Summer, 2014 Outdoor Retailer Highlights

I met John Long at the Addidas booth!!

I met John Long at the Adidas booth!!  (Although I look a bit grumpy, I’m smiling a lot on the inside, as I’m a big fan of John’s climbing career and writing.)

The 2014 Summer Outdoor Retailer Show is in full swing here in Salt Lake City.

It’s a huge event, taking up not only the full space in the Salt Palace, but three large temporary pavilions and a tent city as well.

I’ve spent the last day and a half wandering around the show, looking at stuff, talking to exhibitors, and trying to take in the huge number of products on exhibit.

Overall, I haven’t seen anything truly groundbreaking or game changing.  I haven’t encountered any gear that will change the way I play in the outdoors.  However, there have been a few items that have caught my attention.  Here they are:

Ropes with UIAA Dry Certification.

The UIAA recently came out with new standards for “dry” ropes.  In order to meet the UIAA’s new dry rope standard, the rope can not absorb more than 5% of its weight when subjected to being sprayed with water.  Manufacturers can still claim “dry” status for their ropes, but they can only put the “UIAA Water Repellent” label on their ropes if the ropes meet the UIAA test specifications.

The UIAA Water Repellent Logo

The UIAA Water Repellent Logo

A number of Beal and Edelweiss ropes are touted as meeting the new standard, and Mammut also had a couple of new ropes that meet the new standard.

However, not all of the rope manufacturers I talked to were excited about the new standard.  Some of them felt that the UIAA standard was not sufficient for testing of actual water resistance.  The biggest complaints centered on the fact that the test doesn’t require submersion of the rope, but rather the rope is sprayed with water.  The other complaint I heard about the test procedure was that the test is self-administered by the manufacturers themselves rather than administered by a third party lab.

A piece of rope is affixed to a slanted board, and water is sprayed on the rope.

The UIAA test protocol:  A piece of rope is affixed to a slanted board, and water is sprayed on the rope.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out.  My feeling, after talking with a number of people is that some rope manufacturers are going to adopt the new test criteria, but that others are going to push for a submersion test, administered by a third party testing facility.  This will likely take the form of an E.N. (European Norm) test.

So, while all this is getting worked out, there will be a few ropes on the market that meet the new standard and a bunch more that don’t.  Until the dust (or water) settles, it appears that there won’t be a consistent test for dryness that all of the manufacturers are going to use, as some of the manufacturers are simply not going to be using this new UIAA test protocol.

The North Face Ice Project Pack

North Face Ice Project:  A pack designed specifically for ice cragging

North Face Ice Project: A pack designed specifically for ice cragging

This is one of the few items I’m actually going to run out and buy as a result of seeing it at the show.  It’s an ice climbing pack that is very different than the typical ice climbing packs that I own and use.  My other ice climbing packs tend to be stripped down, lightweight affairs devoid of extraneous features or bells and whistles.  This Ice Project pack is all about bells and whistles.  It’s built for comfort, not for speed.  It’s an ice cragging pack, meant to organize all of your gear and equipment that’s needed for a day climbing frozen waterfalls or mixed routes.  It’s not really made for wearing while climbing.  It’s more for transporting all of your stuff to the base of the route, and having everything easily accessible and organized when you get there, rather than having to just dump everything out in the snow.

It has a zippered opening that makes access easy, and there are accouterments for storing up to 10 ice screws, compartments for your rope, crampons, helmet, and other gear and necessities.   It’s the perfect pack for “ice cragging” where your approach isn’t super long, and you aren’t going super light.  It’s all about convenience.

It’s available on a limited basis this fall, and will be in broad distribution by late winter 2014 or early spring, 2015.   Price is $200.  I’ve already got one on order.

Crux AK 47 x Pack

The Crux AK47x.  Alpine simplicity

The Crux AK47x. Alpine simplicity

This pack couldn’t be more different in design and conception than the North Face Ice Project.  The Crux is a stripped down alpine pack made for going fast and light on big alpine routes.  It’s got a 47 liter capacity, which makes it suitable for longer routes where you’ve carrying lots of food, fuel and/or equipment.   The frame is a semi-flexible thermo foam affair, that provides some support without adding too much extra weight.

There are a number of well thought out details that climbers will appreciate, such as a grab/haul loop that is large enough to be easily grabbed while wearing big mittens, and 4mm climbing spec drawcords that can be used as rap tat in an emergency.  The AK47 x differs from the regular AK47 in that it has an extendable/removable top lid, as opposed to the fixed top lid on the regular AK47.

Crux has a bit of a cult following in the U.K., where they are based, but this company is relatively unknown here in the U.S.  This pack looks like a contender for climbers who want a light, streamlined, no-nonsense alpine-oriented pack.

Crux webpage here.

ak47x

Crux AK47x Suspension

 

SMC Spire Belay Device

Lots of companies are coming out with new belay devices these days.  I looked at new devices from DMM, Edelrid, and various other companies.  The one that impressed me the most was the SMC Spire.

The Spire functions pretty much like the Black Diamond ATC Guide.  It can be used to belay a leader using one or two ropes, and can be used in “guide mode” to belay one or two followers in autolocking guide mode.  What sets it apart from devices like the Black Diamond ATC Guide and the Petzl Reverso 3 are its small size (easily the smallest and lightest of the three) and the clever mechanism for lowering a following climber when in guide mode.  The guide mode release function is horizontal rather than vertical, and provides an easy and controlled lower that is much easier to actuate and control than the ATC Guide or Reverso.  It’s a very elegant and simple piece of engineering.  If I were in the market for a traditional (non locking assisted) belay device, the Spire would be at the top of my list.

I found a Youtube video demonstrating the Spire HERE.

SMC Spire Belay Device

SMC Spire Belay Device

SMC Picket Cables.  

Another interesting find at the SMC booth are the new detachable picket cables.  This relatively simple product is nothing but a cable with a connector that allows it to be attached to the holes in pickets.  Some pickets come with cables attached permanently, but I’ve not seen picket cables that can be attached and detached.  This allows you to either use the cable or not as you wish, or move it up and down on the picket as conditions dictate.  It’s not a ground-breaking, super innovative product, but it does allow a climber to have a bit more flexibility when it comes to using cabled pickets.

SMC Picket Cable

SMC Picket Cable

Energy Food That Doesn’t Taste Horrible

I’ve been kind of fed up with energy bars lately.  I’m getting to where eating a Pro Bar, or Power Bar, or Cliff Bar or trying to down a pack of Gu or other energy gel makes me gag.

There were dozens of outdoor food companies hawking their wares at the O.R. show, and I sampled everything I could, trying to find things that I enjoyed eating.  Here are my favorites:

Bridgford Shelf Stable Sandwiches.    These were a real surprise.  Bridgford makes these as part of the U.S. Army’s new “First Strike Ration.”  I figured that if it was Army food, it probably was nasty.  These sandwiches are actually pretty tasty.  There are some meat sandwiches (my favorites were the Italian sausage and BBQ beef) and sweet sandwiches (including a quite good French toast flavor.)  They kind of remind me of “hot pockets.”  They can be eaten cold, or warmed up by dipping the sealed pouch in boiling water.  I could see myself brewing up some hot cider, and using the hot water to warm up one of these sandwiches before mixing up my drink.

Folks who insist on all-natural, organic, gluten free, low fat, and low sodium will need to look elsewhere.  These sandwiches don’t check any of these boxes.  However, I don’t really care.   I don’t eat enough meals in the backcountry that having some artificial or non-organic ingredients is going to harm me.  When I’m in the backcountry, all I really want is something simple, convenient, that tastes good and that will provide me with the energy I need to keep going.   These sandwiches fit that bill well.  I ordered a couple cases of them at the show.

Link to Bridgford

Bridgford Shelf Stable Sandwich

Bridgford Shelf Stable Sandwich

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Honey Stinger Waffles and Honey Gels

These are organic waffles filled with honey and various natural flavorings.  They tasted great, and the mix of honey and carbohydrates should provide a good energy boost.

The Stinger folks also market an energy gel made from honey.  I sampled a few flavors and found them to be more palatable than the typical energy gels I’m used to eating.

I’m going to stock up on both of these items before my next climbing trip.

Honey Stinger Waffle

Honey Stinger Waffle

Chef Five Minute Meals Tuna and Chicken Salads with Tortillas

The Chef Five Minute Meals folks make various kinds of ready made meals.  Most of them seemed a bit heavy for backpacking (they are not dehydrated) but they had a couple of items that seemed reasonably practical, particularly for shorter trips where paring down weight to the absolute minimum isn’t essential.

Their Tuna Vegetable Salad, and Chicken Vegetable Salad are very tasty, and when matched with one of their tortillas would make a nice lunch that doesn’t require any refrigeration and very little preparation effort.

Packable chicken salad and tortilla

Packable chicken salad and tortilla

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MSR Windboiler Stove

MSR Is coming out with a new system stove, called the Windboiler.  It’s kind of the little brother of the MSR Reactor, and looks positioned to compete with the ubiquitous Jetboil line.  Claimed advantages of the new Windboiler over the Jetboil are increased wind resistance.  (The Jetboil sucks in wind.)  The Windboiler is supposed to have better simmer control when compared with the Reactor, which will make it better suited for tasks other than snow-melting.  A hanging kit will be available for the system.  If MSR’s performance claims for this stove are accurate, the Jetboil system is in for some very stiff competition.

Stock Photo of the MSR Windboiler.  (I wasn't allowed to take a picture of it at the show.)

Stock Photo of the MSR Windboiler. (I wasn’t allowed to take a picture of it at the show.)

 Unsubstantiated Stove Rumors

I was really looking forward to the Jetboil Joule, a stove with a high output burner and inverted canister.  It looked like it was going to be competition for the MSR Reactor for cold weather snow melting tasks.  However, I was disappointed by how big the Joule was.  It’s just too big for climbing or backpacking use, except as a basecamp stove.  However, I heard an unsubstantiated rumor that the Jetboil folks are working on a lighter, more compact version of the Joule.  If true, then this is quite interesting news.  Until this becomes reality, however, I’m sticking with my MSR Reactor.

2014 Outdoor Retailer Winter Market Highlights

 

Like the gates to the Emerald City, the OR Show entrance is designed to dazzle.

The 2014 Outdoor Retailer Winter Market presents an overwhelming array of products to assess and be dazzled by.   After a couple of days wandering the halls of the  outdoor retailer show, here are some of my impressions:

Backcountry Ski Touring:

As the winter oriented show, it’s not surprising that there were tons of backcountry skiing items to lust and drool over.  By far the coolest of them all (and my favorite thing I saw at the show in any category) was the new Jet Force airbag back from Black Diamond.

Jetforce

The coolest thing at the entire show: The new Jetforce airbag packs from Black Diamond.

The Jetforce pack differs from conventional airbag packs in that it uses a battery driven fan to inflate the airbag rather than releasing compressed gas from a canister.  This allows the pack to be taken on an airplane, which is problematic for compressed gas systems.  When trying to figure out the logistics of getting my airbag packs to Alaska for a heli-skiing trip, it was very difficult to work out how to do it, as I couldn’t bring the gas canisters on the plane, so they had to be shipped separately ahead of time.  The Jet Force pack can simply be brought on the plane as checked luggage.

Performance wise, there are a number of other benefits of the fan driven system.  First of all, the pack can be deployed and then easily be readied for another deployment in minutes.  At first, I didn’t really see how this was a big leap forward, as getting caught in multiple avalanches on one tour shouldn’t be on anyone’s agenda.  However, the ease of redeployment makes it easier to pull the ripcord if you’re unsure of whether you’re in a serious slide or not.  The hassle and expense and finality of traditional canister systems makes me reluctant to activate the airbag in marginal situations.  I’m unlikely to pull the ripcord unless I’m certain I’m going for a big ride.  Having the Jetforce pack makes me more likely to activate the pack just in case.

Jetforce Deployed

Jetforce pack with airbag deployed

Once activated, the Jetforce keeps reinflating for several minutes, allowing for full inflation even in the event of a small puncture in the bag.  After several minutes, the fan reverses, and sucks all the air out of the bags, leaving a big airspace that facilitates breathing or even self rescue.

Readying the pack for use again after it has deployed is simple.  The fan forcefully deflates the airbag, so it’s ready to stuff back in the pack.  The airbag doesn’t need to be folded in any particular manner, you just stuff it back into the airbag pocket, fasten it all up, and it’s good to go.

The non-airbag features of the Black Diamond Jetforce Packs are also very nice.  The packs are clean, with well thought out compartments, accessories, and suspensions.  The packs are available in 11, 28, and 40 liter versions, with the two larger sizes available in two different back lengths.  Weight is a bit over 7 pounds for all three models, which places them in the middle of category when compared with other airbag packs.  They aren’t the lightest, but they aren’t the heaviest either, and given the functionality and features, it’s a pretty impressive design effort.  Retail price is about $1,100.

I had seen pictures of this airbag pack previously, and had read descriptions of how it functioned.  However, watching demonstrations of its capabilities and looking at the thoughtful design and construction of the packs I came away very very impressed.  I want one (or two) of these packs very badly, and will likely get at least one of them (likely the 28 liter version) as soon as they become available next fall.

Salomon Backcountry

Backcountry is big business and the big players are all in it.

Everybody is getting into the backcountry ski market. Some alpine touring boots from Fisher.

Snow Shovels:  

One backcountry ski trend that I found very encouraging was the proliferation of avalanche shovels that can be used in “hoe mode” with the blade angled at 90 degrees like a hoe.  Previously, Ortovox seemed to be the only company that recognized the benefits of being able to set up your shovel like a hoe (which makes moving snow much easier in some situations.)  At the OR show, lots of companies, including Black Diamond, BCA, and Mammut were showing off snow shovel models whose blades could be used in hoe mode.  Nice to see some more options here:

BD shovel with “hoe mode”

BCA Shovel with hoe mode

Ski Touring Bindings:

I was impressed with the new G3 tech binding, the Ion.  Having been pretty underwhelmed by their first tech binding, the Onyx, I wasn’t expecting too much here.  Happily, I was very pleasantly surprised.  The Ion has a number of innovative features that make it stand out when compared with the standard Dynafit offerings.  First off, it clamps the boot with steady forward pressure, eliminating the gap at the heel of the boot as with the Dynafit and Plum bindings, and supposedly providing more consistent performance throughout the full range of ski flex.  They have a DIN range of 5-12, which is plenty for the backcountry, even for a big guy like me.

They have a number of thoughtful improvements, including little guides at the toe, that position your boot in the right spot to engage the toe clamps. The rep told me a bunch of stuff about how the specific radius of the wings helps with consistent engagement of the boot.  I only understood about half of what he was saying and have no idea if it really makes a difference or not.  I can say that the clamping wings have a nice positive engagement on the boot.

G3 Ion

The new G3 Ion Binding. The toe guides are the vertical black pieces sticking up just in front of the toe wings.

The heel piece has easy to engage climbing plugs, and burly brakes.

G3 Ion Heel

G3 Ion Heel Piece

Overall, I was really impressed with this binding.  I have no idea how it will function in the real world, as I haven’t had a chance to ski it, but it certainly looks promising.

 Ice climbing gear:

The ice climbing gear I was most excited over are the new Petzl Laser Speed Light ice screws.  They are aluminum body screws with steel teeth.  This concept is not new.  I climbed on Lowe R.A.T.S. (ratcheting aluminum tube screws) back in the old days, and they had a similar combination of aluminum body and steel teeth.  Currently, the e-climb Klau screw is also made with an aluminum body and steel teeth.  I’ve never seen one in real life however, and I don’t think they are sold here in the U.S.

The Petzl screw looks like it incorporates the sharp, fast-placing tooth design of their Laser screws, but with significant weight savings due to their aluminum tube body.  Seems like just the ticket for alpine routes where I’m trying to save weight.

Sadly, they won’t be for sale until June or July.

Aluminum tube body. Steel teeth and hangers. Looks perfect for alpine climbing.

New, but not necessarily improved.

Cassin is updating their X Gyro umbilical leash with special purpose carabiner clips to replace the Nano 23 full strength biners on the older version.  I’m not convinced that this is a positive thing, as I think the Nano 23’s do a fine job in this role and are full strength.  They have kept the thin cord attachment that you can use to larks-foot your umbilical directly to the tool if you don’t want to use a biner.

The “big” news that wasn’t really all that exciting was the new Nomic clone from Black Diamond, the new “Fuel” ice tool.  No idea if it is as good as or better than the Nomic, but it looked very similar.  It might make high grade mixed climbers excited.  It didn’t do much for me.  (Probably because I’m not a high grade mixed climber.)

The new (yawn) Fuel from Black Diamond.

Mountain Boots:  

Everybody who makes mountain boots now has a version of the Scarpa Phantom Guide/Sportiva Batura.   This is a good thing, as these insulated integral gaiter single boots tend to be light, well-performing, and versatile.  With more companies offering these types of boots, everyone should be able to find a fit for their foot.  (I saw them from Scarpa, Sportiva, Lowa, Mammut, Salewa, and there are no doubt others I missed)

Salewa mountain boots

Lowa Mountain Boots

The big news is that Scarpa’s terrific Rebel Ultra boot is being discontinued from their U.S. lineup.  (but will still be available in Europe.)  Too bad, as I think it’s a terrific boot.  The Scarpa rep said that the Ultra just wasn’t beefy and durable enough to justify its price tag for the majority of consumers, who expect a $500+ mountain boot to have tank-like durability.

Scarpa’s 2014 mountain boot lineup. (Note the unfortunate absence of the Scarpa Rebel Ultra.)

 Stoves:

By far, my biggest disappointment of the show was the Jetboil Joule.  I’m a serious stove geek, and the idea of a high output liquid feed tower stove with an alpine hanging kit and pressure regulator really had me excited.  The MSR Reactor is my current favorite alpine stove, but I figured that the Jetboil Joule would dethrone it due to the Jetboil’s inverted canister liquid feed design, which is great for very cold temps when butane loses pressure.

However, when I saw the Jetboil Joule in person, I was amazed at how big and bulky it is.  My first thought when I saw it was, “That thing’s the size of a soccer ball.  It would take up half the volume in my back pack.”  It’s maybe not quite as big as a soccer ball (probably more like a volley ball,) but it’s way too big to be of use to me as a stove for climbing or backpacking.

A great concept, but way too large for climbing or backpacking.

The Jetboil rep said that the stove was optimized for groups of 4 to 6 people and would be a great basecamp stove.  He’s probably right about that, and I was impressed at its simmering capabilities and the ease at which it roasted marshmallows and melted chocolate without burning it.  However, I really have very little use for a stove that large.  I was hoping for a compact, cold weather snow melting mega blowtorch that I could take on cold alpine climbs.  What Jetboil delivered was a bloated comfort-camping and basecamp stove.  I’m hoping they can come out with a smaller, more streamlined version of the Joule, sized like the smaller Jetboil Sol or Sumo stoves.  Until they do, I’m sticking with my MSR Reactor.

Clothing

strata

Rab’s Strata, with Polartec Alpha Insulation

Not too much new as far as clothing goes.  The only stand-out stuff that piqued my interest were the lightweight insulated pieces using new ultra breathable synthetic insulation.   Polartec Alpha is the best known of this new breed of insulation, which is touted as being more breathable and having a much broader comfortable temperature range than traditional insulated pieces.  The Rab Strata and the Patagonia Nano-Air were two of these new clothing pieces, with the Patagonia piece having the benefit of additional stretch in the outer fabric, and the Rab piece having the benefit that it is on sale right now.  (The Patagonia Nano-Air is not yet available.)  The Patagonia offering doesn’t use Polartech Alpha, but rather a proprietary insulation that seems to share Alpha’s highly breathable characteristics.  Not quite sure if I “need” one of these Polartec Alpha garments, but Patagonia’s “Put it on, Leave it on” sales pitch did sound pretty good.  I’m trying to figure out just where one of these garments would fit in my alpine clothing arsenal.

Patagonia’s Super Stretchy Nano-Air hoody, with extra breathable Insulation.