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

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

Chris Reeve Once Piece Range, Tanto 1Chris Reeve Tanto

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

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

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

Chris Reeve Tanto 1

The Tanto 1 is well balanced for chopping tasks

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

Fire Set

Chris Reeeve Tanto 1 and a Bow Drill Fire Set.

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

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

Chris Reeve Handle

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

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

Rod Garcia Skookum Bush Tool

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

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

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

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

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

Skookum Bush Tool

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

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

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

Skookum Bush Tool

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

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

 

Ricoh GR Pocket Camera

I am a big proponent of using small, compact cameras when climbing.  Although I sometimes take larger, interchangeable lens cameras with me on climbs, there are many circumstances where the bulk and weight of a big camera doesn’t make sense.  If I’m climbing something difficult, I will often opt for a pocket camera.  Even if I’m bringing an interchangeable lens Micro 4/3 camera, I typically will also carry a pocket camera as a backup.

Over the years, I’ve used more than a dozen different pocket cameras.  In my days of shooting film, one of my favorite pocket cameras was the Ricoh GR-1.  It was light and compact, had a very sharp fixed 28mm lens, and took excellent quality photos.  It was like having a little SLR with a 28mm prime lens in my pocket.

Since I made the switch from film to digital, I’ve been on an unending search for the perfect pocket camera.  I’ve used most  of the high end digital options, including the top of the line offerings from Ricoh (GRD); Sigma (DP1); Panasonic (LX3 and LX5) Canon (S100) and Sony (RX100.)

While I have been generally happy with these pocket cameras, I never had quite the same quality of results that I enjoyed with my larger cameras.  The image quality from the pocket cameras were good, but when I compared the photos with photos taken with my Micro 4/3 system cameras, (especially the OMD-EM5) the pocket camera photos came up a little short.  In general, the pictures were not quite as sharp, and photos with wide dynamic ranges did not come out as well.  None of these pocket cameras fulfilled my need for a tiny camera that could measure up to the quality of my Micro 4/3 system.

The Ricoh GR is the first digital  pocket camera I’ve owned that has image quality that rivals that of my Micro 4/3 system cameras.  It has a large, APS-C sensor, shoe-horned into a really small package.  It has a fixed (non-zoom) 28mm (equivalent) lens that is very sharp, with an aperture of 2.8.   The best technical review of the GR that I’ve seen is the very detailed review at DP Review HERE.   My review will focus on my working impressions of the camera, with an emphasis on performance in climbing and backcountry photography.

Ricoh GR and Mountainsmith Cyber Small Case

The GR body is very light and compact.  It fits perfectly into a Mountainsmith Cyber Small case.  This case will attach to a pack strap with velcro straps, or can be secured to a climbing harness with carabiners.  In colder weather, when I’m wearing a jacket, I typically dispense with the case altogether and just put the GR in an ultralight ditty bag and keep it in a chest pocket.  Ease of access is everything in climbing and backcountry photography.  If your camera is in your back pack, you won’t get the photos you want.  The small size of the GR makes it easy to keep close at hand.

GR in the Mountainsmith Cyber Small Case fits nicely on a climbing harness

GR in the Mountainsmith Cyber Small Case fits nicely on a climbing harness

The camera controls are customizable, and are pretty easy to use.  I can change exposure settings and other critical controls even when wearing gloves.  The view screen is decent, and is visible even in bright glare conditions often encountered on the snow.

The sensor is very good at handling high-contrast scenes.  This is particularly important for winter use, as snow scenes can be particularly challenging for other pocket cameras I’ve used.

GR

High contrast shots are not a problem for the GR

Color rendition is very pleasing, and photos are crisp and sharp.

climb-1

Unlike most pocket cameras, the GR does not have a zoom lens.  With the GR, you’ve got to do all of your shooting with a wide angle (28mm equivalent) lens.  Generally, I don’t find this to be a problem.  The wide angle of view is great for scenic shots, and helps capture perspective on climbs as well, where you’re trying to capture a climber and also some background.  Zoom lenses can provide some flexibility, but I generally put more value on the superior optical quality of a fixed lens.

Fixed 28mm field of view is great for scenic shots

Fixed 28mm field of view is great for scenic shots

castleton-11

Wide angle of view allows capture of climber and the climb

After several months of use, I have been increasingly impressed with the Ricoh GR.  Because it delivers consistently excellent image quality,  I’m getting more and more comfortable using it as my primary climbing camera.  This means that I’m carrying my larger Micro 4/3 system cameras less often, which allows me to go light and fast, while still having a high quality photography option in my pocket.

The Ricoh GR is the first digital pocket camera I’ve used that has lived up to the standards of the GR-1 film camera.  It really is capable of providing SLR quality in a tiny package.  Because of this, the GR has become my new climbing/backcountry photography tool of choice.

Excellent image quality in a tiny package

Excellent image quality in a tiny package

Patagonia Knifeblade and Northwall Lines: Winter Clothing made from Polartech Powerstretch Pro Fabric

Patagonia Knifeblade Pullover and Northwall Pants

Patagonia Knifeblade Pullover and Northwall Pants at Ouray

Polartech Powerstretch Pro is a new highly breathable and water resistant fabric from the folks at Malden Mills.   Patagonia incorporated it into two different lines of clothing, the Knifeblade and Northwall lines, which are blurring the lines between softshells and hardshells.   The Knifeblade line is uninsulated, and the Northwall line has a light gridded fleece lining.  Knifeblade options are a full zip jacket, half-zip pullover, and pants.  Northwall line options are  jacket and pants.

Grovelling up a chimney in my Knifeblade Pullover. Bird Brain Boulevard, Ouray, CO

I’ve got a Knifeblade pullover, and Knifeblade pants, along with the Northwall pants.  These have become my all-time favorite winter climbing shells.

Here’s why I love them:

The Powerstretch Pro fabric  breathes really really well. When I am working hard, I am a heat inferno. Any hard shell I’ve ever used has never been able to cope with the amount of heat I put out when climbing. This soft shell fabric has no problem dealing with my prodigious heat output.  I sweat less, and stay dry from the inside.

Unlike traditional softshell garments, these pieces are functionally water proof.  They are billed as water resistant, but I’ve climbed in some very wet conditions and stayed dry, including once where I was pretty much stuck under a small waterfall while belaying. I’ve heard of some folks getting some seepage through the seams eventually, but I haven’t gotten wet yet during the winter.  I have used the pants in an extended period of driving rain.  After an hour, the pants leaked and continued leaking.  These are not rain pants, so don’t expect them to stand up to long bouts of heavy rain.  However, for anything I’m doing in winter, they have more than adequate water resistance.

The fabric has a bit of stretch to it.  Just enough to add significant mobility.

The cut of the Knifeblade Pullover is perfect for ice climbing. The pullover style is very clean. Length is long enough that it stays put under a harness. Cut and material make for a good, body hugging fit that doesn’t blouse up and block my vision of my ice screws on my harness, but it has enough stretch and the cut is good enough that it’s not at all restrictive. Hood works very well over a helmet.   Pockets are high and out of the way of my harness.

The pants have articulated knees, and a high waist, coupled with suspenders to keep them up without needing a belt.  Freedom of movement is excellent.  Seat can be dropped via zippers if you’ve got to poo.   The Northwall pants are lightly insulated, which makes them great for really cold days.  The Knifeblade pants are uninsulated, and better suited for more moderate temperatures.

The fabric is very durable. Long chimneying sessions, sharp ice tools and general abuse have not had much effect at all on the Knifeblade Pullover.  I’ve managed to stab some crampon holes in my pants, but the fabric doesn’t rip easily, and the holes were easily repaired with repair tape and seamgrip.

I’ve heard rumors that Patagonia will be discontinuing both the Knifeblade and Northwall lines and won’t have any Powerstretch Pro fabric clothing to replace them.  I hope this is not true.  Just to be on the safe side, I bought spares to make sure I will still have my favorite winter clothes in the event I ever manage to wear out my current ones.

knifebladep

Knifeblade Pullover and Knifeblade Pants, climbing desert ice.

 

E Climb Klau Aluminum Ice Screws

The E-Climb “Klau” ice screw is not widely available in the United States.  As of this date, I couldn’t find a single U.S. seller.  I ended up ordering the screws directly from Spain, where E-Climb is headquartered.  E-Climb Website HERE  The E-Climb Klau screw has a couple of features that make it different from most other screws on the market.  It has an aluminum body, and removable/replaceable steel teeth.

E-Climb Klau Ice Screw

The aluminum tube body makes the Klau screws marginally lighter than all-steel screws.  This is a nice feature for gram-shaving alpine climbers who obsess over gear weight.

Some weight comparisons:

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 Klau screw 4 ounces; 18 cm Klau screw 4.4 ounces; 22 cm Klau  4.7 ounces

The per screw weight savings aren’t really huge.  Average savings of less than 2 ounces per screw.  However, with a 10-12 screw rack, you could save about a pound or more with aluminum Klau screws compared with traditional steel screws.  For weight obsessed climbers, a pound of savings may well be worth it.

The teeth of the screws are steel, and can be replaced if they are damaged.  Changing out teeth is pretty easy.  You just screw off the teeth, using the crank handle of another screw as a wrench.  The replacement teeth then just screw back on.  The replacement has some dry adhesive (think  “loctite”) on them to keep them from unscrewing when they’re not supposed to.  Replacement teeth are about $13.  The instructions for the screws say that conventional sharpening can mess up the interchangeable facility of the screws. I don’t think that a little touch-up with a file here and there would ruin it, if you stayed away from the little threads that secure the teeth to the tube.

Replaceable tips/teeth for E-Climb Klau screws

The most important characteristic of an ice screw for me is how quickly and easily it can be placed.  The Klau is comparable to other modern screws in ease of placement.  It bites into the ice and gets started just as easily (maybe a little bit easier even) compared with my Black Diamond screws.  Starting them seemed about the same as my Grivel 360 screw.  I could place a Klau screw with my left hand, which is a good test, as I am pretty clumsy with my left hand.  The folding crank gives good leverage for turning it into hard ice.  The crank doesn’t have much up and down wiggle room, however, so on featured ice, you will need to chop away lumps and bumps that impede rotation of the crank, as there is very limited ability to maneuver the crank over such obstacles.   In my completely non-scientific tests of these screws, they do seem to be slightly more difficult than steel screws when trying to clear ice out of the tube after use.

screw-1

E-Climb Klau (left) and BD screw (right)

The threads on the E-Climb screws are not quite as tall as the threads on other screws in my arsenal.  I have no idea what effect this difference might have on holding power.  However, I think that I might place the screws in a more horizontal position compared with the slightly down-facing position of other screws with larger threads.

Overall,  I like the Klau screws.  I like their light weight, and they place easily in hard ice.  I don’t think that they will replace my steel screws for every day ice cragging, but for alpine climbs where weight is an issue, I will definitely use the Klau screws to lighten my load.

 

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Echo II Shelter

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Echo II Shelter in the High Uintas Wilderness

1 pound, 12.5 ounces (tarp, inner tent, beak, and stuff sack.)

5.5 ounces (12 aluminum stakes and small stuff sack.)

Total packed weight of full tent with 12 stakes:  34 ounces (2 pounds, 2 ounces)

The Echo II from Hyperlite Mountain Gear is my latest backcountry shelter.  It’s a hybrid tarp/tent made mostly from lighweight Cuben fiber material.

I’ve been using the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Echo II shelter for a couple of months now.  I’ve slept in it for about 10 nights.  Not enough time for a long term test, but enough to have a pretty good feel for the qualities and limitations of this tent.  Durability so far has been very good.  I haven’t poked any holes in it or otherwise damaged it.  Signs of wear are minimal.

The Echo II is made of three pieces, a rectangular tarp, an inner tent with the top made from bug netting and the floor and lower sections made from solid material, and a “beak” which closes off the front, creating a vestibule and providing shelter from wind and rain.  You can pitch the tarp by itself, or along with the beak if you want to.  However, I have always used the three pieces together.    The tent is well constructed, with reinforced stress points and excellent stitching and quality throughout.  I’m especially happy that I don’t have to do any seam sealing myself, a task that I hate.  The Echo II is waterproof straight from the manufacturer.   Another plus is that the stuff sack supplied with the tent is sized large enough that it isn’t a struggle to get the tent packed away  (unlike some manufacturers, who provide a stuff sack that is just too small to be practical.)

Set up requires two trekking poles and 12 stakes.  That’s a lot of stakes compared with your typical free standing tent, but the overall weight of the Echo II is light enough that it doesn’t really matter.  Set up is relatively simple, particularly because I generally keep the inner net tent already hooked up to the tarp, which speeds assembly. Unlike a typical pyramid tarp, there’s a fair amount of lattitude with where you position the stakes.  So, if there’s a rock that prevents pounding a stake in where you put it initially, you can just place the stake a bit closer or nearer and add or take in slack by means of the guyline and tensioner.  As long as the stake is at the correct angle, the exact distance to the tarp is not critical.

I’ve found that the easiest way for me to erect the tent is to stake out the tarp first, then insert the trekking poles, then re-position and re-tension the stakes as necessary.  Getting the tent up in a high wind can be a bit of a challenge when working alone.  With two people working together, it’s not too bad.   The adjustable cord tensioners used to adjust the length of the guylines are simple to use and they don’t slip.

Living space is adequate for two people.  For one person, the Echo II is very spacious.  The “beak” vestibule provides adequate covered protection for shoes, backpack, etc.  The netting inner tent is attached to the outer tarp in such a way as to maximize interior space and minimize drooping.

I have only used the Echo II in summer conditions, although these were mountain summer conditions, which included a fair amount heavy rain, some sleet, and moderate winds.  I stayed completely dry throughout heavy rain, including one storm where it rained heavily for about 5 hours, accompanied by gusty winds.    I have not experienced really really high winds in the Echo II, but given the number of stakes holding it down, I’m optimistic that it would do at least as well as other lightweight tents I’ve used.  If I were expecting very heavy winds, I would pitch the tarp low to the ground to minimize wind getting underneath the tent as much as possible.

Condensation with the Echo II is minimal.  The ventilation afforded by the tarp design and all the netting fabric on the interior has meant that I haven’t really encountered any condensation issues at all.

One of the great things about Cuben fiber fabric (other than its light weight) is the fact that it doesn’t stretch out when it gets wet.  Syl nylon fabric tends to stretch quite a bit, which means that you need to re-tension a syl-nylon tent regularly, especially when it’s raining.  The Echo II, however, doesn’t have any stretch at all to the cuben fiber fabric, which is great, because a heavy rain is the time when you least feel like messing around with tensioning your tent guylines.  With the Echo II, you get the tent nice and taut when you pitch it, and then it stays nice and taut all night long.

One of the limitations of Cuben fiber is that it tends to be kind of bulky.  I think that this additional bulk is due primarily to the fact that Cuben fiber fabric has a fair amount of “memory” so it tends to keep its shape more than syl nylon or other lightweight fabrics.  This leads to additional bulk.  However, you can minimize this bulk by compressing the tent like you would a sleeping bag.  I fold the tent up, put it in the stuff sack, and then I sit on the tent for a minute or so, squashing it flat.  Sitting on the tent reduces the volume by about half, and because of the “memory” of the fabric, once compressed, it doesn’t really bulk up again, but rather stays flattened, taking up much less pack space.

Overall, the Echo II is the best 3 season shelter I’ve used.  There are some that are lighter.   A floorless pyramid tarp, for example, is lighter than the Echo II.  However, with a floorless pyramid, you sacrifice bug-resistance, and you give up the wet weather comfort of having a floor on the tent.  I tend to get significant condensation in most of the pyramid designs I’ve used too.  For me, the Echo II strikes the perfect balance between light weight, protection, and comfort.  For three season camping, it is my new favorite tent.

Note:  Hyperlite Mountain Gear has made me one of their “Ambassadors.”  I don’t get paid for this, but I do occasionally get prototype gear to test, and occasionally can buy gear at discounted prices.  The Echo II, however, I paid full retail price for.

Patagonia River Crampons

Patagonia River Crampons

It’s been a while since I have reviewed any fly fishing gear.   This isn’t because I haven’t been fishing (I fish a couple times a week when conditions are good,) but rather because I haven’t bought any fishing gear in a long time.  I’ve been pretty happy with the gear I’ve been using.

However, when I got the chance to test the new Patagonia River Crampons, I couldn’t resist.  They’re new and kind of odd and very unlike anything else on the market.  That definitely piqued my interest.  They seemed like a good idea for mossy rock.  However, I was kind of skeptical about these river crampons for general use.

I have to admit that as I was strapping on the crampons for the first time, I was already pre-forming my opinion in my head:   “fine for shuffling along snotty, slick, mossy river beds, but insecure for fast hopping around on large boulders.”    It’s a good thing, that I actually try stuff out however, because I was wrong in my assumptions.

In actual use, the river crampons are very secure on just about every surface.  They grab on wet rock covered with lichen, dry rock, gravely rock, small cobbles covered with moss, dead logs, dirt, and pretty much every other surface I have encountered.   My skepticism about the river crampons was colored by my experience with traditional steel or carbide studded rubber soles, which tend to skid and scrape insecurely on hard rock surfaces.  I figured that these crampons would perform in much the same manner.  This is not the case.  The aluminum bars have a lot more bite and grip than studded soles and I can scramble up and down boulders with excellent traction.  I like to move fast when I wade, hopping from rock to rock, and wading quickly past unproductive water.  These crampons made me more efficient.  Wading and boulder hopping was a lot faster and less tentative than the studded rubber or felt that I’m used to using.

The crampons worked very well for boulder hopping

The crampons adjust easily and the straps are secure.  The straps are made from a durable neoprene covered nylon that  gave me nostalgia for my 1980’s vintage Chouinard Scottish Crampon Straps.  The crampons stay on my feet and don’t slip around.  They fit well on both my traditional wading boots, and also on my lightweight water shoes.

My only real complaint about the crampons is that they are kind of heavy.  At first I was intrigued with the thought of using these crampons with lightweight water shoes for backcountry fishing.  However, the crampons weigh 17 ounces each, which makes them kind of heavy for backcountry use.  Combined with my lightweight Columbia Drainmaker shoes, the crampon/shoe combination is  26.6 ounces per foot.  Compare that with these other lightweight options, and the river crampons start to look less useful for backpacking, however, given their exceptional performance, I may just take them along anyway, coupled with some lightweight shoes.  When I’m in the backcountry, having the extra wading traction and security could save me from getting hurt while wading, plus the experience of fishing is more fun with better traction, so perhaps 2 pounds is not that bad a weight penalty to pay.   Here are some weights of various backcountry options for comparison:

LL Bean “Ultralight II” wading boots, studded rubber soles 23.4 ounces
Orvis “Pack and Travel II” wading boots, felt soles 19.8 ounces
Simms “L2” wading boot, rubber soles 23.8 ounces
Bite “Portatge” wading shoe, rubber/felt soles 17.1 ounces
Cloudveil “8x” wading shoe felt soles 18.2 ounces
Korkers “Cross Current” wading boot felt soles 19.1 ounces (With rubber hiking soles, 20.2 ounces) (felt soles alone are 3.8 ounces each)
Hodgman “Stream King” wading boot felt sole 21.7

The weight of the crampons was their only real drawback for roadside use as well.  After a long day of wading, I could feel the extra weight on my feet.  I haven’t tried the Patagonia rock grip wading boots, but if they provide the same grip in a light-weight form, they could be a real winner.

Patagonia River Crampons.

So, what’s the bottom line for these crampons?   Well, using these crampons has made me really want to try out the Patagonia Rock Grip boots with the aluminum traction bars on their soles. If the Rock Grip boots can provide me with the same traction as these crampons with less of a weight penalty, I may have found the perfect all-around boot.  Until then, I will keep using the river crampons, at least for roadside fishing, as the traction and security they provide is better than anything else I’ve used and is worth the extra weight, at least if I’m not hiking in a long ways.  I’m going back and forth on whether to bring these along on backpacking trips.  I have a week-long trip in the Uintas coming up soon.  I’ve been adding and removing the crampons to my pile of gear.  Still don’t know whether I will take them or not, but if I do, I will update this review with a backcountry-centered update.

A word on sizing:  I wear size 10 or size 11 wading boots and shoes.   The size small crampons fit my lightweight shoes the best and fit my size 11 Simms L2 boots too.  I don’t know if the size small would fit some of the really bulky wading boots that are out there in a size 11, but they seemed well suited for the more streamlined, lightweight hiking boot type of wading footwear.

Mammut Smart Alpine Belay/Rappel Device

Mammut Smart Alpine in belay mode

Mammut Smart Alpine Belay/Rappel Device

4.4 ounces

I’ve been using the Mammut Smart Alpine device for several months now.  It has become my favorite belay/rappel device.  Its primary defining feature is that it is an autoblocking device, much like the well-known Gri Gri.   It isn’t guaranteed to hold a fall without help from the belayer, but it is designed to automatically lock up when holding a fall, giving it a larger safety margin than a typical tube device like the ATC or Reverso.

The autolocking feature can be engaged when belaying and also while rappelling.  The rappel autolock feature is particularly useful, and I’ve used it on numerous occasions to hold myself locked off (hands-free) when I was dealing with snagged or tangled ropes or other two-handed chores while on rappel.  Even through the instructions say to always use a prussik, I’m comfortable enough with the security of the Smart Alpine autolock feature that I’ve pretty much stopped using a prussik back-up when I  am rappelling.

The trade-off for the autolocking feature is that the Smart Alpine isn’t quite as smooth as an ATC or Reverso when rappelling or when paying out rope for the leader.  Particularly at first, when I was getting used to the new device, it would sometimes be a bit jerky on rappel, and would sometimes lock up unintentionally when I was paying out rope for the leader. If the leader is moving really really fast (like walking quickly over easy ground,) it can sometimes be hard to feed rope quickly enough to keep up.  Most of the time, it’s not an issue, but now and then, I find myself “short roping” the leader because the device is locking up.  .

If you don’t want or need the autoblock feature on rappel, you can set up the device to act like a traditional rappel device without the autoblock.  I have rappelled in non-autoblock mode on occasion, and it was very smooth and easily controllable.   You can also rig the Smart Alpine in “guide mode” to belay one or two seconds similar to the function of an ATC, Reverso, or Kong GIGI plaquette.  Like every other “guide mode” devices I’ve used, lowering a second in guide mode is a real pain.

Instructions for using the Smart Alpine can be found HERE.  The Smart Alpine comes in two sizes:  A silver colored device for smaller (7.5-9.5mm) ropes, and a gunmetal grey colored device for larger (8.9-10.5mm) ropes.  In use, I’ve found that I prefer to use the smaller device if the rope is between sizes.  (For example, the smaller device works best with an 8.9mm single rope.)

The Smart Alpine is a heavier than an ATC or Reverso, but I really like the additional safety that the autolocking feature provides.  As a belayer, you try to always be ready for the big fall and big catch, but the autoblock gives you a bit of a back up just in case you screw it up.  When fatigue sets in at the end of a long alpine day, it’s good to have that extra assist from your belay device.

Olympus OMD EM-5 Camera System

The Olympus OMD EM-5 Camera   (15.3 ounces)

I’ve been using an Olympus PEN E-P2 camera for several years now.  It’s a micro 4/3 system camera that accepts interchangeable lenses.  The sensor is half the size of a full frame sensor, so the “crop factor” provides the field of view equivalent to that of a lens twice length.  (For example, a 12mm lens on a micro 4/3 camera gives the same field of view as a 24mm lens on a full frame dSLR or traditional 35mm film camera.)

The micro 4/3 system provides a great combination of excellent image quality, flexibility of interchangeable lenses, and compact size.

(Left to Right, Front Row) 20mm; 12mm; 45mm; 14-42mm; 9-18mm; 7-14mm; 12-50mm; 25mm. (Back Row:) OMD EM-5; 85mm; 135mm; 50-200mm; 85-300mm

Although I’ve been very happy with the Olympus PEN E-P2 camera I’ve been using, (see  my PEN E-P2 thoughts HERE) I was so impressed with the specifications and early buzz about the new OMD E-5 that I pre-ordered it as soon as it became available.  After months of waiting, B&H Photo finally delivered it to me.

I’ve had an Olympus OMD-E-5 camera for a few weeks now.  I’ve been shooting with it just about every day.  So far, I love almost everything about this camera.

Build quality is excellent.  The magnesium body has appropriate heft, without being too heavy (15.3 ounces.)  Fit and finish are  terrific, and the weather sealed body has the feel of a precision instrument.  It’s a good looking camera too, with a design very similar to that of the classic OM-4T film camera that I have always admired.

Ergonomics are likewise excellent, and the camera has a well-placed thumb rest that helps in holding the camera.  Knobs and buttons are well placed and for the most part are easy to manipulate.   I really like the tilting screen on the back.  I can take pictures at odd angles and tilt the screen so that I can compose the shot without having to be directly behind the camera.  The buttons and options are configurable, so I can program the buttons and controls to fit my shooting style.  You really get the feeling that the engineers that designed this camera were also serious photography enthusiasts.  Everything about it seems designed to allow you to just take pictures instead of fiddling with the camera.
Some people have complained about the placement of the on/off switch (on the back of the camera in the bottom right corner.  I think the placement is great.  It’s out of the way where it is. I like having only shooting controls on the top plate. Some other folks have complained about the “mushy” feel of the buttons.  The button feel doesn’t bug me either. I can tell by touch when I’ve depressed a button, even when wearing thin gloves. That’s really all I care about.

Although the camera’s features are very configurable, the instruction manual that comes with the camera isn’t that great, and a lot of the camera’s features are hidden deep in the rather complex menu system.  I would highly recommend any user of the OMD EM-5 read this article that explains some of the features of the OMD that are not readily apparent by reading the instruction manual.  There is another excellent blog HERE that addresses set up of your OMD EM-5 and many other issues.

The back LCD screen is bright and easy to see, and with the touch-screen functionality, you can manipulate camera settings from the screen.  You can also set the camera to take pictures when you touch the screen, with the auto-focus targeted on the area that you touch.  This can be a very useful feature when you have a “target rich” environment and you want to make sure the camera focuses on the right subject.

Speaking of auto-focus, it’s really fast and accurate, even in low light conditions.  I haven’t used any pro-level dSLR cameras, but the auto-focus on the OMD is very fast and acquires targets faster than any other camera I’ve ever used.  It’s going to be great for taking action shots of skiing next winter.

The built-in viewfinder is one of the major features that sets this camera apart from the PEN E-P2 camera that I’ve been using.  The PEN has an accessory view finder that mounts on the hot shoe, but the OMD’s finder is integrated into the camera.  This is great because I prefer to compose my photos using a viewfinder, and having a viewfinder is especially useful in high-glare environments such as snowfields, where the glare tends to render the rear LCD screen hard to use.   I’ve found the viewfinder to be very high quality.  It’s bright, with good detail.  One very nice feature is that the viewfinder can be set up to show areas that are going to be beyond the dynamic range of the sensor.  With this option turned on, any areas that are too bright or too dark are highlighted in red or blue in the display.  This gives you a great tool for keeping your exposure within the boundaries you want.

One of the truly outstanding features of the camera is the image stabilization capability.  It has a new image stabilization technology that is extremely effective at limiting camera shake.   I’ve hand-held shots at one tenth of a second with no discernible fuzziness from camera shake.

Image quality is excellent.  I was pretty happy with the image quality coming out of my E-P2, and the OMD has raised the bar significantly from the level of the E-P2.  Colors are rendered very well, and I’ve seen minimal noise or other distractions even in less than perfect lighting.

One of the things that surprised me about this camera is how small it is.  I thought it would be bigger than the PEN E-P2 I’ve been using.  In fact, it’s virtually the same size.  Slightly taller because of the viewfinder hump, but otherwise the same form factor.   This means I can use the same small camera cases and other carrying options that I’ve come to rely on for the E-P2.  As with the E-P2, my cases of choice for the OMD are from the Optech Digital D series.  I use the Optech Digital D Compact, the Digital D Shortie, or the Digital D M-4/3 depending on which lens I have mounted on the camera.  The Compact works well for most of the smaller primes, the M-4/3 works well with the larger zooms, and the Shortie works well for the middle sized lenses.

OMD on top, E-P2 on bottom

OMD on left, E-P2 on right

For carrying the camera body and three prime lenses (12mm, 20mm, and 45mm) the entire kit fits nicely into the Moutainsmith small zoom case, with room for a few extra accessories.  I can easily attach this camera case to the shoulder strap of my back pack using lightweight carabiners.  It stays out of the way when not in use, and is quickly accessible when I want to shoot.

Mountainsmith Small Zoom case clipped to pack strap

Excellent way to carry micro 4/3 camera and 3 lenses without interfering with your activities

I’ve got a bunch of other cases as well, but when I’m  trying to keep the weight and volume down, I try to keep my gear limited to what will fit in this Mountainsmith small zoom case.  For carrying more stuff, there are a lot of options, including the Mountainsmith medium zoom case which allows you to carry the larger zoom lenses in much the same manner as the small zoom case (albeit with a bit more bulk and weight.)   For my purposes, I find that the OMD body with the three primes (12mm, 20mm, and 45mm) pretty much covers all the bases I need when I’m in the backcountry.  Occasionally, I will take a 9-18 zoom and the 45mm prime as a change of pace, but the three prime combination in the Mountainsmith small zoom case is my go-to backcountry kit.  There is a short Youtube video clip of the Mountainsmith case and the three lenses I usually take with me HERE where you can get a better feel for the size of the case and how it works.   The Clik Elite Infinity Case is similar to the Mountainsmith small zoom case.  It provides a bit more room than the Mountainsmith, and allows a bit more flexibility about which lenses you bring.   It’s slowly replacing my Mountainsmith as my backcountry case of choice, particularly if I want to bring a zoom lens instead of one of the primes.

Lenses:

Over the years, I’ve accumulated a number of lenses that I use with my E-P2 (and now OMD) cameras.    Here are the lenses I use with this system along with my thoughts on using them.

Native Micro 4/3 lenses:
7-14mm f: 4.  Panasonic   (11.1 ounces)
12mm f: 2   Olympus  (5.4 ounces)
12-50mm f: 3.5-6.3 Olympus (macro)   (8.5 ounces)
9-18mm f: 4-5.6 Olympus   (6.4 ounces)
20mm f: 1.7 Panasonic  (4.3 ounces)
25mm f: 0.95 Voightlander (manual focus)   (16.3 ounces)
14-42mm f: 3.5-5.6  Olympus  (4.3 ounces)
45mm f: 1.8 Olympus  (4.7 ounces)

 

Non Micro 4/3 lenses used with adaptor (all weights include the weight of the adapter:)
85mm f: 1.2L Canon FD (27.7 ounces)
135mm f: 2.8 Canon FD (17 ounces)
50-200 f: 2.8-3.5 Olympus 4/3 (47.7 ounces) (2 pounds, 17.7 ounces)
80-200 f: 4L Canon FD (28.7 ounces) (1 pound, 12.7 ounces)
85-300 f: 4.5 Canon FD (68.7 ounces) (4 pounds, 4.7 ounces.)
Canon FD are used with a Novoflex adapter and are manual focus, the Olympus 4/3 lens uses an Olympus adapter and keeps automatic aperture and auto focus capability. (although auto-focus doesn’t work very well.)


The Panasonic 7-14mm f:4  is a big lens.  It’s heavy and is pretty long and bulky compared with the primes or the compact Olympus 9-18.  However, I really like the extra angle of view and perspective of the ultra wide lens when it’s at 7mm. This isn’t really a good backcountry lens for going light and fast, but when weight and space don’t matter, this is my wide of choice.

Panasonic 7-14 at 7mm

The other two wide angle lenses in my arsenal, the Olympus 12mm f: 2  and the Olympus  9-18mm f: 4-5.6  zoom are much much smaller than the Panasonic 7-14. The 12 is a good lens, and is very sharp and very compact. For some reason, however, at the wide end, I find myself wanting zoom capability quite regularly, so I often will opt for a wide zoom instead of the 12mm prime.  The Olympus 9-18 zoom is very compact, and it’s what I take if I want a wide zoom and need to save weight/space.  When I compare the size of the Olympus 9-18 with the size of the Panasonic 7-14, I have to marvel at the design and engineering that allowed Olympus to make a wide zoom in such a tiny package.   All three of these lenses are high quality, and I have been pleased with sharpness and other characteristics of all of them.   If I had to pick just one of them, I’d probably go with the Olympus 9-18.  I like the versatility of the zoom, and the lens manages to be compact and still produce reasonably sharp images.

Olympus 9-18mm

The Olympus 12mm is pretty sharp edge to edge

The lenses I tend to use the most are the Panasonic 20mm f: 1.7 and the Olympus 45mm f: 1.8  These lenses are compact, sharp, and give me great results.  Most of the time, when I go out, I’ve got one or the other of these lenses on my camera.  The Panasonic 20mm is a truly tiny “pancake” lens that takes great pictures.  I pretty much always take it with me even when I’m planning on using other lenses because it’s so small that I can tuck it away into a very small space.  I’ve found that when I’m packing my kit, there’s always room for the 20mm.    The 20mm length is a great “standard” length, equivalent to a 40mm lens on full frame.  I really like this length, as I’ve always thought that the “standard” 50mm lens on a full frame was just a tad long.  The decently fast 1.7 f-stop allows for pretty good low-light performance, especially when coupled with the excellent image stabilzation of the Olympus OMD.    If I could only own a single lens for my entire micro 4/3 system, the Panasonic 20mm would be my choice.

Panasonic 20mm

Even though the 20mm is probably the most useful, the Olympus 45mm is probably my favorite lens that I own.  For some reason, it seems that my favorite photos are often taken with this lens.  That may be because this lens is truly tack sharp.  Detail and sharpness are truly excellent, especially in such a compact little package.

The 45mm is a super sharp lens

Although I generally associate wide angle lenses with landscape photography, the effective length of 90mm of this lens has proven to be good for landscape shots, particularly when I want to tie together objects in the foreground with dramatic scenery in the background.  The 45mm has become one of my “must bring” lenses whenever I’m deciding what to pack.

45mm as a landscape lens

Multi-Purpose “kit” zooms

Olympus makes two multi-purpose kit zooms for their micro 4/3 system cameras.  The entry level option is the 14-42mm f: 3.5-5.6 zoom.  The higher end option is the 12-50mm f: 3.5-6.3 zoom.   The 14-42 is a decent lens and is pretty inexpensive.  Although kit lenses are generally looked upon with disdain, this lens is actually not a bad option for a single lens kit.  It’s reasonably sharp, compact, and takes pretty good pictures.  In spite of the fact that I have so many other (more expensive) lenses for my system, I still find myself using this lens when I just want to mount one lens on the camera and not have to worry about switching lenses.  For me, it makes a good “tourist” lens for times when I just want photography to be as simple as possible.

14-42 makes a good “tourist” lens

The Olympus 12-50mm has received generally luke-warm or negative reviews, but I haven’t found it to be all that bad.  My biggest complaint about this lens is its size.  Its pretty big and unwieldy, especially compared with the 14-42 which covers very close to the same zoom range.  In terms of performance, the 12-50 is not as sharp as some of the other options, but it’s generally been adequate for my needs.  A couple of the things I really like about this lens (besides the very broad zoom range) is the fact that the lens is weather sealed.  This makes it a good combination with the weather sealed OMD body for shooting in foul conditions.  The other thing I like about this lens is its macro capability.  For a kit lens, it has a decent macro function.

Olympus 12-50mm in Macro Mode

 

12-50mm Lens

 Manual Focus Lenses

There are three manual focus lenses that I use regularly with my micro 4/3 system:  The Voightlander 25mm f: 0.95, the Canon FD 85mm f: 1.2L, and the Canon FD 135mm f: 2.8

Manual focus with the Olympus OMD is not too hard.  There’s no rangefinder prism or “focus peaking” feature on the OMD, but the viewfinder is clear enough to focus pretty accurately.  Additionally, a touch of a button allows for viewfinder magnification to help in fine-tuning the focus.   Although the magnification will go to 10x, I’ve found that 5x magnification is the best setting for me.  Some folks complain about the difficulties of using manual focus with the OMD, but I  used manual focus exclusively on my film cameras for 30 years, so I’m pretty used to it and can generally capture my subject, even when it’s in motion.

The Voightlander 25mm f: 0.95 lens is somewhat specialized.  Although it’s a new lens, specifically designed for the micro 4/3 format, it’s manual focus only and has no communication with the camera’s electronics.  It’s made completely of metal and glass, and is pretty big and heavy as a result.  However, it has a solid, quality feel, with a silky-smooth focusing action, and f-stop adjustments that click into place with a satisfying tactile feel that speaks of old-school quality.  This lens’ unique feature is its incredibly wide 0.95 maximum aperture.  This allows it to be used in very low light situations, particularly when paired with the OMD’s exceptional image stabilization.  Wide open, it’s a little soft, but pleasing.  With such a wide aperture, the lens can have a shallow depth of field, even though it has a fairly short 25mm focal length.  Overall, I tend to use it mostly for portraits.  I’ve never used it for backpacking or climbing.  I suppose it would be good for evenings around the campfire and the like.  Perhaps I will take it out into the backcountry a bit more in the future, at least on trips where weight doesn’t matter as much.

Even in the light of a single, weak light bulb, at f: 0.95, the Voightlander allows you to keep shooting.

Back in my film camera days when I was shooting with the Canon F1 body, the legendary Canon FD 85mm f:1.2L was one of my favorite lenses.  It has excellent sharpness even wide open, and the wide 1.2 aperture gives it impressive low-light capability.  I was really happy when I figured out that I could mount an adapter on this lens and use it with my digital micro 4/3 camera bodies.  On the micro 4/3 sensor, this lens has an effective length of 170mm, so it’s a medium/long telephoto.  It’s a bit big and heavy for a general purpose backcountry lens, but what I use it for mostly is indoor event photography.  It’s particularly useful for taking pictures at various plays and musical performances, where I have to make use of available light and I’m sitting back a ways from the stage.

Canon 85mm f: 1.2L makes a good event lens

The Canon 135mm is a great street photography lens for the kind of street shooting I do. I tend to keep my distance from my subjects, and the 135mm acts like a 270mm telephoto when paired with the Micro 4/3 sensor.  This gives me plenty of reach for taking “people pictures” without getting too close.  As a bonus, this lens is pretty compact and has decent brightness (f: 2.8.)  I’ve found it to be sharp as well.  It’s also very inexpensive to buy one used.  (I’ve seen them in excellent condition selling for less than $80.)  This is my go-to telephoto lens for street photography.

135mm allows for up-close pictures from far away

Big Zoom Lenses

The Olympus Digital Zuiko 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 ED SWD is part of the Olympus 4/3 line developed for use with their 4/3 format dSLR cameras.  It’s a pro-grade lens, and has weatherproof construction.  The Olympus MMF-3 adapter is used to adapt the lens to the OMD body, and has weather sealing to preserve the weatherproof nature of the lens, which combined with the OMD makes a completely weatherproof system.

The 50-200 is a large lens, and pretty much dwarfs the diminutive OMD body.  However, considering the relatively large maximum aperture and the effective maximum focal length of 400mm on a micro 4/3 sensor, it’s not outrageously huge.  (Although when the lens zooms out in use, it gets a lot bigger than when “at rest.”)  For wildlife and bird photography, sports, or any time when you need to “reach out and touch someone,” this lens is a good super-telephoto option.   However, I have one serious complaint about this lens.  Autofocus sucks.  I don’t know how it functions on an SLR body, but on my OMD EM-5, the autofocus is close to useless, even in decent light.  It takes forever to get a lock, and hunts back and forth for a long time.  It often can’t get a lock at all.   Because of this, I typically just use manual focus.   I’ve found that my success rate when focusing manually is many times higher than my success rate when relying on the lens’ autofocus mechanism.

Olympus 50-200mm lens

Canon FD 80-200mm f:4L and Olympus 50-200 f:2.8-3.5

The Canon FD 80-200 f:4L is a legacy, manual focus zoom lens that is part of Canon’s well respected “L” range.  It has excellent optical qualities, and is wonderfully sharp across  its focal range.  It is substantially lighter and less bulky than the Olympus 50-200mm, and therefore is a lot easier to pack and carry.  I take this lens along when I need a longer telephoto zoom, but I need to carry other lenses too, so the bulk and weight of the Olympus 50-200 is prohibitive.  The Olympus has a larger aperture than the Canon, but the constant f:4 aperture is fine for most daylight situations, and the lens is sharp even wide open.  One negative when using this lens (or any legacy zoom lens) with the OMD is that the image stabilization doesn’t work well and needs to be turned off.  This is because the image stabilization needs to factor in focal length of the lens in order to work correctly. However, with a legacy zoom, the camera body can’t communicate with the lens to ascertain the focal length, and (because it changes as you zoom in and out) you can’t manually set the focal length as you can with a fixed focal length lens.  I haven’t found this to be much of an issue, and I tend to get good results without image stabilization.

Taken with Canon 80-200mm f:4L

For times when 200mm just isn’t enough, I’ve got the (monstrously big and heavy) Canon FD 85-300mm f: 4.5 lens.  On the OMD, this lens has an effective length of 600mm, making it just about as long as I think I will ever need.  It’s so long, big, and heavy, that I seldom use it.  It’s probably my least utilized lens, but when you really need a super long lens, it definitely gets the job done.

I hauled the 85-300 lens to the top of the Tour Ronde to get this photo of the Kuffner Ridge on neighboring Mont Maudit (Canon F1, 35mm Kodachrome)  I think this was the last time I ever took this 4+ pound lens climbing.

Accessories:

Sometimes, the little things can make a big difference in how easy it is to use a camera.  One of these little things is the lens cap.  I don’t like using the standard lens caps because I tend to drop and/or lose them.  Particularly when wearing gloves, I hate having to figure out a safe place to put the lens cap when I’m shooting.   So, I tend to replace my stock lens caps with caps that have keepers on them.  I attach the keeper cord to the camera by means of a double sided clip, and I’m good.  With the keeper attached, I can just take the lens cap off, and let it dangle, not having to worry about dropping or losing it.  The best aftermarket lens caps I’ve found are from Fotodiox.

Fotodiox lens keeper and keychain clip

The best lens cases I’ve found have been relatively inexpensive neoprene cases.  They don’t add much bulk, but they protect the lens from banging around.  There are tons of them on eBay.  Here’s a picture of the ones I like the best:

Simple neoprene lens cases