Gear Review- BightGear Caldera Down Parka

BightGear Caldera Parka Review
BightGear Caldera Parka Review- Photo by Alexandra Roberts

I’m fortunate to be able to review about a half-dozen of the industry’s best belay jackets each winter. Chances are from December to April I’m spending 5-6 days a week climbing frozen waterfalls or teaching avalanche courses up on notoriously cold Mount Washington. This gives me a lot of field time to put these jackets through the ringer and form some opinions which I am happy to share with you to help you navigate the myriad of choices out there!

A month or so ago a fellow guide introduced me to BightGear, a new brand born under the prestigious umbrella of Cascades based Whittaker Mountaineering. At its core this brand is an authentic “Guide Designed & Tested” label. Before a product is even released it must be tested for over 100k of vertical climbing.

Some impressive numbers from BightGear that speak to this process:

WEAR TESTING BY THE NUMBERS

  • 2016 – Over 1.2 Million vertical feet of wear testing by our guide team of primary fabrics used in 76 sample prototypes to build 19 different styles.
  • 2017 – Reached over 48 million vertical feet of wear testing and use of 143 prototypes by our team of 60+ guides, and thousands of RMI climbers on Mt. Rainier.
  • 2018 – On target to reach over 100 million vertical feet of testing with the launch of the Bight Test program on mountains and outdoor playgrounds around the world.
BightGear Caldera Parka Review
Guide designed and tested on the slopes of Mt. Rainier- photo courtesy of RMI/NEM Guide Jordan Cargill

Pretty cool right? Having learned all this I was more than happy to receive the BightGear Caldera Down Parka for a demo. After a month of testing in a variety of conditions I feel I can fairly share my opinion on this piece. In the realm of down insulated belay parkas the Caldera easily competes with the best in class options out there! Let’s start with the most noticeable then finish with the minutiae.


How Warm Is It?

BightGear stuffed this parka with over 6 ounces of 850 fill power HyperDRY™ Goose Down. That’s a lot of high loft quality down, and the result is a parka that feels like a nice sleeping bag for your torso. By using more I-beam baffles in the construction of the parka (vs sewn through) BightGear completely eliminates cold-spots. The arms and hood feel just as lofty as the torso which I prefer in this “over all” type parka. I’ve worn this over my other layers down to -16 Fahrenheit while demoing snow pits at 4,400 feet on Mount Washington. Even after an hour of standing relatively still while teaching the basics of snow-pack evaluation I was kept toasty.

BightGear Caldera Parka Review
Using the volcanic capabilities of the Caldera to dry out after attempting to climb a full shower Black Pudding Gully- Photo by Alexandra Roberts

How Dry Is It?

The BightGear Caldera uses a silky 20D nylon rip-stop with a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) finish. Most of the days I tested the parka were in temperatures well below those where I would encounter any liquid precipitation. I did expose it to a rather drippy ice climb a couple weeks ago and noticed water beads off as expected with a DWR finish. I also wore it over a soaked soft-shell jacket following a deluge of an ice climb and it dried me out quite quickly without feeling like it absorbed to much of the moisture. I’ve become a huge fan of the DWR treated down used in this parka as I believe regular down would quickly become a wet lump of non-insulating feathers under similar conditions.

BightGear Caldera Parka Review
Legit testing by one of the most renowned guide companies out there! Photo courtesy of Jordan Cargill

How Light and Pack-able Is It?

BightGear lists the weight of a size large at 646 grams (22.8 ounces). My home scale weighed my large in at 640 grams (22.6 ounces). This is within an ounce of other similar style/priced options. It easily stuffs into my Hyperlight Mountain Gear waterproof stuff sack and if packing space is at a real premium I can use my extra small compression stuff sack to get this down to the size of a 32 ounce water bottle!

BightGear Caldera Parka Review
Easily stuffs into my Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ultralight Stuff Sack
BightGear Caldera Parka Review
Gets even smaller in my XS compression stuff sack

Minutiae

BightGear included a lot design choices to further make the Caldera one of the best down parkas I’ve ever tested. The hood fits perfectly over my climbing helmet and is well stuffed with down making it a comfortable place to retreat in the harshest conditions. The brushed tricot lining on the inside collar is super cozy when in “full turtle” mode. This same lining is in the well positioned hand warming front pockets. Articulated elbows make this jacket fit great over my other layers and the PowerStretch cuffs seal out cold and snow while playing in deep snow. There are also two stretchy inside stash pockets that can hold gloves or a water bottle.

BightGear Caldera Parka Review
Be warm and toasty hood easily fits over my climbing helmet

Summary

It is clear that the BightGear Caldera Parka was designed by working mountain guides. It has everything you want in a big down “puffy” and nothing you don’t want. Of all the down parkas I have tested this one stands out as a top-pick for many reasons, not the least of which is the “half-sleeping bag” type feeling you get when you slip this on over your other layers. If you are looking to upgrade your belay jacket this one would be an excellent choice!

BightGear Caldera Parka Review
Essentially a nice puffy down “sleeping bag for your torso”… with the right layers and a bivy sack this is a great option for a bivy sleep system.

Exclusive 30% Off Discount!

I am super excited to be able to offer my readers a 30% off discount on ANY thing from BightGear’s Website! While I can not post the code publicly here all you need to do is shoot me a DM through Instagram, a PM through Facebook, or go old school and shoot me an email at nealpinestart@gmail.com! This discount is only good until April 1st, 2019 so don’t delay!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

A media sample was provided for purpose of review. 

 

Gear Review: Petzl Leopard LLF Crampons

I picked up a pair of Petzl Leopard Crampons towards the end of last winter for a back-country ski trip to Iceland. While I had been happy with my Petzl Vasak’s I wanted to shed some weight from my back-country touring kit and the Leopards do just that! I pair them with the Arcteryx Procline Boots which happen to be 45% off right now (just sayin’) Let’s take a closer look at these crampons to see if they are right for you! First the manufacturer’s deets!


Manufacturer Description

Petzl Leopard Crampons Review

Ultra light crampon with LEVERLOCK FIL binding, for ski touring and snow travel

Extremely light due to their aluminum construction, LEOPARD LLF crampons are perfect for ski touring and snow travel. The CORD-TEC flexible linking system minimizes bulk for ease of carrying.

Description

  • Very lightweight:
    – crampons made entirely of aluminum, optimized for snow travel
    – very lightweight (only 330 grams per pair)
  • Very compact:
    – CORD-TEC flexible linking system optimizes volume of crampons when packed in their bag (included)
    – tool-free length adjustment
  • Binding system especially adapted to the usage of these crampons:
    – self-adjusting elastic strap around the ankle
    – strap for good handling and easy removal
    – compact heel lever facilitates crampon installation/removal

Specifications

  • Number of points: 10
  • Boot sizes: 36-46
  • Certification(s): CE EN 893, UIAA
  • Material(s): aluminum, stainless steel, nylon, Dyneema®
  • Crampons come with protective carry bag

Alright, that’s out of the way so let’s breakdown the good & bad starting with…

Weight/Pack-ability

Petzl Leopard Crampons Review

This was the biggest reason I chose these for my ski mountaineering kit. When your crampons only weigh 11 ounces it is hard to justify not packing them “just in case”. The CORD-TEC adjustment system lets them pack up into the smallest stuff sack I’ve ever used for crampons measuring about 7 by 4 inches.

Petzl Leopard Crampons Review


Sizing/Fit

First make sure you select the right model! For ski boots you want the “LeverLock Universal” (LLF). The regular “FlexLock” (FL) model is suitable for hiking boots with or with out front and toe welts.

Petzl Leopard Crampons Review

I’ll admit I was skeptical about sizing a crampon that joins the heel piece to the front piece with string! Ok, maybe “string” is not the right word. The “CORD-TEC” is actually a woven 100% Dyneema cord. I measure it just shy of 5 mm (3/16 inches). That would give it a breaking strength around 6000 pounds… so not “string”. Dyneema is also highly resistant to abrasion.

http://phillystran.com/product-catalog/12-Strand-Braids-Spectra-Dyneema
3/16 Woven Dyneema CORD-TEC
Petzl Leopard Crampon Review
Joined with bar-tacking, this cord is replaceable but unlikely to need replacing

Petzl does sell a replacement for it if you ever wear it out somehow. I have a hard time imagining how much use it would take to requirement, but the option is there.


Adjust-ability

Petzl Leopard Crampons Review
Toe piece fits my Dynafit boots perfectly
Petzl Leopard Crampons Review
Slight gap between the heel level and boot but they haven’t come off yet!
Petzl Leopard Crampons Review
Perfect balance of security and comfortable walking!

I found the CORD-TEC system to be very easy to adjust for both of my ski boots. No tools required an quite intuitive. Do not be intimidated by the instructions, once in hand you could pretty much size them without looking at the instructions, but if you are having any issues give them a look!

Petzl Leopard Crampons Review

Petzl Leopard Crampons Review
Solid fit on my Arcteryx Procline Carbon Lite Boots

DEAL ALERT!

Arcteryx Procline Boots Review
Light and comfy enough for a steep volcano scree field in blue jeans- photo by Matt Baldelli

Backcountry has almost a full size run of the Arcteryx Procline Carbon Lite Boots at 45% off right now!

Buy on Backcountry

Petzl Leopard Crampons Review
Syncs really well with my Arcteryx Procline Boots!

Ok, sorry about that, back to the crampons!

Performance

These have been tested over a few thousand feet of snow climbing in on neve, spring corn, and classic NH “windboard”. For an ultra-light aluminum crampon they perform great! They have not, and will not, be tested on waterfall ice or mixed rock routes. They are not designed for that and I’m sure such uses will shorten their life-span. So far they have only been in contact with snow but I’m not too worried about walking over short sections of granite to get to the next patch of snow this Spring. It’s gear. It should get beat on from time to time! These will be my choice model for my next trip to climb in the Cascades.

Summary

These are for ski mountaineers, back-country skiers, and riders who have found themselves on a steep slope wishing they hadn’t left their crampons in the car. These could also be a nice step up for many winter hikers who sometimes rely on Kahtoola MICROspikes in terrain where more aggressive traction would be more appropriate. Just make sure you get the Flexlock model.  Skiers should get the LevelLock model. Finally these are for anyone who is looking to shave ounces off their total kit while still having the tools they need to reach the places they want to play. If that’s you then you should consider checking these out!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

These crampons were purchased with my own money. Affiliate links above support the content created at Northeast Alpine Start. 

My Current Backcountry Ski Kit

(UPDATE 2018/19- Originally previewed in this post I’ve now had two full seasons on this setup and am excited to start my third season on them this winter! Both Iceland trips were amazing BTW!)

DPS Wailer 99 Ski, Dynafit TLT Speed Radical Bindings
Finding the line in flat light- photo by Brent Doscher

A new pair of skis arrived on Friday (two years ago) just in time for the last avalanche course of the season! I wanted to put together a setup that would crush uphill performance (be insanely light) but also give me enough control for decent downhill performance. While I’ve only had one tour on this kit it was a good one, up Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail, summit Mt. Monroe, and down Monroe Brook, I want to share some first impressions. A detailed review will follow once I put some more field time on them in Iceland in two weeks!

DPS Tour 1 Skis Arcteryx Procline Boots Dynafit Speed Radical Bindings
Built for uphill performance!

Let’s start with the boards!

The DPS Wailer 99 Tour 1

A proven shape (125/99/111, Radius: 16-19m) with the Tour 1 construction makes this an uphill skinning beast. Seriously each ski only weighs about 3 pounds! The feather-lite weight is achieved by using a balsa wood core but dampening and downhill performance is obtained due to the carbon/glass laminate and on both sides of the core. The top of the ski is protected with a Prepreg carbon fiber laminate and the bases are hard World Cup race bases. The combination of these material ends up with a ski that is surprising torsion-ally rigid and responsive despite belonging to the “ultralight” class. For comparison my Dynafit Denali skis feel a little softer than these at a comparable weight. I’ll wait to comment on the amount of “chatter” until I get a chance to bring them up to speed but typically that is an issue when rocking an ultralight ski.

The Dynafit TLT Speed Radical Bindings

Dynafit TLT Speed Radical Bindings Review
Dynafit TLT Speed Radical Bindings

I’ve always liked my Dynafit Tech Bindings and this is the lightest binding I have ever committed to.  Weighing only 13 ounces and carrying up to a 10 DIN rating and two level quick step climbing bars along with being compatible with my ski crampons it seemed like a perfect match for this ski (and this boot I’m about to explode about). For those who are curious I set my DIN to 8 (180 lbs, Type 3) and had no accidental releases on my tour this past weekend. I haven’t crashed with them yet and it might be awhile before I truly test the release as I tend to ski a little on the conservative side when on lightweight back-country gear.

The Arcteryx Procline Carbon Support Boots

IMG_6394
Arcteryx Procline Carbon Support Boots

This really is the game changer in my opinion! A boot that feels like it can ice climb Grade 3 water ice in absolute comfort, skin for thousands of vertical feet, and perform on the downhill in steep terrain with good conditions and in lower angle terrain in more challenging conditions. It’s literally the first ski boot I ever felt I could drive my car in. In touring mode it feels as comfortable as a Scarpa Inverno or Koflach Degree mountaineering boot. In ski mode it gave me enough confidence to link turns in variable snow conditions while descending Monroe Brook (max pitch 42 degrees). I felt one pressure point on the inside of my ankle bone during our descent when I was “cranked tight” that I plan on addressing by molding the liners. I’ll get more into the fit in my full depth review next month after many more days of touring but for now the size 27 fit my US size 9 feet like a comfy pair of slippers (except for that one pressure point I’ll be working on).

Arcteryx Procline Boots Review
Light and comfy enough for a steep volcano scree field in blue jeans- photo by Matt Baldelli

backcountry skiing in Iceland

G3 Alpinist LT Skins

G3 Alpinist LT Skins Review
G3 Alpinist LT Skins

I have tested these extensively all winter long and have experienced overall positive results. They’ve gripped well in a myriad of conditions that I will spell out in more detail in my in-depth review next month. I absolutely loved how well they fit out of the box and the G3 trimming tool (included) made cutting them to size a snap. My only minor gripe is the heel clip rarely stays attached on the rounded rocker shape of DPS tails. Not a big deal considering they work fine even when that comes un-clipped.

Dynafit Ski Crampons

Dynafit Ski Crampons
Dynafit Ski Crampons

My first ski crampons and they definitely made a difference on the steeper bits of the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail. Almost everyone in our course who didn’t have them opted to toss the skis on the back and boot up the steeper half mile to treeline. With the included stuff sack this extra 8 ounces adds a lot of security when the skinning gets steep & icy!

This entire setup up; skis, boots, bindings, skins, and crampons only weighs 14 pounds and 12 ounces!

Hey you’ve read this far so here’s a video of our tour last weekend on the west side of Mount Washington!

Summary

I’m watching the weather in Iceland almost daily. Assuming Spring skiing conditions this will be my kit for that trip where we have a solid 3-4 days of touring planned. My ski season used to end when I couldn’t ski right to the parking lot at Pinkham but with this ultra-light setup I plan on making quite a few more forays up the hill and stretch my ski season out to May this year. When gear is this light and comfy I don’t think I’ll mind much tossing it on the back for a mile or two. If you are looking to lighten your load take a look at the links above. I think this is a pretty well optimized corn snow and soft snow setup when you spend a fair about of time earning your turns, and I really can’t wait to get these boots up an alpine gully this Spring (My Petzl Vasak crampons fit perfectly!)

Thanks for reading! A lot more reviews coming an quite a few gear give-aways planned for next month so if you haven’t already please follow this blog at the top right! You can also follow on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

Disclaimer: The boots and skins listed above were provided for purposes of review. The skis and bindings were purchased with my own money. All opinions above are my own. Affiliate links help support this blog.

Gear Review- Black Diamond Vapor Climbing Helmet

Black Diamond Vapor Helmet Review

The Black Diamond Vapor Helmet is the lightest and most breathable helmet in Black Diamond’s line and is only an ounce heavier than the Petzl Sirocco that I reviewed here. A sheet of Kevlar and a series of carbon rods in between co-molded EPS foam provides the bulk of impact protection along with a thin but full polycarbonate shell. I’ve been testing this helmet out while climbing and guiding for the last three months and I’m ready to share my opinions on it! As normal I’ll start with the most noticeable features and work towards the minutiae.


Weight

Black Diamond Vapor Helmet Review

Black Diamond lists the weight of the M/L size at 199 grams, or 7 ounces. My home scale measured 206 grams, or 7 3/8 ounces. For comparison my size 2 Sirocco weighed in on the same scale at 174 grams, or 6 1/8 ounces. While the listed weight seemed a slight bit low it truly weighs only an ounce more than the bar-setting Petzl Sirocco. This ultra-light weight is a boon for long approaches and descents and increases long-term comfort. You truly can forget you have your helmet on when wearing lids like this!


Breath-ability

IMG_9585

Twenty one geometric and well placed holes offer excellent airflow through the helmet making this one of the best hot weather options out there. Furthermore I tested the “Blizzard” color which is basically white and reflective and I found the helmet to be as cool as is possible even on sweltering August days.


Fit/Comfort

Black Diamond Vapor Helmet Review

The M/L size is listed to fit a head circumference of 58-63 cm (23-25 in). My head measures about 60 cm (23.5 inches). That said I found the helmet to run a little small. It fit my shaved head well but was almost maxed out (I do have a large head). I have just enough room for a thin hat liner for cold weather climbing. Removable and breathable helmet pads are soft on the skin and can be removed for washing. The Y-harness strap is not adjustable but fell perfectly around my ears. The feather like weight and high degree  of breath-ability really do make this one of the most comfortable helmets I have ever tested.


Features

Black Diamond Vapor Helmet Review
The author wearing the Black Diamond Vapor while topping out the Northeast Ridge of the Pinnacle, Mount Washington. Photo by Brent Doscher

Other than the weight and breath-ability the only other feature to talk about is the headlamp clips, which oddly are removable. Black Diamond suggests that removing them may make the helmet less likely to get snagged on slings, etc. but I’d suggest just leaving them on. They didn’t get caught on anything while I was testing. The helmet also has a nice low profile while providing great coverage on the back and sides.


Durability

Black Diamond Vapor Helmet Review
Alex rocking the Black Diamond Vapor helmet during an early morning climb at Otter Cliffs- Photo by Brent Doscher

It’s hard to accurately rate long term durability after just three months. I have friends who have climbed regularly in theirs for over a year. The thin polycarbonate shell does not resist small dents and dings with regular use. Black Diamond advises against packing this helmet inside your pack. I packed mine in the top of my pack like I usually do if I don’t have a full load and had no issues (but I remember it is in there and don’t sit on my pack when it is in there). If you strap it on the outside of your pack I would suggest you don’t just drop your pack on the ground when you reach the crag. I wouldn’t say you need to “baby” this helmet but if you want something that can take more abuse check out the Black Diamond Half Dome or Petzl Boreo that I reviewed here.


Summary

This is a specialist helmet. It’s a bit pricey, but the weight savings and breath-ability can easily justify the price. I’ve heard that cycling helmets made with a similar construction can go for 2 to 3 times more! The best uses for this helmet would be alpine climbing and long multi-pitch trad climbing. I’d chose something longer lasting for sport climbing where a couple ounces more can buy you a lot more durability. If weight and long term comfort in warm weather are a priority the Black Diamond Vapor is a great pick!

Buy on Backcountry

sale price vapor.PNG

Buy from EMS

Buy from Moosejaw

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Buy from Mountain Gear

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Buy from REI

sale price vapor.PNG

Gear Review- Hyperlite Mountain Gear “The Shell” Jacket

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.

Hyperlite Mountain Gear The Shell Jacket Review
The author testing Hyperlight Mountain Gear’s “The Shell” while skiing in the White Mountains of New Hampshire

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!

Hyperlite Mountain Gear The Shell Jacket Review
Fellow guide Corey Fitzgerald testing the jacket on an acclimatization hike to Laguna Churup, Peru- photo by @cfphotography

Durability

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.

Hyperlite Mountain Gear The Shell Jacket Review
The author getting ready for a 4000 foot skin up a northern Iceland peak while testing the Hyperlight Mountain Gear “The Shell” Jacket- photo by Cait

Weight

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.

Hyperlite Mountain Gear The Shell Jacket Review
Fellow Northeast Mountaineering Guide Matt Bowman gearing up for some WI4 at Frankenstein Cliffs, Crawford Notch, New Hampshire- photo by Peter Brandon

Pack-Ability

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.

Hyperlite Mountain Gear The Shell Jacket Review
Softball sized pack-ability

Performance

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).

Hyperlite Mountain Gear The Shell Jacket Review
Light, technical, and durable- photo by Peter Brandon

Sizing/Fit

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!

Other Media

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:

 

Summary

“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.

Gear Review- Black Diamond Cirque 45 Backpack

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.


Black Diamond Cirque 45 Backpack Review
Skiing “the Sherbi” with the Black Diamond Cirque 45 Backpack- photo by Alexandra Roberts

Buy on Backcountry


Capacity

Black Diamond Cirque 45 Backpack Review
Black Diamond Cirque 45 Backpack Review

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.



Fit/Comfort

Black Diamond Cirque 45 Backpack Review
Black Diamond Cirque 45 Backpack Review

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).


Durability

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.


Features

Black Diamond Cirque 45 Backpack Review
Black Diamond Cirque 45 Backpack Helmet Carrying System

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.
    Black Diamond Cirque 45 Backpack Review
    Black Diamond Cirque 45 Backpack Stretch Hip Pocket
  • 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.
    Black Diamond Cirque 45 Backpack Review
    Black Diamond Cirque 45 Backpack Helmet Carrying System
  • 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!

Improvements

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!


Other Media

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Thanks for reading!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start
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Gear Review- Patagonia Micro Puff Hoody

Last year I got to review the iconic Patagonia Nano Puff Hoody, undeniably one of the “best in class” pieces of outdoor clothing on the market. This year Patagonia has taken this iconic piece and optimized it with a new “PlumaFill” synthetic insulation that really gives natural down insulated pieces a run for the money. Instead of lamenting over every minutia detail I’m going to call attention to the differences in this new option over the tried-and-true Nano-Puff Hoody that many of us are familiar with (especially if you read my aforementioned review).

Patagonia Micro Puff Review
Patagonia Micro Puff Review- photo by Alexandra Roberts

Insulation

“PlumaFill”… what is it? Google searches will lead you to other positive reviews of this jacket but for the sake of time I will tell you it is the closest insulation I have experienced to good ole’ goose down with the added benefit of still “working” when it gets wet. I’ve asked a few experienced outdoor retail friends to guess the insulation by “feel” and they all thought this was a down piece. Its perceived “warmth” is definitely competitive with any down option at this weight on the market!


Weight/Compress-ability

My size large weights 9.5 ounces. It’s almost laughable that something that can retain this much heat can weigh that little. Seriously? I can pack this into a 22 ounce water bottle! While it is with out a doubt ultra-light weight and compressible I would still caution that this is a “light puffy”. Don’t expect it to be your sole belay jacket on Cannon Cliff or Lake Willoughby…but… at the weight & low packing space this is a piece that could live in your pack for all those “I wish I had a little more warmth” moments.


Shell Fabric

The Patagonia Nano Puff® Hoody used a 1.4-oz 22-denier that felt like silk. The new Mirco Puff uses  a .7-oz 10-denier 100% nylon ripstop Pertex Quantum® with the same  DWR (durable waterproof repellent) finish. What does that mean? Well silky got silkier and the shell fabric is basically half as thick as the iconic Nano Puff. We are probably giving up some durability here at the benefit of weight/pack-ability… but for many of us that is a welcome trade.


Summary

The new Micro Puff Hoody saves you about 3 ounces for an equal amount of environmental cold protection. That’s a $50 price increase for 3 ounces and maybe 20 cubic inches of packing space (they both back into smaller than a water bottle packages). “PlumaFill” seems to be the closest anyone has been able to get to the weight vs. warmth of natural down, but the PrimaLoft Gold used in the original Nano Puff Hoody is still a strong contender in the arena. I guess the bottom line is both of these are pretty darn amazing options and it’s up to you if the 3 ounce savings is worth the extra moo-laa. I hope this brief review helps you decide!

Buy Micro Puff from Patagonia

Buy Nano Puff from Patagonia

Buy Micro/Nano Puff from Backcountry

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start