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.

 

Mount Helen, Tower 1 Gully

Tower 1 Gully on Mount Helen is considered the premier alpine ice climb in Wyoming’s Wind River Range.  It’s a long, moderate alpine ice route that has been on my hit list for a while.  Opportunities for climbing ice in the fall are not that common in my area of the country, so I was stoked to finally get this one checked off.  Here’s what the guidebook has to say about this route:

“Tower 1Gully (IV Al 3+). The north-facing couloir between Towers 1 and 2 appears especially fearsome when viewed from Dinwoody Pass. With ten pitches and steepness up to 60 degrees, Tower 1 Gully is the Wind Rivers’ classic ice route. It is comparable in length and difficulty to the Grand Teton’s Black Ice Couloir, though never as hard as the Black Ice’s crux.You can anchor belays in adjacent rock.”  

(Joe Kelsey. Climbing and Hiking in the Wind River Mountains, 3rd Edition)

I didn’t get a decent picture of the entire climb, so here’s a photo of the climb taken from space (via Google Earth.)  The red arrow shows the start of the actual climbing on the route.  This photo was taken early season.  Our conditions were quite a bit less snowy.

Google Earth Image of Mount Helen's Tower 1 Gully

Google Earth Image of Mount Helen’s Tower 1 Gully

Mount Helen is located in the Titcomb Basin part of the Wind River Range.  It’s about a 17 mile hike from the Elkhart Park trailhead just outside of the town of Pinedale.   We decided to break up the approach hike into two days.  I picked up my partner, Dallen, at 4:00 a.m. Thursday morning, and drove from Salt Lake to the trailhead, stopping in Pinedale for breakfast along the way.  With our early start, we were hiking before 10:00 a.m.

The trail to Titcomb Basin is pretty pleasant, with relatively gentle gradients and beautiful scenery.  We stopped along the way to fish a bit, but we didn’t catch anything. We ended up camping Thursday evening between Seneca Lake and Little Seneca Lake, about 10 miles from the trailhead.  We fished a bit that evening, again without any success.  Weather was beautiful, with clear skies and mild temperatures.

Friday, we continued our approach hike in to Titcomb basin.  We hiked about five and a half miles, and set up our camp between the upper and middle Titcomb lakes.  It was a beautiful spot, with a great view of the towers, including Mount Helen’s Tower 1, our objective for the following day. (Although our particular route was on the other side of the mountain.)

Titcomb Basin, Tower 1 on the right

Titcomb Basin, Tower 1 is the big buttress on the right

We spent the rest of the evening reconnoitering the approach to the route, fishing, and relaxing.   Dallen caught a big, beautiful golden trout, I caught a small rainbow, and we packed up for the next day’s climb.   The most exciting thing, however, is that we saw a wolverine walking along not far from our camp.  I’ve never seen a wolverine in the wild before.  It was really cool to see it there, moving along with its odd, bounding gait.  It kept its distance from us, and I wasn’t able to get a decent photo because of how far away it was.

The next morning, we woke up at 5:00 ate some food, and hit the trail to the climb.  The approach hike was steep and unpleasant, with lots of boulder hopping and shuffling up scree slopes.  I was really happy when we reached the tongue of the big snow slope that leads to the Tower 1 Gully, and I could use my crampons.  Moving up the steep neve snow was much better than groveling up the scree, and putting on my crampons made me feel like I was climbing at last.

We cruised up the snow slope unroped, and roped up when we reached the base of Tower 1 Gully.  From the base of the route, we couldn’t really tell how long the climb was going to be.  The guidebook says it’s ten pitches.  From the bottom, with foreshortening, and no real way to judge scale, it didn’t look nearly that long.  We wondered if it was really only going to be 2 or 3 pitches in length.

At the base of Tower 1 Gully

At the base of Tower 1 Gully

From the bottom, the climb doesn't look very long.

From the bottom, the climb doesn’t look very long.

We began climbing, and it soon became apparent that the route was much longer than it appeared from below.  That was a good thing, as the climbing was a lot of fun.  The conditions were excellent.  The route was mostly solid neve that took axe and crampon placements very securely.  The neve alternated with consolidated snow and patches of water ice.  The lower pitches were at a relatively low angle, and climbing went quickly.  Although ice screw placements were not very common due to the fact that there wasn’t consistent sections of hard ice on the route, it was generally easy to get protection in the rock walls on the margins of the climb, where there were cracks for nuts, cams, and pitons.

On the 2nd pitch of Tower 1 Gully

Dallen on the first pitch of Tower 1 Gully

The climbing got steeper as the route progressed, and by the 4th pitch, it felt like real climbing, although it wasn’t particularly difficult due to the “thunker” ice conditions that provided for really secure tool and crampon placements.  It was really enjoyable climbing, and we were both having a grand time of it.

Low on the route, on easy terrain

Low on the route, on easy terrain

Solid neve conditions

Solid neve conditions

Looking up the 3rd Pitch of Tower 1 Gully

Dallen, getting ready to take the lead up the third pitch of Tower 1 Gully

About the 3rd or 4th pitch, the weather began to change, and we started to get pelted with precipitation, first in the form of graupel, and then changing to snow.  It wasn’t bad, however, and just gave the climb a bit more of an alpine flavor.

Starting to wonder about the weather

Starting to wonder about the weather

After 6 full pitches of neve, snow and ice, and one short pitch through the easy rock band at the top, we finished the route and topped out on the saddle between Tower 1 and Tower 2.  By this time, the snow was falling hard, and the wind was blowing hard.  When I pulled up over the top of the saddle, I got hit by icy wind driven snow.  Our climb had been pretty sheltered, but this side of the mountain was getting pounded hard.  Our plan for the descent had been to either continue to the top of Mount Helen and descend by the snow couloir, or rappel down the back side, or rappel down the climbing route on V-threads.  The snow made continuing to the summit on rock much more challenging than we were interested in, and the thought of trying to rappel down the other side in the wind driven snow was also not appealing.  We decided to descend back down the climbing route.  We couldn’t use V-threads because there wasn’t sufficient water ice, so we used nuts hammered into cracks as our rappel anchors.

Setting off on the final pitch

Setting off on the final pitch

At the final rock band just below the top

At the final rock band just below the top 

Nasty weather on Tower 1 Gully

Nasty weather on Tower 1 Gully

When we got the base of the route, we descended down the big snow couloir by a combination of down climbing, rappelling on a bollard, and a couple of rappels on some fixed gear we found in the (climber’s left hand) side of the couloir.

As we descended the route, the snow turned to sleet, then to hard driving rain.  By the time we got back to our camp by the Titcomb lakes, we were both soaked.  I was wearing a full waterproof hard shell jacket, but my pants were a water resistant soft shell (Patagonia Knifeblade.)  These pants would have been fine for fending off a typical thunderstorm that only lasted an hour or so, but their water resistance was finally overwhelmed in the face of several hours of heavy wind-driven rain.  As a result, my long johns were soaked, my socks were soaked, and my boots filled up with water.

The weather was unrelenting, with constant wind and heavy rain all night long.  We spent a long, uncomfortable night in wet clothes, and damp down sleeping bags.  I didn’t freeze, but I was just cold enough that whenever I started to fall asleep, the cold would make me shiver and wake me up again.  I was just happy that it wasn’t 10 degrees colder.  Had the temperature dropped a bit, I would have been really really cold, and we would have been facing a hike out in several feet of snow.

Next morning, we hurriedly crammed our soaking wet gear into our backpacks and began the 16 mile death march back to the car.  It continued to rain all day, and the trails had turned into creeks, and the creeks into raging torrents.  The only good news is that we started off with soaking socks and boots, so when we had to wade through calf-deep water, we weren’t getting any wetter.

After a really long, wet, exhausting day of hiking, carrying packs made even heavier by all the water weight, we finally reached the trailhead at a little before six in the evening.   We changed into dry clothes, drove into Pinedale for a terrific dinner at a Mexican restaurant, and then headed back to Salt Lake.

Overall, the trip was very rewarding.  The scenery was great, the climbing was fun, and the nasty weather gave us a generous dose of suffering that made us feel like we’d done some real alpine climbing.

Gear Notes:

2 ice screws are all that is really needed for this ice climb because of the plentiful opportunities for rock protection on the sides of the route.  We didn’t place more than two screws on any pitch.  We generally followed the left hand margin of the climb and found adequate cracks for running protection and belay anchors.  A half set of Camalots (#.75 green to #3 blue)  and 3 smaller Metolius cams, a set of stoppers, and 3 Tri-cams, along with a piton (#3 Moses Tomahawk) were more than enough for us to protect the climb and establish belays.

We left fixed rappel anchors along the route (varied between left and right hand sides) consisting mostly of stoppers “welded” into place by hammering them into the rock.  If you use these anchors, make sure they are secure before you trust your life to them, as nuts can loosen over time.

Micro 4/3 Update: Olympus OM-D E-M1 ; Olympus 12mm-40mm f/2.8 Zoom Lens ; Olympus 75mm f/1.8 Prime Lens

Review of the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Camera;  Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 Zoom Lens; and the Olympus 75mm f/1.8 Prime Lens

I have been a proponent of Olympus Micro 4/3 camera systems for a long time.  The flexibility of having an interchangeable lens camera that is a fraction of the size of a traditional DSLR is great for my needs, particularly when I am taking my camera into the backcountry, where weight and bulk are the enemy.

I’ve been using the Olympus OM-D E-M5 as my primary camera for a couple of years now, and overall have been very happy with it.  See my review of the E-M5 and my Micro 4/3 System by Clicking HERE.

However, I’m always a sucker for shiny new gadgets, and so when the new Olympus OM-D E-M1 was released, I decided I would get it as an upgrade to my E-M5 body.  (I kept the E-M5 as a backup.)   I also picked up a couple of new Olympus micro 4/3 lenses; the 12-40 f/2.8 zoom, and the Olympus 75mm f/1.8 prime.   After using this new kit for about a year, these are my impressions:

Weights of gear reviewed in this blog entry:
Think Tank Digital Holster 10      10.4 ounces
Olympus OM-D E-M1 Camera body with battery      17.7 ounces
Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 zoom lens     15.4 ounces
Olympus 75mm f/1.8  prime lens  with lens hood   14.1 ounces
Optech Digital D Midsize Camera case    3 ounces
Shoulder Strap      1.8 ounces

OM-D  E-M1 Camera Body
There are a ton of reviews of  the EM1 on the web.  They discuss everything from ergonomics to image quality.  One of the better review sites is DP Review and their take on the EM1 can be found here:  OM-D E-M1 Review at DP Review

I’m not going to try to duplicate all of these reviews, as I don’t have the resources they have for all of the analytics they use to assess camera quality.  I’m going to focus on how the EM1 works for my needs, with an emphasis on using the EM1 as a backcountry camera for use in climbing, skiing, backpacking, and other backcountry pursuits.

Physical Characteristics of the E-M1.
The EM1 weighs  17.7 ounces without a lens.  That is a couple ounces heavier than the EM5, which comes in at 15.3 ounces.  While the weights of the EM5 and EM1 are so close as to be practically indistinguishable in real life use, the EM1 is a bit bulkier, due to the larger hand grip.  The effect of the bigger hand grip is that I can’t quite fit the EM1 into the same carrying case that the EM5 is compatible with and still have room for all the lenses.  The EM5 will fit into a Mountainsmith Small Zoom case with 3 prime lenses.  The EM1 will only fit 2 primes.

Although the hand grip on the EM1 adds some bulk, it makes one handed shooting with the EM1 very secure.  It feels good in your hand, and obviates the need for a wrist strap.

The controls of the EM1 are well thought out, and easy to use even with gloves on.  One very simple feature I appreciate is that the PASM control ring is easily locked so you don’t end up changing shooting modes by accident.  The tilt screen is useful, and I’ve often used the tilt screen to compose a shot while holding the camera away from my body for a slightly different perspective.  (Especially good for taking pictures of your climbing partner from above.)

Battery life with the EM1 is excellent, and I can take hundreds of shots without needing to change it.  The viewfinder is very bright and clear.  Image quality of the photographs is also excellent, with a very slight but (barely) noticeable improvement over the EM5 in color rendition and dynamic range.

The EM1 is weather resistant, which means that its body is sealed against dust and rain.  You can’t take it swimming, but rain and snow will not harm the camera, provided that it is used in conjunction with a weather sealed lens.  (The Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 lens is weather sealed.)  The EM1 is also somewhat shock resistant.  Theoretically, you can drop it or bang it around and it will be more likely to survive such abuse than a normal camera.  I try not to test this feature, but I have subjected the EM1 to a fair amount of abuse (including some falls while skiing) and so far it seems unaffected by the bumps and falls inherent in backcountry activities.

I use the EM1 most often in combination with the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 zoom.  (More on that lens below.)   The case I use 90% of the time with the EM1 body and 12-40mm lens combo is an Optech Digital D Midsize neoprene camera cover.  This soft neoprene cover fits the EM1 with the 12-40mm lens perfectly, and provides some protection from bumps, scratches, dust, and precipitation. Generally, I just keep the camera slung cross-body over my shoulder using a detachable shoulder strap.  When I need to use the camera, I just pull the stretchy Optech neoprene cover off, take some photos, then slip the cover back on.  The Optech cover is not as weather proof or padded as a traditional camera case, but because both the camera body and lens are weather proof, I don’t really worry much about keeping things absolutely dry.

For those occasions when I want additional protection, or when I want to attach the camera to a pack hipbelt, I use the Think Tank Digital Holster 10.  This camera case fits the EM1 very well when the EM1 is coupled with the 12-40mm lens, and the case can even expand a bit to accommodate a longer lens if necessary.

OM-D E-M1 with Olympus 12-40mm Zoom on the left; OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 45mm prime on the right

Case-2

E-M1 in the Optech Digital D neoprene case on left; E-M5 on right

Case-3

Think Tank Digital Holster 10 on the left, with OMD EM5 on the right for a size comparison

 

In general, I have found that for just about every activity other than difficult climbing, the easiest way to carry the EM1 is in the Optech case, slung over my shoulder.  This is my preferred method for skiing and hiking.  For climbing, having the camera slung over my shoulder tends to get in the way of my gear and flops around a bit too much.  When I take this camera climbing, I either attach it to my packbelt in the Digital Holster, or I just leave it in the Optech case and put it in my pack.  Having the EM1 in my pack while climbing means that I only get it out when I’m at a belay.  This typically isn’t a big problem, however, because I always have a pocket camera with me on climbs, so I use the pocket camera for impromptu photo opportunities where it’s inconvenient to access the EM1.

Skiing with the OM-D E-M1 in the Optech Case (Look closely, and you can see it slung over my shoulder)

Some useful features of the EM1 (that the EM5 doesn’t have) that are helpful when using legacy (non micro 4/3) lenses.

A couple of advantages of the EM1 when compared with the EM5 relate to use of non-micro 4/3 lenses.   The first is the ability to utilize autofocus with Olympus DSLR lenses.  The EM1 uses both contrast detection and phase detection auto-focus, while the EM5 is contrast detection only.   I actually have no idea what “phase detection” even means, but the practical result of having phase detection is that I can use legacy Olympus four thirds DSLR lenses on the EM1 (with an adapter) and the auto focus works like it should.  This is useful to me, because I happen to own a very nice Olympus 50-200 f/2.8-3.5 zoom lens, and I can now fully utilize the autofocus features of this lens.  With the EM5, the autofocus performance was so bad, I pretty much had to just use manual focus.

OMD-#M1 works well with legacy Olympus four thirds lenses' autofocus

OMD-EM1 works well with legacy Olympus four thirds lenses’ autofocus. This picture was taken using the Olympus 50-200mm zoom lens that was made for the Olympus 4/3 DSLR camera line.

The other feature that the EM1 has that the EM5 lacks is “focus peaking.”  Focus peaking is a focusing aid that helps when you are using manual focus lenses, including the old Canon FD lenses that I often use with my Olympus micro 4/3 cameras.  The focus peaking feature provides a little “halo” on the edges of whatever part of the picture is the center of focus.  This makes focusing with a manual focus lens quite a bit faster.  If you’ve never used focus peaking before, you may have a difficult time understanding exactly what I’m talking about.  If you’d like an explanation, here’s a nice video that demonstrates focus peaking on the EM1.

The Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 Zoom Lens

This lens has become my go-to lens for my EM1 camera.  When I sorted my EM1 photos in Lightroom, I found that I have taken more EM1 shots with the 12-40mm zoom lens than all of my other lenses combined.  It is really close to being the perfect “one size fits all” backcountry lens.  The 12-40 zoom range on a micro 4/3 camera is the equivalent of a 24-80 zoom on a full frame camera.  This combination of wide angle and short telephoto capability is ideal for climbing, as it allows you to get both “scenic” captures and “up close and personal” shots as well.  The two photos below give a good representation of the versatility of the 12-40mm zoom range.  I have found the lens to be very sharp across the entire zoom range and apertures.  Some of the high quality primes may be better, but in real-world use, I haven’t had any reason to complain about the image quality I get when using this zoom lens.  For those who are interested in the details of the optical qualities of this lens, there is a very comprehensive review of the 12-40mm lens at SLRGEAR.com  Click HERE.   

12-40mm Lens at 12mm

Olympus 12-40mm Lens at 12mm

Olympus  12-40mm lens at 40mm

Olympus 12-40mm lens at 40mm

 

The lens has an f/2.8 aperture that is constant across the entire zoom range.  2.8 isn’t as fast as some of the prime lens options that are available, but I’ve found that it is adequate for most dim lighting situations, particularly because the EM1 has excellent image stabilization capabilities and decent high-ISO performance.  As mentioned above, this lens is weather resistant and dust resistant.  When coupled with the similarly sealed EM1, you don’t have to worry about rain or snow ruining your camera gear, and I can dispense with a heavy water proof camera bag.  I happily carry the camera in any weather without worry.

Documenting a day of early season ice climbing with the 12-40mm zoom

Documenting a day of early season ice climbing with the EM1 camera and the Olympus 12-40mm zoom. This is a very rugged, weather resistant combination.

Weather proofing means that snow doesn't  affect your ability to keep shooting

Weather proofing means that snow and sleet doesn’t affect your ability to keep shooting

Night time shot at ISO 25600  with heavy, wet snow falling.

Night time shot at ISO 25600 with heavy, wet snow falling.

Overall, I am extremely pleased with the Olympus 12-40mm lens.  It feels like it was made specifically to complement the EM1 camera body.  Indeed, I really feel like if you have the EM1, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t also buy the 12-40mm zoom to go with it.  This camera lens combination is what I take with me now for the majority of my backcountry trips (When climbing, I’m typically carry a pocket camera in addition to or instead of my micro 4/3 camera.)   The benefits of of great image quality, rugged weatherproof build, and a relatively compact design (for an interchangeable lens camera) make the EM1 and 12-40mm zoom an ideal combination for outdoor photography.

The Olympus 75mm f/1.8 Prime Lens

As outlined above, the EM1 and 12-40mm zoom is my new go-to camera-lens combination for backcountry photography.  However, if I’m going to add an additional lens to my backcountry quiver, the 75mm is generally the first lens I will toss in to supplement the 12-40mm zoom.

The Olympus 75mm lens is an extremely high quality piece of glass.  Reviews of this lens have been universally positive, and the excellence of this lens has been borne out by my experiences with it as well.  For a feel for the detailed optical characteristics of this lens, you can check out a Review of the Olympus 75mm f/1.8 lens HERE

Size and weight of the 75mm lens are pretty close to the 12-40mm zoom.  The zoom is about an ounce and a half heavier, and they have comparable bulk.

75mm and 12-40 are approximately the same size

75mm and 12-40 are approximately the same size

This 75mm lens is not weatherproof, so you have to be more careful with it than with the sealed 12-40mm zoom.  Another negative is that the lens does not come with a lens hood, and you need to buy the hood separately if you want one.  (I bought a generic hood rather than the uber-expensive Olympus hood.)

On a micro 4/3 camera, the 75mm length is the equivalent of a 150mm on a full frame sensor, so it serves as a medium telephoto.  For me, this is a good compromise between bulk, weight and telephoto capability.  Generally, I don’t have the dedication to carry anything bigger or heavier than this into the backcountry unless it’s just a short day trip.  However, I’ve become accustomed to carrying the 75mm with me, as it gives me decent telephoto capability in a relatively lightweight package.  Below are some examples of the sorts of photos you can capture with the 75mm.  The longer focal length gives you more control over depth of field than you would have with a wider angle lens, and the medium telephoto capability also allows you to get a little tighter on your subject.

75mm is good for isolating subject with shallow depth of field.  (1/500 second at f/3.2)

75mm is good for isolating subject with shallow depth of field. (1/500 second at f/3.2)

100% crop shows how sharp this lens is.

100% crop of above photo shows how sharp this lens is.

While the 75mm length isn’t going to replace a super telephoto for true wildlife shooting, I’ve found that it’s often sufficient for taking photos of various shy critters that I encounter while traveling the backcountry.  The medium telephoto focal length allows me to keep enough distance between me and my subject that I can often avoid spooking the animal, provided I am careful and slow in my movements.

100% Crop photo of a Critter taken with the 75mm prime

100% Crop photo of a critter taken with the 75mm prime

One use I have found for the 75mm lens is taking very detailed panorama shots of big vistas.  The photograph below is a panorama stitch of two photographs taken with the 75mm lens.  I could have taken the same field of view with a wider angle lens, but I would not have been able to capture the same level of detail with a regular wide angle shot.  Looking at the full size TIF file, I am impressed by the detail in the photo, and it serves to emphasize the utility of a telephoto lens as a landscape tool when used in combination with panorama stitching software.

Download Panorama Full size TIF File HERE  (69Megabyte File)

Panorama stitched from 2 images taken with the Olympus 75mm f/1.8 prime

Panorama stitched from 2 images taken with the Olympus 75mm f/1.8 prime

The f/1.8 maximum aperture of this lens makes it good for low lighting situations.  It’s not really backcountry related, but I have found it to be a great “stage” lens for taking photos of performances in less than ideal lighting situations.

Stage camera:  Olympus 75mm; ISO 640  (1/160 second at f/1.8)

Stage camera: Photographing a high school musical with the Olympus 75mm; ISO 640 (1/160 second at f/1.8)

Really, I can’t say enough good things about the 75mm lens.  Combined with the 12-40mm zoom, it has become the 2nd part of my 2 lens backcountry solution.  It combines sharpness, medium telephoto reach, and terrific build quality in a reasonably compact package.

Vintage Gear

I love old gear.  I collect old gear catalogs (some scans from my collection here.)  Even though modern clothing and equipment is (usually) better than old school stuff, there is an undeniable satisfaction in using a piece of gear of clothing that has been around the block and proven itself over the years.

There’s some vintage gear you couldn’t pay me to use (old ice screws, for example.)  However, even though I generally am one of the first people to run out and buy the latest and greatest stuff, there are some pieces of gear that I’m still using that’s many years (sometimes decades) old.

Here’s some examples of vintage gear that’s still getting use:

Karrimor:  It’s no secret I’m a big fan of vintage Karrimor rucksacks.  I have a web page devoted to vintage Karrimor packs here.  My Karrimor packs are no longer my first choice for long alpine routes, but they are my go-to cragging packs.

Two generations of Karrimor Alpiniste backpacks, and two generations of climbers

Two generations of Karrimor Alpiniste backpacks, and two generations of climbers.  The Pink Alpiniste is older than the climber carrying it.

Chouinard Equipment:

When I started climbing, Chouinard Equipment was the premier mountaineering company.
Although my old Chouinard hexes have been replaced with cams, and my Chouinard X-Tools have been replaced by new leashless tools, there are a few pieces of Chouinard gear that I’ve held on to and still use.

Chouinard Hawaii 5.10 shirt

The Chouinard Hawaii 5.10 shirt is an awesome Hawaiian shirt with a climbing gear theme.  I’ve seen them go on Ebay for over $400, but I’m not even tempted to sell it.  Here it is, keeping me cool in the Utah desert near Indian Creek.

This Chouinard Expedition Sewing Kit holds needles, thread, sewing awl for sewing heavy pack fabrics, repair tape, and other necessities.

This Chouinard Expedition Sewing Kit holds needles, thread, sewing awl for sewing heavy pack fabrics, repair tape, and other necessities.

Cotton interior.  Nylon exterior.  Tough Comfortable.  Chouinard Rock Bottoms climbing pants

Cotton interior. Nylon exterior. Tough. Comfortable. Chouinard Rock Bottoms climbing pants.  Still cragging.

Chouinard Rock Bottoms pants in action

Chouinard Rock Bottoms pants in action

Lowe, Latok, and Cloudwalker:

Jeff Lowe has been one of the most prolific innovators in climbing equipment and clothing.  Although I’m not going to go back to using Snargs instead of modern ice screws, there’s still some Lowe gear that I’m using.

Old school leather boots and Lowe Footfangs still climbing

Old school leather boots and Lowe Footfangs still climbing.  I don’t use these myself, but I loaned the boots and Fangs to a friend for his son to use at the Ouray Ice Park, 2013.

Latok Gear Sling

Latok Gear Sling. Lightly padded, adjustable, with a tacky material that keeps it from sliding around on your shoulder. Made circa 1986, and I haven’t yet found anything better for alpine climbing.

 

Jeff Lowe Cloudwalker Papillon  Sweater

The Papillon sweater is named for its “butterfly” neck closure that has two “wings” of material that zip up to create a very cozy closure around your neck.  I really like this design, and over the years, I’ve only seen two other pieces of clothing with this feature (the original Lowe Papillon fleece sweater and the original Patagonia Talus softshell pullover.)  This particular sweater is  made from a quilted fabric that is soft, wind resistant, and hard wearing.  It makes a great cold weather rock climbing piece.

Lowe Cloudwalker Papillon Sweater

Lowe Cloudwalker Papillon Sweater

The Dachstien Sweater

Dachstein sweaters were the original insulated softshells.  These sweaters are knit in Austria from heavy wool, which is boiled and felted to provide extra wind and weather resistance.  They are warm, durable, wind and water resistant, and have a surprisingly broad temperature comfort range.  I don’t use my Dachstein sweater for anything technical (they are too heavy) but my Dachstein is still my go-to clothing for cool and cold weather car camping, wilderness survival practice, and working outdoors in the winter.

Dachstein Sweaters in Winter Conditions

Dachstein Sweaters in Winter Conditions.  My son (on the left) is wearing my original sweater, which I outgrew a long time ago.  I got the one I’m wearing on ebay a few years ago for $70.

If you can’t find a suitable Dachstein sweater on ebay, Bradley Alpinist sells them brand new on their website.  Dach Uber Guide

Old School Rock shoes:

Today’s shoes are all downturned, slingshot-randed, slip-lasted high-performance affairs.
Sometimes, however, all you need is a comfortable pair of shoes with sticky rubber.

Calma Lynx.  28 years old, and still climbing.

Calma Lynx. 28 years old, and still climbing.  Still a good shoe for long days on granite.

These Scarpa Brio rock shoes have been resoled twice, and are older than the climber who's wearing them.

These Scarpa Brio rock shoes have been resoled twice, and are older than the climber who’s wearing them.

Revue Thommen Swiss Alps Challenge Airspeed Altimeter Watch:  

Revue Thommen is a venerable Swiss company known for making mechanical watches and traditional aneroid altimeters.  They were not the first company to make an altimeter watch (The first altimeter watch was the “Bivouac” watch by Favre Leuba.)  However, the Revue Thommen Airspeed Altimeter was to my knowledge the 2nd watch to incorporate a mechanical movement coupled with an altimeter.  It’s a beautiful and elegant piece of Swiss engineering.  It’s calibrated in meters, which makes it a bit of a chore to use in conjunction with U.S. maps, and it is not as accurate or useful as a GPS, but I still take it to the mountains on occasion.

thommen

Revue Thommen altimeter watch and granite.

thommen2

Navigating through a ski traverse in the high Sierras.

 

Suunto Ambit 2 Saphire (HR)

For over a decade, I’ve used a Suunto Vector watch with built in compass and barometer/altimeter.  I’ve been pretty happy with the Vector, but have always thought that having a wrist-top GPS would be useful.  About 6 or 7 years ago, I bought a wrist-top GPS, but ended up getting rid of it because it was big and bulky and had a very difficult time getting a GPS fix.  At that time, the wristwatch GPS tech just wasn’t that good.

Fast forward to the present, and you see GPS tech in all kinds of small devices.  I figured it may be time to try a wrist watch GPS again.  REI had the Suunto Ambit2 on sale, and the discounted price coupled with my long and positive experience with my Suunto Vector made me decide to take the plunge and buy this watch.  The model I purchased was the Suunto Ambit2 with a sapphire crystal and heart rate monitor.  After about 6 months of pretty regular use, these are my thoughts:

Suunto Ambit2 Sapphire

Suunto Ambit2 Sapphire

Form Factor and Physical Design:

The Ambit2 is not all that big.  It’s more or less the same size as my old Suunto Vector.  The Ambit2 is maybe a tiny bit wider, but it is also a tiny bit thinner than the Vector.  It’s a large watch, but it isn’t so large or bulky that it is annoying to wear.  One thing I do miss, however, is the lanyard kit that you could buy for the Vector.  If I’m rock climbing, I don’t ever wear a watch on my wrist, and in such instances, I typically would wear the Vector around my neck, using the accessory lanyard kit that Suunto sold.  I have not seen any similar kit available for the Ambit2.  I may have to jury rig something myself if I want to carry the watch in this manner.

I paid a bit extra and got the sapphire crystal.  I like the extra durability and scratch resistance that a sapphire crystal provides, particularly because I occasionally subject my watch to some bumps and scrapes during the hard-knock backcountry activities of climbing, hiking, and skiing.

The Ambit 2 is water proof to 100 meters.  I’m not a scuba diver, so I will never have to test that claim.  (If I’m at 100+ meters of depth when I’m fly fishing, something will have gone terribly wrong.)   The battery is re-chargeable via a USB charger, which is nice.  I always hated having to change the battery in my Vector, so being able to just plug in the Ambit 2 and have it charge up is a nice feature.  Charging doesn’t take very long.  It will go from 40% power to 100% in about an hour.  Battery life is pretty good.  The watch will run for weeks if you aren’t using the GPS, and with the GPS engaged, (in hiking mode with 1 minute updates) I have been able to go for 14 hours and still have 84% of my battery life left.  From my use, the Suunto estimates of 50 hours of battery life in GPS mode appear accurate.  This battery life has been sufficient for my uses.  If you’re hiking a long trail over more than a week, and planning on tracking your progress via the GPS function, or if you’re settings have the GPS updating every few seconds, you might need to plan on recharging your batteries at some point during the trip.

Suunto Vector on left, Suunto Ambit 2 on right

Suunto Vector on left, Suunto Ambit 2 on right

Vector and Lanyard Kit (No such accessory is available for the Ambit 2)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Generic functions, Alarm and Backlight, Barometer and Altimeter

The Ambit 2 has various time keeping functions, including 12 or 24 hour display, stop watch, date, etc.  One big improvement that the Ambit 2 has over the Vector, and many other digital watches I’ve used is that the alarm is pretty loud.  Many watches have very weak alarms, which don’t have the volume to wake you up for an alpine start, especially if they are muffled by your sleeping bag.  The Ambit 2 alarm is much louder than the Vector’s alarm, and not nearly so easy to sleep through.

Another great feature of the Ambit 2 is the backlight.  It’s really bright.  Not only does it really light up the watch face, but it is actually bright enough to illuminate the area around you a bit.  It’s perfect for navigating your way through a darkened alpine hut, where you don’t want to use a headlamp because you don’t want to shine your headlamp beam on others who are sleeping around you.  It’s also great for shining around in your tent when you are trying to find your headlamp.  Obviously, it’s not going to replace a headlamp, but I have found it to be very useful in a number of nighttime situations.

The altimeter function is GPS corrected, which makes it very accurate and not as affected by weather as a traditional altimeter that relies solely on barometric pressure.  I’ve found it to be accurate to within a few feet.  There is a barometric pressure tracker as well, which graphs the pressure over time.  This is useful to look at in the morning, to see what the pressure has done while you were asleep.  If the pressure has risen, that’s generally a good sign of fair weather.  If the pressure has dropped, then that’s often a portent of incoming storms.

GPS and Navigation Functions

This is where the Ambit 2 really shines.  The GPS in this watch is really good.  I have never failed to get a quick GPS fix when I have been in the backcountry.  The Ambit 2 can almost always get a location fix in about 30 seconds or so from the time I turn on the GPS function.  Once the GPS is activated, the Ambit 2 will give you your GPS coordinates, which you can then use to locate your position on a map.

However, even better, the Ambit 2 can be used in conjunction with your computer to pre-plan routes.  You can create a route using Google Earth and export it to Suunto’s website (called Movescount.com) as a .kml file.  Then, you can download the route into the Ambit 2’s memory.  When you activate the navigation functions, the Ambit 2 allows you to select one of these pre-stored routes and will point you in the direction you need to go to follow this route.

I have found this to be very useful.  For example, this past summer, I was planning to hike and climb a local peak, however, we would not be following an established trail for part of the approach, and we needed to locate a specific ridgeline in the dark.  I plotted out my path on Google Earth, then uploaded the path to the Suunto web site, and downloaded it into my Ambit 2 as a route.  Sure enough, in the pre-dawn hours, we became confused as to the path we needed to take, and I used the Ambit 2 to help us navigate the correct route.  Having the Ambit 2 was sufficient for us to navigate even though it was too dark to see any decent land marks.  We just followed the path on my watch, correcting our path to keep the arrow pointer on the route layed out on the watch face.

To give an example of how this works, below are two pictures which show how routefinding is done.  This first picture is of a short route that I created using Google Earth and then uploaded to the Suunto Movescount Site.   You can see the path laid out on the map.

Sample Route that I created on Google Earth and uploaded to the Suunto Movescount Web Site

This next picture is a photo of what this route looks like when downloaded to the Suunto Ambit 2.  The route path is laid out on the screen, and the arrow pointer shows my current position and direction.  I can use this arrow pointer and the track line to keep myself on the selected route.

Ambit 2 Navigation Screen with route shown (At this point, I am partway through the route.)

The usefulness of this functionality should be readily apparent to anyone who has ever been lost or just unsure of their position.  For a climber, you could, for example, create a route showing you the descent route down the Emmons Glacier on Mount Rainier.  With the GPS navigation function, you could have the possibility of finding your way down from the summit even in whiteout conditions.

You also have the ability to create GPS waypoints at any time while using the watch.  If you are hiking, and discover an interesting place, and want to be able to find your way back, you can mark the location and save it in the Ambit 2’s memory as a point of interest.  This feature also allows you to leave a “trail of breadcrumbs” as you go, so you can retrace your footsteps whenever you wish.

The Ambit 2 does not have the benefits of a standalone GPS with a big color screen, that is loaded with area maps, but it does provide a lot of navigation functionality, particularly if you spend the effort ahead of time to create your routes in advance.

Tracking features  

In addition to helping you navigate and know where you need to go, the Ambit 2 is very good at tracking your progress and showing you where you’ve been.  You can activate the GPS and have it track your location as you move, and then you can upload this data to the Movescount web site and see where you were.  Here’s an example of an uploaded track that recorded one of my hikes on a local mountain.

Uploaded GPS Data that tracked my hike and climb of a local peak, along with data regarding the distance, altitude, etc.

As you can see from the screen shot above, the data collected includes the path traveled, as well as aggregated information on average speed, altitude gain and loss, distances, etc.  This is great for tracking your training and assessing your accomplishments.

Training Aids

In addition to the various navigation features, the Ambit 2 will keep track of training.  It works in conjunction with a heart rate belt to monitor and track heart rate.  You can track both distance (via GPS) and heart rates if you’re running or biking or doing other mobile training activities.   I use the Ambit 2 to keep track of my work outs at the gym.  I don’t use the GPS function because I’m staying in one place, but I do keep track of my heart rate data.

Here’s a typical data screen for an indoor workout, in this case a 90 minute bout on the stair stepper:

Data Capture from a stair stepper work out

Data Capture from a stair stepper work out

Apps and Customization:

There are a number of apps available for the Ambit 2, both from Suunto and also user created apps.  They range from practical (storm alarms) to silly (virtual cat hunting.)  There are tons of training apps available, but the only app I had any interest in was an app that provides me with sunrise and sunset times.  However, I found out that the sunrise/sunset information is available without the need for an app simply as an option on the barometer screen.  So, I don’t currently have any apps installed.

Dislikes and Problems:

I had to put this section in here, but I honestly can’t think of very much to say that I don’t like about this device.  It could always be smaller, but if that compromised the functionality, then I would not be in favor of miniaturizing it.

The price is high, but I assume that it will be discounted as the Ambit 3 hits the market.

The menu systems can be a bit overwhelming and hard to remember, but with increased use I have become increasingly familiar with the various menu options, and navigating to the feature or function I want is getting easier and easier over time.

Conclusions:

The Ambit 2 has become an “indispensable” piece of gear for me.  I use it to track my training, I use it for navigation, and I use it for mundane tasks like knowing what time it is.  If I lost it tomorrow, I would go out and buy a new one.  It’s really a quality piece of gear that delivers a lot of functionality in a small and compact package.  I just hope that it proves to be as durable as my old Vector has been.  If so, I will still be using the Ambit 10 years from now.

Kanz Field Kitchen with Partner Steel Propane Stove

Kanz Field Kitchen

Kanz Field Kitchen

When I’m car camping, I don’t like to rough it.  I like to live in luxury.  If I’ve got a truck to carry my stuff, I’d just as soon have all the comforts of home to the extent possible.  When I’m backpacking, I’m content with lightweight freeze dried meals, but when I’m living out of my vehicle, I want to eat well.   There’s something extremely satisfying about cooking and eating a tasty well-cooked meal at your vehicle base camp.

Kanz Field Kitchen with Partner Stove

Kanz Field Kitchen with Partner Stove and Bacon!

I have experimented with various stoves for car camping, and have a number of different camp kitchen set ups, some modern and some vintage.  My hands-down favorite is the Kanz Camp Kitchen with the Partner Steel dual burner propane stove.

The Kanz Field Kitchen is very nicely made, constructed of aluminum and high quality birch plywood.  It is well thought out, with ample storage space for pots, pans and other cooking necessities, and plenty of work space, assuming that you buy the add-on side shelves and the brackets that turn the top lid into another shelf.

The Field Kitchen can be purchased alone, or with a variety of stoves.  I bought mine fitted with the Partner Steel dual burner propane stove.  The Partner Steel stove is a real performer, putting out 10,000 BTU’s from each burner.  Heat control is excellent, and you can adjust the heat down to a very low level without the burner sputtering or going out.

No need to compromise on your meals with this kitchen.

No need to compromise on your meals with this kitchen.

There is one thing however, that I really hate about the Kanz Field Kitchen, and that is the legs.  I have the long leg set, so I don’t have to use up table space for the kitchen.  However, in order to attach the legs to the kitchen, you have to slide them into holes in the bottom.  This is a rather difficult job given that the kitchen is pretty heavy when loaded down with all of my cooking kit.  It is particularly difficult if you’re trying to do it by yourself.  I’ve attached and detached the legs on my kitchen dozens of times, and I still haven’t found a way to do it easily.

I use the stove in conjunction with a lightweight aluminum propane tank from Worthington.  It’s a 6 pound cylinder that is taller and skinnier than most.  It works well for my purposes.  If you can’t find them elsewhere for cheaper, Kanz sells them on their site, here.

For me, the Kanz Field Kitchen is the best I’ve used.  The Partner stove is truly amazing, and the stove is very well integrated into the kitchen.  The whole set up is super quality constructed and will likely outlast me.  It’s a great camp kitchen that really doesn’t compromise on performance.  However, all that quality and performance doesn’t come cheap.  A fully kitted out Field Kitchen with a propane cylinder will run you close to $1,500.  If you can get past the price tag, then the only other down side is that if your food tastes bad on a car camping trip, you can’t blame the kitchen.

Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Hooded Down Jacket

The Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer line of clothing are pieces that are designed with the overall goal of providing protection with the least possible weight and bulk.  I own the hooded down jacket and the hooded windbreaker.    This review is of the hooded down jacket

Ghost Whisperer Hooded Down Jacket   8.8 ounces (size X-Large)  

I’ve owned the Ghost Whisperer Hooded Down Jacket for about 9 months now, and it has become one of my favorite and most used pieces of clothing.  It weighs only 8.8 ounces and is filled with water resistant 850 fill power down.  The quilting on it is of sewn through construction, rather than box baffled.  The hooded down jacket provides warmth and wind protection that is greater than a fleece jacket, at considerably less bulk and weight.  It’s an excellent light “puffy” for climbing, or any backcountry activity where you need some lightweight warmth.

I’ve been taking this jacket with me on backcountry ski trips, on “shoulder season” rock climbs in the spring and fall, and summer alpine climbs.  It fits easily into a small daypack, and provides me with warmth for chilly belays or cold evenings.  For how light and compact it is, it provides a remarkable amount of warmth.

Cold day in the desert:  Ghost Whiperer down jacket on Castleton Tower

Cold day in the desert: Ghost Whisperer down jacket on Castleton Tower

The hood fits nicely over a helmet, and the elasticized cuffs and simple elastic cord at the hem keep out drafts.  The Ghost Whisperer fabric is water resistant, and I’ve had no issues fending off light drizzle and mist.  The 850 fill power down is treated with something called “Q-Shield” which is supposed to make it more water resistant than normal down.  I can’t really comment on the effectiveness of this down treatment because I haven’t ever soaked this jacket.

Ghost Whisperer Down Jacket on the Lower Saddle, Tetons.

Ghost Whisperer Down Jacket on the Lower Saddle, Tetons.

There are two zippered handwarmer pockets, and you can stuff the Ghost Whisperer into a pocket for storage.  There is a loop so that you can clip the stuffed jacket onto a carabiner.

Ghost Whisperer Down Hooded Jacket stuffed into its own pocket

Ghost Whisperer Down Hooded Jacket stuffed into its own pocket

The jacket does have some limitations due to its light weight design.  The fabric is extremely light weight.  I haven’t managed to rip it or wear a hole in it, even after climbing in it a bit, but it really isn’t made to take much abuse.  If you’re looking for a jacket for groveling up chimneys and off-width climbs, this is probably not a good choice.  The zipper is very lightweight and it doesn’t take a whole lot of pressure to pull it apart.  I’ve had several occasions when it has separated from the bottom and come undone.   So far, this hasn’t been a big issue, as I’ve been able to unzip it and then zip it back up again.  The zipper coils haven’t seemed to have been harmed by this.

Regarding warmth, this jacket is very warm for its weight, but it’s not a substitute for a thick insulated jacket for really cold conditions.  For cold winter ice climbs and high alpine bivis, I would still want a thicker, heavier belay jacket, but for most other situations, the Ghost Whisperer is sufficient.

Sizing on this jacket is a little on the small side for an over-layer.   I tend to wear a size large in most jackets, and a size large would have fit me, but I wouldn’t have had much room with a size large to layer clothing underneath.  An X-large size gives me room to use this as a top layer.   If you’re planning on using this jacket as a mid layer, then I’d suggest you get your normal size.  If you want to use it to layer on top, then I’d suggest going up a size.

Here’s a list of other insulated jackets to give some perspective and comparisons of weights:  The only other jacket I’ve used that is close to the same weight class is the Montbell UL thermawrap jacket, which is not as warm and which doesn’t have a hood.

Insulating Layers  (Size Large unless otherwise noted)
Montbell UL Thermawrap jacket 9.2
Montbell Thermawrap parka 16.2
Arcteryx Atom LT Hoody 14.9
Patagonia R2 pullover 13.3
Golite Coal Jacket w/hood 19.5
Jeff Lowe Cloudwalker Papillon Sweater 22.5
Arcteryx Dually Belay parka 29 oz (XL) 26.5 oz (L)
Brooks Range Alpini mountain anorak down hoodie (XL) 13.6
Patagonia Encapsil Down Belay Jacket (XL) 20.6
Montbell Mirage Down Jacket (XL) 14.7
Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Hooded Down Jacket  (XL)  8.8
Patagonia Nano Air Hoody  14.5