Gear Review: First Ascent Alchemist 30L

One thing I’ve never understood about gear reviews: most of them are done by people who just received the product and haven’t put it through any paces. They cut the tags off, try it on, zip and unzip a few zippers and suddenly they’re experts. I get it, the company probably sent you their hot new item for free and expects a timely write-up in exchange. That also means the review is almost certainly going to be positive. It only makes sense to keep that pipeline of free gear open, right?

I’m not going to review any item I haven’t personally used for at least a month. In fact, to start off, I’m going to break down a backpack I’ve owned for nearly two years: the First Ascent Alchemist 30 (Retail: $129).

Alchemist 30 on Blanca Peak in winter

I’m what many would call a pack whore. I own and consistently use six, ranging from 9L to 60L. Each has a niche, but none matches the versatility of the Alchemist 30, by far the backpack I find myself reaching for the most.

I worked at Eddie Bauer for about a year in 2012-13. Obviously, I had the opportunity to inspect the company’s packs in detail. To be honest, with exceptions, many of them felt like the designers were trying too hard. There were too many features, too many gimmicks, too much weight and too bright of a color scheme. The reviewed pack’s big brother, the Alchemist 40, is a chief offender.

While the Alchemist 30 might be guilty of color options that could cause seizures in children (…that limeade…), it remains blissfully unmarred by the other aforementioned flaws. It’s like Eddie Bauer made the Alchemist 40, cut away all the junk, and the more more effective 30-liter version was what remained.

Here are the roles the Alchemist 30 fills for me:

  • Spring Couloirs
  • Short Winter Dayhikes
  • Long Summer Dayhikes
  • Ice Cragging

That’s impressive considering that each of my other five packs only has a niche or two. If I was starting over and could only afford one, the Alchemist 30 is what I’d buy.

My favorite feature is the quick-release tool carry. Flipping an ice ax in and out of a traditional loop can be a pain, especially on steep slopes. This system eliminates that hassle and keeps the sharp picks of ice tools hidden under a layer of fabric.

The interior organizer pockets are among the best I’ve seen. The Alchemist 30 swallows avy gear and bulky winter/spring layers with ease, and it’s not hard to keep track of where everything’s stashed. How many other packs can carry an avalanche shovel so well you almost forget it’s there?

Other technical bonuses are gear loops on the hip belt (double as ice ax holsters if you briefly need your hands) and exterior side pockets perfectly suited to carrying pickets or wands. Several online reviews decry the exterior side pockets for not being large enough to carry a Nalgene, but that’s not the point. This is a climbing pack.

Speaking of hydration, the bladder sleeve, tube exit hole and shoulder straps are designed pretty standard to support a Camelbak-type system. The tube exit hole can be a bit difficult to locate, but that’s a non-issue after the first time. Eddie Bauer says the side pockets can also carry skis. I can’t speak to that. There are several ways to strap on snowshoes, though.

I haven’t used the Alchemist 30 in a rain storm (I live in Colorado, after all), but otherwise the ripstop material has impressed. It sheds snow well, and the pack still looks new-ish despite two years of being dragged abrasively across rock and ice.

It only comes in one size, so your mileage may vary in this regard, but the Alchemist 30 is the most comfortable pack I own. Pain between the shoulder-blades is a rarity, and it has never chafed my hips like several of my other backpacks. It somehow manages to make 25-pound loads feel like 10-pound loads.

Alchemist 30 performing well on a late fall dayhike

Not everything about this pack is positive. The four plastic external “hidden” gear clips are too hidden to be of any use. I tried rigging a system to carry crampons there, but cut it away after it almost resulted in a lost crampon.

The Alchemist 30, like many FA packs, is on the heavy side. At 4lbs 3oz, it’s a full pound heavier than the comparable and larger Osprey Variant 37. It’s almost double the weight of the average (admittedly less fully featured) 30-liter pack. The plus side is it carries that weight so well it’s hardly noticeable.

Finally, part of me wishes the Alchemist 30 had a top-lid to make carrying a rope easier, but that would add even more weight and the wide-mouth entry system is pretty handy. I think I’d be happy either way.

So, what would I rate the Alchemist 30? Rather than assign an arbitrary number from zero to 10 or 100, I’ll end all my gear views with the following simple question:

Would I recommend the First Ascent Alchemist 30 to a loved one? Yes.

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