I try not to post to many “sale” type posts but I noticed this morning Backcountry.com is running a great sale on Black Diamond gear and I’m quite a big fan of this brand having reviewed quite a bit of climbing gear and clothing over the years. So I’m leaving this short post here to make sure you’re aware of it with some of my favorite call outs! If you’re not interested in my personal favorites and just want to see everything they have listed on sale go here!
Last year Hyperlite Mountain Gear (HMG) released their first entry into the high end ultra-light outerwear market with the intrepidly named brow-raising jacket, “The Shell“. Already well known for their ultralight backpacks and shelters made from expensive but high performance fabrics this level of design in a piece of clothing was sure to turn heads and I was quite excited to find out I would receive a demo model to review.
How I Tested
I started testing in February while in the middle of my winter guiding season. This allowed me about 25 days of back-country skiing, mountaineering, and waterfall ice climbing to get acquainted. I only parted with my test model for a week to allow a fellow guide a chance to bring it on a South America climbing trip and was happy to get it back in time for a week long trip back-country skiing in Iceland. All in all this demo model saw 35+ days of combined multi-sport use from New Hampshire’s rugged White Mountains, to 17,000 feet on Ishinca in the Andes, to the Trollaski Penisula in northern Iceland. The results are in!
Generally I like to start a gear review focused on the single most positive aspect of the item I’m reviewing and work down from there. With the HMG “The Shell” there was a four-way tie between Durability, Weight, and Pack-ability, and Performance. But durability ultimately wins out as this is the one feature I feel justifies the sticker shock when one first sees the price. This jacket is made from DCF-WPB fabric with Dyneema.
Dyneema is stronger than steel for its weight and has excellent fatigue resistance (cyclic bending) and UV, chemical and abrasion resistance. This durability is brazenly referred to from HMG as “tough as f*#k”. Although the jacket has only been out for less than a year I’d say it is safe to assume this material and construction will last 3-4 times longer than pieces that try to achieve what this jacket achieves with so little weight. A more conservative statement would be “This jacket will easily have triple the lifespan of non-Dyneema jackets.” So if this jacket can easily outlast models that cost half as much while offering the benefits I will get into below that sticker shock might start to subside.
If you get a chance to take one of these off the rack at a gear show you are going to be surprised at the weight, or lack of. You’ll need to look twice to make sure you really are holding it. A technical specification of 5.8 ounces does not do it justice, you need to hold this in your hand to get a sense of what “feather weight” really feels like. The only other shell I have tested that can come close to this ultra-light feel is the Black Diamond Alpine Start Hooded Jacket (2 ounces heavier). An amazing jacket at a more affordable price, but not 100% water-proof or nearly as indestructible as The Shell.
The Shell has one small zippered pocket on the front right that can be turned inside out and used as a storage sack complete with a small sewn carabiner loop for attaching to the back of your harness. The stuffed size is about the size of a softball with about a 4 inch diameter. This pack-ability will let you stuff this into the smallest of CamelBaks, running packs, and waist packs for go anywhere mobility.
There’s manufacturer claims and real life performance. Let’s look at each.
Claim: Waterproof Ratting: 10,000mm– This means the jacket should handle moderate to heavy rain.
Real-life: Unfortunate for our snow-pack but fortunate for my testing this past winter was plagued by multiple mid-winter rain events that allowed some serious testing of the waterproof claim from HMG. I wore this on at least three rainy adventures and my experience was that this jacket truly is waterproof. At first I was concerned about the front zipper as it did not look like the polyurethane waterproof thin zippers I was expecting (the small pocket on the jacket uses that style). Turns out HMG went with a longer lasting VISLON® Aquaguard® Zipper for the main zipper and I found it to be impenetrable even in the 40-50 mph raining-sideways-summit-day I had on Mount Washington. The slight stiffener in the visor on the hood was just enough to help keep the heaviest of downpours of the face.
Claim: Breathability Rating: 32,000 gm2/24hr– This is an incredibly high rating of breathablity for a fabric that also can claim true waterproofness!
Real-life: I’ll be honest and state that I was concerned about the breathability of a waterproof jacket with no pit zips or side ventilation. My concerns were first alleviated during an avalanche course I was teaching when I skinned from the trail-head to Hermit Lake, (2.3 miles, 1,870 elevation) in 1 hour 20 minutes on a 28°F (-2°C) day. It was one of the few times I’d ever left a shell jacket on while skinning in such fair weather all the way to Hermit Lake. Having easily logged another 20,000 feet of uphill travel in the back-country while wearing The Shell I can whole-heartedly attest to an accurate breathability rating! The only other pieces I could compare this level of breathability to is the Black Diamond Alpine Start Hooded Jacket or the Patagonia Houdini (not as indestructible as The Shell, or considered waterproof).
The only media sample I could get was a size medium so the fit was a touch snug for my 180 lb 5’9″ build with a 42 inch chest. HMG’s sizing chart would put me into a size large which I think probably would have been perfect. It is important to recognize that Dyneema fabrics have almost no stretch to them which means clothing must be quite quite close to your body’s own specifications or quickly be to tight or to baggy. That said I was able to wear this as a “second skin” right over my Ortovox Merino wool T-shirts. In cold conditions I’d layer my mid-weight puffy jacket’s, my full belay jackets, or my heavy ski jackets over it. If I wanted to wear more insulation under it I would have to get into my appropriate size, which would have been a large. Bottom line is following the sizing info on the HMG website and it should fit you well!
You can read the manufacturer specifications and right of HMG’s website here so I’m not going to cut & paste them here (unless you find that more convenient)? I am going to share the quick promotional video they produced as I think it shows the hood fit and other features quite well:
“The Shell”. Such a simple and confident name for a garment. It makes me think of the LOTR “one ring to rule them all” line for some reason. Is this the one shell you’ll ever need? Probably not. It is a niche type item. It is the epitome of minimalist functional artisan design. I love how it performed. I love the weight and pack-ability of it. I love that it is made in Maine!
Who is this for? This is an obvious winner for the ultra-light crowd, whether you’re a climber, skier, long distance trail runner, or sea kayak-er I can see this becoming a new favorite. The simple expected lifespan of this piece (Dyneema does not degrade naturally as fast as nylon) means this could be one of the best value pieces out there for its intended purpose. Hyperlite Mountain Gear has entered the outerwear business with The Shell, and I’m really glad they did!
See you in the mountains,
Northeast Alpine Start
Disclaimer: Hyperlite Mountain Gear provided me with this media sample. This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking on the these links, a portion of the sale helps support this site at no additional cost to you.
Over the last ten years I’ve had the opportunity to thoroughly test many of the most popular avalanche safety products on the market while teaching close to a dozen avalanche courses each winter. I was already a huge fan of Ortovox products before I was invited to join their Athlete Team and have been sharing my love of the brand personally with my students for two winters now. In part 1 of my avalanche gear series I’ll explain what makes Ortovox beacons different and try to help you decide which avalanche transceiver* (beacon) best suits your end goal!
*Note to the reader, the words “transceiver” and “beacon” will be considered synonyms.
Part 1: Transceivers
If you have ever taken an avalanche course and asked the instructor “What’s the best beacon?” you will probably get the same non-endorsing answer, “The one you practice the most with”.
While there is some good-natured truth to that boxed statement let’s get real. There are some specific features and design choices someone shopping for an avalanche beacon should consider. In no particular order;
Is the beacon intuitive (especially under stress)?
Can the beacon handle multiple burial situations?
Does the beacon have a “flagging” function?
How “search-able” am I? <- We will get into that in more detail
Ortovox has three models of transceivers which completely cover the range of user groups who are looking for a beacon. Before we get into what makes each model different let’s look at the single most important feature that sets Ortovox beacons apart from all others out there!
What does that mean? Well all Ortovox beacons (and any decent modern beacon these days) uses triple antenna’s while searching. We know that triple antenna’s are faster and more accurate at locating a buried partner than extinct single antenna beacons and outgoing dual antenna beacons, especially during the final moments of a fine search (getting you closer to the victim before you start probing). I would strongly encourage, regardless of brand, you only shop triple-antenna beacons at this point.
So when a triple antenna beacon is in search mode it uses two antenna’s during the signal search phase and turns on the third vertical antenna when you get close to the victim to aid in pinpointing there location and reduce probing time.
Ortovox takes this technology one step further though to make it easier to be found! Simply put, when searching with a triple antenna beacon any beacon will use all three of its antenna’s. When transmitting however it can only use one. All other beacons on the market will only transmit on the biggest antenna regardless off orientation. Before we move on with how Ortovox has innovated a great feature here let’s make sure we understand what a “flux line” is.
A flux line is the pattern of the radio signal a transmitting beacon sends out. A searching beacon must get within this “flux line” area to start picking up the buried persons beacon.
In the above image you can see both an example of how these flux lines radiate out from the buried beacon, and at the top right an internal look at a triple antenna beacon. Take note of the three antenna’s, X, Y, and Z. So any other beacon on the market will only transmit on the X antenna. If the beacon is buried “flat” the flux lines will spread out far making it easier for a searching beacon to locate from distance. This is referred to as “strong coupling”.
If the victim gets buried with their beacon held in a vertical orientation, the flux lines radiate out more “vertically”, which is less than ideal for being found quickly. This is referred to as “weak coupling” between the searching beacon and the transmitting beacon. Essentially you are “less visible” and searchers must get closer to you before they can pick up a signal. Unless you have an Ortovox beacon.
With the previous information understood we can start to see what Ortovox does here. They have built in software and an internal gyroscope so that the transmitting beacon can analyze its orientation and select which ever of the three antennas will provide the best “coupling” with a searching beacon. While antenna X might send a farther signal than antenna Z that doesn’t help you much if the beacon is orientated vertically, essentially sending the signals straight up and down from the victim, instead of horizontally across the debris field. Because of “Smart-Antenna” technology you are essentially “more visible” regardless of what orientation you are buried in!
While that is one of my favorite features that sets Ortovox apart in the market let’s look at some of the other features you should consider when beacon shopping.
Or as Ortovox calls it “automatic switch-over”. What is that? Well if you are searching a debris field for a victim and your beacon is in search mode it is not transmitting a signal. If a secondary avalanche hits you it is crucial that your beacon go back into transmit mode so you can be located. Different brands have different strategies for getting a beacon to go back into transmit without user input. Some require specific boot-up steps every time you turn them on, others are based on long times in search modes or lack of motion (5 to 8 minutes in some cases). Every Ortovox beacon has an internal motion sensor and if the software does not sense significant movement within two minutes the beacon will automatically return to transmit mode. I greatly prefer this to other brands that take 5+ minutes to switch to transmit! If I’m not moving (i.e. buried in debris) I would much prefer my beacon to start transmitting again sooner rather than later!
Becoming more common across the industry Ortovox has placed a Recco reflector in every one of their models. This can speed up recovery in places with professional rescue teams (700+ ski areas around the world) and act as a back-up if your beacon is damaged or you forgot to put new batteries in (which should never happen with a proper Trailhead Function Check!).
Now that we’ve covered all the similarities of Ortovox beacons let’s look at the three individual models and decide which one is right for you!
Simple, effective, intuitive, compact. The Zoom+ fits great in my zippered ski pants pocket where I choose to carry it. Its straight forward design is a boon for both stressful situations and less-experienced back-country travelers. The advanced features mentioned above make this a great choice at the price point when compared to other beacons on the market. Highly recommended for those who spend limited time in avalanche terrain or stick to lower danger days (great for ice climbers, high-altitude mountaineers, etc). MRSP $289 This model also comes in a set with a great shovel and probe here!
With better visuals to aid during pinpointing and the ability to “flag” victims that you have a confirmed probe strike on this model should be attractive to the largest group of back-country travelers. Back-country skiers, riders, search & rescue members, and snow-mobilers would find this a solid choice in the category and this has been our rental transceiver of choice for the past two winters! MRSP $340. This also comes in a set with a great shovel and probe here!
The top-of-the-line model in the Ortovox lineup the S1+ impresses. With a unique “flip phone” design the S1+ automatically goes in to search mode when you “flip open” the device.
Beyond that the most significant difference is the S1+ has one of the fastest, if not the fastest, processors on the market which allows it to display a digital visual “overview” of the scene which can greatly help you triage multiple burial scenarios. With a search strip width of 50 meters (10 more than the other two models and most other beacons out there) you can cover more ground and find poor coupled signals faster. Intuitive flagging functions help recover more people faster (when you have enough people to dig). Customization to suit your preferences and level of training are built in along with a digital inclinometer to help with terrain assessment/choice. This should be the choice of professional mountain guides, trip leaders, and those who simply want the best possible beacon on the market. MRSP $490
I hope you’ve found this post educational. At the end of the day there are a ton of great beacons on the market these days from quite a few different companies. I obviously love the Ortovox line and I think when you objectively compare features and get some hands-on time with any of the three models you’ll feel the same way. I’ll end with that most often cliche statement, that the best beacon really is the one you practice with the most! To that end consider upgrading your rescue skills with the all new 8 hour AIARE Avalanche Rescue Course! This is a fantastic addition in the field of avalanche education and something you should consider if you’ll be spending time in avalanche terrain in the future!
I hope you have all been having a great winter so far. For me the early season ice climbing was great with a couple Black Dike ascents getting it off to a good start.
Then we got 82 inches of snow in December followed by another foot the first week of January and it appeared we were about to enjoy an epic snow year. Then between January 11th-13th we received 3 inches of rain and lost over two feet of our snow-pack.
A highlight of this event was a massive wet slab avalanche that was larger than one recently retired Snow Ranger saw in his 10+ years of service there! Standing out on the debris with students two days after the slide one could not help but be impressed by the power of Mother Nature. It made regional news headlines and I saw quite a few people trek up to the floor of the ravine just to get a first hand look at it!
January failed to recover our snow-pack finishing the month with a total of only 29 inches (12 of which were washed away during that rain event). That is less snow in January in more than 10 years!
While it seemed a bit devastating the bright side was we started seeing ice form in strange places and ephemeral routes like Gandolf the Great and Hard Rane came in FAT!
All this ice was great for the 25th annual Ice Fest and despite a burly cold first day of the event folks seemed to have a great three days at the event.
We’ve been having another great year for our avalanche courses with 6 AIARE 1 courses behind us, an Avalanche Rescue course, and an AIARE 2 course that just ended yesterday (with ski conditions that signaled ski season is definitely back!)
Here’s some footage showing our last day of our AIARE 2 course which should get you stoked for the rest of the ski season!
If you do book any of these courses be sure to use “DavidNEM” in the promo/notes box to be entered into a drawing for a free guided adventure.
I have been testing a ton of great new gear this season from companies like Petzl, Sterling, Black Diamond, Kailas, Arcteryx, DPS, Dynafit, and many more. Expect to see a lot of new gear reviews posting in March and April as I find time to give these products honest and detailed reviews.
Looks like another nice dumping of snow (totals up to 14″) is coming Wednesday so I’m really looking forward to this weekends avalanche course! Hope you get out and enjoy the snow and thanks for reading!
The Black Diamond Cirque 45 Backpack is designed for back-country skiing and ski mountaineering. This streamlined model also comes in smaller 35 and 30 liter options. I started testing this pack while teaching avalanche courses last winter and after a couple more trips this season I’m ready to share my opinions on this model.
At 45 liters (2746 cubic inches) this is one of the largest ski packs I’ve tested. It can definitely handle carrying my full avy kit along with my technical gear on ski mountaineering trips. If just sticking to skiing it can easily accommodate my sleeping bag and ultra-light tent for lightweight overnight missions. There is an external helmet carry system that frees up space inside the pack. The dedicated internal avalanche gear pocket is quite large easily accepting my avalanche shovel in my fleet along with my avalanche probe and snow saw. Four side compression straps and the top strap help the pack compress down to bullet size when going on less gear intensive outings.
The Black Diamond Cirque 45’s carrying system is simple, well designed, and snow friendly. The back panel has a gel-like foam (not a removable pad unfortunately) and perfectly contoured shoulder straps along with a well fitting thin foam waist belt. It comes in a “S/M” for torsos from 16-19 inches and a “M/L” for torsos 18.5 to 21.5 inches. I went with the “M/L” for my 19 inch torso 5’9″ build and it fit great. The pack rides well both when climbing (plenty of clearance for helmet) and while skiing (hugs body nicely).
After a dozen or so ski tours the pack is holding up great. The main pack material (Dynex (210 denier) feels soft to the touch and bottom is heavily reinforced (with PE 200 denier). I’ve packed ice screws, mountaineering crampons, and strapped my skis diagonally and “A-frame” and there is not a single noticeable wear point anywhere.
There’s some things I really like about this pack and some areas that could use some improving. Let’s start with the good!
Stretch woven hip pocket (only on 35 and 45 liter models). I’m always looking for the best place to put my sunglasses when it is time to switch over to goggles and this pocket fits them perfectly! I’m not sure that Black Diamond intended for this waist belt pocket to hold sunglasses but it is the perfect shape and has a little rigidness to it that makes them feel quite protected even when not in a dedicated case.
Stow-able Helmet Carry (also only on 35 and 45 liter models). On less gear intense missions I like to carry my helmet inside the main compartment but when I have more stuff to carry this helmet carry system is quickly deploy-able freeing up lots of internal space.
Compatible with the AvaLung Element for additional protection in avalanche terrain.
Side zipper access! Not mentioned in the description or in any other reviews I’ve seen for this pack is the side zipper access. I love being able to pack top-loading packs like this to the brim yet still dig out my water bottle or first aid kit without dumping the whole pack. Side zipper access rules!
I really only have one small gripe about the design of this pack, and it’s related to the avalanche gear pocket. Accessing it requires opening the top main compartment, then unbuckling the internal pocket. This isn’t a huge deal breaker but I really prefer avalanche gear pockets to be accessible without entering the main pack. External avalanche gear pockets are much more convenient if you access these tools throughout your tour when making observations (it’s not just about rescue speed). Other than that this is a really well put together ski touring/mountaineering backpack and one worth a close look!
As the year draws to an end I’m looking back at the plethora of amazing advancements in the field of climbing gear and clothing this past season and calling out some of the best stuff I got to review this year that has become a permanent addition to my kit. Check them out below!
Petzl Sirocco Climbing Helmet
A fantastic update to what was already one of the most competitive climbing helmets on the market I went into great detail of the changes in my review here.
Arcteryx Acrux AR Mountaineering Boots
Without a doubt the most sleek and comfortable ice climbing boots I have ever worn. From Mount Rainier to Grade 5 waterfall ice in New England these have been a serious joy to wear. See my detailed review here.
Black Diamond Alpine Softshell Pants
From Spring rock climbing in New England, Summer alpine climbing in the Cascades, to warmer winter ice climbing, these pants came in clutch this past year. Check out my full review here.
Petzl GriGri+ Belay Device
There’s a lot to love about the safety improvements to the iconic GriGri with the new “+” version. My favorite feature is definitely the fact that this device is engineered to work with any single rated rope on the market so I don’t need to think about whether my ropes are too skinny to use with this device. See my long review on this advancement here.
Cassin X-Dream Ice Axes
While these amazing ice tools have been around for awhile Cassin just released some more customization options including an alpine handle and two new pick options! Details in my review here.
Petzl Laser Ice Screws
I ran some numbers and did some comparing against other popular models of this screw here. While I deal with the “sticky screw” placement from time to time these still make up the bulk of my ice rack!
A lot of great skins hit the market late last winter and I got to test three of the top models! Check out the results here!
This set up absolutely slays the uphill skinning yet performs quite impressively on the descent. I logged over 50,000 feet of skiing this rig last season and I couldn’t have been happier. Bonus that the Arcteryx Procline Carbon Ski Boots could also climb technical ice!
Well there you have it, 8 of my favorite climbing (and skiing) pieces of gear and clothing from the past year. I can’t wait to see what 2018 brings!
What was your favorite piece of new gear from last season? Let me know in the comments below!
The Mystery Ranch Scree is a mid-sized rugged backpack capable of hauling heavier and awkward loads better than most packs this size and could easily find itself in the gear closets of photographers and craggers alike. I tested this pack over the course of 3 months while day hiking, sport climbing, trad-climbing, and alpine climbing and I’m ready to share my opinions on it.
At 3.1 pounds this 32 liter (2000 cubic inches) pack is a little heavier than most of the packs in my quiver but that extra weight is attributed to a very robust suspension system that distributes heavy loads very comfortably and protects the back from feeling bulky camera gear or that #4 Black Diamond Camalot.
This heavier suspension system, the “Load Carriage™”, is the cornerstone of Mystery Ranch packs and allows for total customization of the suspension system to fit anyone’s torso as if the pack was custom made. The demo model I tested fit my 17 inch torso perfectly out of the box so I did not need to make any adjustments but for those who do Mystery Ranch explains the process in this video (note different model in video but same process).
Quite a bit of the design of the Mystery Ranch Scree is focused on storage and access to the gear you are hauling. The main compartment can be accessed like a traditional top-loader by unzipping the top pocket or by unzipping a centered vertical zipper that runs the length of the pack and allows for convenient panel loading access. The main advantage of having these two access options is when packing I can really stuff a lot of gear in by just using the top loading option. If I need something that I packed near the bottom of my pack the vertical zipper allows access without having to empty most the pack.
An internal hydration sleeve can hold a 100 ounce reservoir and a hydration port is well concealed behind the right shoulder strap. The top pocket has two zippered compartments, a large one with see through mesh and a smaller one at the very top of the lid. Two water-bottle pockets made from a stretchy nylon can hold 32 ounce Nalgene’s but do not have a draw-cord or compression strap to help secure them so care should be used when using. The padded waist belt has a zippered pocket on each side providing a convenient place to store some energy gels or lip balm. Two daisy chain down the back round out the storage options.
Mystery Ranch has a lot of experience building packs for military and fire fighting and you can tell they carry this bombproof type philosophy over to their expanding recreational lines. Made of 420 Denier Robic™ nylon fabric and waterproof YKK zippers with a double layered bottom you can expect a long life and many miles from this pack. After about 15 days of field use my demo model shows no signs of wear.
The Mystery Ranch Scree is a solid option for travelers hauling heavy gear in the mountains. The compression system allows it to cinch down to carry-on size for most airlines making it suitable for travel. While the suspension is a little too heavy for multi-pitch climbing this pack worked great hauling the whole trad rack for a day of single pitching at Cathedral Ledge and Sport Climbing at Rumney, NH. The impressive carrying capacity and unique access options would make this a solid choice for nature and adventure photographers as well as those who like compartmental organization. The only improvement I might suggest is the addition of a sternum strap whistle, a feature I like on all of my packs. If you are in need of a robust mid-sized pack for your mountain adventures take a look at this one, it might be a perfect addition to your pack quiver!