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 the Sparkmade 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.

Backcountry Skiing in the Sawtooth Range

 Guided Hut to Hut skiing in Idaho’s Sawtooth Range with Sun Valley Trekking

March 16-20, 2015

For the past few seasons, I’ve done a multi-day backcountry ski trip with a group of friends.   So far, we’ve done a traverse of the Teton Crest traverse, a Sierra trip from Mammoth to Lee Vining Canyon, and a trip to the Baldy Knoll Yurt in the Teton Backcountry.    This year, we opted for a trip to Idaho’s Sawtooth Range.  Rather than staying in tents, we would be staying in backcountry huts.  Unlike past trips, we decided to hire a guide.

We arranged the trip through Sun Valley Trekking, which operates a number of yurts and huts in the Sawtooth range.   It was an “all inclusive” trip that included our hut accommodations, food, and guiding for the week.   Not having done a guided ski trip before, we weren’t quite sure what to expect.  As it turned out, it was the most decadently comfortable backcountry ski trip I’ve ever done.

We split our time between two huts, the Bench Hut, and the Fishhook Hut.  The first day we spent skiing into the Bench Hut.  It was a pretty easy day, made even easier by the fact that the guide service had a couple of porters that brought in all of our food on a sled.

The Bench Hut is a large structure made of fabric on a wooden frame that comfortably accommodated our large group of 8 people.

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The Bench Hut, Sawtooth Range

Conditions were not ideal.  When we had booked the trip back in November, we figured that mid March would be prime powder skiing season.  However, Idaho, like most of the Mountain West, had suffered through a warm, dry winter, so the snowpack was more like it would be in very late spring.   On the trip in to the Bench Hut, we were getting rained on, which is never an auspicious way to start a ski trip.

The good news was that the food that the Sun Valley Trekking folks provided for us was terrific.  We just lounged around in the hut, while the guides cooked us a great meal.  It didn’t feel much like backcountry skiing at all.  It was way too cushy.  (But I wasn’t complaining about that.)

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Wet weather and marginal snow

The next day, we took off to see if we could find some decent snow.  It was warm and wet, with low clouds and intermittent rain.  The snow was thick and not particularly fun or easy to ski.  We skinned up to the Bench Lakes high above the hut, and toured around a bit, but overall, it was something of a disappointment.  I could tell that our guides were worried that the trip was going to a bust, in spite of their best efforts to find us some skiable terrain.  Sadly, there was not much they could do about the weather and snow conditions.

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Skiing Spring Snow in the Sawtooths

That night, however, the temperatures dropped significantly, and there was some snow instead of rain.   We awoke to clear skies and firm snow.  We took that opportunity to hit the trail early and get some skiing in before things got too warm and mushy.  We skinned up to a peak above the bench hut, and got some turns on the way down.  Then we slowly made our way back to the hut, yo-yo-ing some nice slopes olong the way.  It was a fun day, although by the afternoon, the snow was getting very thick and mushy again due to the warm temps.

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Clear Skies at 4th Bench Lake

The next day, our goal was a traverse from the Bench Hut to the Fishhook Hut.  Again, it was sort of like cheating, because the Sun Valley Trekking porters took our sleeping bags and other non-skiing gear, along with our food, and sledded it to the Fishhook hut for us.  We were able to ski the entire day with lightweight day packs.

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GPS Track from the Bench Hut to the Fishhook Hut.

 

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Dropping down from the Heyburn Col

The skiing was a lot of fun.  Snow conditions were excellent, with a dusting of powder over a nice, firm supportable base.

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Beautiful ski terrain on the traverse from Bench Hut to Fishhook Hut

It was an amazing day, with great snow conditions for skiing, eye-popping scenery, and perfect weather.  The fun sort of ran out near the bottom as we approached the Fishhook hut and had to navigate through the tight trees and brush of the area our guides referred to as “the Jungle.”  Still, it was an excellent and memorable day of backcountry skiing.

The Fishhook hut was as comfortable as the Bench Hut had been, with an added bonus;  It has a hot tub!!!    I can’t think of how many times I’ve been in the mountains and thought about how nice it would be to have  a hot tub to relax in.  This trip, that fantasy came true.  It was so amazing to soak my tired body in hot water.  Again, it seemed like cheating.

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Hot tub at the Fishook Hut

The next day was not particularly memorable.  We woke up late, and skied out from the Fishhook hut to the trailhead.  The warm weather had taken its toll on the snowpack, and there were sections of dirt where the snow had all melted out.  Eventually, however, we made it back to the cars.

Overall, it was a great trip in spite of the marginal weather and snow conditions.  The day we spent skiing from Bench Hut to Fishhook Hut really made the whole trip.  It was one of the better days I’ve spent backcountry skiing.   The Sun Valley Trekking guides were terrific, especially J.P., our lead guide.  They took good care of our entire group, and helped make the experience a lot of fun.

However, as fun as the trip was, I think that next year, we’re going to do something a bit less cushy and comfortable.  After two years in a row of yurt/hut trips, I think we’re all ready for something a bit more primitive.  (although I will definitely miss that hot tub.)

Some pictures from the trip:

We ate really really well on this trip.

We ate really really well on this trip.

Beautiful skiing on the Bench Hut to  Fishhook Hut Traverse

On the Bench Hut to Fishhook Hut Traverse, Mount Heyburn in the background

Beautiful skiing on the Bench Hut to  Fishhook Hut Traverse

Beautiful skiing on the Bench Hut to Fishhook Hut Traverse

On the Bench Hut to  Fishhook Hut Traverse

On the Bench Hut to Fishhook Hut Traverse

Skinning pp to ski down

Skinning up to ski down

Our spliboarder

Our splitboarder, having fun

 

Winter Climbng Gear Update: Petzl and Salewa Ice Screws

Ice Screws:

Salewa Quick Screw and Petzl Laser Speed Light

The winter of 2014-15 was something of a disappointment for those of us living in the Mountain West.  Temperatures were warm.  Precipitation was scarce, and often fell in the form of rain instead of snow.  Here in Utah, the ice climbing season was short and inconsistent.   As a result, I only got out for a couple of days locally, and took a couple of trips down to Ouray, which also was suffering through a relatively warm winter.

I did get to try out some new ice screws by Salewa, and also got to use my aluminum Petzl Speed Light screws a bit more.  Here are my impressions:

The Salewa Quick Screw is a screw that incorporates a number of interesting features.  It has a compact head with a fold out crank.  The head is some sort of composite that supposedly makes the screw less prone to melting out when placed in direct sunlight.  The most unusual feature of the Salewa Quck Screw is that it comes with an integral racking system.  The screw is permanently attached to a quick draw via a sliding hanger, and the quick draw attaches to the screw by means of a plastic clip.  This makes them very easy to carry.  There is no need for racking on a separate biner, caritool, etc.   Biners and screws are color coded by length.

Salewa Quick Screws

The racking system is very convenient, however, it does require a few extra steps when placing the screw one-handed on steep ice.  Here is the sequence:

1:  You grab the carabiner that the screw is racked with.   you’ve got hold of the carabiner, but the screw is still clipped into the plastic carrier, and the head of the screw is dangling down.

2:  While grasping the carabiner, you use the heel of your palm to whack the screw up against your body (or the ice) to break the grip of the plastic carrier and release the screw body.

3:  You’re still holding the carabiner, but you really need to be grasping the head of the screw.  So, you give it a little jerk, and let the hanger slide up towards the head, so that gravity helps the screw get oriented correctly.  Then you work your hand up onto the head of the screw.  (This can be a bit tricky wearing gloves and worrying about fighting a pump with big air beneath you.)

4:  Once you’re grasping the head of the screw, you punch it into the ice and start turning it in.  When the teeth catch, you deploy the crank handle and crank it in.

5:  Clip your rope into the biner, and you’re good.

Once you are grabbing the head, the screw goes in very nicely.  It bites as well as any other screw I’ve used, and the shape of the head makes it very easy to get pressure on the screw when you’re starting it.  However, moving your hand grip from the biner to the head (step 3 above) can be a bit tricky, and certainly requires more dexterity than placing a normal screw because when you remove a normal screw from your rack, you’re already grasping it by its head.

I bought 4 of the Salewa screws.  I think that’s all I’m going to buy.  They are nicely made, and I will probably carry a couple of them on most climbs because they rack so easy with their integral biners and don’t take up space on my caritool.  The long size in particular is a great option as I can use it for V-Threads and not have to worry about racking it.     However, the fiddly nature of the sequence of placing them one handed means that I’m always going to want to have some more traditional screws with me for steep panic placements.

Petzl Laser Speed Light Aluminum Ice Screw

Last fall, I posted my first impressions of the aluminum Laser Speed Light screw HERE.

After using them climbing water ice this winter, my first impressions have been mostly confirmed.   I love the light weight, and their aggressive teeth make starting them very very easy.  Although I bought them primarily as a light weight alpine ice screw, I find that I’m using them as a go-to all around water ice screw as well.

However, the binding issues I encountered when I first used the screws have continued to occur.  These screws tend to freeze into the ice when placing them in temperatures near freezing.  Colder temperatures seem to result in less freezing/binding.  I have seen other people posting on the internet with similar experiences, so my conclusion is that this is not my imagination, but is something inherent in the aluminum design (probably related to aluminum’s conductivity.)

The bottom line, however, is that the binding/freezing issue is relatively minor when compared with the excellent traits of these screws.  Their light weight and high performance have earned them a place on my climbing rack both for water ice and alpine ice.

Suluk 46 TiCa Ice Tool

The Suluk 46 TiCa ice axe weighs 4.9 ounces with a 55cm shaft.  (Yes, that’s 4.9 ounces, as in less than 5 ounces.)

Suluk 46 website HERE.

It is not UIAA approved, and is not suitable for technical ice climbing, but after some use, I have concluded that this is a terrific axe for snow and low angle glacier travel.

I bought this axe in anticipation of a trip to the Bugaboos.  Approaches and descents in the Bugs generally require travel over glacial terrain.  An axe is needed for self arrest, balance, step cutting, and easy climbing.  Having an ice axe that is as light as possible is a benefit because when you’re rock climbing, the axe is just dead weight.

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Suluk 46 TiCa ice Tool on a snow climb

After some use and testing in the Bugaboos, and on snow slopes closer to home, here are my thoughts on the TiCa axe.

It’t not for long, steep, technical climbing.  This seems obvious, but I figured I would state it up front.  The axe doesn’t have enough heft to swing all day on steep ice.  If you’re climbing something steep enough to require front pointing and it continues for more than 10 or 20 meters, you will probably be better served with a real ice axe.  I wouldn’t want to use the TiCa Ice Tool on water ice either, other than just the occasional patch of water ice.  It’s just too light to have enough momentum to sink the pick into hard water ice very efficiently.

You’re not going to have an easy time using the TiCa to climb out of a deep, overhanging crevasse.  However, you really aren’t going to be able to climb out of a deep, overhanging crevasse with only one tool, no matter how technical that tool is.  If you’re only carrying a single ice axe, you’re going to need to rely on prussiks to self-rescue anyway, regardless of what sort of axe you’ve got.

It’s not safety rated by the UIAA.  That means that I can’t really trust it for boot/axe belays or as an anchor when used in a T-Slot.

What it is good for:

It cuts steps.  Before I had the chance to test it out, I wondered if the TiCa axe would be any good at cutting steps.  It’s so light that I worried that the axe would not have enough heft to chop steps.  As it turns out, it does a pretty good job.  Even though it is feather light, all of the weight is concentrated in the head, so the swing weight is pretty good.  I cut steps in hard glacial ice in the Bugaboos without any problems, using both the adze and the pick.  If you need to cut steps to get you across a patch of steep, icy ground, the TiCa works well.

The pick is functional for upward progress and for self arrest.  I used the TiCa axe for climbing out of a bergshund, and it worked fine.  I played around with it on steep glacier ice, and it works fine.  It’s not a technical tool, and as I wrote above, I wouldn’t use the TiCa for long bouts of climbing AI3 or water ice, but for occasional use on steeper ground, it will work.  There is no hand rest, and I didn’t use a leash, but the titanium spike on the bottom sticks out a little bit, and this gives you a sufficient grip on the shaft for pulling.  The titanium pick bites into ice adequately for decent security using piolet ancre technique.

Note that the pick is shipped from the factory un-sharpened.  I sharpened it with a file to give it better bite on ice.  If you want to use the TiCa for anything other than self arrest, I would recommend that you sharpen the pick.

For self arrest, the TiCa works just like any other ice axe.   I found it no  harder to use than any other mountain axe.

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Suluk 46 TiCa Ice Ax

The spike on the bottom of the shaft works fine for plunging in snow and softer glacial ice.  It’s not particularly sharp, so it’s not as effective on harder ice.  Still, I found it adequate for general mountaineering use in piolet canne technique.

Overall, the TiCa is something of a niche product.  It’s for times when you want something for self arrest, and for negotiating the occasional icy step, but you don’t necessarily need a full on ice axe.  Ski mountaineering, easy glacier travel, snowy cols, approaches to alpine rock climbs, and other such situations are where the TiCa axe comes into its own.

I think I will be using the TiCa as my go-to axe for non-technical situations.  It’s just so light, that I can put up with its other limitations.  I wouldn’t recommend it to someone as their only axe, but for times when you just need a very simple ice tool for non-technical climbing, and weight is at a premium, I feel it is a good choice.

Petzl Laser Speed Light Ice Screws: First Impressions

I recently bought some of the new Petzl Laser Speed Light ice screws.  The Speed Light screw is one of two screws on the market that is constructed with aluminum.  (The other aluminum screw is the E-Climb Klau screw which I reviewed previously HERE.)

I have not yet had a chance to thoroughly test the Petzl Speed Light screws, however I have taken them on one alpine ice route (Mount Helen’s Tower 1 Gully in the Wind River Range.)

Based on this initial use, these are my first impressions of the Petzl screw.  I will update this post when I get more opportunities to use these screws and have enough data to provide a more thorough review.

Petzl Laser Speed Light on right, E-Climb Klau on the left

Petzl Laser Speed Light on right, E-Climb Klau on the left

Construction:
The  Speed Light is made mostly from aluminum.  The body and hanger are aluminum.  The teeth and the crank handle are steel.  The crank is a fold-out handle that provides extra leverage when turning the screw into the ice.

Weight:
Light weight is the primary benefit of an aluminum bodied screw.  The Petzl Laser Speed Light is significantly lighter than a steel screw, and is also a little lighter than the E-Climb Klau aluminum screw.

Weights for the Petzl Speed Lights are as follows:

13cm  3.1 ounces

17cm  3.5 ounces

21cm  3.8 ounces

Some other screw weights for comparison:

19 cm Black Diamond screw  5.7 ounces;

22cm Black Diamond screw  6.2 ounces

16 cm Grivel 360 screw   6.2 ounces

14 cm E-Climb Klau aluminum screw 4 ounces

18 cm E-Climb Klau aluminum screw 4.4 ounces

22 cm E-Climb Klau aluminum screw  4.7 ounces

The Petzl Speed light achieves this low weight because most of the screw is made from aluminum, including the tube body and the hanger.  The E-Climb Klau incorporates an aluminum tube, but the hanger is constructed from steel.   On the Petzl, only the teeth and crank handle are steel.

Laser Speed Light has aluminum body, steel teeth

Laser Speed Light has aluminum body, steel teeth


Ergonomics and Placement

The Speed Light racks well.  The screws have hangers that nest neatly on the ice clipper and don’t get tangled or fouled up easily.

The teeth are aggressive, and the Speed Light starts easily.  In my use, they seemed to start about as well as the E-Climb Klau, but the ice we were climbing on was relatively soft and warm, so I can’t really say which might be better, as most any screw will start easily in softer ice.  I will need to wait until I encounter harder colder ice conditions before I will be able to do a real evaluation of how easily the screw bites and starts compared with its competitors.

One negative thing I did notice when using the Laser Speed Light was that it had a tendency to bind up and become quite difficult to turn on occasion.  This happened constantly on the alpine ice route I was using them on.  I would start the Speed Light, begin cranking, and then, rather suddenly, the screw would become very difficult to turn.  The first time this happened, I wondered if I had hit a rock.  Given the depth of the ice, however, I determined that this was unlikely, and decided to just keep cranking.  After a fair amount of effort, the screw began to turn normally again.  This was a common occurrence with the Petzl Speed Light screws, with the “binding” occuring once or twice with just about every Petzl screw I placed. My partner also experienced the same binding as I did.

I’m not sure why this happened, but my speculation is that the ice core was melting and then re-freezing in the tube.    Temperatures we were climbing in were hovering right around freezing, and it’s possible that the friction of placing the screw was causing slight melting of the ice core, and then it was freezing up again, creating blockage.  Aluminum conducts changes in temperature more readily than steel, which may contribute to this effect.

I have noticed that when using aluminum screws, (both Petzl and the E-Climb screws) it is generally a bit harder to clear the core from the tube than when using a steel screw, which seems to support this theory.  However, I really don’t have anything else to support this belief or otherwise explain this behavior of the screws.  I also don’t even know if this is going to be common when using the Speed Light, or if this “binding up”  was just the result of an unusual combination of ice conditions and temperature.   I should note, however, that I did not experience any similar binding when using the aluminum E-Climb Klau screws.

At this point, I’m not sure what to make of this experience.  I need more use of the Laser Speed Light in a variety of conditions to determine how much of a factor this will be.  At any rate, the screws were still usable, they just require significant effort to get them started again once they bind up.

Initial Conclusions:

I don’t have enough uses of these screws across broad conditions to come to final conclusions, but based on my initial use, I think that these screws will find a place on my alpine climbing rack when weight is at a premium.  They start easily, rack easily, and weigh significantly less than steel screws.  There is the issue of binding up when driving them home, but my suspicion is that the binding issue is likely limited to specific temperature and ice combinations, and won’t be a universal problem.

I am looking forward to using them more.

UPDATE:    My updated conclusions after using these screws a bit more can be found HERE.