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

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.

Cascades, Part 1: Mount Baker North Ridge

I had been looking forward to a trip to the Cascades for several months.  Plane tickets bought, plans made.  I’d been training, dreaming, putting together gear lists, etc.  However, as the time to go drew near, my friend I was going with told me that he wasn’t going to be able to go.  His work was not going to allow him to take his planned vacation.  He couldn’t afford to lose his job, so he was out of the picture.   I was pretty bummed, as I’d been looking forward to the trip for quite a while, and really didn’t want to miss it.  Ultimately, I decided to simply hire a guide and do the trip anyway.  It was going to cost me more money than going with a friend, but ultimately, I didn’t see any way to get it done otherwise.

I selected Pro Guiding Service as my guide service for the trip.  I chose them primarily because they are permitted for Mount Baker, and also because their cadre of guides is very experienced, with many of their guides holding full UIAGM certifications.   Ultimately, I was paired up with a guide named Chris Simmons, a great guy with whom I was going to spend a terrific week of climbing.  Initially, the weather looked not so good.  As the dates for my trip approached, I kept checking weather reports.  It looked pretty wet, a concern that was echoed in Chris’s last e-mail to me:  “Bring extra gloves and rain gear.”

I flew into Vancouver on Saturday, and met Chris in Bellingham Sunday morning.  It was raining off and on, but we decided to roll the dice and take a shot at climbing Mount Baker’s North Ridge, my primary objective for the trip.  We drove to the trail head and hiked up to the high camp on Baker in intermittent rain.   The mountain alternated between completely socked in by clouds, and occasional sun shine.  I had attempted to climb Mount Baker several years before, but had been turned back by rain and poor visibility.  I was hoping for better luck this time.

Baker's North Ridge under cloudy skies, June 24, 2012
Mount Baker "peaking" out from the clouds

We went to sleep with a light rain falling on our tent.  I didn’t have much hope for clear weather the next day, but figured anything was possible.   We awoke at 3:00, and Chris announced that he could see stars.  With much enthusiasm, we strapped on crampons and made our way across the glacier, walking across perfect neve snow under a cold, clear sky.

Approaching the North Ridge at dawn

We opted for the left side approach to the ridge, looping under the toe of the ridge and then working our way up the ridge’s left flank.  Getting to the ridge, we had to avoid some (rather intimidating) crevasses and seracs.  Chris chose a line that got us past these threatening obstacles, and we made it up onto the ridge proper.

Approaching the North Ridge

After we gained the ridge, we steadily worked our way upwards, following some old tracks in the snow where possible, until finally, we approached the dramatic ice cliff that guards the mountain’s upper slopes.

Approaching the ice cliff pitches on Baker's North Ridge

In preparation for this climbing trip, I had read numerous trip reports of people who had climbed the North Ridge.  All of the reports seemed to indicate that passing the ice cliff on the left was easier than bearing right.  Chris led the steep ice pitch on the left flank, and pulled around the ridge crest out of sight.  I could tell that the climbing eased up a bit on the other side of the ridge crest, as he was moving pretty fast once he got established on the other side.

Chris, leading up the ice cliff

I followed the pitch, and then we climbed up several steep pitches until the angle decreased a bit and it turned into a steady ascent up to the summit.  We took a few pictures on top, and then began the long slog down to our camp.

On top of Mount Baker

After that, it was a long, ugly, tedious slog back down the hill.  The snow had softened, so we were post holing much of the way.  Eventually, we made it back to our tent, where we hastily broke camp, packed up, and hoofed it down the mountain to our car.  After a great burger at a local diner, Chris drove home to Seattle, and I drove back to Bellingham.  We took the next day off to rest and reload.  I had breakfast at the Old Town Cafe, a wonderful, funky Bellingham restaurant, and then I explored Bellingham a bit.  Our next objective was going to be a rock route, so I changed out my clothing and gear a bit to get ready for rock climbing.

Breakfast (and live music) at the terrific Old Town Cafe, Bellingham
Bellingham City Center


To be continued . . .

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ice Pack

Ice Pack in the Cascades

The Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ice Pack is a lightweight alpine pack that I have been using lately for big days and light overnights in the mountains.

The ice pack is about 40 liters (2,400 cubic inches) in capacity, and can hold everything I need for a day of ice climbing or winter alpine climbing day trips. When packing carefully, I have used it on overnight climbs as well.

The Ice Pack is very light weight. In a size large frame, it weighs 2 pounds, 1.3 ounces. It is stripped down to the essentials, with a roll-top closure instead of a lid, and no useless frills.  The pack is made from a Cuben fiber material that keeps the weight down.

The suspension on this pack is simple, but very effective. The frame is made from two lightweight aluminum stays, coupled with a lightly padded back panel. The hip belt is also lightly padded, and does a good job of transferring weight to the hips.  The suspension allows me to carry loads in the 40 pound range comfortably, and I don’t have aching shoulders, back, or neck at the end of the day.

This pack is different from most in that it does not have “load lifter” straps that run from the shoulder straps to the top of the pack to keep the pack pulled into your back. The Ice Pack relies solely on the shoulder straps to keep the load in balance and snugged tightly to your back. Because of this, getting the right fit is critical. On most packs, the shoulder straps are designed to come a bit below your shoulders, and wrap around them. On this pack, however, you want the shoulder straps to be level with the crest of your shoulders. (Make sure that this is with the pack fully loaded, and with the aluminum frame stays bent to shape.)  The Ice Pack comes in 4 sizes to accommodate different back lengths.

With the proper fit, this pack carries really well. With the shoulder straps comfortably snug, the pack sticks to your back like glue, and I haven’t had any issues with the pack shifting around while climbing. I’ve climbed multi-pitch technical rock and ice routes in this pack, and I just forget I’m wearing it.   The pack has a couple of side compression straps, which allow for scrunching down the pack to adjust for smaller loads.  There is also a very effective top mounted compression strap system that allows you to compress the load from the top.  This top compression strap system can also be used for securing a climbing rope.  I also use it for strapping on my climbing helmet.

The pack has a number of climbing-specific features that distinguish it from the company’s other pack offerings, which are geared more towards ultralight backpacking.  There are well designed ice tool holders that will accept traditional or leashless tools.  There is also a crampon patch on the back of the pack, with an elastic bungee cord to hold the crampons on with.  I haven’t had good luck with this elastic bungee cord, however.  The clip buckles broke almost immediately, rendering the attachment insecure.  I eventually just cut off the elastic bungee cord, and replaced it with a couple of pieces of webbing and fastex side release buckles.   The pack’s waist belt has sewn on gear loops which are useful for racking gear.  You can also add ice screw clippers to the hipbelt for additional ice-screw racking options.  When you’re carrying a light load and don’t want the belt at all, you can also strip the waist belt off completely.

My biggest concern when I first got this pack was the lack of a traditional top pocket.  In lieu of a top pocket, the pack closes with a simple roll-top closure like that on a dry bag.    My habit has always been to store a bunch of stuff in the top pocket, to make it easier to get to during the climb.  Initially, I wasn’t sure whether I could live without a top pocket.   In actual use, however, I’ve found that I don’t really miss the top pocket.  I put stuff I may need while on the route in a separate lightweight ditty-bag that I just keep near the top of the pack.  This keeps me organized, and getting to this ditty bag doesn’t take significantly more time or effort than accessing a top pocket.

In actual use, the only feature I really miss on the Ice Pack is a hole in the pack to allow the tube on my hydration bladder to exit the pack.  However, I called the good folks at Hyperlite and explained my needs to them, and they agreed to add a hole in the pack above the shoulder strap to allow me easier use of my hydration bladder.  (This is one of the reasons I like gear from small companies.  They tend to have outstanding customer service and are often willing to go the extra mile to keep their customers happy.)

So far, the Ice Pack appears reasonably durable.  After several climbing trips, hikes, and cragging, the fabric shows no real signs of wear.  It seems quite well made, with well-constructed seams and reinforced stress points.

Ice Pack accommodates a 3 day load if you pack carefully

The obvious competitors for the Ice Pack are the non-woven dyneema worksacks from Cilogear.   I’ve owned and used Cilogear’s 45 liter NWD Worksack for several years now and it’s been my go-to alpine pack due to its light weight and excellent carrying qualities.  Some comparisons between the 45L Worksack and the Hyperlite Ice Pack follow:

I prefer the suspension and frame of the Ice Pack.  The twin aluminum stays are lighter than the plastic/aluminum frame sheet of the Cilo Gear pack, and still work very well to control the load and transfer the weight of the load to the hips.   I feel like the simple, no-load-lifter shoulder strap design of the Ice Pack makes the pack perform better when climbing, and it shifts around less when moving.

The Cilogear’s floating top lid design is more conducive to overstuffing the pack.  For times when you want to overload the pack on the approach, the Cilogear pack design allows for greater expansion of volume.  The Cilogear is also a larger pack all around (45 liters vs 40 liters nominal volume.)   You can overstuff the Cilogear pack to carry 60 liters of more, but this isn’t an option with the Ice Pack.

The Ice Pack is substantially lighter than the Cilo 45L NWD Worksack.  The Cilogear pack weighs 2 pounds 11..6 ounces for the  pack body, foam-pad, hip belt, lid, and 4 compression  straps.  The plastic/aluminum frame sheet adds another 16.2 ounces to that total.   In contrast, the Ice Pack weighs only 2 pounds, 1.3 ounces including the integral aluminum frame stays.

So, which is better?   Well, that depends on how much space I need.  If I can comfortably fit my gear into 35-40 liters of space, I prefer the Ice Pack.  I think it carries better both on the trail and on the climb and it is lighter.   It is the best pack I’ve used so far for light alpine climbing.  For day climbs and light overnights, the Ice Pack is my new first choice.

However, for those times when 40 liters isn’t quite enough, I will still be going to my Cilogear worksack.  Sometimes, I can’t squeeze all my stuff into 40 liters, and the Ice Pack’s limited expansion capability makes it suitable solely to light and fast endeavors.

One place where the Ice Pack clearly has the Cilogear NWD Worksacks beat is on price.  The Ice Pack retails for $260, which is significantly less than the comparable offerings from Cilogear.

Overall, I am extremely pleased with the Ice Pack.  For the kind of climbing I like to do, it’s pretty close to the ideal pack.

Note:   I initially received an Ice Pack for review free of charge.  However, I liked it so much, I went out and bought one with my own money (at retail price,) because I didn’t want to be without it in the event that I was asked to return my review pack.