Sunday, 20 October 2013

The gear I love.

I've now been a full-fledged dirt-bag rock climber for over a year. That's more than a year of eating, sleeping, and rock climbing. There've been highs -- climbing Fitz Roy with Colin, and sending 5.13. And there've been some lows -- realizing yet again, that I'm a big chicken, and navigating the sponsored climber sphere. Along with these, mostly anticipated, ups and downs there have been some unexpected ones. Namely, a new found appreciation for gear, particularly of the lightweight variety.

When I first ventured into the mountains I didn't own a spec of my own gear, save for an Arcteryx backpack circa 1998, and a couple pairs of really nasty polypro long johns. The first cam I ever owned was a .4 Black Diamond Camalot. It was a birthday gift from my roommate who worked at a local gear store. Really, neither of us knew what to do with it, but I sure felt rad with it dangling amongst my 12 sport draws. The first long trip I did into the mountains, I was fortunate enough to carry the mountaineering axe of Coast Mountain legend, the late Guy Edwards. At the time, I didn't know enough about alpine climbing, and the fabled history of adventuring on the Coast Mountains to truly appreciate that I had the privilege of carrying Guy's axe. Today, I look back on that as my brush with greatness!


The late Guy Edwards in his element, and with a "feather" in his cap!

In my early forays into the mountains, I was inspired by my friend and hero, Lena Rowat -- who has skied from Vancouver, BC to Skagway, AK I might add -- and who's approach to mountain gear could be classified as shabby chic. The older, and more worn the better. It added to one's credibility. Which in those early days, I could use all the credibility I could get. But, over the years of my alpine apprenticeship I began to realize that dragging around deflated down jackets, extendable slings made of 2'' tubular webbing, and a headlamp that went through a pair of batteries ever half hour wasn't helping me succeed in the mountains at all. In fact, I thing it was probably hindering me. 


That's me on the left, and yes, my ice axe is half a metre in length! Seriously, it might as well have been a lightning rod. Photo, Jacqui Hudson.


Observe the gear junk show. Photo, Jeremy Frimer.

It wasn't until I finally left my penny-pinching University days behind, that I began to amass my dream "kit". Fast forward to today, and I have a boyfriend who insists that he examine each item in my backpack, and discard anything he deems superfluous before embarking on a day in the mountains with me. I also have the incredible privilege of having access to some of the best and lightest gear by my friends and partners at Mountain Equipment Co-op, Scarpa North America, Petzl, and Innate Gear. 

I'm also still a girl at heart, and I'd be kidding myself, and you, if I didn't admit that I love pretty things. Sometimes for me, form comes before function. I've decided that I hold a rather unique perspective when it comes to gear. A quick Google search will produce oodles of gear reviews, and suggestions by men. What man knows, or even cares, that one of the lightest down jackets on the market, ALSO comes in an adorable tangerine orange? Seriously, do guys even notice the colour of their apparel? 


Ooooo, this is so pretty.

Who says outdoor apparel can't look like this?

And so, today, I present to the ladies. A post about the gear I love, written with a female in mind. Because, let's be honest, guys don't care about the heather texture on the arms of their soft-shell jacket. For the men looking for gear advice, I urge you to check out this series of essays written by Colin about gear for alpine climbing. I promise it contains only gear advice relevant to the lightest and fastest alpine assaults. 

This blog post idea came to me when I realized that I had coordinated the perfect clothing system for my recent climbing trip to California's High Sierra. It was incredibly functional -- warm, light, and packable -- yet, at the same time, each layer in my system was the perfect shade of "bright", made me look about as un-frumpy as mountain clothes can, and matched perfectly with the other pieces in my system. I was a little chuffed to say the least, and realized that I must share my discoveries with the world.  

The selection of gear and clothing systems I have chosen to review below are rather random. It's really just a compilations of my favourite clothing pieces, and the hardware that I've put to the test over this last year of dirt-bagging. 

MEC's Alpine Refuge Jacket

I was recently given this jacket to test on a planned trip to the Waddington Range this summer. For various reasons my Waddington trip didn't happen, and we relocated to California's High Sierra. Since I had committed to testing the jacket, I brought it along for the ride to sunny California. Though, wasn't sure if I'd even take it out of my duffel bag.


I was so wrong. This deliciously light waterproof and breathable jacket joined me on three out of our five High Sierra climbs. The Alpine Refuge is pared down to the absolute essentials, two chest pockets, a helmet compatible hood, and a stuff pocket. That's it. Consider your standard 3-ply Gore-Tex, climbing in that thing is like climbing in a burlap sac. The stretch nylon this jacket is made of allows for unrestricted movement in all directions -- it's kind of like you're climbing in that cute Lululemon hoodie that you love so much, but, instead, it's a full-on stormproof, waterproof shell!


For me though, simply the best feature of this jacket is the little pocket it fits in. Scroll down and you'll see a photo comparing the stuff pockets of the Alpine Refuge, RD Windshell, Patagonia Houdini, and the Uplink Jacket. The Alpine Refuge is by far the burliest jacket in this comparison, and yet, it still stuffs into a perfect little pocket that clips nicely to your gear loop! C'est voilĂ ! 


Weight is so important for us girls. We don't want to haul around some giant backpack full of overweight gear. At least, I sure don't. So, here's the Alpine Refuge Jacket, the stormproof jacket that fits in the lid of your backpack, or clips to your harness. And when you pull that sucker out, you're like one of Napoleon's army heading into battle -- and looking mighty cute in the process...



The ladies of MEC, Women's Alpine Product Manager, Katy Holm, Alpine Designer, Spring Harrison, and moi, decked out in the Alpine Refuge, for a day of product testing on Blackcomb Buttress, Blackcomb Mountain. Photo, MEC Envoy Jen Olson.

The Alpine Refuge up close, and in action. Photo, MEC Envoy, Jen Olson.

An example of one of the systems I use that incorporates the Alpine Refuge . This system in particular I used for a day of climbing the low 5th class ridge scramble on Blackcomb Buttress. Sun was out, but it was windy and cold, and the forecast called for snow beginning later in the day. Best to be prepared for the onslaught! Here I've got the Alpine Refuge layered over the MEC Trentina Top, and the MEC Kindle Top. For pants, I wore the MEC Sandbagger Pant. 

Climbing on Bear Creek Spire in California's High Sierra during an exceptionally cold and windy high pressure system. The winds were strong enough that I didn't just want to rely on a windshell, so brought along the Alpine Refuge. I climbed the whole route with the Refuge on. It allowed all the breathability and flexibility I needed for a day of alpine climbing. Photo, Steph Abegg.

Here's my system for the day on Bear Creek Spire -- the Alpine Refuge layered over the MEC Kindle Top, and MEC Uplink Pullover.

Here's a comparison between (L-R) the stuffed pockets of the MEC Alpine Refuge (288 g),  MEC RD Windshell Jacket (155 g), Patagonia Houdini (102 g), and MEC Uplink Jacket (241 g).

MEC's Kindle Top


OK girls, remember how I mentioned that ultimately, it always comes down to how cute something makes you look. Well, here's the perfect marriage between form and function. The Kindle Top was not designed as a climbing piece, but after roaming the aisles of MEC Vancouver, I honed in on the pretty mustard colour of this jacket. And, upon further inspection, realized that it was a sweat friendly blend of merino and polyester.


The Kindle hugs the body, fitting perfectly under a harness, and accentuating your womanly curves. It also had enough stretch for full freedom of movement, and the stretchy hood fits over even my bulkiest climbing helmet.



The Kindle in action on Mt. Russel's Fishhook Arete, High Sierra, California. Photo, Steph Abegg. 

Yours truly, wearing the Kindle, climbing splitter cracks on the Fishhook Arete. Photo, Steph Abegg.

MEC's Uplink Pullover/Jacket/Vest


In my opinion, the Uplink Pullover has been one of MEC's greatest designs in recent past. The Uplink is a synthetic mid-layer, made of PrimaLoft. What makes this piece really functional, and unique, is the elastic sewn through stitching. This feature allows the jacket to stretch over various layers, or recoil if worn next to skin. So the jacket always hugs the body, but stretches with movement or additional clothing.


My go to piece for alpine climbing, was, for many years, the Uplink Pullover. This piece had a half zip, with a fully helmet compatible hood. The pullover has been discontinued. NO, bring it back MEC! But, they've replaced it with a piece that is almost as desirable -- the Uplink Vest.


Like all articles of clothing that I love, the Uplink series all stuff into a pocket, and have a small loop for clipping to your harness. Did I mention I love that! I've used the Uplink for climbing long routes in Squamish on cold days, one day pushes on long rock routes in the High Sierra, and four day epic climbs in Patagonia.


Consider this piece when you're about to grab that fleece mid-layer. Remember, it's bulky, it doesn't stuff into a pocket, or clip to your harness, and it doesn't hug your body keeping you hot, and making you look hot at the same time. The Uplink fills all those requirements.



The Uplink Pullover layered over an MEC Kindle Top during a cold day of alpine climbing in the High Sierra. Photo, Steph Abegg.

Here, Colin and I are climbing the first pitch of the Northeast Ridge of Aguja Bifida, in Patagonia, Argentina. In the early hours of the day, the winds were low, so I didn't need a wind layer. What I did need was a little extra insulation as we climbed through the coldest part of the day. Here, I'm climbing with the Uplink Pullover layered over another of my favourite pieces, the MEC Khamsin Hoodie. As the day progressed, and the winds built, I replaced the Uplink with a windshell, and simply threw on the Uplink at belays. Photo, Colin Haley.

One more example of the Uplink, this time, seracing on the Matier Glacier. I climbed in a T2 baselayer and a windshell. But, hanging out on the glacier was a little cold, so I'd throw on the Uplink Jacket in between burns on the ice. Photo, Colin Haley.

Here's a photo of Colin and I on bivy number two, on the North Pillar of Fitz Roy in Patagonia.  While climbing, I was able to wear just the MEC T3 Hoodie, and a windshell. For cold belays, I'd throw on the Uplink Pullover, and for bivouacs, of which we had three, I added the MEC Dual Degree Jacket. When every gram counts, because you're hauling it up a 1300m rock face, this was the perfect system. Photo, Colin Haley.

Here's my Fitz Roy system up close...

And again, here's my system for cold weather alpine climbing in the High Sierra -- the Alpine Refuge layered over the MEC Kindle Top, and the Uplink Pullover. 

Here's that stuff pocket comparison again...

MEC's RD Windshell Jacket

The RD Windshell has a secret. At first glance it may simply be a very practical wind layer, but upon closer inspection, it become more than just a windshell. It becomes the perfect silhouette. I always smile when I look at myself in the mirror with this jacket on -- yes, I always do a pass by the mirror to inspect my outfit, even when headed out for a run up the Chief on a windy day -- because it provides the grandest of illusions that I possess those desirable womanly curves when, in actuality, I do not.


Secrets aside, the RD Windshell is the perfect piece to layer over a simple baselayer, and go for a run, hike, climb...


The RD is made of a stretch woven nylon that is surprisingly burly. I've dragged my carcass up enough grovelly cracks and chimneys with the RD on to prove its metal against some serious abrasion. And, I can't drive the point home enough, it fits into a cute little pouch, and clips to your harness. It's that simple! Grab it whenever, or stuff it away, whenever. Love that! 


The jacket is cut long, so again, fits under a harness nicely. My ownly quam is that it's hood is not helmet compatible. But, Katy assures me that this is in the works for the latest edition of the RD.



The RD Windshell in it's element on Mt. Dione in the Tantalus Range, BC. Photo, Colin Haley.

An example of the system I used recently to climb the uber classic Regular Route on Fairview Dome in Tuolumne, California. The forecast this day was for warm temperatures, and no precipitation in the first half of the day. So, we got a mighty early start to avoid getting rained on, and dressed to be initially cold, then warmer as we climbed quickly up the moderate pitches. Here, I've got the RD layered over the MEC Kindle Top, so I could climb in both pieces for the first half of the day while a cold breeze blew. Then, as the sun hit our route, I clipped the RD to my harness and climbed simply in the Kindle. I wore the MEC Symetry Pant on the bottom. Yet another special little find, not designed with the climber in mind, but turns out, they're the perfect pant for a day of technical rock climbing in fair weather.

The stuff pockets people!

Shifting gears, it's on to a couple of my other favourite things. Since at the moment, I have the great fortune of spending more time on the rock than I do at my desk, I have logged some serious hours in climbing shoes. 


I'd be lying if I didn't say that I'm getting old. I'm 33 years old people. My feet refuse to be crammed into way-too-small climbing shoes these days. And, you know, funny thing is, I don't feel like I loose any advantage when it comes to climbing on technical terrain. 


Enter the Force-X. These shoes are padded around the tongue and heel, are flat lasted so you don't get a perma-charlie horse in your sole, and have velcro closures. So easy!


I feel like I've done my due diligence now -- they've been heel hooking on steep boulders, climbing technical limestone pockets, and endured 30 m crack pitches. So, for those of you who are ready to throw away the climbing shoe that's given you the hammer toe, I urge you to try these simple shoes out.



Taking these babies for a spin on the limestone pockets of Lions Head, Ontario. 

Did I mention my feet are so comfortable right now? Photo, Colin Haley.

MEC Ferrata Gaitor

I hate getting snow down my boots. But I also hate carrying around gaitors that come up to my knees. I discovered the Ferrata Gaitor before leaving for my first Waddington Range trip after Jasmin introduced me to them. They are small and light enough to stuff into your pack and pull out as you descend, the now isothermic snow, in the couloir of your summer alpine romp.



Here's an example of an ideal set up for these gaitors. They're paired with the Scarpa Tech Ascent GTX, a high top approach shoe. This set up would be great on the approach/descent of an alpine route that required a bit of glacier/snow travel.  
Petzl's Nomic

I am not an ice climber by any stretch of the imagination, but I'm learning. I can make a pretty mean v-thread these days. In fact, my biggest lesson in ice climbing so far came during a day of seracing at Mt. Baker. Colin was leading above me, and to my left a little. Fern was belaying, and I was simply watching, taking it all in. When, out of the blue, I got smacked in the face with a chunk of ice. Lesson number one, don't stand in the line of fire. 


When hacking ice axes into the ice, pieces of ice, in some cases referred to as "dinner plates" often break off around the axe and go crashing to the ground. And, no one likes to get hit in the face by a dinner plate! A little blood, and a few tears later, I realized that I hadn't knocked all my teeth out, and Colin calmly told me that I really shouldn't have been standing where I was when it happened. OK lesson learned!


Something else I've learned in my short tenure as an ice climber, is that the Petzl Nomic really is the best tool out there -- at least for a newby like me who needs all the advantage she can get. I took some time to fiddle around with some of the various other tools on the market, and it didn't take long for me to realize that the geometry of the Nomic provides a little extra 'umph' to each swing of the tool. The more power behind the tool, the easier it is to place it securely in the ice, and the less pumped you get trying to wack away hoping for a good placement.


And, with the ladies in mind, having an ice tool that, in part, can propel itself into the ice, is certainly an advantage. I know us girls are strong, and there's nothing more satisfying than bouldering harder than the boys; but physiologically we may just not be able to produce the same amount of power behind the swing of an ice too as a man. Many of the women I look up to in our community of climbers, all use the Nomics -- I suspect it's not a coincidence.


I also learned that by adding the pick weights to each tool provided even further power behind each swing. Perfect! So, I now have in my possession a very shinny pair of Nomics -- mostly because I've cleaned them meticulously after each time I've taken them out -- and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend them to all those other women wading through the options.



Me, displaying some newby technique, on the seracs of the Matier Glacier. Photo, Colin Haley.

Check out that rest! Photo, Colin Haley.

Here she is in all her glory! 


Anyone who calls themselves a climber, will surely have used those snappy little mesh bags that their new Black Diamond harness comes in. I personally have a stash of about 5. I'm sure I've pilfered some from unsuspecting friends here and there too, but, that's a lot of new harnesses don't you think? 

Regardless, these lovely little zippered mesh bags, do have a shelf life. I've stuffed mine full so many times, the mesh has worn thin, and giant gapping tape-swallowing holes have appeared. Enter, the Caravan Compartment. About a year ago I discovered these little wonderous compartments when my friend and climbing partner, Jasmin Caton, unpacked her gear in out tent at Sunny Knob, in the Waddington Range. I was transfixed by how neatly packaged all her things were -- clothes in one, bars and gels in another, and socks in still another. How very organized! And, each of these compartments had a see-through window, so you always knew what was in each. Brilliant! 


Fast forward to today, and I'm a full fledged road-tripping dirtbag climber. I live and die by my ability to keep my shit in place. I currently have about ten Caravan Compartments strewn about my little apartment; but let it be known, despite the fact that one can barely walk a straight line in my gear stuffed apartment, at least, I know in which pile, and which compartment to look for my various life items!


MEC's Travel Light Top Loader Pack


Yet another MEC product that was not designed as a climbing piece, but has turned out to be a climbers dream come true. The Travel Light series is made of ripstop nylon and come in a 10L and 19L version -- perfect for day trips on the rock. For comparison sake, the   pared down 19L Travel Light pack weighs 330g. While the 18L MEC AlpineLite pack with all it's bells and whistles weighs 565g! For rock climbing, the Travel Light series is perfect for stuffing a few bars, a puff layer, some water, and a camera for a long route in Squamish, or a day of alpine climbing. 


The real selling feature though, is the adorable pink colour they come in. Seriously!



The Travel Light in use during a day out on Mt. Dione in the Tantalus Range, BC. Photo, Chris Christie.

And, here's the Travel Light on the Matthes Crest Traverse in the High Sierra, California. Photo, Chad Kellogg.

For comparison, here's (L-R) the Travel Light Top Loader 19L, the Travel Light Day Pack 10L, and the timeless MEC Genie DSL 30L. Three great packs!

This concludes my little gear review for the girls. I've been meaning to do this for a while, so it feels good to tick this one off the list. Remember ladies, the heavier the gear you carry the harder your day will be. And, I think there's some evidence provided above that you can travel light, and look pretty darn cute at the same time!


It would only seem wrong if I didn't finish this post off with a big thank you to the people who have been so generous and provided me with all these flashy things -- all my extended family at MEC, Shunnie at Scarpa, Tom at Petzl, and Greg at Innate. THANK YOU!

3 comments:

  1. Appreciate all the recommendations. The nomics are awesome. Got to get on the Matier seracs next fall.

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  2. Leigh, HI!

    Glad you enjoyed the read. It was a big project for sure! Yes, the Matier seracs are a fun day out if you're looking for some ice.

    Happiness.

    Sarah

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