than days, while the mountains remain fat with water.  Squirrels and birds and ponderosas wake up, and just like us humans are able to endure the next round of blizzards with equanimity, knowing what is soon to come.  The world around us right now is long, and full of potential.

 

 

Loving winter

There have been a few occasions in the past three months when I’ve been nostalgic for last winter in the desert; when snow lasting more than a day was extraordinary and aside for six weeks of wet north facing slickrock we could do wherever, whenever.  Since right after Thanksgiving there hasn’t been a day when the yard has not been buried, and the depth of the walls on either side of the front steps is an easy reminder of how frequently we’ve shoveled, how often temperatures have plunged far below zero, how many times just driving out of the alley and down the very steep street which transitions just to flat right at the main street has been a matter of doubt, not simply routine.  It’s a modern, yuppie anachronism to make much of this.  Our did end up, rather impractically and for historical reasons whose utility barely lasted a decade, on a north facing hill which helps the ice endure and the potholes multiply.  But we don’t, due to more sinister parts of the past, live in the windiest and winteriest part of the state, where the last few storms have been a legitimate health hazard.

Having been in Montana for a decade, with only one winter away, I ought to have made more progress toward embracing the snow, but while I have learned to love skiing I have also learned to yearn for that first strong warm snap in March when the sunniest valley areas finally melt for good, and hiking and maybe even riding on actual dirt is again possible.  I writer this, when yesterday we got half a foot of snow in a morning, and I was able to ski 1500 vertical feet directly to our back door, without hitting a rock.

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So I’ve got some work to do on the personal front, in really taking to heart the limited access and slow surfaces and cold and general hostility.  After all, winters like this one are not only the ideal of a northern winter, something I yearned for in childhood, they are also bond to be increasingly undependable as the planet continues changing in my lifetime.  There may be few further winters when we can ski from home, certainly for over two months straight, and this one ought to be savored.

This is the sort of winter that sets one deeply at ease, at least in the moments when a hot coffee and thick sweater and sturdy walls have provided enough reassurance that distance and perspective is possible.  Any storm which hits us here drops snow on mountains to the north, south, and center which come spring and summer will feed the rivers which in turn feed over a third of the United States.  A thin winter here doesn’t just make for pretty flowers and smaller fires come July and August, it oils what makes much of our regional society work.

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I have a long way to go.

Being lost

The farther down the road we went, the more isolated we became and the whiter everything became. I wondered aloud if we were making a foolish mistake; we weren’t even experienced enough with snow to make a guess. Florangela said, “It’s an adventure.” But I kept thinking how all the roads in Yellowstone followed rivers and, if I couldn’t distinguish the next curve, we’d run off the road into icy water, where we wouldn’t die from our wounds but of hypothermia.

There are many ways to be lost. Some have declined due to technology; others are newly born. But in every situation, to be lost is to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is frightening, often dangerous, but it also breeds connection—with people, and with places. The maps people carry in their pockets can be a barrier to that connection, but they are also safety nets. And it’s easier to take a leap if you know there’s something at the bottom to catch you.

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I find it easy to remember each time I’ve been lost, however expansive the definition.  If by lost you mean having no idea beyond the general where I am, I’m not sure I’ve ever been lost, at least as an adult.  If by lost you mean only knowing my location within a mile or so, I could spend hours reciting examples.  And if by lost you mean knowing where I was but being unable due to circumstance to reliably get myself where I wanted to go, I could tell vivid stories from both the woods and the city.  These last are the most frightening and thus the most memorable of all.

Years ago two friends and I spent a full October day hiking a loop Steve Allen recommended for three days.  I had run a road marathon a week earlier and was at the beginning of what would become a 2 year battle with IT band problems.  Rather than cancel our vacation I took 3200 mg of Ibuprofen each day, changed our itinerary not at all, and really suffered, due to lack of legroom, with 5 people 5’10” or taller in a Subaru for the 16 hour drive between Moab and central Iowa.  We made the loop, but spent the hours of dusk seeing our exit canyon trail into indistinct cow trails through pinons and junipers.  There was just enough light left to see the height of the cliff we found ourselves atop, and just enough energy left in our minds to wander south and feel a way down to the flats below.  The whole time we could see the lights of the interstate in the distance, which reminded us that unless we did something foolish we weren’t going to die, however painful and scary the moments might be.

Years later my mother and I took a cab to the main rail station in Cairo, with an hour in the dark to find the platform for the sleeper train which would take us south.  In the previous 10 days we had consistently been the only white tourists not attached to a tourist group, something I clearly understood as I tried to match the Arabic writing on our tickets (bought days before from an office off Tahrir Square, staffed with fluent English speakers) to the signs along the platforms.  Cairo never seemed more dingy and massive, a mood made purely form our doubt.  Eventually (likely within 20 minutes) a polylingual bystander saw and provided us with the help we obviously needed, and we were able to sleep well and wake up in Luxor.

During the Bob Open in 2016 Derek and I fought our way through deadfall down to Lion Creek, only to take the spur trail across to the outfitter camp and spend an hour postholing around the hillside looking for it to continue downstream, when it was in fact just on the other side.  Our not especially detailed, but particularly trustworthy, map showed the trail crossing to our side at some point, so I knew we’d find it, it was just a question of how long our detour would delay the eventual end of the trip that afternoon, and whether we might sprain an ankle falling through the rotten snow into the hidden logs below.

On that occasion Derek’s GPS could not get a clear enough signal to be of use, and by then 5 years of living in northwest Montana, a corner of the world Google had not yet mapped definitively, had tempered my faith in connectivity.  The mental side of being “lost” had at least in the woods become so routine that by then I was often choosing to intentionally under-map myself, in the name of maintaining adventure.  Something, incidentally, I would never choose to do in the city, either on foot or by car.  Last Christmas we got lost both ways in the wilds of Baltimore, one time when the highway suddenly vanished into residential streets, and Google helped us link the mysteries of 400 year old urban development over to the harbor we could see in the distance, and another when my sense of scale failed me and we walked nearly a mile past the movie theatre, in spite of having a digital map in front of me and obvious landmarks along the waterfront.

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All of which is to say that while I might pity anyone who finds much adventure driving along a well maintained paved road, I live in a glass house insofar as I still find it challenging to take the big picture perspective which comes so easily in the woods and put it to use on the rare occasions I’m in a city of more than 30,000.

I was frightened of the woods for a very long time, even for long after I had spent enough nights on the dirt to rarely have trouble sleeping out there.  For the better part of a decade, persistently, ambitions for multi-nights trips would be delayed or curtailed because of trepidation, and when they happened a creeping anxiety would crawl over my back for days between the conception and the casting off.  With time it began to wain, remaining only with bigger trips or longer outings.  In the last four years that has been replaced, with a sharper but less acute concern over select ambiguities.  How miserable will post holing over that pass actually be?  Will there be enough water to float from the first creek?  Where will the elk be?

On the one hand this has been encouraging.  Backpacking is a lot less stressful, if perhaps less rewarding in the moment.  Hunting has been one substitute for the fear of novelty, with trying to find critters and (more significantly) seeing if I can be patient enough to hunt them properly providing another area where the quest for mastery can still run free in all directions.

 

Loving and hating the puffy

To begin with, there is the issue of terminology; “puffy” being a plain dumb word, but it is how we refer to synthetic or down fill jackets these days, so so be it.  As with most lexicological nits this one is seemingly benign, but it does promulgate a one-dimensional view of insulated jackets, a problem the outdoor industry has in the last few years finally grappled with in a substantive manner.

I find it odd that off all the layers I wear outside month to month and year to year, the insulating coat is at the beginning of 2018 the one I still find least satisfying.  Baselayers have been going in a good direction for quite some time, by getting thinner and more focused on speedy moisture transfer.  Between the Sitka Core LW line and what Patagonia now calls Thermal Weight I can go out into every condition with no complaints about either fit or performance.  Wool is still sorting itself out, and I’m still paying attention to the various new blends, but if those problems take a further decade to get solved I will remain not at all impatient.  Shells are also in a very good spot, especially the light and quite breathable ones (aka windshirts) that I wear almost all the time.  It will be swell when WPB laminates are both reliable and reliably don’t rely on DWR treatments, but at the moment I’m content enough with how well such things work.

IMG_3253Hot Forge along the Dirty Devil; cold, but good dry conditions once you’re out of the river.

Insulated jackets, on the other hand, are a source of consistent annoyance.  At least, they are here in Montana.  Last winter I had it easy, which is to say simple; I just brought the Hot Forge hoody on everything and was both warm enough and rarely had to worry about internal or external moisture.  Life in the desert is easy like that, with rare precipitation, low ambient humidity, and generally moderate winter temps.  The winter of 17/18 has been quite different.  Since early November we’ve had several feet of snow in town at 4100′, and many times that in the mountains.  Of those ~90 days, probably 1 in 4 has had a low in or below the single digits (F).

It may not be worth saying out loud that these conditions are a lot tougher to insulate for, but it is worth elaborating on exactly why.  Cold weather requires more insulation, of course, but it is also more difficult to manage layers in.  It shouldn’t be so, but I find it harder to stay sweat free at 10F than I do at 30F.  More significantly, colder ambient temps put the refreeze point somewhere within your insulation (or sleeping bag), which means that maintaining the function of your insulation (i.e. keeping it dry) becomes all important, the moreso the longer you stay out.

IMG_5395I’ve been in lots of driving snow this winter, which makes moisture management tough.

The Hot Forge hoody has done fairly well, and save for the truly frigid trips (where I’ve brought my MEC Reflex) has been in almost constant use.  The 4-5 oz of fill provides what I find to be the ideal amount of warmth, and the Primaloft/down blend dries far faster and moves moisture better than either plain down or DWR treated down.  The torso is a bit on the slim side for stuffing with gloves and water bottles, but the cut and feature set is otherwise ideal.

So why the complaining?  It has been possible to flatten the insulation in the Hot Forge in a way the pure Primaloft only does when you submerse it in water, which is a bummer.  A comparably warm Primaloft coat would be much bulkier, so that is a good enough trade off.  What has been disappointing is how quickly the insulation has packed out, leaving the usual down jacket problem spots (inside of the elbows, fronts of the shoulders) a bit thin.  This matches the pattern of what has happened with every thinner, non-baffled down coat I’ve ever owned, and leaves me thinking that under regular use in high moisture areas non-baffled down coats don’t have a functional life any longer than a Primaloft coat, which is to say about 18-24 months.  I still like the Hot Forge plenty, but for winter use in colder, more reliably moisture generating areas it does not strike me as worth full retail.  I don’t think the fill packing down necessarily has anything to do with the synthetic component, as many of the chamber elsewhere remain stuffed full, but this is something worth keeping in mind.  With baselayers and fleece that can last for a decade or more, and windshirt and rain coats whose DWR might make it 5 or more years before becoming dysfunctional, puffy coats end up being the least durable clothing item in the arsenal.  And with premium Goretex jackets excepted, the most expensive.

R0022003Down is better than a blanket when you forgot your puffy, and is also a lot less problematic for folks who don’t put off as much internal moisture.

So what is a better option, if anything?  I’m still scratching my head about that.  A synthetic coat with comparable warmth would be in the ~20 oz range, with the Patagonia Hyper Puff hoody and Nunatak Shaka Apex the leading contenders.  A lighter (and cheaper) synthetic coat isn’t a bad option either, assuming I’ll likely have the Nano Air Light along as well.  I also wonder if an equivalent down coat with more tightly stuffed baffles would hold up longer, better.  Or perhaps new synthetic like Patagonia’s Micro Puff will make this debate moot.  Until then, I’ll keep looking for new options, and keep looking for the cheapest option that will do the job, given the hard life insulated jackets lead.

 

Pack materials for 2018

This post and the follow-up a year later have remained among my most popular works, and with 2018 coming into focus they are at last worth updating.  Not too much has changed in the world of backpack fabrics, but time has allowed for enough clarification that a few things are worth saying again.  There are even some new trends to highlight.

Context matters.  I’ve taken plenty of flack over the years for denigrating trail and thru hiking as a useful design metric for backpacks.  This is a statement I still endorse, but do not mistake holding something up as a metric as equivalent to it being the most frequent or likely use.  Plenty of people get along just fine with fabrics I dislike, and unless you really want to count grams current technology makes producing a good, light, functional trail pack simple.  My own interest has always been, putting the outlier of canyoneering aside, in making and using packs which are as light and functional as the best modern packs, and tough enough for trips like this.

R0010199Nylon ripstop on the Gossamer Gear Type 2 (above) and Osprey Rev 18 (below).  Relatively cheap, certainly light, and for small packs durable for years of reasonable use.  Lighter packs carry lighter loads, can thus usually expect more careful handling, and thus can often get away with lighter fabrics, even if they are used most often.

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Pack fabrics can still be separated into two categories depending upon what waterproof coating they have stuck to their backs.  Polyurethene remains the most common, by far, and provides predictable and in many cases quite satisfactory performance.  The strengths of PU coated fabrics are lower prices, a more supple hand, and a lower amount of weight given over to the coating itself.  The downsides are the eventual degradation of the coating, the fact that most PU fabrics are waterproof to a degree which can be reliably if not commonly exceeded in field conditions, and that applying the coating weakens the fabric.  No one is complaining about the tear strength of something like 330D cordura, but I do believe that attribute of hot-application coatings is why they’re not more liberally applied (which would solve the waterproofing issue).  The quality of PU coating varied drastically, from very good to utter crap, which muddies things for both the home maker and the person just wanting to buy a good pack in the shops.

Laminate fabrics such a hybrid cubens and the various Dimension-Polyant fabrics are the second option.  If I were making a canyoneering pack I’d pick a PU fabric like 1000D cordura without hesitation, as the added weight and waterproofing given by a laminate just doesn’t make sense, especially in the face of no current laminate fabric being adequately durable for such use.  I used several test packs made from X51 (500/1000D cordura) last year, including for this two day excursion and even with careful packing 2 days and five canyons had the X51 on the edge of destruction.  For mountain backpacking, especially outside summer, the added waterproofing and weight of laminate fabrics makes them justifiable.

R0021333Cold and knackered along the Escalante in January.  Canyons beat up packs like little else. Laminate fabrics dedicate a greater percentage of their weights to the waterproofing layer, relative to PU fabrics.  I think the later makes more sense in the desert, for this reason.

Why aren’t many (any?) more commercial packs available in laminate fabrics?  First, the fabrics are more expensive, and needle holes which don’t self heal is I still assume a burden in mass production.  Second, D-P laminates face fabrics they don’t themselves produce in in the US, which means that a Chinese or Korean made cordura would be woven on one side of the Pacific, laminated on another, then shipped back again to be cut and sewn into packs.  Last, and most obviously why the first two hurdles haven’t been overcome, it is more difficult to articulate to the masses how your pack is more waterproof than other supposedly waterproof packs, and yet still is not submersible.  Plenty of people are trying to change these dynamics, and 2018 has the best chance yet of one succeeding.

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Abrasion in 1.3 oz pure cuben (above) and 150D hybrid cuben and VX42 (below).  Pure cuben isn’t reasonable for use in a pack, and the above photo show how easily the strong reinforcing fibers and weak mylar film are easily separated from each other.  The pack below is almost 4 years old, and has been a good test for how the two wear.  The cuben body is fine, but keeping it that way has taken lots of tape and aquaseal.

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Years have only reinforced my conviction that Cuben/DCF is in backpacks mostly hype.  Yes the 150D hybrid is a very good product.  Yes, good packs are made out of it.  But the face fabric itself is still relatively weak in the face of abrasion, and while the laminate itself is without question stronger in every respect than either PU or any PET I’ve seen, using weight and dollars to put strength there continues to not make sense to me.  200-300D nylon face with a thinner cuben film?  Sounds higher performance in every respect.  Since Cuben was purchased by DSM product development and availability has become decidedly less transparent, so while probably the greatest potential resides there in terms of pure pack fabric technology, I don’t expect anything new, one way or the other.

This leaves us with D-P products, which have become more diverse and vastly more widely available.  Rockywoods, for instance, currently sells 10 variants which could be suitable for backpacks, with more commonly available elsewhere.  Much to their credit, D-P has stuck with their fabric nomenclature, which initially seems obtuse but make discussion and differentiation simple.  For our purposes all fabrics have an inner PET laminate (the waterproof part) and an outer woven face fabric.  The V designation means there is an inner fabric laminated to the PET (easily seen by the white inner), while the X designation means the signature x shaped grid of reinforcing fibers is present, laminated within the PET.  Recent trends have gone away from the V layer, something of which I do not generally approve.  In heavier and especially darker face fabrics this results in a very shadowy interior which makes finding things a pain.  In the lighter fabrics, I’m thinking of X21 in particular, the lack of interior scrim takes away a good deal of stiffness, making an already oddly cut prone fabric considerably moreso.  3 years I was already less than fond of VX21, thinking that VX07 punched better given the weight, and that for me VX42 was almost always preferable.  This is not to say that X21 isn’t a good light pack fabric, just that I put it in the sides of a framebag a year ago, and have grown tired of little nicks appearing for no particular reason.

My particular favorites remain the cordura faces on X33 and X50, though VX42 and X42 are very nice.  The slicker face of the 420D plain weave used the latter does very well in brush and sticks, while cordura is better when dragged over rocks.  VX42 has proven difficult enough to put holes in that I’d use it for anything short of the slot canyon abuse shown above, content that I’d be patching holes and nicks infrequently.  X51 ought to be better than X50, but the difference in size between the warp and weft fibers make it a thorough disappointment.  Here my recommendation has not changed in recent years: VX07 for light trail duty, X33 for most things, and VX42 or X50 for abusive applications.

IMG_5567X50 significantly rubbed by 12 miles hauling an elk rack out of the wilderness.  Not overkill in this application.  This also illustrates the way the X grid accelerates abrasion.

A number of areas for improvement are available.  First, more Vspecific fabric options which omit the X grid.  Anyone who has put D-P fabrics to a good test has seen the grid be a major point of abrasion, such that the fabrics would without question last longer without it.  D-P has admitted that branding is at work here, but I also think that packs have become a large enough part of their portfolio that they will shortly be more malleable.   More broadly, it would be swell to see pack fabrics with some manner of durable surface coating that kept them from being saturated under gnarly conditions.  Arc’teryx has done this on a limited basis, so the potential certain exists.

This points to the real future of pack fabrics, which long term is probably in some manner of heavier non-woven.  The woven Dyneema used by Cilogear, HMG, and a few others is impressive, and points towards the way advanced textiles allow traditional fabrics to bend the rules as we know them.  My hope is that fabrics like the Liteskin line from D-P (a non-woven poly face with a woven nylon backer) will out perform traditional fabrics for the same weight, while being less expensive to produce at small and moderate scales than the various dyneema products.

Concerning pack weight

There remains some confusion about how to make a backpack lightweight, and yet still functional.  The simplest and best way remains to raise your own bar; get better at packing, need fewer things, need lighter things, and so forth.  But this can be a hard end to maintain, as I have recently been reminded, and while it can be delightful to sacrifice efficiency at the alter of purity, doing so is not a sustainable end.  To whit, it is a good idea for a backpack to have some (or at least, the correct) external features, though as I discussed years ago features do add up in weight.

Kean observers will recall this video from last year, where I took scissors to a Divide and cut off all that seemed practical.  My scrap pile weighed 4.5 ounces; as many observed not a good reward for the effort expended.  The X42 Divide comes in a little north of 3 pounds as it ships, a figure far enough over the 2 pound magic mark of ~50 liter ultralight packs that it has been the subject of much consternation.  Fully half that 3 pounds is the frame, hipbelt, and shoulder harness, leaving 24ish ounces to account for the bag itself.  A few ounces of that is tied up in the buckles and webbing which adjust the harness, but as my demonstration showed, there really isn’t much fat available for the scalpel.

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My curiosity came full circle a few weeks ago, when I removed those adjustment buckles and sewed my final set of Mountain Hardwear straps (directly) to this much traveled Divide.  These straps are a good bit burlier, and thus heavier and (and is often, but not always, the case) more comfortable than the Seek Outside harness, so it should come as no surprise that they offer little in the way of weight savings.  The pack now weighs 2 pounds and 14 ounces, which discounts all the above features, but includes a pair of 1″ straps and quick release buckles I added across the back.  These do well holding bigger things like ice axes, foam pads, and skis, and are my preferred rig for external attachment.

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So what is the point of all this?  First, I finally have a firm answer to how you’d make fixed shoulder straps work with a frame as rigid as that on the SO.  The attachment point is down towards the base of my shoulder straps, which in concert with the load lifters allow enough distance between my shoulders and the pack that I do not feel at all constrained.  Relative to the stock adjustable shoulder harness sewn on shoulder straps offer considerable less wiggle room for matching individual shoulder shape to the stock frame curvature, which is the most substantial downside of tubular metal frames which are for all intents not really able to be modified by the end user.  With straps of equal materials sewn of does offer a consequential (~3 ounces) savings over an adjustable harness, so there is that.

Second, this experiment begs all sorts of questions about lower weight limits with various approaches to putting a frame in a pack.  The SO frame is absolutely rigid under 100 pounds, something that works very well at 50 pounds, and even 25.  I’ve never  in the past four years of using them thought that the SO frame system had too much load carrying ability.  I have thought it had too much bulk and width, which is a trickier thing to negotiate, as the width allows the frame to wrap around your back, which makes loads very stable indeed.   This remains an undersold aspect of the SO system, how well they work in technical situations.  I’ve used packs with more stability, that I’d have rather used on something like last weekends ski descent, but nothing that I’d rather have used if I’d have had to carry a bulky 25 pounds of winter gear.  There are systems which are better tuned read, not overkill) to moderate loads than the SO frame, but the ancillary benefits of the later goes a very large way towards making up for that excess.

Third, making a light pack not only requires attention to obvious things like balancing minimalism and utility, and selecting materials which will carry the load intended.  Ergonomics and stability are more ineffable, but no less important.    They’re also more subject to individual fit and preference, which is from a design perspective more ambiguous.

Renewing incompetence

Five or six years ago it really became clear that this whole backcountry thing was going to be my thing, one of those very few things in my life that I would be truly good at.  Acute limits to my risk taking propensity and physiology had already limited how far I’d been able to progress in rock climbing and endurance mountain biking, but not only has my body always been well suited to walking, my aptitude for planning and execution already favored longer endeavors.  Add in existing experience with climbing and ropework, and a willingness to learn things like whitewater and skiing, at least at a modest level, and it was clear that I could do a lot.

I have done a lot since, trips which have exceeded what I thought possible in the realms of fulfillment.  I have also learned that having backpacking, especially mildly technical backpacking, be your thing is no small curse.  Backpacking isn’t the only thing I like, and in this same period I’ve embraced ever more easily how much I get out of being home, and out of my career in children’s mental health.  These things end up in a necessary, if not inexorable, tension with each other.  Good planning can give a lot of value and intensity in short outings, and I’ve been especially proud of how much quality I’ve been able to fit into 2-5 day trips in the last year.  But backpacking means long distance, which after a while means bigger terrain, which at this point in my life means either winter in the great wildernii of the lower 48, or points north.  When time, season, or circumstance does not permit either a big trip or a particularly sharp and alluring trip I find it harder and harder to get enthused by backpacking, which means I do it less.  This is fine, and not something I care to fight against, but when (for instance) I head out for my first overnight ski mountaineering trip in 20 months, there are some kinks to reckon with, and carbon to be blown out of the system.

And I made some big mistakes this past weekend.

Route and equipment selection was not one of them.  I figured the South Fork of the Teton would have snowmachine traffic at least a little ways, allowing for some good biking, and would have plenty of good snow cover above that.  I couldn’t bike all that far, but the riding was challenging and easier on the way out after a hard freeze.  The relative lack of traffic up canyon made for some of the densest snowshoe hare activity I’ve seen anywhere, which logically turned up some fresh lynx tracks.  I didn’t need my ice axe for either the traverse up to the cirque or the final steep bit to the saddle, but a bit more wind in the previous week and I easily could have.  My new skis were light, fast (as my legs would allow), and my mounting point made them predictable and quick.  My newly modified pack (more soon) carried a big winter sleeping bag and was stable enough to ski a steep (for me) line without any thought of stability problems.

My mistakes were far more pedestrian, and testament to my long held belief that those who don’t get out often or more often are at far greater risk of little things biting hard.  First, I forgot a second set of skins or some kick wax, and had to voile strap my skins on for the final flat miles after too many transitions in cold dry snow rendered them useless.  Second, I didn’t pull a layer for the trailbreaking in and arrived at camp, at dark, with a lot of moisture in clothing I needed to be functional the next day.  Third, and by far the most egregious, I brought a small and not full fuel canister which was wildly inadequate for snow melting.  I needed hot water bottles to dry all my stuff inside my sleeping bag, so I went without dinner, and was a bit cool and damp for a while, and really learned how to get the last bit of gas out of an inverted canister (warm with hands, shake lots).

I woke up after a good night of sleep a bit hungry, but with dry clothes and a skim of ice on the shell of my sleeping bag.  I backtracked and found an open patch of water near the top of a waterfall, and with this and short rations for the day managed to get within 600 vertical feet of the summit I had in mind.  That final bit of ridge looked ugly, and decidedly not skiable, so it was easy to dedicate energy to the very skiable looking couloir which led 2000 feet right back down to the trail.

Given the amount of skiing I’ve done, or at least the amount of time I’ve spent on skis in the backcountry, I should be a much better skier than I am.  Long before Ben died last January I was leery about backcountry skiing and the risk/reward calculus that comes with it.  Plenty of thought lately has led me to the conclusion that I’ve been punting on that question for the most part, and need to get back in amongst it to have a more informed opinion.  In this case, the tallest mountain in the Bob Marshall proper made it easy on me.  The Rocky Mountain Front isn’t reknowned for great skiing, mainly because the wind moves snow with haste and vigor.  But the mountains are steep and immediate, and in this case gave me a 35-40 degree chute with a nicely windbuffed surface and feet of well compacted, stable snow.  Not a weak layer or inversion to be found.  As can be seen in the video, not classic ripping conditions, nor an especially difficult line, but I was well beyond pleased to find both predictable surfaces and good stability for my biggest backcountry line to date.

I’m not entirely sure what the next few years of my backcountry career is going to look like, at least outside of hunting and figuring out how to backpack with a newborn and 3 year old.  But we’re in Montana for the foreseeable future, and when you get a winter like this one, that means skiing.

Black Diamond Mont Blanc gloves long term review

Much though I hate to admit it, you need gloves.  I have good circulation and am well acquainted with just how cold I can get without it really being a problem, so I try to do without gloves as often as possible, but too often it is just too cold.  Handwear comes with inherent dexterity problems, and because of this my favorite gloves have always been those which give the most protection with the least material and bulk.

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Since September of 2014 my favorite gloves have been the Mont Blancs, from Black Diamond. With a light high-stretch material on the palms and under the fingers, and a windproof laminate fabric on the tops, I’ve been able to wear the Mont Blancs well down into single digits (F) provided the wind isn’t too crazy, and circumstances allow my hands to stay dry.  The main caveats are their slow dry time, which can be problematic in the backcountry, and a fit which does not suit those with wider hands.

My surviving original pair is at top right above, with a brand new pair at top left, and some Dynafit DNA gloves at bottom.  My old gloves are still functional, though enough of the texture has worn off the fingers that grip is compromised.  The fit of the new gloves is a fair bit roomier, especially when it comes to length, as is shown below (old glove at left, new one at right).  The stretch cuff has also been lengthened.

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Glove fit is tricky.  Ideally palm width and especially finger width will be adequate, but no more.  Just as with footwear, gloves which are too tight can actually make you colder.  A big reason I’ve liked the Mont Blancs is that they fit me so well.  On first fitting the new ones seems like they’ll do just fine, with the extra finger room being not needed for me, but not excessive either.  The palm texture on the new version has a different pattern, but the fabric seems functionally identical.

It is also worth mentioning the Dynafit gloves, and comparing them to the Mont Blancs.  Both gloves are around 2 oz a pair, and both have a similar intended purpose.  As opposed to the Mont Blancs, the DNAs take the more conventional approach of having a thicker, less stretchy material on the palm and under the fingers.  This would seem to provide more durability, at the expense of less windproofing.  The DNA gloves do have a more secure grip, though that is a largely theoretical distinction, and are quite a bit less warm than the Mont Blancs in the wind.  The DNAs have a big burly elastic cuff, which feels more secure on the hand, but exacerbates the problem the Mont Blancs already have, namely a slow drying suite of materials.

The Mont Blancs are also noteably cheaper, $25 MSRP compared to $40.

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I use gloves like these the vast majority of the time.  They are good for mountain biking, great for skiing, and even nice for hunting (I can shoot both a rifle and a longbow with them on).  Most of the time I just take two pairs, and a set of light shell mittens if it gets cold.  Hardface fleece gloves are a good alternative for multiday stuff, being about as warm, fairly dextrous, and much faster drying.  I’d still like to see the Mont Blancs in a color other than black.  My original two pairs of Mont Blancs were still functional until a few months ago, when one right glove jumped ship somewhere in the Bob.

If these gloves fit they remain a good option.

What makes a hardshell

To begin; I like the term hardshell far more than rain jacket, as it more fully encompasses the utility and meaning in question.  Outdoor clothing is, or should be, part of a system, one that provides just enough protection from ambient conditions to keep you as warm as you want to be.  Some clothing items do this by primarily trapping air, and others do it by primarily stopping air, and/or water.  Doing any of these things is not complex.  Blending a few together is bit moreso.  Where outdoor garments fail is in failing to get their blend well suited to how humans actually move out in the world, either in the materials used and their attributes, their features and cut, or often, all of the above.

So what, in my experience, makes for a quality hardshell?

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This particular train of thought started about a year ago.  My trusty Haglofs Ozo anorak was (and is) far from dead, but was beginning to fall towards the grave.  The membrane was getting visibly thin inside the shoulders, and the DWR just did not have the zip it once did (retreatment notwithstanding).  As we all know this last is the functional death knell of a modern WPB fabric, who when the face fabric becomes saturated are not quite disabled, but certainly crippled.  So with an eye towards something new and something that might be well suited to some future trips in very wet places, I bought a Helio Alpine shell from Black Diamond.  The Ozo was an 8 ounce anorak with a single chest pocket and no pit zips, made from Goretex Paclite.  The Helio is a 13 ounce (in medium) full zip coat with pitzips, dual chest pockets, and is made from Goretex C-Knit.  At $499 retail is right around double what the Ozo listed for 6 years ago.

While it is not the be-all of hardshells, fabric is crucial.  I don’t wear my hardshell much unless I have to, and I only have to either when it is raining hard, or it is very cold and windy.  A stiffer fabric works better in both of these applications than a softer one.  The surface tension of a hardshell is eventually overwhelmed and then saturated by the weight of water, either falling from the sky or dripping off brush.  A stiff fabric delays this, especially in the face of a good wind, as well as resisting the pumping action of high winds, which pushes warm air out of your layers.  The C-Knit laminate used in the Helio is advertised as more pliable than the flagship formulations like Goretex Pro, but is quite stiff compared to lighter, PU-laminates common in sub-10 oz WPB jackets.  I’d say it’s close to ideal, burly but not too heavy for a hard use shell.

As far as the laminate itself, Goretex has never let me down when it comes to keeping water out.  I remain content to allow the more fashionable, air permeable laminates to come, and it would often seem, go.

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A good hood is vital in a hardshell.  When conditions are bad, nothing else will do.  I’ve owned and passed along a number of otherwise good hardshells (such as the SD Cagoule in the title photo) for no other reason than the hood being less than ideal.  I rarely wear a helmet in the woods anymore, but nonetheless favor helmet compatible hoods because, with the exception of the Haglofs, I’ve yet to meet a non-helmet compatible hood which was not too small for all the layers I at least occasionally want to fit under it.  Full coverage of a few hats and insulated hoods is mandatory, as is a snug fit on a bare head.

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The Helio provides good coverage and enough room.  It comes up a little short with the volume adjuster, which is a single pull in the back of the hood.  This is the same system used in the more recent version of the Alpine Start hoody, where it is entirely appropriate.  I like it less in a hardshell, as while it does allow the hood to be cinched properly when zipped up, it works less well when the neck is a bit open.  With this system one cannot tighten the face opening without also cinching up the volume, which is practice isn’t terrible, but is also not optimal for comfort.  For a 500 dollar serious hardshell I would like to see better.

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Aside from good fabric and a good hood, a good fit is last of my must haves.  The Helio is roomy without being baggy, with room for all the insulation I could imagine wanting under it.  The sleeves and torso are just a bit on the long side, and behave themselves well when making long reaches, and stay tucked under a hipbelt or harness.

Everything else is optional, which is why I’m willing to put up with the insanely tight waterproof zips used on the main zip, pockets, and pitzips.  One handed operation is not possible, even after 10 months of breaking in.  The two big chest pockets are very nice, big enough for maps, with bottom seams that angle contents away from the openings.  The zipper garages are there, but are a bit too small for ideal field use.  Pitzips I would still rather do without, as I don’t think they do much aside from disrupt the humidity required to make Goretex work, but those on the Helio at least don’t add much stiffness to the overall and are generally unobtrusive (until you try to close them).

Overall the Helio is a very good hardshell.  It does the important things well or better, and some of the less essential stuff pretty good, too.  It costs a lot, and I’m hesitant to recommend something so imperfect which costs so much, but it does provide a good blueprint for what works and why.

The year I grew up

It’s an inherently vain exercise, but if I had to pick a favorite moment of 2017 it would be late on the second day of my bike/packrafting trip along the Dirty Devil River.  All the boat dragging, cold, and ambiguity had worn my mind to a jagged, dull edge.  I made camp near the apex of a big bend, where a riffle left a 30 foot wide gravel bar and sandy bench above, for me to pitch my tarp.  I had no precise idea where I was, and in an attempt to sooth that doubt and warm up I climbed quickly up the steep talus and ridge of stacked table tops to the top of the bend before traversing back north to get even higher and see up the big canyon I had floated past.

I knew what the narrows of Happy Canyon would look like from the inside, having been down to them 13 years earlier, and presumed my exit up Poison Springs would be obvious as the only road crossing.  Aside from that I could only very roughly guess, based on the only map I had brought along, a cell phone screenshot of the relevant section of the Utah gazetteer (1:100,000 scale, 200 foot contour intervals).  After 15 minutes of orienting and pondering, and a futile attempt to use the location function on my phone (useless without a base map), I decided that I was probably close to Happy Canyon, and thus almost certainly on schedule.  I hiked back to camp, made a fire, dried more gear, ate, and went to bed.

This is such a fond memory because it so closely mirrored my first packrafting trip on the South Fork of the Flathead.  My first camp was a few miles below the confluence of Youngs and Danaher, and with less than 1000 cfs I worked hard for the 5 miles down to the Pretty Prairie pack bridge.  It was drizzling and cold, and even wearing all my clothes I still got quite, creepingly cold.  The sun came out around noon and I pulled over at the White River to dry everything, my spirits foremost, and figure out where the hell I was.  In the pre-Cairn days the Forest Service map was the only deal around, and that day on my very first wilderness packraft I made distance and speed estimates with all consuming trepidation.

Doubt is precious in the modern world.  While it’s hard to find something out in the wild that hasn’t been documented on the internet, and harder still to deliberately ignore some or all of that information, the biggest challenge of the information age is breaking your mind free from the paths trodden before.  This isn’t to say that my loops on the Dirty Devil or Escalante were especially original, aside from the brief initial bike stretch on the former all the ground was very well trodden.  It is to say that putting together a good route and then seeing it on the ground, especially in a place you’ve long coveted and most especially without undue drama in the process, is something to treasure.

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There are many other memories I might list.  Spending two days wandering around Echo Park during the crux of spring, laying on the beach at Cosley Lake watching Little Bear throw rocks, many morning hours in Bestslope Coffee writing Packrafting the Crown of the Continent, the first night sleeping on the floor downstairs in our 128 year old house, packing my first elk out of a snowy Bob Marshall Wilderness.  And, just as many which are equally joyful, but more immediately weighty: figuring out where we wanted to live for the foreseeable future, waiting to see if our sellers were willing to discount our house such that we were willing to invest in the sort of issues which come with a thing as old as Montana itself, balancing home and the most responsible job I’ve yet had, pondering and ultimately deciding to have a second child.

It has, in short, been a year when any vestiges of un-adulthood were stripped away definitively.

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This won’t be a surprise for any regular reader.   I’ve begun to understand what busy truly is, which has necessitated quantity over quality both on this site and in my life generally.  In 11 years of being 2017 will see Bedrock & Paradox have both the fewest posts and the most traffic, not unlike this year saw the fewest trips, but the highest quality.  Neither of these things look set to change next year.

I’ve been watching the usual flood of highlight reals, awards, and end of the year compilations with the usual interest (it is a good, or at least rich, time to be a consumer of adventure and outdoor media).  A number dwell on the extent to which outdoor trips are inherently unpredictable, and how the art is in rolling with the ambiguity and as needed making lemonade out of lemons.  This is true, but much less so than most people think.  I’ve had plenty of altered adventures this year, one might more bluntly call them failures, due to things like injury or expectations out of line with circumstances.  These happen, and they’re learning experiences, but insofar as adventure outside is ultimately about exploring and better knowing the depths within, an end goal is always going to be trips that in the big picture proceed exactly as planned.  Not because nothing went askew; when I think about my A list trips this year (solo and family) every one of them was riven through with major stress and doubt about at least something.  The best trips go exactly as planned because when you get to them you’ll know enough to have removed most of the external variables, and have gone far enough towards mastering yourself that you’ll be able to push through the inner ones.  Inner and outer variables, they are not exactly the same, but neither is the barrier between them particularly definitive.

I’m talking about mastery, and to my surprise I not only fully arrived in the outdoor realm this year, I’ve been quite close to that benchmark in my job, as well.  Conveniently, the stress of parenting and owning a home have introduced goals which are years if not decades distant, making me not at risk of complacency any time soon.

And that is what I hope for from this website, to be able to continue to grow, and continue to provide plenty of interest to you, the readers.  My request for support back in April confirmed what I had long suspected, that the audience here is small by the standards of the world and of most marketing analysts, but includes people in almost all the right places.  Stickers (which are still for sale, if you’re interested) were the first step, and second one has been a long time in coming, but is nearly here.  In 2018 things are shaping up such that you’ll see my footprint in a few more places, see Bedrock & Paradox get a little more polished, and have a few more things of interest available here, both for free and for sale.

I’m looking forward to showing you.  See you next year.