Shells Shells have long been just about the most overrated, overpriced, chunks of junk for most of their history. I remember when a cagoule was high tech. But there are times you want one, and good ones are better than bad. There are hard shells, soft shells and hybrids. I am often annoyed with myself for having so many, but there are a few good reasons to have a few good ones.
- Rain I think it was Marc Twight who said 'if it's raining go home'. While this is prudent advice for alpine climbing, I have not always followed it (the freezing line must be just ahead...), and when you don't, you need a shell. If I don't think I'm using it much, I'll bring a very lightweight one and hope to keep it in my pack. The Arc'teryx Alpha SL or FL is very good. There are nice less expensive versions from Mountain Hardware, Marmot, many others, and the Alpha only has one pocket, which is limiting if you wish to use it more casually. I have a really great Solomon Bonatti WP stretch shell which is like an upgraded Patagonia Houdini, much more weather protection, stretch, and every bit as indispensable clipped to a harness.
- Driving Snow I personally think that 'full conditions' are only for those of Scottish descent and residents of the Northeast. Wait..I'm both. I like a heavier 3 layer Gore-tex shell for these kinds of conditions, or any serious wind. If there is serious wind but no precip, I'll opt for a softshell. I like the older Arc'teryx windstopper I have very much, as long as it's not too warm. If it is, I'll go with an even older one without the windstopper. The Arc'teryx SV is pretty much the bomb in these conditions. Mine is 15 years old and rarely broken out, but they are the standard. I have a Rab with stretch but the main zipper is a real bear to operate. Otherwise a great jacket, especially the oversized hood with wire brim. The pants, also Gore-tex Pro, are also very well dialed, if a bit more fussy in design than the Canadians.
- Cold Wind Snow If I'm ice climbing, the Arc'teryx Windstopper stretch softshell top and old polartech softshell salopettes with built in knee pads are best. They are almost worn out and I think I'll have to turn to Northwest Alpine who have said they'd modify theirs to match that. It's an incredibly warm, mobile, comfortable combination for a 'go suit' for most climbing conditions. It's a little too warm for me for most ski mountaineering, when I prefer a non windstopper, Arc'Teryx Gamma top and a thinner pant. For skiing the Rab stretch Gore-tex Pro pants or the Alpha SV bibs seem to be best, depending on temperature.
- Warmer Windy When rock climbing I generally won't wear more than a long john top. If I may however get chilly up top belaying. If so, I'll bring a small puffy, I have a remaindered old Patagonia which works well, or if it's not that cold I'll use their Houdini. This is a very lighweight item, but it's lasted me for years and is welcome each time I use it. I recently got the lightest Arct'eryx hooded puff, no insulation in the hood, and it's fine. In colder than 50-60 F temps, it might help if you remember a hat, but with a helmet it's enough for the shoulder seasons. I think Patagonia's version of this looks a little better (but was not on sale yet.)
Skis I ski very little, just a half dozen to a dozen days a season. But I like it a lot. And I love skis. I have also enjoyed migrating over the years from alpine to tele to AT. I predictably dream about a life where I ski more as I grow older and the work/play balance swings back to play. But I still get plenty of play.
The best skis are ones I have had long and still ski so well. Stelvio Trab's, Atomic Beta cap tele boards, some old BD ascents with silvrettas for approach in mountain boots, even the old atomic sierras we punt around my parents' property on are great. They are only chipped, rusty and worn on the kick pattern. They still ski fine, just like all the best skis. As Andrew says any ski can ski great powder.
In recent years I really like the Dynafit Denali. It's I think a good ski for a moderate skier. I ski a 184 in that and shorter in most others. Longer is too hard to do a kick turn for me, and I don't need more float. It is very light, fun in moderately angled powder and respectable on hard pack. It can also be had for cheap. I like TLT Superlights with no brakes ATK leashes.
The next in line is the Movement Vertex, a ski so good they keep making it. It's a bit like a supercharged Stelvio with marginally less weight. I pair it with Plum Guides, but may like the old Speedturns on the Trabs better. I find the Plum adjustable heel plate shifts, and while I like the beefy beautifully machined heel post on the Plums, the old Speedturn is just so reliable and solid. I do like the Plum brakes which are light and right for some applications. I've been known to lose skis since a very young age...
I have some Atomic Ultimate 78s for ski mountaineering which I've only used on icy hills in the Berkshires. They are short, around 160, but they ski well. Lays down an edge, little bit of rocker, and paired with the old yellow Dynafit TLT5 boot they are a great setup for just about everything except deep.
Finally the ski I'm yet to ski. It's out there somewhere...
Packs come later. I'm still working on that.