Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Pack it up I'll take it

This blog is about gear and good times. I will admit, I enjoy my gear a lot given how seldom I actually get out. I enjoy it's functionality and aesthetic qualities. I seem to have inflicted this on my young son, who at 7 has no less than 4 packs in steady rotation. Eyes have been known to roll in our household, and I will admit to actively considering how I can sell some of my dozen or so sacks, if I can bear to part with them.

The oldest are a Wild Things Andinista, a great classic which got use from winter camping trips to the north face of Pitchoff in the Adirondacks and some alpine work up on Cannon in New Hampshire. It was even used a bit as a haul bag and bivy sack when needed. Then there is a Fish haul bag. Not sure why I got it, because I know squat about aid climbing, but it was on sale for less than $50 and seemed like it might have a role over time. That role has been largely storage. Then there is a Dana Designs Arcflex, probably 70 liters, likely last used for canoe camping where size matters and weight is no object.

In recent years, mostly cragging on rock and ice and occasionally skiing, the range has narrowed much in line with the activities. I mostly use packs by Randy Rackliff of, a really outstanding maker of climbing-specific packs. I have a Valdez which is about 15 years old (no worse for wear, if not very waterproof anymore), a Chernobyl which I sold to my cousin Joe who has older style, straight shaft tools which fit in the old tube-style axe holders, a custom Chaos I bought from Dane Burns, and a new custom Ozone which is longer in the back and has simple ice tool attachments, per Dane & Ryan This recently caused a friendly guide at the Gunks to snicker 'That's a custom Cold Cold World pack, isn't it'. Guilty.

I have recently also has occasion to use an overnight pack for ski camping and ski mountaineering. I've used an old Black Diamond 55 liter item (gray, can't recall the name) which has generally been great. I did go through the bottom in JTree when foolishly using it there years back. I've got a new Hyperlight Mountaineering 3400 Ice pack which I plan to put through it's paces up on Mt. Washington this winter and have high hopes for on a weight to performance ratio. There are also occasions when I need a small ski pack (Camp, or BD Avalung, both around 20 liters or less) or just a plain daypack (I really like the REI 18 liter glorified stuff sack, which has been useful in many circumstances when I might not otherwise have had a pack. Finally I've got an old BD fanny pack which works just fine for that.

If there is anyone out there who would be interested in some used (some lightly, some heavily) packs, I'm in treatment and would welcome your assistance.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

What matters and the things they carried

That is a question. What does matter? What do we carry with us? 

Given we are not John Muir, setting off along the Pacific Divide with an overcoat, cup, fire, we have more choices to make and justify. Most of what matters is coming home safe, having had a fine time, and feeling like you were more enriched than terrified. The stink of fear, as my partner and fellow dad recently said, is not what you want to bring home.

I think how you climb matters in many ways. If you have a family,  if you are only beholden to your chosen friends, or even if only for the love of self, you do want to come home. We are very privileged to do what we do, and should take that seriously.

I have not read Tim O'Brien's work for many years, and you can read more about the title I mention and the author at It made a huge impact on me. My father just missed being in Vietnam. O'Brian's book reminded me how much less of a childhood I could have had if my father's unit had been reactivated 6 months earlier. I could easily have never been born.

This is not to imply that climbing is too much like going to war. Climbing rarely if ever is like that in my experience. But there are those who climbed big, talked little and had nothing for gear. They lacked critical advanced satellite meteorological reports/communication, and any kind of media motivation. The Hummingbird Ridge on Mount Logan. The name  conjures a route which claimed two of our finest. And has not really been repeated.

The first ascent of Thalay Sagar. Via an unseen route up a newly opened 7000 meter peak. With a partner exhibiting clear signs of pulmonary and possibly cerebral edema. And the doctor who is the technical leader for the 5.9 shale summit says it's ok for the guy to go down alone, while his three partners continue. And he makes it down, they make it up and down. Now people climb the granite monolith on the other side of this peak, capsule style with perfect forecast information via satellite from some small Swiss village. But back then someone climbed it first time, sight unseen.

Steck and Thackray, Joshua Tree, CA, the Thin Wall, spring 2009.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Shoes and Boots

Scarpa has made a recent comeback with me after about a decade or more of finding the other lasts more like my foot. Now I am happy with the Phantom Guide and Rebel Pro GTX. I climb mostly in New York State, but these would work just about anywhere where the temperature is not much more than 10-20 degrees of frost. This depends on how cold your feet get, but I find a great fit is always warmer. These boots follow on the Batura (1.0), Kayland Super Ice, and my Scarpa Assaults, Asolo 101s, which were about 10-20 years ago. I think I gave up on the Scarpas after the excellent if over-stiff Assaults because I nipped a toe on Fafnir at Cannon on some 5 degree day. I doubt it was the boot.

I also just tried out the rubber toe piece on the Petzel Lynx crampon, and reverted to dual front points. All these boots now seem best suited to asymmetrical crampons. When I first got boots with an asym sole, crampons were few which would fit them. The M10s and the Super 8s both worked. In climbing a half dozen pitches of 3-4 ice, but walking about a mile uphill, the setup worked nicely (ie, I did  not notice it). The Rebel Pro was out for the first time and although so comfortable I almost had to tighten it again late in the day, it was pretty perfect. The lacing on both these and the Phantom Guides are the short coming: they are slick and likely to come undone. One of the Chamonix bloggers recommends a reef knot. The approach to Buttermilk Falls is also about 45-55 minutes and sweaty at the near freezing temperatures early this February. The boot rolled up the icy, hard trail as well as a crampon free option could be. It's light, stiff where you need it, and generally too comfortable to be true.

Of course, I did not need the Rebel. I've had the Phantom Guide for a season or two and it is also almost perfect. It is comfortable in the one key region the Batura was not comfortable for me: the ankle. It's similar to the sensation of trying the Dynafit TLT 5 for the first time after never evolving beyond Garmonts: you feel like you are climbing/hiking/sking in bedroom slippers. Articulated, cybernetic bedroom slippers, but comfy as felt with support.

Rich Gottlieb of Rock and Snow many years ago sold me a barely used pair of lovely Technica leather hiking boots. Leather inside and out, they were $90: he'd maybe worn the once and they were a tad small. I coveted them for about 10-15 years before the heels both blew up spectacularly in the last big snow storm. When asked for a replacement, heavy backpacking boot, he said something about the best climbing boots being lighter and more supportive and talked me into the Rebels, graciously discounted. So needed or not, I'm rocking them, and they seem perfect.

If I were to take one boot to the West or Alps in the summer, I'd take the Rebel. I'd use the Phantom for anything where temperatures were 10-20 degrees of frost. It would also be a bit more supportive on very long ice climbs, but the Rebel Ultra GTX looks like it might have the most support of the three.

Scarpa's Tech Mountain Line

Since boots are likely the single most important item of gear, whatever you do, it's worth looking at options. I've not had a really comfortable experience over the years until recently, and it's not my feet which are improving. Heat formed high-end boot liners, custom foot beds, all that has made a huge difference in boot performance and comfort.

And boot to crampon fit should be like choosing your religion: choose carefully. I've found Petzl to be the best game around since the Super 8s. I never used the M10s, but the Lynx is a couple of seasons in and going strong. If I climbed more high grade technical ground I'd consider the Dart, but lack of replacement points offends my protestant ethic, and I like an anti-bot of the highest quality. Having almost killed myself with an express ride down South Gully in Huntington, I'm very particular on anti-bots working and lasting.

These and first generation Nomics are the basics of what I most enjoy climbing with in winter. I agree with Dane, the Dynafit can climb and ski remarkably well. If I were skiing at all, I'd be hard pressed to use the old Silveretta setup. The Dynafit boot/binding/ski combination is indicative of just how effing good ski mountaineering gear has gotten. Not that the old Mega Rides and BD Ascents (ski like they are made by Atomic) were so bad. They are just a thing of the past. It seems that the tech curve will only steepen as European ski racing elevates the gear to endless refinements.

Which brings me to the Luddite portion of this post. As we were climbing this series of pristine beautiful waterfalls...

Gregory Rukavina, my climbing companion the owner of the above image's copyright, was not without complaint. Once we set upon Buttermilk I encouraged him to drop rack and rope and we'd go with my sparse setup of 7 screws, some quickdraws and some alpine draws. These latter were with mini biners, and earned much scorn from the Rukavina. I did not have the difficulties he complained of, but was generally wearing very thin gloves (BDs or RABs leather and light insulation) as the day was mild. He was wearing warmer gloves (BD or Coudveil leather and insulation). I had no trouble clipping the admittedly petite Ange-sized draws, but he cursed them soundly. And since he carried the rope, later at least 2x the weight, and I the kit, almost as dry on the approach as the out. I will doubtless bring ye olde Spirit draws next time, lest the keening recur. I also thought he was right that small 'biners with gloves are not what you want when under duress.

I brought a cragging pack (Deuter 35+ Guide) and Gregory a climbing sac (Cold Cold World Chernobyl.) If we had climbed with packs, I would have been inclined to strip the frame from the Deuter. Most of the other parties had the second or even the first climbing with packs. Some were Cilo light, others Osprey larger models. We chose to take about 1/2 a liter of water and bars/gels. It was fine, and allowed us to move swiftly. The other parties were super considerate, nobody had any friction, and on the way down we and others offered rope rides which were gratefully refused. The crowd out there had a few guides, but in general the sense of community and camaraderie was very authentic and welcome. If I were to climb with a pack I'd have had a first aid and repair kit, my wet layer from the approach, and the other liter or more of water. Trekking poles are standard for the river crossing, and should be. We forgot ours, but did not pay the penalty. The Catskills really do offer some truly terrible hiking opportunities. Who exactly thought they would be a good place to take a holiday I do not know.

There were lots of other things which presented themselves this outing. Really sharp, new screws are great. Small 'biners are not. Late model picks come well de-tuned from the manufacturer, older ones not so much so. Good company is so much more important than any of that. We are really privileged and grateful.