A tale of two windshirts (thoughts on winter clothes)

After a week of steady snow and temperatures in town flitting around the freezing mark, winter emphatically arrived last night.  Up in the foothills (West Glacier ) evening lows are forecasted solidly into the negative single digits.  Might it be time to go camping?

The skiing up on Big Mountain has been excellent this week, though the visibility has not.  Heading down the north side in flat light yesterday morning I stuff a tip into a ‘cat rut and yardsaled pretty hard.  Aside from a mildly rung bell I didn’t notice any ill effects until we were drinking Guinness in the Great Northern in Whitefish last night (before seeing Harry Potter).  My neck is fine so long as I don’t look down or sideways too fast.  My legs are also worked: getting into ski shape is always a process: there just isn’t anything else quite like it.  And that’s a good thing.

Clothing systems for backcountry skiing are among the hardest to figure out.  They must accommodate the extreme exertion and lack of air movement that characterize hiking hard uphill, as well as protect against forced air circulation at a level equal or greater to mountain biking downhill.  Doing all this in single digits temps, when you’ll be in and out of exposure to strong winds, and the stakes can go well beyond the merely uncomfortable.  Your clothing needs to wick, vent and dry quickly, and with minimal fuss also cinch down thoroughly and be quite to very windproof.

Yesterday morning was a good example.  It was pretty warm at the base, and moderately windy the first time I crested the summit.  The balance between being cool enough to not sweat too much (the only way to not sweat at all is to slow down, which I consider untenable) and not loosing more heat than can be regained through exertion and a belay coat was tenuous.  I wore a cap 2 shirt, Omni gloves, a very thin merino beanie, and my Patagonia Traverse pullover.  For the descent I zipped everything up, added a Houdini, and goggles.

For the second trip up, the wind had picked up quite a bit, and it was snowing.  I shed the goggles, but nothing else, and went back and forth between everything unzipped and the Houdini all cinched up.  Once I crested the summit ridge the wind was fierce, and I was only just warm huffing up a 20 degree slope with everything cinched.  At the summit I dumped my pack, pulled on my belay coat, shed skins, put on goggles, stuffed the coat in the pack, and headed down (enjoying stellar powder in the upper bowl).  Everything but my hat was dry when I got back to the truck, I had a good ice beard started, and the shoulders, hood and arms of the Houdini were crusty with frozen moisture.  80 percent from me, 20 percent from the ski, I’d reckon.

Aside from the merino hat, which just doesn’t wick and dry fast enough, this is a pretty good system.  It’s built around two pieces of gear, which seem to overlap significantly, are among my favorites, and neither of whom I can see easily doing without.

I’ve written about the wonders of the Houdini before.  It is simply one of the most useful pieces of outdoor clothing invented.  I’ve recently learned (through BPL, of course) that part of the Houdini’s magic (good wind resistance for such a light fabric, astoundingly fast dry time) exists on an almost molecular level.  The nylon ripstop is impregnated with the DWR, in the same process used on Epic fabrics.  The Houdini is structurally incapable of soaking up much water.  Though the thin fabric will wet through fairly easily, it doesn’t retain moisture.

The Traverse pullover is quite different.  4.7 oz/yard fabric, compared to the Houdini’s 1.1.  The Traverse is also polyester rather than nylon, significant because poly absorbs much less water than nylon.  Estimates vary, but most seem to put nylons at around 4x that of polyester.  Interestingly, the moisture retention of these two fabrics might be very close.  I may have to test this myself.  Because of the more open weave of the fabric, the Traverse has tested to be about twice as air permeable as the Houdini.  The Traverse also lacks a hood (and I removed the chest pocket).

All of this creates some interesting differences between the two; for instance, the Traverse is warmer, but the Houdini more wind and water-resistant.  The Houdini dries faster, bu the Traverse disperses perspiration faster.  The ultimate result is that over a broad range of conditions (anything between bright warm sun and full on rain) these two windshirts have an intricately overlapping range of situations in which one is more appropriate than the other.  They can also work well in tandem.  Given that windshirts are the most versatile of garments, having two isn’t a bad thing at all.

The problem is, I want a third windshirt.  The full rational and thought process is displayed in this BPL thread, but in summary I want a burlier, heavier windshirt with more wind and water resistance, as well as different feature set than either the Houdini or Traverse.  For winter, I actually see the new anorak complementing the very breathable Traverse well.  Case in point, the Traverse/Houdini combo was only just windproof enough skinning up the summit ridge yesterday.  And it’s going to be way colder than that on many ski days this winter.

Construction on the new windshirt should begin shortly after Thanksgiving.

PS: Watch the ski video linked to in my tweet from yesterday.  The bro-bra aesthetic is lamentable, but the skiing (and fishing!) are top notch.  The February B-day trip I want to do in SoUt is getting crowded.

Memory

This is an article I wrote about my May trip across Yellowstone.  Initials inquiries have not panned out, so I’m turning it loose.  It is not short.  I might send it off somewhere else, so anyone who makes it to the end, please leave any feedback you might have.

Acting on desire

A faint textured swath of snow snaked off into the distance, promising a smooth path onward. Remnants of an animals’ passage, a fluke of wind or of water, I’d been seeing similar windings paths for the last hour, and they’d proven to be islands of safe passage from the rain-saturated, rotten, bottomless snow. Following past precedent, I skied along the edge of the raised, slightly grey snow. For 20 feet I kicked and glided with ease, making forward progress tantalizingly fast, until I fully weighted my left ski at the apex of one stride and it punched through. Instantly my left leg dropped two feet. In the next instant the snow under my heel collapsed further and the ski slid backwards. My front foot became my rear foot in short order as I stabbed both poles into the snow for balance to fight the instant lunge I’d been obliged to execute. Coming to rest a half second after the mess started, I reset my right foot and began the vigorous kicks necessary to unbury my left ski. Once a big enough hole had been created I leaned forward, swung the ski up, out and back in front of me, and begin striding forward. Four feet later, my right foot punched through and the whole thing happened all over again. This time, I paused in my lunge to ask the question that every backpacker asks at least once on any big trip: what the hell am I doing here?

The idea that brought me to the meadows of rotten snow on Atlantic Creek, south of Yellowstone National Park, had come about simply enough. Starting in June of 2009 I had decided to visit the park at least once a month for the next 12. On that late June backpack, sitting on a sandy beach next to the Yellowstone River with my wife, such a project seemed like a grand idea. And for the most part the routine of driving 5 hours from Missoula to Yellowstone became enjoyable. The expected hazards of cold, crap weather did not materialize; my October visit was much colder than my January trip. What did materialize was the occasionally titanic stress of my last year in graduate school. More than one trip seemed like it would create more pressure than it would resolve, and while February and March proved to be great ski trips undertaken with my wife’s encouragement, I did have to give April a miss. All of which is to say that by early May I was staring down two major life events: graduation, and the end of my yellowstone project.

The two had evolved in concert, and the logistical and emotional investment I had in both was formidable. I devised a plan to unite them, in a trip whose intensity and solitude would give me distance from grad school and intimacy with Yellowstone. All year, circumstance and commitments had kept me from doing a trip in Yellowstone any longer than an overnight, and what knowledge I had gained of the park only served to highlight the superficial dimension of such short trips. A solo traverse of the park and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem seemed like just the thing.

The possibilities of snow

The trip had to be in mid-May, in the small window between graduation festivities and the necessity of employment. May is spring in Yellowstone, but the way in which this corner of the earth understands spring is at best idiosyncratic compared to other places. I could expect snowstorms, snowpack, rain, and high streams along with migratory birds, green shoots, animals on the move, and temps not too far below freezing. While spring meant a lighter physical pack, with a 20 oz synthetic quilt in place of a 40 oz down sleeping bag, it meant a heavier mental pack, in the form of big unknowns. How much snow would I find up high? Would the creeks be wadable, or require swimming? How much snow would I find down low? Would the bears be more or less interested in their first human of a new year? How much snow would I find in the trees?

Snow is in many ways what creates Yellowstone. The Snake River originates along the park’s southern edge, and the generous plain it creates as it wends southwest in Idaho serves as a prodigious funnel for winter moisture. Yellowstone gets a lot of snow, the melting of which not only makes it a summer magnate for migratory animals, but fuels the rivers and geysers. Yellowstone is late June is amazingly green, the critters abundant, relaxed, and occupied with eating. Geysers, springs, and pools that in late autumn merely fix and sputter roil and spew when infused with spring runoff. Snow also guards the park during winter, turning the disneyland of summer into the emptiness of winter. While groomed roads, snow coaches, and snow machines leave the park far from empty, the added difficulty of cold and snow vastly expand the backcountry.

The full complement of pre-Columbian megavertebrates, the largest collection of geothermal features on earth, and the expanse of Yellowstone’s wildness are all enabled by snow, so it made sense that snow was the primary obstacles when I pulled out the maps and set about route planning. I owned snowshoes and skis, and thus had options for dealing with snow. Some were just less desirable (heavier and/or slower) than others.

I soon realized that bears were a more immediate problem. Not the necessity of traveling, cooking, and camping smart in grizzly country; the rules for which I had in the last year become quite familiar. The difficulty rather lay in the 16 bear management areas that carpet choice areas of the park. Beginning in 1983 the park service sought to minimize backpacker-bear conflicts by barring hikers from certain areas during certain times of year. Several of these were highly relevant to my plans. Pelican Valley, just north of Yellowstone Lake, provides a natural access point to the upper Lamar Valley, over the gentle (and quick to melt out) Mist Creek Pass. Because it is so low, sunny, and therefore lush, Pelican Valley is very popular with many of the parks animals during the spring. It is closed to human traffic from April 1 to July 4, and thus the Mist Creek to Lamar route was off the table.

I dealt with the snow problem by purchasing a short pair of downhill skis at a ski swap, carving out a fishscale base with a dremel tool, and manufacturing bindings that would allow me to ski in my trail runners. Ideally, I would be able to ski (faster than snowshoeing) or hike with equal effectiveness. I dealt with the bear problem by taking the path of least resistance. I would start in Turpin Meadows on the outskirts of Teton National Park, hike up the Buffalo Fork drainage, over a low pass into the Yellowstone River drainage, and follow the Yellowstone out of the park, detouring around the rugged Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone by skiing over Mount Washburn. The first half of my route was a traditional elk migration corridor, and the second had been used by Euro-Americans since they first laid ski tracks in the park during the 19th century. It is remarkable that a river valley as broad, gentle and scenic as the Yellowstone south of the lake exists road free. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the segments from Yellowstone Lake to north of Washburn. For 11 miles I’d be just across the river from the road, and even over Washburn the road would be fairly close by. I decided to embrace that aspect of the route as giving me the full range of the modern park experience. Besides, I had little choice.

The certainty of wet feet

Difficult snow stayed with me all the way down into Two Ocean Pass, then only got more deeply rotten as I gradually lost elevation down Atlantic Creek towards the Yellowstone River. Two Ocean Pass is a peculiar place. Well eroded by generous snowfall, it barely resembles a pass at all. It is a broad valley running east-west, and in it’s mile-long apex sits a extensive bog, out of which Pacific Creek flows west, and Atlantic Creek flows east. All of this was frozen under 2-8 feet of snow, and I snapped a picture of the trail sign before moving on over the Continental Divide. I knew that if snow conditions did not improve, I was in for a long day. I was already making around a mile an hour under hard effort, and had no reason to expect any different until I got under the snow line.

What haunted me was the thought of ski-necessitating snow down in the Yellowstone River valley, on the Thorofare trail. I had been mostly hiking on the Buffalo Fork trail the day before. Though treed sections had plenty of postholing, the south facing sections had been snow-free, even at 8000 feet. It was only in the upper reaches, when it curved to the east, that the skis had come out. Around noon I was crossing the Two Ocean, and my energy began to flag. I pulled over under a old Whitebark Pine, to eat my breakfast cereal and brew coffee on my esbit stove. I relaxed under the shelter of the tangled tree, as it had begun to rain here at over 8000 feet, and pulled out the maps. The Thorofare was mostly as low or lower than the snow-free reaches of the Buffalo Fork, and the trail looked to be primarily out of the trees and of a favorable, south facing aspect. Sitting out of the rain, with a full belly and sipping hot coffee, I could allow myself a reasonable amount of comfort. My slow trudge would not last forever, and this really was a pretty cool spot. I was better off than the postholing moose and grizzly I had followed over the pass from the Buffalo Fork. In numerous places the moose had sunk its leg five feet deep, leaving belly troughs as it wallowed along. Besides, the moose had no coffee, hot or cold. I packed up and continued, cheerfully resigned to my fate, however miserable it might be.

A key to success on backpacking trips in tough conditions is knowing how to effectively manipulate yourself, and my swing in mood was largely due to a technique Kevin Sawchuck and I had discovered during Le Parcour de Wild wilderness race across the Bob Marshall the previous fall. On cold mornings eating breakfast in camp is no fun. Better to pack up quick and scarf snacks on the go, then stop for brunch in the late morning. Resting the feet after 5 hours on the go is expedient for both mind and body, and lets you sit and relax in warmer conditions. I also get a thrill out of breakfasting on Reese Cups and Halvah, something I couldn’t justify under any other circumstances.

The other key to success on shoulder season trips is happy feet. Conventional footwear systems, light or heavy, would not have excelled as I headed down Atlantic Creek. For expedience I made several knee-deep stream crossings with skis on. In addition to insta-lunging through the wet snow, on several occasions while skiing I broke through a rotten layer of snow into overflow, the peculiar phenomena where a stream in its impatience flows over a winters worth of ice on its way to warmer and faster waters. Again, being knee deep in frigid water while wearing skis was a not uncommon experience, and because of my footwear I was able to savor it for the peculiar circumstance that is was.

I wore New Balance MT100 trail runners, a very light and fast draining shoe, and two pairs of socks: first a very liner, then NRS Hydroskins. Hydroskins are a thin neoprene sock with a fuzzy lining laminated to the inside. They provide the warmth retention of neoprene, so long as your feet are creating heat, with the flexibility and low-bulk necessary to function blister-free with conventional trail shoes. To complete the system, I wore low-cut spandura gaiters, affixed to the shoes with a lace hook and a generous (2″ by 2″) patch of velcro on the heel. Together with quick-drying stretch polyester pants and pertex windpants, I was able to tackle the wet snow and thigh-deep creek crossings without concern or hesitation. A few of the colder creek crossings, like Mountain Creek early on day three, did engender ice cream headaches, but with this footwear and dry sleep socks my feet were remarkably comfortable the whole trip.

Broken bindings, broken routes

That is not to say that all went according to plan. Early on day two I noticed that the screws on the right ski binding had loosened quite a lot. Should have used locktite, I thought, as I pulled out the allen wrench and cranked them back down. This happened twice more, and the third time I noticed that one of the T-nuts I had installed into the skis had been pushed down and out, lost somewhere in the snow. Should have use better epoxy, I thought blandly. When tightened the two remaining bolts held the binding fine, but through my effort-glazed eyes I could see that things were starting to unravel with my homemade bindings.  Shortly thereafter my right heel began to drift, a breakdown in tracking that heretofore had signaled a loose screw. This time, inspection revealed that the screws were tight, but the epoxied plastic layers that gave the binding structure and let me control the skis on side hills had cracked laterally, right behind the mounting screws. Not good.

There was nothing to be done about that besides continue slogging through rotten snow and overflow, across creeks, through willow thickets, and around tree wells melted six feet deep in the forest. Progress remained slow, and got even slower an hour later when the stress of thrashing through a particularly bottomless section of snow broke my left binding in a manner identical to what my right had already suffered. By then I had already descended the last significant hill on the Atlantic Creek trail, had seen dry ground in the distance, and knew it was only a matter of time before I could get the accursed skis back on my pack where they belonged.

The Thorofare is a truly tremendous place, an apt reward for so much work. The Yellowstone flowed by the trail, monolithic and impassive. I was glad I had a bridge to cross it. A hundred yards across a meadow a bear interrupted its rooting to stand up and stare, trying to figure out what I was. With skis sticking up above my head I imagined I might resemble a strange elk, and it wasn’t until the bear got my wind that he figured out I was a human and took off at a full run. I had been quite worried about bears prior to the trip, enough to purchase my first ever can of pepper spray, but all three bears I saw turned and ran as soon as they figured out who I was. I can only presume I was the first human any of them had seen since waking up that spring.

It remained cold as I hiked north towards the Thorofare trail, and as I had all day, I kept my rain gear and wool hat on. It must have been just warm enough for the many melt-water fed ponds and bogs to not freeze, and I had plenty of time to get used to the knee deep wades that would occur every 30 minutes or so for most of the rest of the hike. Coming out of one especially deep and long and cold seasonal pond, I noticed a post in the distance. I knew what this meant, and revealed in the ability to accelerate against dry ground and rush towards my intermediate destination. I had made it into Yellowstone National Park the best way, on my own feet. I set up my camera on my pack and took pictures with the self timer to celebrate. Not only had I passed through the crux of my route with only isolated equipment failure and vivid memories to show for it, I had made it into the park which had, over the course of a year’s exploring and contemplation, started to feel very much like home.

I was also starting to think that given how poorly my broken bindings functioned over anything but utterly flat snow, the rest of my trip might need to be altered or cut short. Other concerns were more immediate, as it was highly unlikely that I’d be able to hike fast enough now to make the camp near Mountain Creek that was on my permit. I wasn’t concerned with getting a ticket for using another site, but I did want to make miles such that I could make it to Park Point to camp tomorrow evening, as I had been assured that it was a camp not to be missed. My other concern lay less than a mile ahead, the first of at least two major stream crossings: Thorofare Creek.

Ending before the beginning

Every trip into the backcountry has two distinction endings, perhaps only distantly related. The first is the physical end of the trip, stepping out into the trailhead and the world of beer and pizza. The second is the ineffable moment when physical and psychological progress along the route moves beyond the halfway point. Suddenly unknowns become invigorating rather than intimidating, and the trip itself becomes a fait accompli, the execution of which can be savored, not looked upon with trepidation. On the Thorofare trip, that moment came three minutes after the ford of Thorofare Creek, when walking had finally faded the cold from my feet and brain enough to realize that, even in the worst case scenario, I would see pavement in 36 hours. It’s something of a sad testament to realize how reassuring signs of civilization can be, and the power those signs hold for me on trips whose purpose hinges around being as distant from civilization as is possible. This returns to the love/hate dynamic which so often governs wilderness travel, I love it precisely because it can be so stressful.

Prior to the start of the trip I had planned on crossing Thorofare and Mountain Creeks rigged for a swim, and even after I had scouted what appeared to be a solid crossing of Thorofare I still made sure my dry bags were well sealed, my pack was well cinched, and put firestarter, food, and my Spot unit in the pocket of my anorak. This all seemed comical as I cruised diagonally downstream across three braids of the creek, with the only section deeper than my knees coming right against the far bank. As I postholed at top speed (to get feeling back in my feet) through the wooded section towards the juncture with the Thorofare trail, I knew that I had seen, assessed, and dealt with all the route’s major hazards. The snow had been about as bad as could be imagined, and did little besides slow me down and break some gear. Inconvenient, but far from debilitating. I had seen two bears, and more bear sign than I ever had before, and not yet been eaten. I had crossed the biggest creek on the route, and had no reason to suppose that the other crossings would be anything but well within the range of my past experience. In short, baring bad luck or flagrant stupidity, I was going to make it. This thought made me very happy.

The first two days had been enjoyable, but with an edge of toil and uncertainty. The last two, though still featuring sore feet, plenty of postholing, and a rather intense sleet storm, were much more relaxed, and two of the most enjoyable days I’ve ever spent in the woods. My second nights camp had a warm fire, tasty food (not a particular distinguishing comment given my hunger), and my shelter pitched on the edge of a pine grove with a tremendous view back up the Thorofare valley from whence I had come. The morning of day three dawned clear and frost-rimmed, and the scenery did not disappoint. The Thorofare trail along the Yellowstone River is superlative in every respect, and it was here that Yellowstone’s role as “America’s serengeti” seemed well earned. The profusion of waterfowl stood out in contrast to the unfriendly, snowy mountains on all sides, and even absent the herds on herbivores that had not yet migrated in the valley seemed to be teeming with life. On several occasions a pair of Sandhill Cranes objected to my presence with sufficient vociferation and abruptness that I jumped further than I ever have during any bear encounter.

Once I came out of the Yellowstone River valley and drew even with the lake the trail did retreat into the thick spruce, which made for plenty of shade and thus lots of postholing, though thankfully the drifts were irregular and intermittent enough that the skis and their dreadful bindings stayed on the pack. Observing the various animal tracks in the snow, including the amusingly duck footed waddle of the Griz, kept my sense of wonder operational, and soon enough I was in the Columbine Creek drainage, whose thermal soils not only changed the flora significantly, but made things as snow free as they’d been since the trip began, 48 hours and one long eternity before.

By that point I had decided that my trip would end at the road. I have a near pathological need to catalogue successes in my life, born out of my high achieving family and the early death of my father. The sense of my own mortality I carry daily is most effectively satiated by taking carpe diem to the extreme, and historically stopping to smell the roses has not fit into that approach. This used to make stopping or shortening a trip a non0starter, irrespective of conditions, extenuating circumstances, or the wisdom of lingering in lovely places. I’ve slowly gotten older and wiser, enough to realize that road walking over Mount Washburn on the first weekend it was open to cars would not make for a fun or satisfying trip.

This decision was made all the more easy as I neared Park Point, and what would now be my final camp. The trail disappeared as it entered a vast meadow, and a quarter mile away, imperturbably feed on spring grass, was the trips’ first bison. Over the year I’d grown enthralled with bison and their role in Yellowstone, both as a crucial part of the ecosystem and as the primary symbol of the park as ecological island. Moreso even than wolves and bears, bison would have ceased to exist as a wild species had it not been for Yellowstone. Even though the mountain bison of Yellowstone are not representative of how the vast majority of their ancestors lived two centuries ago, their direct genetic and spiritual link with the wild bison of the past have made bison, in my mind, uniquely special. I took this bison as a good omen for my trips’ final night.

Another lone male bison greeted me as I exited the tress onto the shore of Yellowstone Lake, and came out into one of the most spectacular campsites I’ve ever seen. The still frozen lake spread out towards the horizon, the low sun reflecting off its corrugated surface. The mountains of Yellowstone and further off the Grand Teton stood clearly against the clear sky. As I made camp and drank tea around my fire, hiding from the cold 40 mph wind behind a huge old log, I could not help thinking about the past. I’d grown up backpacking, before transitioning to climbing as a teenager. I had been chased off the summit of the Grand Teton by lightening seven years before, an ascent that was one of the pinnacles of my climbing career. Yet all of that had been a prolegomena to this trip. For all the physical difficulties of this spring Thorofare traverse, and essential training had been the confidence built over decades in the woods. I may have had the physical abilities and technical knowledge to do this trip years ago, but until I believed that I could do it, the idea would never have come. The essential work was done well before the trip, in the mind. Once I dared to think up the route, and had the confidence in myself to plan for and start out on it, the traverse itself was almost a foregone conclusion.


This video might still be my favorite.

Postscript

Everything that happened on day 4 was a coming down from that tremendous evening sitting fireside with my soul open besides Yellowstone Lake. I woke, packed, made coffee, ate breakfast, and walked six miles to the road. The snowdrifts were frozen solid and supported body weight after what had been the coldest night of the trip by a significant margin, cold enough that I donned my rain jacket around midnight to stay warm. Streams and puddles were frozen with a 1/4″ skim of ice, but my mind and feet had grown so used to such terrain that soaked feet with weather below freezing seemed entirely unremarkable. The final miles of trail curved and meandered through a burned area, and I slowed to a saunter, admiring the collective edifice that thousands of dead and limbless trees formed against the cloudy sky. Once again I was wearing a hat and all my shell clothing, and as the sound of cars filtered through the forest I began to wonder just how peculiar and frightening I looked, and what my prospects for hitching might be.

The hitchhiking might be the most remarkable part of the whole trip. I thought that with luck I might make it to West Yellowstone, Gardiner, or perhaps even Livingston in a few rides, where I could call Meredith, my wife, and assess my options. I could hole up in a hotel until she had time to fetch me, or if I made it to the interstate 90 corridor I could take the Greyhound bus back to Missoula.

Instead, the trip continued to exceed expectations. I walked most of the way to Fishing Bridge along the park road, smiling with my thumb out as pickup after clean pickup with out-of-west plates and two inhabitants passed me while assiduously avoiding eye contact. Ascribe what motive you like, but the fact that the average American tourist does not look kindly upon hitchhikers cannot be argued. In the end a park employee birding on his day off saved me the last few miles of walking to the Fishing Bridge gas station, where I immediately got a ride all the way home to Missoula with four guys from Miami, Florida, driving an RV to Anchorage, Alaska. They were zig zagging widely across the lower 48, taking in as many Major League Baseball games as they could, and on top of that insisted on fitting Yellowstone into their tight schedule. I lectured on park zoology, weather, and geology, and played tour guide at Old Faithful, which in keeping with my luck all week erupted 10 minutes after our arrival. For the next five hours we five ate BBQ ribs, chatted about everything under the sun, and delivered me to my wife’s work (I had no house key) almost before she saw the message that I would be arriving. I drove home, unpacked, showered, and was in bed with tea and cookies before dark, marveling at how all outward traces of my trip had been erased with such efficiency. The inward traces were, of course, indelible.

The new paradigm marches on

This graph may be one of the more useful things you’ll find for winter adventure planning.  It comes by way of Richard Nisley, a San Fran packrafter, adventurer, and fabrics scientist.  The original post, at BPL, and the ensuing discussion can be found here.  The iClo values themselves do not tell the full story, but do allow insulation types and weights to be excised in large part from debates over shell fabrics, to say nothing of more subjective factors such as individual metabolic rates, calories on board, and mental state.

It’s the time of year when staying warm becomes increasingly of concern.

I’d also like to know that the blog transfer appears to have been successful!  I find it embarrasingly distressful to have those sorts of loose ends in my life, and thus the ease with which WordPress made the transfer (and it was all the WP import function) was lovely to behold.  When I saw that Google employee Beat used WordPress instead of Blogger, I knew which was superior.  Over the next few days I intend to comb through past posts, deleting some and categorizing the rest for easy searching.  I also want to transfer the old blogrolls into an annotated bibliography of internet resources and inspiration.  But packrafting on the recent rain surged creeks and hopefully playing in the snow comes first.

I hope everyone will enjoy the new blog as it unfolds.

All Pack, version 4

There are few things that will get more mileage, if you’re a regular adventurer outside, than a stout 40-50 liter pack. Enough room for technical day trips or short backpacks, not big enough to be a nuisance on a dayhike, tough enough to beat on for years.

My version of this do-most-things pack has evolved considerably since I built the first version 20 months ago.  My skill set has evolved, my preferences have changed, the fabrics I use and my designs have grown more sophisticated.  After the North Fork Pack was such a success, another All Pack redesign was inevitable.

I finished this latest one up just in time for last weekends traverse in Glacier NP, and can report that the revisions performed admirably.

Central to this are the bellowed side pockets, with burly 1/4″ shock cord running through a sleeve on the curved edge, with grommets on either end.  The cord is adjustable and replaceable should it wear out.

The pockets hold a lot of stuff securely, fold pretty flat when not in use, and stuff can be extracted and inserted with one hand without removing the pack!  Here in Montana I typically bring just one water bottle, and refill water often from little streams.  Side pockets are essential for making this approach efficient.

The bottom and back panel, as well as front and sides of the wrap around pocket, are Ballistics nylon.  Heavy, and absorbs water, but very abrasion resistant.  The inner layer of the double bottom, and the black inner fabric, is Dimension Polyant VX-21.  The VX-21 is lighter and very waterproof (200 psi). As a result, it aborbs very little water.

The hipbelt design I’m quite proud of.  The outermost wings are Osprey Talon 11 belt pockets/wings, while the inner belt is VX-21.  It’s bartacked to the middle of the back panel, and to the side wings (that also serve to attach the shoulder straps).  Two gussets shape the belt midway between the attachment points (the gussets are bartacks sewn into the belt to take up fabric).  The result is a light, unpadded belt that carries weight well and does a remarkably job moving with me during climbing and bushwacking.

This shows the belts attachment to the side wings, as well as the drain slot in the bottom of the side pockets.

I modified the stock hip belt buckle rig for two reasons after this weekends trip.  First, having two buckles for adjustment seemed excessive.  I also wanted to replace the fancy Osprey buckle with this more conventional black one.  The male end of the Osprey buckle doesn’t have much space for snow to exit when you close it, and is thus surprisingly prone to icing up.  This should solve that issue.

It’s rather impossible to give a complete sense of all the design details.  Do feel free to ask questions.  The only pieces which have been apart of every revision up to the present are the shoulder harness, extension collar, and back pocket daisy chain assemblage.  The overall dimensions have also changed.  This version is shorter than past versions, as I have a big pack for serious gear, and fatter.  A pack worn while cycling can only be so tall (it hits your helmet), and I wanted a better pack for bike-rafting.  In the first photo I have my packraft, paddle, PDF, drysuit, and a days accessories all loaded in.

It’s been a fun journey.

When in doubt, ride

I came home in an evil mood. There is one direct solution: get out.

It worked.  It’s not Missoula, but we have some ok riding.

I also gave my new Homebrewed Components Nut Tugger.  I prefer the simplicity of track ends (not that I’ve owned a bike with an EBB or sliders), and while the bolts on a Hope hub always held without moving, both quick releases alone and the standard solid axle bolts that came on the above Surly hub moved enough to cause problematic chain tension.  The Surly chain tug works, but is a clumsy, poor design.  The nut tugger is lightweight machined aluminum, and at first ride seems dead-on perfect.  It slots perfectly into the dropout, and seems to hold well.  I’ll keep ya’ll posted.

Election night good omen: Obsidian Stout on sale for $5.98 a sixer at Super 1.

My current thoughts on shells

Monday, for moment, is gear day. Check the last few mondays for thoughts on base layers and footwear.

This article will be much shorter than either of the previous, because the subject is much simpler. You need shells to keep wind and precipitation out. Wear as little shell as you can get away with given the conditions, and pick one that fits and has useful features. That’s it.

Shells can be separated into windproof and waterproof shells. Both are misnomers, as no windshell is windproof, and no waterproof shell you’d actually want to wear moving through the wilderness is actually waterproof. A good example from either category will block most of the wind, or almost all the water in almost all conditions. I’ll address the former first.


Windshell tops

A good windproof shell jacket is probably the most versitile piece of outdoor clothing you can own.  Shown below (Danni Coffman photo) is me in my 5 year old Patagonia Houdini. 

The Houdini is a great example of what a good windshell can be.  Mine weighs 4 oz, has a hood, a full zip, and an inside pocket that closes with a velcro dot.  Nothing else.  It stuffs down to small apple size, and can thus be brought along on any adventure.  There have been but a handful of bike rides, any bike ride, in the last half decade where this thing hasn’t been on me on in my pack, frame bag, or jersey pocket.  It came to Egypt last winter, has logged many days skiing, etc, etc.  Originally I was concerned about the light fabric, but I’ve only put one hole in it this whole time.  Amazing.  (The original #3 zip did fail, but Patagonia repaired it for free, and at my request put in an all metal #5 instead.  My Houdini is unique, and in my opinion the best in the world.)

The Houdini is floppy, but also big enough to layer over a fat fleece.  A good tradeoff.

A hood is mandatory.  It can add tons of warmth for little weight and fuss.  The newest Houdini has a rear cinch cord on the hood for better fit and visibility.

A windshell like the Houdini is highly breathable.  I can chug uphill sweating like crazy and moisture will not collect and condense under it.  It dries blazingly fast.  For this reason windshells are vital in winter.  Waterproof fabrics are not appropriate in true winter conditions (ie when rain is not possible).  At single digits or below, moisture will condense inside a Gore-tex shell and freeze to the inside.  Worse than useless, they are dangerous.

The shortcoming is that the wind resistance of something like the Houdini can be overpowered by extreme wind and cold.  A Houdini copy, but with a bigger hood and thicker uncoated fabric (3-4 oz a yard or so) would be great for winter, but I don’t know of such a shell that is presently available.  I layer the Houdini with a light soft shell shirt, and throw the belay coat on when its really cold.  This works fine for skiing in the woods, but would come up short in the winter mountains.  I may have revised opinions next spring.

Windshell pants

Windshell pants have been one of my great gear discoveries this year.  Specifically, the Montane Featherlight pants.  The Pertex is a bit heavier than the Houdini fabric, they have ankle zips (easy to get on and off with shoes on), and velcro straps on the lower legs (keeps them out of your chainring, but gets undone in stream crossings).

I don’t find waterproof pants necessary.  The Featherlights keep wind off, dry super fast, and thus keep my legs warm.  For the moment, they’re all the shell pants I want.  Pictured below on the Thorofare traverse in May, which tested shell gear hard.

Waterproof shells

In short, a necessary evil.  While I haven’t tried Event, I’m skeptical that any waterproof fabric will be able to come close to keeping up with the sweat that is part and partial of serious aerobic output.  Goretex is ok, and pit zips sorta work, but if its raining and coldish and you’re trucking uphill, you will get wet.  Pick the lesser of two evils: waterproof shell on or off.  At least on the downhill you can throw the hardshell back on and not get wetter or colder.

I’ve been using an Arc’teryx Alpha SL pullover this year, and other than the fabric issue stated above its quite ideal.  The cut is roomy enough for layers but trim, the fabric is tough without being overbuilt, the hood is a work of art (cinches tight, over a helmet or a bare head or anything in between), and the front ‘roo pocket is perfectly positioned to sit above a hipbelt and provide convenient storage.  I like a waterproof anorak because it’s a bit more weathertight, has no full length zip to make it feel stiff under motion, and if I’m putting on a hardshell I plan to keep it on all the time.

Here in Montana a waterproof top is essential for any multiday trip, even if it never gets used.  I often bring both the Arc’teryx and the Houdini.  Back in Arizona, or somewhere like the Sierras with dry and predicatable weather, you can chance leaving the hardshell behind given a good forecast. 

Shells: try them out, try them on, buy some, love them, never leave home without them.

My thoughts on base layers for active adventure

I hesitated to write the footwear article I published last week, for reasons I’ve written about on several occasions, namely that I don’t want to feed the gear obsession that for many perniciously supplants actual experience.  Yet the response I got to that article, for quarters expected and not, has been positive and profuse.  So I going to do more in that idiom in the future, with an emphasis on broader overviews of important equipment issues that can be both important and complex.  I’ve been studying gear catalogues too closely since I was in third grade, and while the volume and type of my outdoor experience is not exceptional, I hope I can put forth some words in ways that folks will find illuminating.  Ergo this article. 

Base layers are, with the exception of foorwear, the most important piece of gear you’ll use outside.  Unlike footwear, the same base layers can be used year round across disciplines.  It’s a worthwhile endeavor to match your physiology and approach to outdoor adventures with your base layer choice.

Base layers exist to be a buffer between your skin and the environment.  They move sweat away from your skin (wicking) so that it can evaporate, keep the sun brush, and rough rock off you, and provide a modicum of warmth in the dry, the wet, and the states between.  An ineffective garmet will leave you damp and cold, and in the case of underwear or the interface between skin, fabric, and pack straps, allow chaffing to occur.  Good clothing and gear elsewhere can be rendered largely ineffective by a bad baselayer.

The normal debate here begins with material, namely ultrafine merino wool versus the various polyester weaves.  But first, it’s worth mentioning cotton.

Cotton is known as the death cloth in outdoor circles for its ability to retain lots of moisture and dry very slowly.  Under most conditions, this makes it totally inappropiate for any item of gear, save perhaps a bandana.  However, in serious heat, cotton can be put to good use.

And not just in Vegas.  The rather natty shirt pictured above was a Patagonia outlet purchase, and is made of a very tight, fine weave of 65% poly and 35% cotton.  It is a fantastic hot as hell base layer.  It keep the sun off (flip the collar up to protect the back of the neck, and wicks and dries just fast enough to cool without chilling.  I’ve worn it mountain biking and hiking in 90+ heat the last two summers and become a big fan.  Of course, in any conditions other than serious heat and full sun, it would become dead weight in the pack.

Most folks will wear a poly or merino base layer.  At present the stereotypes governing the two fabrics are well established and a matter of empirical and subjective consensus.  I’ll review them briefly.

Merino wool:
-Highly resistant to stink
-Softer
-Comfier/warmer when wet and damp
-Fragile
-Dries slower
-Absorbs slightly more water (the above BPL article puts it at ~20% more)

Polyesters:
-Moderately to horrendously stinky
-Lighter
-Tougher
-Dries faster, absorbs less water

I’ve yet to use or hear of a fabric that seriously breaks with any of the above.  My preferences for the last few years have been to use a wool shirt as a base layer in winter conditions, when I’ll be using a midlayer, and synthetic in three season conditions and for more active pursuits like mountain biking.

There is a bit more to the story here, and that is fabric weight.  I sweat more than most under any active circumstances, years of living in Arizona and Utah, I suppose.  I’m also a pretty warm person compared to most.  Thus I value fast wicking and drying highly.  Not only does this prejudice me towards synthetics, it leads me to only select thinner base layers, and fabric thickness plays a large role in water aborption and drying time.

Take Patagonias Capilene 2 (my favorite for the last 15 years) compared to its Wool 2.  Cap 2 fabric weighs 124 grams per square meter, while Wool 2 weighs 165 grams per square meter.  Cap 3, significantly warmer in my experience than Cap 2, is 167 grams per square meter, essentially identical to Wool 2.  One of the reasons Wool dries slower than synthetics, and why I’ve had a hard time embracing it, seems to be that the structural limitations of ultrafine merino make it difficult to make it into fabric light enough to be a truly year round base layer.  BPL has a line of merino clothing made of 115 grams per meter fabric, which seems promising.  I snagged one of the beanies they made, in a single production run, from this fabric last fall, and find it an extremely versitile hat.  Unfortunately this light merino is proportionally more fragile, enough that the product page carries a disclaimer, and that BPL is currently struggling to find a shop willing to work with the finicky fabric.

 This is Kevin Sawchuk heading up to Pentagon Pass almost exactly 365 days ago during the Parcour de Wild wilderness race.  We both wore light wool base layers (Patagonia Wool 2 for me, Ibex Woolies for him) under lighter synthetic midlayers (Patagonia for both, R1/2 hoody for me, R1 hoody for Kevin).  In the cold, wet conditions we found this system worked very well, keeping us warm even though we were damp most of the time.

In summary, pick your fabric weight carefully, and lean towards the lighter ones, especially for active uses.  Pay attention to weave as well; Cap 2 wicks and dries faster than Cap 1, even though the fabric is marginally heavier, due to the weave.  Open knits with a three dimensional structure are best.

Your base layer shirt will get worn a lot, and the lighter fabrics that get summer usage will often be the only thing on your torso.  They’ll get a lot of abuse, be it from pack straps, slot canyon walls, or mountain bike crashes.  It is in this department that merino comes up drastically short, and why I can’t see myself buying more of it.

This is me riding the then brand new Karate Monkey in Granite Basin during December of 2006.  I’m wearing a long sleeve Capilene 2 crew neck under my thrift store jersey.  I bought that crew neck in 2004.  It’s still in service today, and gets worn at least once a week.  I have two Wool 2 shirts that are 12 and 16 months old.  Both have a few small holes in them.

Beyond selecting a base layer fabric that suits your needs, getting one that fits is vital.  Fit in many respects determines function.  A good wicking layer can’t do its job if it flops away from your skin, and can’t be a comfy part of a clothing system if it forms creases and pressure points under a midlayer.  Keep the big picture in mind when making selections.

The most useful base layer is the long sleeve crew neck.  Rolled up sleeves are only mildly warmer than short sleeves, and with so many blood vessels close to the skin on the inside of the forearms, rolling down sleeves adds a surprising amount of warmth.  I’ve never found turtle neck comfortable, or zip necks especially useful, but others have different experiences.

Base layer undies are vital.   Spending 30 bucks on a pair of synthetic undies is not an exciting way to spend money, but will end up being among the best you’ll ever spend on outdoor gear.  Goodbye swamp ass.  I like boxer briefs for the balance of comfort, good wicking, and chaff prevention.

Long bottoms are useful as well.  I have a pair of Cap 2 long johns I hacked to below knee (knicker) length.  They provide complete coverage when paired with knee high socks, avoid bulky overlap under ski boot cuffs, and the additional thigh and knee coverage adds more warmth than you’d think.

Ariel, Isaac, M, me, and Phillip in the Robbers Roost during November of 2005, with a lot of old canyon anchors.  We camped out in the cold for a few weeks, did a ton of canyons, and celebrated T-day with a bitching dutch oven cook out, beer, and shooting cans with my .45.  A few days before this picture was taken Phillip and I descended an obscure fork of Upper Blue John.  M and I did an unknown, possible first descent of it a few days prior.  Phillip and I had intended to upclimb the publicized east fork into which our fork fed, but our attempt to pack toss and tent pole hook past a 25′ drop didn’t work, and we had to wade the 150 yard long, chest deep pool below.  In near freezing weather, with no sun, and no wetsuits.  I wore Cap 2 knickers and soft shell pants and was cold, but survived.  Phillip wore something similar, but the cold seemed to affect him more.  When we exited the long wade he immediately dropped his pants and shuffled back and forth giving his manhood a vigorous two-handed rewarming.  Ya gotta do what ya gotta do.  We climbed a sandy 5th class ramp to escape the slot.  Lesson: know your physiology and buy clothing accordingly.

Last but not least, a good synthetic base layer headband is handy in winter.  It will keep your ears warm, disperse forehead sweat, and let heat vent out the top of your head without soaking a hat.  I made one last winter, with a double layer of Cap 1 and a single layer of Cap 2 in the back.  When the aforementioned thin wool hat would get too wet skinning uphill, but it was too cold to wear no hat at all, this little thing was amazingly useful.

In short, baselayers are important, and a matter of personal need and preference.  While there is no substitute for trial and error, and lot of money and bother can be avoided with a little research and introspection about how and where you’ll be wearing them.  I’m hopeful that a poly/wool blend (like Patagonia’s newest generation of Wool 2) will come into being soon, and will allow the anti-stink, warmth, and coziness of merion to be enjoyed in a ~120 grams per meter fabric that dries fast and is tough enough for real world, four season use.  In the meantime, I’ll keep using the boxes full of baselayers I’ve accumulated over the years, because so many of the quality synthetics just refuse to die.