My Quest for the Perfect Hunting Pack. The McHale Critical Mass INEX

Review of the McHale Critical Mass Backpack

McHale INEX pack

McHale INEX pack

McHale Website

I’ve pretty much abandoned large backpacks for backpacking and climbing.  With modern, ultralight gear, I very seldom carry more than 30 pounds, and usually my pack weight is much less, generally less than 20 pounds fully loaded.

However, backpack hunting is one endeavor when I still require a pack that can comfortably carry large loads.  Even though I try to minimize my gear and clothing weight, if my hunt is successful and I kill an animal, I’m going to be carrying out a very heavy load of meat.

Hunting packs have a lot of requirements, some of which conflict with each other.  They need to be compact and comfortable enough to allow you to move off-trail easily and quietly, without catching on branches and getting caught on things.  They need to be light enough to not unreasonably add to your load.  They need provisions for carrying a weapon.  They need to be able to carry a week’s worth of gear and provisions.  They need to be durable.  And, when you’re hauling out meat, they need to be capable of controlling and carrying really large loads, sometimes in excess of 100 pounds.

When I first got into hunting a few years ago, I figured I needed a special hunting pack.  So, I bought and used packs by Eberlestock, Mystery Ranch, and Badlands.  They had some great, hunting specific features, but I really didn’t like using them for meat hauling.  With 100+ pounds of meat and cargo, they were not as capable as I would have liked.  The waistbelts sagged, the frames didn’t transfer weight efficiently to my hips.  My shoulders and hips and back got sore.

With these shortcomings in mind, I abandoned these hunting packs, and went back to using my tried and true McHale Super INEX Alpineer, which I’ve owned since 1995.  This pack has many hundreds of trail miles on it, and I’ve carried some really huge loads with it.   (There is a review of this pack on my old website HERE.)

The McHale pack turned out to be a very good all around hunting pack.  It can easily transform from a short, squat nimble pack into a tall loadmonster by adding or removing the “bayonet” stays that lengthen the frame.  When hunting, I generally keep the pack in the shorter configuration, and only utilize the bayonet frame extensions when meat hauling.  For carrying heavy weight, I still have not found anything that is its equal.  I once carried out close to 200 pounds in this pack when a couple of buddies and I carried out the meat and head of a big bull elk in a single trip.

Elk Down! Now the hard work of meat hauling is about to begin

Elk Down! Now the hard work of meat hauling is about to begin

Hunting Modifications

I was pretty happy with the McHale pack, but after a while, I decided that some modifications to this pack would make it even better as a hunting pack.

I contacted Dan, originally thinking I would buy a whole new pack from him, but he suggested that I just modify my existing pack.  (This was awesome, as I could continue to use my trusty pack and it saved me a lot of money too.)

The modifications I requested were as follows:

I wanted the back pad to be re-worked to incorporate a 1/2 body length evazote pad that could be used as a sit pad or for sleeping on.  (I sometimes use a very light Klymit X-frame sleeping pad, and this evazote pad would provide some insulation, which the Klymit design lacks.)   This pad is also great for long glassing sessions too, providing a comfortable pad to sit on.

I wanted a roll top closure and deletion of the top pocket.  I don’t use the top pocket much, and converting to a roll top design would save weight, while maintaining water resistance.

I wanted an exit port for a hydration tube.

I wanted a larger right side pocket to accommodate the butt of my rifle, to make carrying the rifle easy.

I also wanted fastening points for a Kifaru Gunbearer, so I could carry my rifle in a way that made it quick to deploy.

Dan agreed to do all of these modifications, and a few months later, after paying a very modest fee, I had my pack back, better than ever.

Using the modified McHale this hunting season has convinced me that it is the ideal hunting pack for my style of backpack hunting.  It easily swallows a week’s worth of gear and food.  The pack has three spaces; a lower compartment, an upper compartment, and a large exterior pocket.  All of my gear and extra clothing fits nicely into the lower compartment, where it’s easily accessible with a couple of zippers.  The large exterior pocket holds things like map, compass, and headlamp, and my food and water goes in the upper compartment.  Fully loaded, there’s still tons of room for meat.

McHale Pack, loaded for a week of hunting

McHale Pack, loaded for a week of hunting

This pack is easy to carry while stalking and moving over rough ground, and it’s also comfortable to carry, mile after mile.  I can hike all day and my hips and shoulders do not ache.  The McHale design of the hip belt (which is larger than any other hip belt I’ve seen on a pack) really spreads the weight out, transferring the load to the hips without creating pressure points or rubbing.     The shoulder straps separate the strap adjustment from the load lifter adjustment, a feature which, as far as I know, is unique among backpacks.  This allows the pack to be snugged close to the body without pulling the shoulder straps up off of the shoulders, greatly improving stability.

Fully loaded with hunting gear. Still lots of room for meat.

Fully loaded with hunting gear. Still lots of room for meat.

The pack is not ultralight.  As modified, it weighs 7 pounds, 2 ounces.  That is about a pound heavier than some of the popular hunting packs from Mystery Ranch, Kifaru, Kuiu, etc.  However, this includes the weight of the foam pad, which can be detached from the pack and used as a sit pad or sleeping pad.  Also, the volume of this pack is larger than other hunting packs.  (The McHale is over 8000 cubic inches or 131 liters!!)  Given the load carrying capacity, I’m happy to trade an extra pound for the heavy-load comfort that this pack provides.

McHale packs are expensive, but they’re worth every penny.  They are hand made in Seattle to your body’s measurements and to your custom specifications.  The variations and options are endless.  You can get any size you want with any features that you want in a choice of various high tech fabrics.

On every hunting forum I’ve frequented, a common question is, “what is the perfect hunting pack?”  In my opinion, it’s a McHale pack.  Most folks haven’t even heard of these packs, but the combination of huge load carrying capability, quality construction, and customizable features puts the McHale packs in a class by themselves.

 

 

Review of the Leica Geovid 10 x 42 HD-B EDITION 2200 Binoculars

These binoculars are marketed as the Leica Geovid 10 x 42 HD-B EDITION 2200 model.   Leica’s “Geovid” range of binoculars all feature integrated laser rangefinding.  The “10×42” indicates that they are 10 power magnification, with a 42mm objective lens.  The “B” in “HD-B” means that they have on board ballistics software.  (I assume that the HD means high definition, but I’m not sure.)  The “Edition 2200” indicates that they are designed to range out to 2200 yards.

Leica Geovid HD-B 10x42 Edition 2200

Leica Geovid HD-B 10×42 Edition 2200.  It’s a good fit with the Alaska Guide Creations bino pack.

The Leica Geiovid HD-B binoculars feature an integrated laser rangefinder, temperature and pressure sensors, and an inclinometer to measure angle slope.  These features, combined with on-board ballistics software, allow a shooter to acquire a target, range the target, and calculate a ballistics firing solution so that you can accurately adjust your rifle’s optics for the target’s range.

That’s a lot of tasks for a single piece of equipment.  This review will evaluate how well these binoculars perform these various tasks.

Optical Quality

The Geovid HD-B binoculars have outstanding optical quality.  Before I purchased the Geovids, I was using Swarovski’s top of the line 10×50 EL binoculars.  After I got the Geovids, I kept the Swarovskis and used the two binos side by side under all sorts of conditions.  The optical quality of these two binoculars was so close as to be indistinguishable to my eyes.  In particular, I had expected the Swarovskis, with their larger, 50mm objective lens, to have superior performance in low light conditions.  However, when I looked through both binoculars side by side at dawn and dusk, there was not any discernible difference between the two.  I had originally planned on keeping the Swaros, but after several months of owning both the Swarovskis and the Leicas, I ended up selling the Swarovskis because I simply could not find any situation in which they outperformed the Leicas, and the Leicas have the advantage of the rangefinder and the ballistics calculator.

I’ve seen online debates about color rendition and chromatic aberration and other comparisons of Swaro and Leica glass, but the real world bottom line is that you will not be disappointed in the optical performance of these binoculars, even if you are accustomed to very high performance optics.  (I certainly wasn’t)

Build Quality, Design, and Ergonomics

The Geovids weigh 37.5 ounces.  This is pretty much identical to the Swarovski EL 10x50s, which is not bad considering the Geovids have a built in rangefinder.  The Geovids came with a case and strap, but I don’t use the Leica accessories, but rather use an Alaska Guide Creations binocular pack and harness, which protects the binoculars and has pockets for various odds and ends like lens cleaners, spare battery, hunting tags and licenses, and other miscellaneous things.

The binoculars are waterproof (I haven’t tested this, but I’m willing to take Leica’s word on this.)  Ergonomics are good, and the open bridge design makes them easy to grasp and hold.  The two buttons (one for the rangefinder and the other for the other functions) are close together, which can make it easy to mistakenly press the wrong button when wearing thick gloves, but the buttons have different feels to them (concave vs. convex surfaces) so if you’re using the binoculars with bare hands or sensitive gloves, you can tell which button you are pushing.

Adjustments of the eye cups and the focus and diopter adjustments are simple and easy.

My only complaint regarding build quality is that the lens covers for the objective lenses don’t stay on that well.  They are always just falling off the lenses, even when I don’t want them to.  (They are attached securely, however, so even when they fall off of the lens, they remain attached to the binocular body and don’t get lost.)  I never really had this issue with the Swarovski lens covers.

Glassing in my Uncompahgre Jacket

Glassing with the Geovids

Rangefinding Performance

These binoculars are claimed to have an effective range of 2200 yards.  In real world use, I have never been able to range anything out that far.  Performance is best in cloudy conditions without direct sunlight.  Dawn and twilight generally result in optimum ranging.  Reflective objects are supposed to be easier to range, but I’ve found that sometimes they can be harder than softer objects like trees.  I think that may be because if the reflective object is oriented the wrong way, it deflects the light away from you, so you don’t get a good return signal.  Generally, this is an issue with flat rock surfaces.  Round boulders are good targets.

Hand held, I can range deer pretty reliably out to about 700 yards.  For accuracy beyond about 700 yards, it really helps to use a tripod or rest the Geovids on a pack or a stump or some other means for keeping them absolutely steady.  With a tripod or other rest, I generally can range targets out to 1100 yards or so pretty reliably.  Maximum range in ideal real world situations for me seems to be about 1700 yards.  Anything beyond that seems to be extremely conditions-dependent and unusual.

If there is snow on the ground combined with bright sunlight, the Geovids struggle to accurately range deer sized targets beyond 400 yards.  (Again, using a tripod helps, but not as much.)  Cold, winter conditions have been a challenge, as a result of the reflective snow and also (I believe) the cold’s drain on the unit’s battery.  I’ve been in winter situations where I’ve been unable to range targets at 250 yards.  Heavy falling snow pretty much shuts the rangefinder down, making it useless for ranging anything.

Rain doesn’t seem to affect ranging capabilities much.  When it’s raining, it’s generally overcast, so the lack of direct sunlight seems to offset whatever interference the rain may have.

Range is 916 yards

Range reads 916 yards  In normal conditions, ranging to 1000 yards is pretty routine.

ranging-2

Display shows 74 clicks of elevation adjustment (7.4 MILS)

When compared with the two other rangefinders I’ve owned and used, the Geovids are significantly better performers than the Swarovksi Laser Guide, and significantly worse than my Vectronix PLRF15.  The Geovids are probably twice as effective as the Swarovski Laser Guide, easily ranging targets that are outside of the Swaro’s effective range.  The military spec Vectronix can range several times further than the Geovid, and can range smaller targets in worse conditions.  However, it has inferior optics (only a 6x monocular) and doesn’t have any of the other ballistics or weather features of the Geovid.

Overall, I’ve found the Geovids to have adequate performance for hunting.  They can range deer sized targets pretty reliably at ranges which I am likely to be taking a shot.  Out of all of the options on the market, I think the the Geovids are currently the best choice for hunting.

Ballistics Software

The Geovids have onboard ballistics software that provides a vertical ballistics firing solution out to 1000 yards, incorporating pressure, temperature, and angle.  Past 1000 yards, the Geovids will provide a range, but no ballistics firing solution.

The software part of the package is where Leica has room for the most improvement.  The web based software for the Geovids is really bad.  There’s no convenient way to save and tweak your ballistic data and rifle profiles.  Every time you go to the web site, you are basically starting over with your ballistics inputs and profiles.  Other modern ballistics software has easy and convenient ways of storing and modifying multiple ballistics profiles.  Leica really needs to raise their game when it comes to their software user interface.

You can use a microSD card to store a custom ballistics profile in the Geovids.  However, the microSD card can only hold a single profile, so if you want to use the Geovids with different rifles or different loads, you have to change out the microSD card, which is a serious pain in the butt.  The card is seated in a tiny slot in the battery compartment that is very hard to access with fingers.  I bought a small tweezers to make removing and inserting microSD cards easier.

Leica's ballistics web page where you enter custom load information

Leica’s ballistics web page where you enter custom load information

The software is a bit glitchy. Notice how my bullet weight has been set to 0.

The software is a bit glitchy. Notice how my bullet weight has been reset to zero.  Losing input data when you navigate between screens is a common issue.

In order to true up my Geovid software to match my real world ballistics, I pull up my real-world adjusted drop chart that I have created using my Android’s Strelok Pro ballistics app, then I tweak the ballistics coefficient and/or velocity in the Geovid ballistics software profile until the Geovid drop chart matches my Strelok chart.  I’ts clunky, and takes more effort than it should, but ultimately, it provides ballistics data that matches my real world DOPE very closely.

Drop table can be used to synchronize Leica ballistics with real world DOPE

Drop table can be used to synchronize Leica ballistics with real world DOPE

I use rifle scopes with Mil reticles, and the Geovid can be set up to give me a firing solution in 1/10 Mil clicks, which is fast and simple.  I see the number of clicks, divide by 10, and that’s how many Mils I need to adjust for.  For those who work in MOA, the Geovid supports MOA too, as well as calculating drop in inches.

The software accounts for vertical drop only, and there is no provision at all for horizontal windage.  That’s OK with me, however, because I’ve pretty much got my 10mph wind values memorized out to 1000 yards, and they don’t change much due to atmospheric conditions.

My complaints about the clunkiness of the interface aside, the ballistics software is pretty good.  With some work and tweaking, it provides accurate firing solutions out to 1000 yards.  It’s not great, but ultimately, it gets the job done.  If Leica were to license the software and interface from Strelok, or Applied Ballistics, or one of the other state of the art software packages, that would be great.

Overall Conclusions

For long range target shooting, I don’t use the Geovids.  They don’t provide ballistics solutions past 1000 yards, and their rangefinding capabilities pale in comparison with my Vectronix PLRF15.  For long range target shooting, I use my spotting scope to examine the target, my Vectronix PLRF15 to calculate range, my Kestrel to provide wind, pressure and temperature data, and my Samsung phone with the Strelok Pro app to calculate a firing solution.  This is extremely accurate and reliable, but it takes forever.  When you’re shooting at a steel plate or a milk jug, it really doesn’t matter how long you take to generate a firing solution.  However, when hunting animals, time can be a real constraint.  The elk will likely just walk away by the time you’ve figured out your turret adjustments.

The Geovids provide a very rapid tool for generating a firing solution on a game animal target.  The added advantage that the Geovids combine several functions into a single tool make them even more attractive.  The new Sig Kilo 2400 has range finding and ballistics capabilities that are superior to the Geovid, but you still have to carry a separate binoculars, and switch back and forth between them.  The Geovids give up some ranging and ballistics functionality to the Sig Kilo 2400, but for me, the convenience, weight savings, and speed of having a single piece of equipment perform the functions of binoculars, rangefinder, and ballistics calculator is worth the trade off.

I’m happy with the Geovids.  They’re my first choice for hunting, even if I don’t particularly like them for long range target shooting.  If I didn’t already own a Vectronix PLRF15, and I wanted a single rangefinder for both hunting and long range target shooting, I’d probably go with the Sig Kilo 2400.  However, for a dedicated hunting rangefinder, I don’t think there’s anything better than the Geovids on the market right now.

For a some very good and in-depth reviews of the Geovids on another blog, you can go HERE for a video review, and HERE and HERE for reviews of the Geovid and a detailed explanation of its ballistics functions.  My conclusions are similar to his, although he seems to have better results than I do ranging things over 1500 yards.

Review: Primary Arms 4-14x44mm First Focal Plane Rifle Scope (ACSS R-Grid Reticle)

The Primary Arms 4-14 x 44mm rifle scope is something of an anomaly.  It retails for less than $300, but it has a number of features that are typically found only on more expensive scopes.  Its zoom range is not exceptional.  It has a minimum of 4x and a maximum of 14x.  It has milradian turrets with 1/10 mil click increments.  It has a milradian reticle.  None of these features are common, but they are not particularly exceptional.  However, the difference between this scope and most other bargain zooms is that the aiming reticle is in the first focal plane.  What this means is that the reticle sub-tension markings are consistent across the entire zoom range.  Two mils, as seen through the reticle, is two mils downrange, whether you are at 4x or 14x zoom.  This is in contrast to the much more common second focal plane construction, where the reticle sub-tension markings are only accurate at a single zoom setting (typically max zoom.)

Although second focal plane scopes continue to be the most common type among hunters and shooters, first focal plane scopes have become more and more popular, because you can use reticle sub-tension markings to adjust for elevation and windage, rather than taking the time to adjust the scope’s turrets.  First focal plane scopes are particularly popular with precision rifle competitors, and military users, where rapid target engagement is desirable.  After using a few first focal plane scopes, I have become a convert to that format, and recently sold my last second focal plane scope.  All of my current long range optics are first focal plane scopes with milradian reticles and milradian turrets.

The Primary Arms 4-14 is one of the few budget scopes with a first focal plane construction.  It also has the mil-mil reticle turret set up that I favor.  So, when looking for a decent scope at a bargain price, this scope piqued my interest.  I’ve used several Primary Arms 4-14 scopes now for about 4 months, and here are my initial conclusions:

Build quality:  The scope feels pretty solid and well built.  According to the materials that came with the scope, the optics are nitrogen purged, which should prevent them from fogging up.  The dials are smooth and do not bind or catch.  The turrets are a bit soft, and the individual clicks are not quite as positive as on higher end scopes, but they are not bad, and you can feel the individual clicks when turning the turrets, so you don’t need to look when making adjustments; you can do it by feel alone.

The center part of the reticle is illuminated for shooting in low light conditions.  One of the features I really like about this scope is how the illumination is adjusted.  Rather than a single on-off switch or a sliding scale for illumination intensity, the illumination knob alternates between intensity settings and fully off.  (Dial reads, 1; off; 2; off; 3; off; etc.)  What this means, is that you can turn the reticle to your favored intensity setting, turn it off, and then turn it back to your favored setting again with just one click of the knob.  This is not a game changing feature, but it’s a thoughtful one, and shows the attention to detail that the designers have put into this scope.

The reticle design itself is one of my favorite reticles I’ive seen on any scope at any price.  Primary Arms call this reticle the ACSS R-Grid Reticle.  I have no idea what ACSS stands for or why it’s called “R-Grid,” but I don’t really care.  I just love this reticle.  The point of aim is highlighted with a large horseshoe shaped part-circle, that quickly directs your eye to the aiming point in the center, which is marked by a pointy chevron.  In use, I have found target acquisition to be substantially aided by this reticle design.  In illuminated mode, both the “horseshoe” and the chevron are lit up in red.  The bottom portion of the reticle is a “Christmas tree” grid, marked off with half mil increments, with numbers at 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10 mils.

rgrid

I am a fan of Christmas tree grids, (I also love the AMR reticle on my Kahles 624i) as they allow for very quick and easy holdovers when adjusting for various ranges without twirling the turrets.

In addition to using the mil markings for holdovers for windage and elevation, the reticle also has some clever features for range estimation.  The horizontal lines on the upper right quadrant of the reticle are correlated to the size of a man at various ranges.  Line up the person’s feet on the main line, and where his head is will tell you his range.  In the photo below, the person’s head lines up with the “4” mark.  This indicates that he is at approximately 400 yards away.  (I ranged him with my Vectronix PLRF 15, and his actual range was 412 yards)  Similarly, the width of these range markers correlate with the approximate width of a man’s shoulders.  As you can see from the photo below, the width of the man’s shoulders is approximately equal to the width on the 400 yard range line.reticle

The quality of the glass in this scope is surprisingly good for a scope in this price range.  It’s not comparable to the glass in my Kahles, Nightforce, or IOR scopes, but those scopes cost 10 times more money.  For a scope with a max 14x magnification, glass quality is perfectly good, even in low light and maximum magnification.

In shooting at ranges between 50 to 500 yards, I have found the turret adjustments to be accurate and consistent.  I have not mounted these scopes on my bigger rifles (most powerful is a 6.5 Creedmoor) so I don’t know how it performs on a heavy recoiling rifle.  However, for my purposes, I have had no complaints at all.

Bottom line, I’m very pleased with this scope.  I can highly recommend it to anyone who wants a good first focal plane scope for hunting or target shooting at a reasonable price.

Utah General Season Elk Hunt

This is the tale of my recent elk hunting trip to the Uintas. Spoiler alert! I did not get an elk. This story does not have a happy ending. There will be no delicious elk bourguignon; no bacon wrapped elk tenderloin; no elk burgers; no elk stew. I am a bad hunter. If I were living in a hunter-gatherer society, I would be of the lowest status. My tribal name would be, Uwangalaama, which, roughly translated means, “He whom the elk mock.”

Nevertheless, even though I am a failure as a hunter, I had a lot of fun. I started out heading up to the high Uintas, following an abandoned ATV trail in my 80 Series Landcruiser, bumping over large boulders, deep washed out gullies, and heavy mud; smashing through the occasional small tree, marveling at the total bad-assery of Toyota’s last great off-road vehicle, manufactured in the days when Landcruisers were not designed for going to the mall.

When I drove far enough down the track that I would be pretty much impossible to rescue if I got stuck, I stopped and set out hunting. I headed toward a spot that I had scouted out several weeks ago and had seen elk. After several hours of hiking, I found a tree which an elk had used to rub his antlers on. It was a fresh rub, and the bark was still moist and the gash was just starting to weep sticky resin. From here, I followed the elk’s tracks through the forest, encountering some very recent elk droppings.

Eventually, I heard sounds of the elk in the thick forest. I dropped my pack, and began creeping up on the elk, trying hard not to make any sound. I was feeling very Natty Bumpo, and was stoked that I was about to bag an elk my first day of the hunt. However, there were so many downed trees, it was like playing Jenga on a mound of Pick up Sticks. I was about 30 yards away when I snapped a big twig. The elk (a little spike antlered bull) popped his head up and took off. There was no way to get a shot off. The thick timber was a curtain that did not allow a clear shot, even at 30 yards.

The heavy timber and deadfalls made travel difficult

The heavy timber and deadfalls made travel difficult

Not wanting to let this elk that I had tracked down escape, I followed him. Trailing was initially quite easy, as he was moving fast, breaking branches and leaving deep tracks in the dirt. Eventually, however, I lost the track. Worse, I realized that I had no idea where I had left my pack. I headed back in the direction I thought my pack was, and soon was not entirely sure where I was in relation to my pack or my vehicle. It’s just a big, thick forest, and all the trees look pretty much the same, and there are no landmarks. So, I did what I always do when I get disoriented (note, “disoriented” not “lost.”) I used the expanding spiral. I didn’t find my pack, but I came across the elk tracks and my tracks. By back-tracking I was finally able to make it back to my pack. This was good, because I didn’t have the gear on me to spend a comfortable night out.
Fresh Elk Rub

Fresh Elk Rub

I collected my pack, breathed a sigh of relief, and set out to track the elk again. It took me a while, but eventually I picked up what I thought was his trail. I followed it for a while, and again heard sounds of an elk ahead. This time, I marked my pack’s location with my gps on my watch, and this time, I moved so slowly that I would not make any noise at all. I slithered towards the elk like the Grinch stealing presents on Christmas Eve. However, when I was no more than 20 yards away, the wind shifted, blowing my scent toward the elk. I felt it shift, and a few seconds later, the elk popped his head up and took off. I tried to get a clear shot, but as before, the dense timber would not allow it. I did see that it was a different elk than the first one.

After that, I hunted a bit more, and finally settled in to a spot by a small pond, where I would spend the night. The pond had lots of recent elk sign around it, and two intersecting game trails. However, no elk appeared. I decided to forgo a tent and sleep out under the stars because the weather was beautiful and looked likely to remain so. Howling wolves later on made me question that decision, but while they woke me periodically with their howling, they did not come near or gnaw on me in the night.

High Uintas Pond

High Uintas Pond

The next day, I saw no elk. I followed fresh sign, and fresh tracks, but didn’t see any actual animals.
Sunset on the mountains

Sunset on the mountains

I decided to hike over a big ridge into the next drainage. It was even further from any road or trail, and I figured there might be elk there that had not been scared by hunters. On a steep descent down into the valley, I blundered into another elk. He was a big, fully grown trophy elk. (Bigger than I wanted to pack out, really.) He was there for about 2 seconds, and then he disappeared into the thick timber before I could even get my gun to my shoulder.
Uinta aspen

Uinta aspen

The next couple of days were frustrating. I tried to find places where the elk would be in the open, but while I saw recent elk sign in the meadows and clearings, I saw no elk. Generally, elk hunker down in deep timber during mid day, and are mobile and active in the morning and evening. That’s when they go out into the meadows and clearings and do elky things like browse on green grass and lichen and socialize, etc. However, we had a really bright, almost full moon. It was lighter at 3:00 a.m. than it was at twilight because of the moon. Because of this, the elk didn’t need to move around in the morning or evening. They could hunker down until late night, and then come out and frolic in the moonlight.

I put this theory to the test one night when I couldn’t sleep. I got up at 2 in the morning, and crept to a large meadow near where I was camping. Sure enough, there were four elk in the meadow, and possibly more in the dark timber surrounding it. The moon was so bright that I could see them clearly, and could have had an easy 120 meter shot. However, legal hunting time ends a half hour after sundown, no matter how bright the moon. Inexplicably, I brought my (useless) rifle with me to this late night elk soiree, but neglected to bring my camera, so I was not able to capture any images of these ghostly elk.

Midnight Moonlight

Midnight Moonlight

My last night in the woods, the beautiful weather took a turn for the worse. It began to rain heavily, and the wind picked up too. I set up my tent in the middle of a meadow to lessen my chances of a dead tree falling on me. In the night, I was visited by an unknown animal. It woke me up with loud wheezing panting right next to my tent. Not knowing what else to do, I growled loudly at it, figuring that a loud growl was the universal animal language for “I’m sleeping. Go away.” The heavy breather mystery beast apparently got the message and left me in peace.
Cougar Den

Cougar Den

I woke up this morning to snowfall, and hiked out in snow, which made the forest magical. Hunting is unlike any other outdoor activity that I do. When hunting, you move very slowly and are so focused on your surroundings, you see everything around you. You notice little things that you would likely just pass by if you were just out hiking. I saw a cougar den, interesting rocks and trees, lots of animal sign, and even a few elk. Although I didn’t fill our freezer full of elk meat, it was still a terrific experience. I spent five days alone in beautiful, rugged, remote country. I didn’t see another human being that entire time. I didn’t have phone, email, or internet. I’m already looking forward to next year.
hunting-7

Watching and waiting

The Old Gods are watching

The Old Gods are watching

hunting-16

Fallen Aspen Leaves after a storm

Two New Knives: Rod Garcia Skookum Bush Tool and Chris Reeve One Piece Tanto 1

Since I wrote my last knife review, I’ve picked up a couple of new knives.  Both are fixed blade knives, but they are somewhat different in their design.

Chris Reeve Once Piece Range, Tanto 1Chris Reeve Tanto

The Chris Reeve one piece range has been around since the 1980’s, but this style of knife was discontinued in 2009.   The distinguishing features of this range of knives are the hollow handle and the fact that the knife and handle are milled from a single piece of solid A2 tool steel.

I’ve always wanted a Chris Reeve one piece knife, but never quite got around to purchasing one.  With the range discontinued and the prices on the secondary market going higher and higher, I finally decided it was now or never, so I bit the bullet and bought one.

The one piece range knives were produced with various blade lengths and blade styles.  The knife I purchased has a tanto style blade, 8 3/4 inches long.  I don’t have any other tanto style knives, so this is a first for me.  After a bit of use, here are my impressions:

Chris Reeve Tanto 1

The Tanto 1 is well balanced for chopping tasks

 The knife is beautifully made.  It’s clearly a high quality tool.   The blade is long enough that it makes a good chopper.  I’ve used it for chopping through sticks, and even used it for yard clean-up duties, hacking through vines, bushes, and small trees.  It’s got good balance and heft for these activities, and the blade has held up well under this rough duty.  Some folks on the internet have complained that the knurled handle on these knives is not comfortable for chopping and long use, but I didn’t really notice any problems.  I found the handle to be comfortable in use, and the knurling provided excellent security and a firm grip, even with sweaty palms  (but I regularly go rock climbing on rough granite, so perhaps my hands are a bit less sensitive than some.)  The sheath is a simple, functional design constructed of high quality leather by Gfeller Casemakers, a purveyor of nice leather goods.  (I have one of their leather notebook covers.)

Fire Set

Chris Reeeve Tanto 1 and a Bow Drill Fire Set.

I’ve read some internet chatter about tanto blade designs not being well suited for a bushcraft and general survival knife.  In use, I honestly haven’t been able to see much difference in the tanto blade design when compared with my various other knives.  The blade on this knife certainly works well for battoning, and it performs adequately for other tasks as well.  I don’t really do much delicate carving (I seldom have the need to carve a wooden spoon,) but the knife did well in making a bow drill fire set.  It was heavy enough to chop and fashion the spindle, and made quick work of splitting a fireboard, notching a groove, and forming a starter hole for the spindle.  Processing bark for tinder is simple as well, and the tanto tip is good for prying bark off of logs.

Even though the blade is a bit long for fine work, the fact that there is only a crossguard/quillon on the bottom of the handle and not on top makes it easier to choke up on the knife, effectively shortening the working length of the blade.  There are grooves on the top of the blade where you can rest your thumb, providing a more secure grip when choked up.  The A2 steel takes an edge easily, and retains the edge even while chopping hard woods.

Chris Reeve Handle

The signature design feature of this knife is the hollow handle.  The handle is closed with an aluminum cap, and sealed with a rubber o-ring to make it water tight.  There’s room in the hollow handle to store a few small items.  In the handle of my knife, I keep a small “peanut” lighter, an LED flashlight, a sharpening stone, a button compass (14mm is the perfect size to fit in the cap) a ferro rod, and a few tinder tabs.   I have replaced the paracord that came with the knife with some “firecord” paracord that has a tinder cord embedded in one of the core strands of the paracord.  I’ve been changing out the contents and experimenting with what will fit in the handle.  I may try putting in some fishing line and hooks at some point.

The bottom line is that I really quite like this knife.  It performs basic cutting tasks well, especially chopping, and the ability to store things in the handle is a useful feature, as it gives you a single solution for a number of survival needs.  It’s just too bad that these knives are out of production, as it will make them increasingly expensive and difficult to procure.

Rod Garcia Skookum Bush Tool

The Skookum Bush Tool is another knife that’s difficult to come by; not because it’s out of production, but because there’s a multi-year waiting list to purchase one.  I put my name on the list a while back, and then forgot about it.  I was surprised when I got contacted by Mr. Garcia to let me know that my knife was finished.  After more than a year having passed, I only vaguely remembered that I had ordered a knife from him.  However, I happily took delivery of the knife, and have been using it ever since.

After having used the knife now for almost two years now, I can say that it was worth the wait, (even though I didn’t know I was waiting.)

My knife is made with O1 steel.   Mr. Garcia offers the knife in three different steels.  This is what he has to say about them on his web site:

“A2 is about 10-20% tougher than O1 and will hold an edge a little longer. O1 will be slightly easier to sharpen and also will allow the user to strike a spark off the spine using the flint and steel method of fire lighting ( A2 has a little too much alloy to get a good spark). Since A2 has a higher chromium content it will be a little more stain resistant than O1, however both will rust if not wiped down after use or abused. Both are excellent knife steels and will give you good service.”

I chose the O1 because I wanted something that would make a spark with natural flint.  In use, I have found the O1 steel to hold an edge well, and sharpen very easily.

Skookum Bush Tool

Bush tool with the sheath it came with and the neck lanyard I made to hold it. (I also added the leather thong for the knife handle.)

I really like the handle on the Skookum Bush Tool.  The Micarta scales are comfortable, and contoured nicely to fit my grip perfectly.  The blade shape and length are good for fine work, carving, and cleaning fish.  You can do some light batonning with the knife, but the blade is short enough that you’re limited in the size of the sticks you split.  The blade shape and ergonomics are perfect for shaving fuzz sticks and other fire making duties.

The sheath that came with the knife is set up for neck carry, and has good retention.  I made a neck lanyard our of some paracord and a piece of 1 inch climbing tape.  I threaded a ferro rod sparker on the lanyard for easy fire making.  I tend to just keep it in its sheath on my neck while I’m around camp.

Skookum Bush Tool

The grip on this knife is very comfortable and ergonomics are perfect.

The Skookum Bush Tool has a somewhat cult-like following in the bushcraft and blade communities.  I can’t say that this is the best knife ever, but I do think it’s a very functional, well crafted knife, and the price (about $200) is very reasonable.  It has become my favorite smaller fixed blade knife.  It’s not fancy, or particularly beautiful, but it does what a knife should do and does it very well.  It is indeed a “tool” and I’m able to treat it like one without fear of damaging it.   For anyone who wants a good, functional bushcraft knife, and can put up with the waiting time required to obtain it, I can whole-heartedly recommend the Skookum Bush Tool.

 

Backcountry Boiler

Backcountry Boiler

Backcountry Boiler in use

The Backcountry Boiler is an updated version of a very old design, often referred to as a Storm Kettle, Chimney Kettle, Shepherd’s Kettle, or a Kelly Kettle.  A chimney kettle consists of two parts, a bowl where you build a small fire, and an upper portion that is a chimney surrounded by a hollow vessel where you put the water.  The genius of this design is that the heat from the small fire is very efficiently transferred to the surrounding water via the walls of the chimney, allowing you to heat water using a minimum amount of fuel.

I have owned a large, British Made Storm Kettle for many years, and I have used it mostly for car camping, as it’s too big and bulky for backpacking.  It’s a great way to heat up water for hot chocolate and the like.

Backcountry Boiler, and it's big brother, the Storm Kettle

Backcountry Boiler, and it’s big brother, the Storm Kettle

A few years back, an ultralight hiker named David Montgomery decided to make a lightweight, compact version of a chimney kettle that would be suitable for backpacking.  Some history of his work on the project can be found on the Backcountry Boiler Web Site. The result of his efforts is the Backcountry Boiler.  It’s an aluminum chimney kettle with an insulated neoprene cozy for easy handling when hot, and a a silicone stopper to seal it up when not heating water, which allows it to be used as a canteen as well as a stove.

Total weight for the Backcountry Boiler is 7.7 ounces, including the stuff sack.  (When new, it may have been a tiny bit lighter than that, but mine has a thick layer of carbon, soot and glaze on it from long, hard use.)

There are some optional accessories for the Backcountry boiler, all of which are similarly lightweight.  There is a piece of fireproof felt that weighs 0.4 ounces.  This felt allows the Backcountry boiler to be used with alcohol fuel instead of sticks and twigs.  About 25ml (slightly less than 1 fluid ounce) of alcohol will boil about 16 ounces of water.

Fire Felt is used with alcohol fuel. It sits in the fire bowl.

Fire Felt is used with alcohol fuel. It sits in the fire bowl.

If you are using alcohol fuel, an easy way to carry the alcohol is in a vial that comes with Camelback Elixirs.  Just buy the elixer, dump the elixir tablets into a ziplock bag, and use the vial for a fuel container.  The vial holds about 60 ml of fuel, which is enough for about two boils.  The vial fits nicely in the chimney of the Boiler, so it takes up no additional pack space.  The vial has a desiccant capsule in the lid, so take out the desiccant before you use it to hold fuel.

The elixir vial fits nicely in the chimney of the boiler for packing

The elixir vial fits nicely in the chimney of the boiler for packing

Camelback Elixir vial holds enough alcohol fuel for a couple of boils

Camelback Elixir vial holds enough alcohol fuel for a couple of boils

There is also a pot stand/cup holder accessory that can be used to support a cup or small pot on top of the boiler, allowing you to warm up a cup of soup or the like while the water inside the boiler heats up.

Backcountry Boiler with Pot Stand

Backcountry Boiler with Pot Stand

To heat up water, you first build a small fire in the fire bowl.  Once the fire is lit, you put the chimney on top of the fire bowl, and keep the fire going by feeding small sticks into the top of the chimney. (You can also feed sticks into the hole in the side of the fire bowl, but dropping them down the chimney works better.)  The chimney effect creates a nice draft and draws oxygen through the fire.  The heat transfers rapidly into the water that surrounds the chimney like a jacket.  I’ve found that once I’ve got a small fire going, heating up 16 ounces of water takes about 5 minutes or so.

Backcountry Boiler

Adding small sticks by feeding them into the top of the chimney

The Backcountry Boiler is designed to boil 16 ounces of water at a time, which is enough for about two freeze dried meals.  (If you’re using the boiler as a canteen for water transportation and storage instead of heating, you can fill it up a bit more and carry about 23 ounces of water in it.)

The design is remarkably wind resistant, and assuming you’ve got some dry fuel, will function in pretty much any weather.

If I am just heating up water for one or two people, the Backcountry boiler is my go-to lightweight backpacking stove for warmer weather.  (It’s not really suitable for winter because the design doesn’t work well for melting snow.)  I generally take a few tinder tabs to make starting fires easier, and will typically carry the fire felt and a few ounces of alcohol fuel for times when dry fuel is not available, or I’m too tired/lazy to start a fire, or I’m above tree line and no wood at all is available.

The Backcountry Boiler is one of the the most weight efficient camp cooking stoves I’ve ever used.  With the boiler, stuff sack, the fire felt, the pot stand, 10 tinder tabs, and the Elixir container with 60ml of fuel, the entire kit weighs 10.7 ounces.  While there are a number of alcohol stoves on the market that are lighter than the Backcountry Boiler, this stove is designed to be used primarily with sticks and twigs, obviating the need to carry liquid fuel in most cases.  So, for longer trips especially, where the weight of liquid or gas fuel begins to add up, the Backcountry Boiler is a true ultralight solution.

The Backcountry Boiler is a very elegant piece of kit, and I can recommend it highly for those who are looking to shave some weight off of their backpacking load, especially for longer trips, where the weight saving benefits of using found fuel are much greater.

You can purchase the Backcountry Boiler from their Web Site.

Climbing Knives

It’s good to have a knife with you when you’re climbing.   I use a knife for making V-Threads, cutting away old rap tat, cutting slings, and various other tasks.

I keep a knife in the pocket of my Tufa chalk bag, so I’ve always got a knife with me if I’m carrying my chalk bag, (See review of the Tufa Houdini Chalk Bag HERE)

However, for those times when I don’t have a chalk bag with me (for example, any time I’m ice climbing) I like to have a knife clipped to my harness.  Pretty much any small knife will work if you’re keeping it in a pocket.  This review will focus mainly on  small knives that I attach to my climbing harness.

Left to Right:  Baladeo, Trango, Petzl, Spyderco Dragonfly, Spyderco Clip-it

Left to Right: Baladeo, Trango, Petzl, Spyderco Dragonfly, Spyderco Clip-it

Trango Piranha  0.7 ounces

The Trango Piranha is the smallest and lightest knife I’ve used as a carabiner clip knife.  It is a relatively simple design, that is made to be attached to a carabiner.  When attached to the carabiner, the blade is kept closed by the carabiner itself, which blocks the point of the blade from opening.   However, the design doesn’t work with modern lightweight carabiners.  When the knife shifts on the carabiner, the blade can open.  This tendency is made worse because the rivet that holds the blade and body together loosens up over time, and the blade flops around.  (which also means that the knife won’t stay open when you’re using it.)

Using old-school round bar stock carabiners will help solve the knife’s propensity to open while on your harness, but it doesn’t solve the “floppy blade” issue.

I had this knife open up on me while attached to my harness.  Having an open knife blade attached to your harness is not safe.  The weak rivet and floppy blade make this knife pretty much unusable.  Overall, I was very disappointed with this knife.

Spyderco Dragonfly2 H-1 FRN  1.2 ounces

The Spyderco Dragonfly is a small, high quality knife. This particular model that I use is the “Salt Water” version made with particularly rust-resistant H-1 Steel.  It came with a small pocket clip that I removed, and I tied a short lanyard to the knife to facilitate clipping it to a carabiner.  The blade is sharp and the serrations make it easier to cut through rope or webbing.  The knife can be opened one handed, and once open it locks securely until you release the blade.

Overall, I like this knife.  It’s a high-quality, dependable tool, and makes a good climbing knife.

Spyderco Snap-It C26  C26SRD  2.4 ounces

I bought this knife because it has a built in integral carabiner clip.  It seemed like a great climbing knife because it didn’t require a separate accessory biner to attach to my harness.

Like the Spyderco Dragonfly, it’s a quality tool with a sharp, serated blade.  However, the gear loops on my climbing harnesses are too thick to work with the knife’s integral carabiner clip.  The harness loops are so thick that the carabiner clip won’t close.  You can sometimes force it and wiggle it and get it on the gear loop, but then it’s really hard to get off.  This pretty much defeats the whole purpose of having a convenient, readily accessible knife clipped to your harness.

It’s really too bad that this knife’s carabiner clip isn’t a tiny bit bigger.  With a bit more clearance, this could have been a great climbing knife.  As it is, I don’t use it for climbing.

Petzl Spatha Small (1st Generation) 1.6 ounces

This has become my go-to climbing knife.  It has a simple design, with a partially serrated stainless steel blade.  The blade rotates into the open position by turning the blue ring.  The large hole in the handle is designed to accept a carabiner, so you can clip the Spatha directly into a biner.  However, I’ve found that D-shaped biners don’t allow the knife to move freely on the biner and so I tied a short loop of cord through the knife that I clip the biner to.  This allows greater freedom of motion and prevents the knife from binding up on the biner.

The Spatha has become my favorite climbing knife primarily because of its robust design. When closed, the blade is mostly covered by the protective handle, and I like the fact that when clipped to my harness, the blade tip is pointing down, so there is almost no chance of the tip ever catching on anything and opening accidentally.

It’s easy to open and close the Spatha with a gloved (or even mittened) hand.

While the Spyderco Dragonfly2 is also a great climbing knife, the simplicity and robust build of the Spatha give it a slight edge in my opinion.

I tried the new redesigned version of the Petzl Spatha, and although it’s supposedly “new and improved” I find that I prefer the old First Generation Spatha.  The new knife has a locking blade mechanism, and is a hair lighter, but it doesn’t feel as as simple or robust as the Gen I version.  There’s more play in the mechanism, more of the blade is exposed when closed, and it feels just a bit more flimsy in use than the Gen I.

Baladeo 15G  0.4 ounces

This knife is NOT something that I keep on my harness.  I carry this knife in the pocket of my Tufa Houdini chalk bag, so I have it with me whenever I’m rock climbing.  (Review of the Tufa Houdini Chalk Bag is HERE.)   The Baladeo is a very light knife.  (The 15G stands for 15 grams.)  In spite of its small size, it is a well made knife with a sharp blade, and an innovative design that integrates the knife handle into a locking mechanism.  This knife is not suitable for carrying clipped to your harness, but if you’re looking for a small, light pocket knife for climbing, it’s a great choice.  Note that Baladeo knives are now manufactured and marketed under the “Deejo”  Trade name.

Left to Right: Baladeo, Trango, Petzl, Spyderco Dragonfly, Spyderco Clip-it

Left to Right: Baladeo, Trango, Petzl, Spyderco Dragonfly, Spyderco Clip-it

 

The Greatest Chalk Bag Ever Made (Tufa Climbing Houdini Chalk Bag)

Regular and "Alpine" Houdini Chalk Bags

Regular and “Alpine” Houdini Chalk Bags

Chalk bags are a pretty generic piece of climbing gear.  It’s hard to get excited about a chalk bag.  They are really just a bag that holds chalk.  Arcteryx came up with a fancy twisting mechanism for keeping the chalk from spilling with their “Aperture” chalk bag, but other than that innovation, chalk bags haven’t changed much since I started climbing in the 80’s.

However, I have found a chalk bag that I am actually quite excited about.  It’s made by Tufa Climbing, a small company that turns out chalk bags and other climbing soft goods in Missoula, Montana.  We worked together on the design, and ultimately I ended up with what I think is the greatest chalk bag ever made.  They call it the Houdini Chalk Bag.  It’s available on their web site HERE.

The thing that makes the Houdini chalk bag worthy of excitement is the bottom zippered pocket.  There are lots of chalk bags with zippered pockets, but this design has a pocket that actually is large enough to hold some useful emergency items.   The pocket is located in the bottom of the bag, and accessible with a water resistant zipper.  The position and orientation of the pocket makes it so that you can stuff the pocket full, and it doesn’t interfere with the function of the chalk bag.  (Side pockets tend to impinge on access to the chalk when stuffed too full.)

I have two of these Tufa Houdini chalk bags, one slightly smaller that I use for everyday cragging, and a larger one that I use on long alpine routes.  The pocket in the smaller bag is large enough to comfortably fit a headlamp, a knife, a small sparklight and a couple of tinder tabs, along with an ultralight windbreaker (Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Hooded Jacket.)  The pocket in the larger Alpine chalk bag bag is large enough to hold those items, plus a few Gu packs or the like.

Tufa Houdini and the kit it carries.

Tufa Houdini and the kit it carries:  Ghost Whisperer hooded wind shirt, Petzl E-Light, Baladeo knife, sparklight flint, and 2 fire tabs

What this means, is that whenever I’m climbing, I’m never without some basic emergency gear.  I’ve already made use of this once, as we got behind a really slow party on a multi-pitch route at one of the local crags.  We finished in the dark, and it was very handy to have the headlamp and the windbreaker available.

In normal climbing use, the Houdini chalk bag functions just like a regular chalk bag, and I pretty much forget I’m even carrying anything in it other than chalk.

So, there you have it.  The greatest chalk bag ever made, and the first and only chalk bag I have been excited enough about to write a review on.

The North Face Ice Project Pack

Some folk built like this, some folk built like that
But the way I’m built, Don’t you call me fat
Because I’m built for comfort, I ain’t built for speed
But I got everything, oh, that a good girl need
Howlin Wolf:  Built for Comfort

The North Ice Project is definitely a pack that is built for comfort, not speed.  It’s not “light and fast” it’s heavy and slow.  It’s a pack that is made for ice climbing at your local crags.  I first saw the Ice Project at last year’s Summer Outdoor Retailer show.  The pack was designed by Conrad Anker, and I was fortunate enough to get to chat with him about the pack’s various features at the North Face booth.   I got a sweet deal on it, and couldn’t resist the purchase, in spite of the fact that I usually buy stripped down, lightweight packs.

This pack keeps things organized and easy to get to, unlike my top loading pack that I previously used for ice cragging.  Instead of just dumping everything out in the snow when I get to the climb, with the Ice Project, I can unzip the pack and have access to all my gear and clothing.

North Face Ice Project

A place for everything. Everything in its place

There is a large top pocket of waterproof fabric that holds your crampons, and a smaller top pocket that’s good for sunscreen, sunglasses, and snacks.  Your ice tools go inside the pack, secured by sleeves and straps.  There’s a snap-out row of sleeves to keep your ice screws in, and a pouch that holds various items.  There’s even a sewn-in sleeve to hold your file.

The zip off clamshell section has a big mesh pocket that’s perfect for storing extra clothing.  You can flip this section out, and have a soft, insulated place to sit while you’re adjusting your boots and putting on your crampons.

Ice Project

Storage for extra clothing, and a file pocket, so you can find your file easily when it’s time to sharpen your picks or crampon points.

The pack is listed at 2746 cubic inches, but it seems bigger to me.  Perhaps it’s just because the design allows for better organization and more efficient use of space.  There’s room in the pack for pretty much everything you would need for a day of ice climbing.  I carry rope, rack, helmet, tools, extra clothing, snacks, and miscellaneous stuff.  Also, unlike other packs, where I’ve got crampons and ice tools strapped to the outside, everything fits inside the pack itself.  There’s no pokey things on the outside that are going to rip holes in your car seats when you toss this pack into your back seat of your car.  If you absolutely must have more storage, there’s daisy chains you can use to strap stuff the outside.

The construction is bomber.  It’s built like a base camp duffel bag, with heavy fabrics, big zippers, and reinforced stitching.  You would have to work really really hard to wear this pack out.  It’s got grab handles on the body, so you can man-handle it like you would with luggage.

The pack carries pretty well, and is comfortable for hiking.  One thing that I appreciate is that it comes in two back sizes.  I have a longer than average back, and am glad that it’s available in a long back length.  While it’s comfortable for hiking it really isn’t a climbing pack however.  I’ve climbed with it on my back a couple of times, and it’s way too stiff, and the top of the pack interferes with your helmet when you look up.  This is not a pack to take with you if you plan on doing any actual climbing while wearing the pack.

What this pack is perfect for, however, is a trip to Ouray, or any other ice climbing venue where you hike in, drop your pack, and then climb without the pack.

The pack is kind of heavy.  (Mine weighs 5 pounds, 1.6 ounces in a size large.)  However, that’s the price you pay for the burly construction and multitude of features.

The only real complaint I have about this pack is the number of ice screw sleeves.  The pack has 10 sleeves, but I sometimes use 12 screws.  I wish the ice screw carrier had a couple more slots.   One other nit pick is that the beefy zipper can be a bit of a chore to operate, especially when the pack is cold.

Overall, I really like this pack.  The North Face has made a niche pack that’s specialized for ice cragging.  However, I suspect that it will be fairly popular, because, my guess is that there are more folks that go ice cragging than people who are doing hard core alpine climbing.  The Ice Project is a perfect pack for the days at the local ice fall that constitute the majority of my actual ice climbing days.  It’s a niche product that fills its niche very well.

 

Alaska!!! Ham & Eggs on the Moose’s Tooth

The Moose's Tooth.  The Ham & Eggs route follows the prominent couloir up the center

The Moose’s Tooth. The Ham & Eggs route follows the prominent couloir up the center

In 2014, I had a trip to Alaska planned, to climb the Ham & Eggs route on the Moose’s Tooth.  However, icefall closed down the glacier landing access, and the trip got cancelled.

I scheduled another trip to Moose’s Tooth for May of 2015, and kept my fingers crossed, hoping for good conditions.

The trip was a guided trip, through Skyward Mountaineering, the guide service owned by Steve House and Vince Anderson.  The participants were me, another client named Joe, and our guide, Buster.

The three of us met May 4th at the airport in Anchorage.  We rented a car, bought a bunch of food, then drove to Talkeetna.

Food and supplies for our Moose's Tooth Climb

Food and supplies for our Moose’s Tooth Climb

Talkeetna is a small tourist town that owes its existence mostly to the fact that it’s the jumping off point for Denali and other mountains in the Alaska Range.  It’s home to several air services that fly planes into the mountains, including our service, Talkeetna Air Taxi.

View of Denali from Talkeetna

View of Denali from Talkeetna

We spent the night at the Talkeetna Air Taxi bunkhouse, and then packed up and went to the Talkeetna Air Taxi office at the airport, where we loaded up our stuff into a beautiful 1950’s vintage Dehaviland Beaver and flew to the Root Canal Glacier at the foot of the Moose’s Tooth.   As the prize for winning an epic game of Paper Scissors Rock, I won the opportunity to sit in the front seat next to the pilot.

Our ride to the Root Canal Glacier, a vintage Dehaviland Beaver

Our ride to the Root Canal Glacier, a vintage Dehaviland Beaver

Approaching the Root Canal Glacier

Approaching the Root Canal Glacier

The flight was amazing.  Once we got over the Alaska Range, the scenery was breathtaking in every direction.  I was a little bit nervous about the glacier landing, but it turned out to be more smooth than most landings on a runway.

The Beaver, with the Moose's Tooth in the Background

The Beaver, with the Moose’s Tooth in the Background

We emptied our stuff out of the plane, and a group of folks who had been on the glacier traded places with us and the plane whisked them away, lifting off of the glacier in what seemed to be a very very short distance.

We set up camp, ate dinner, and prepared for the climb.  The weather window looked good for the next day, so we planned on waking up at 4:00 and heading out to climb the route.

Buster and Joe in the Cook tent Megamid

Buster and Joe in the Cook tent Megamid

View of Denali from our Camp

View of Denali from our Camp

It never really got very dark that night, but I slept pretty well anyway.  We woke at 4, and left camp at 5.   We short roped up the initial snow sections, and then began pitching it out beginning with a mixed section that was mostly rock.  The climbing was fun here, scratching up granite with ice tools and crampons, occasionally using gloved hands to grasp rock features.  After the mixed section, we traversed down and right and established ourselves in the main couloir.

Buster, heading up the initial mixed pitch

Buster, heading up the initial mixed pitch

Traversing into the Ham & Eggs couloir

Traversing into the Ham & Eggs couloir

 

The climbing from here on out was a relatively straightforward mix of neve and water ice of varying steepness.  There were a number of bulging sections of steep ice that presented a good challenge, particularly for Buster who was leading them, because the steeper sections of the ice tended to be somewhat aerated and rotten.  In a couple of spots I worried that if he fell, the screws might not hold his fall.  However, he pretty much crushed everything, cruising up the steep ice in a fluid, controlled style.

Buster, Cranking up a steep corner feature

Buster, Cranking up a steep corner feature

Lots of spindrift mixed with ice poured down on us as we climbed.  We pulled our hoods up over our helmets to keep our jackets from filling up with snow.  On several occasions, I would pull up over a lip, and get a steady stream of snow and debris in my face.  In spite of the perfect weather, the spindrift gave the climb an alpine feel.

Joe and Buster on one of the ice steps

Joe and Buster on one of the ice steps

The view looking across the valley from high on Ham & Eggs

The view looking across the valley from high on Ham & Eggs

We were making good time, and had reached 9000 feet, having passed the two crux sections, when I got hit by falling ice.  Joe was belaying, and I was just hanging out and relaxing when I got whacked.  The ice glanced off my helmet and impacted my neck and upper shoulder.  I blacked out for just a moment, and my whole body felt like it was being poked with pins or electricity.   Joe asked me if I was OK, and I told him that I didn’t think I was OK.   I was dizzy, and was having a hard time moving my neck.  I could turn it to the right and look down, but looking up or turning it to the left hurt a lot.  I was having trouble with my left arm too, and couldn’t use it very well.  I felt like I was on the deck of a moving ship, and things around me seemed to be moving up and down a bit.

After a short while, Buster rappelled down to check on my condition, and by the time he got there, I was nauseous.  I kept retching and dry heaving, but my stomach was pretty empty and I didn’t have anything to throw up.  I took a sip of water.  (And later found out that I had put my water bottle back in my pack without the lid on.)

I felt pretty awful, and Buster wasn’t keen on dragging me up an Alaskan corniced ridge while I was dizzy and shaken up, so we decided to head down.  It took us about 4 hours to rappel to the base of the route.  By the time we got to camp, I was feeling somewhat better, but had a really really sore neck and shoulder.

I felt pretty bad that we hadn’t been able to tag the summit.   I felt especially bad for Joe and Buster, as my injury had messed up their chances to reach the top.  It was the first time that an injury had prevented me from continuing on a climb.  If we had been able to get to a sheltered spot and allow me to rest and recuperate for an hour or so, I might have been able to continue, but there wasn’t really any good spot to do this out of the line of fire from more falling ice.

We got back down to camp about 12 hours after we had left, only to find that it had been ransacked by ravens.  The crafty birds had opened the zippers on our duffel bags, and had spread the contents about.  After dealing with the raven damage, I took 4 ibuprofen tablets and crawled into my sleeping bag.  We figured that after a rest day, we’d have another shot at the route.

Snow, and more snow

Snow, and more snow

However, the weather did not cooperate.  It started snowing that night, and snowed heavily and continuously for most of the next five days.   We spent our time sleeping, talking, eating, and digging a snow hole.

After days of snowfall and watching sluffs avalanche down the route, we realized that we were not going to get another shot at climbing Ham & Eggs.  We turned our efforts towards getting off the glacier.  We’d go and stamp out a landing zone runway for the airplane, only to see our work covered up by more fresh snow.  We dug our tents out, ate, and tried not to get too bored.

Finally, the weather cleared enough for the planes to fly again.  We stamped out a runway and were rewarded by the sight of a Dehaviland Otter coming to rescue us from our basecamp existence.

Talkeetna Air Taxi Otter below the Moose's Tooth

Talkeetna Air Taxi Otter below the Moose’s Tooth

Dehaviland Otter, landing on the Root Canal Glacier

Dehaviland Otter, landing on the Root Canal Glacier

We stowed some of the Skyward Mountaineering equipment at the Talkeetna Air Taxi gear stash, then we had dinner and a night at the Talkeetna Air Taxi Bunkhouse.  The next day, we drove back to Anchorage and flew home.

Gear Stash at Talkeetna Air Taxi

Long term gear stash at Talkeetna Air Taxi

Overall, it was a great trip, in spite of the fact that I didn’t make it to the top of the Moose’s Tooth. Several weeks after the trip, my neck is still a bit stiff, but I’m otherwise fully recovered from my injury, and ready to do some more climbing.   The trip really whetted my appetite for Alaskan climbing, and I hope to return to the Alaska Range some day.  Until then, I will have to satisfy myself with objectives closer to home.