Buyer’s Guide: Snowshoes for Mountaineering

Let’s not sugarcoat it. Snowshoeing can be a pleasurable pastime when the powder isn’t that deep or you’re following an established track. (Which, ironically, often means flotation isn’t even necessary.) When snowshoes are actually needed, it would be difficult to describe one’s relationship with the four-pound torture devices as anything less than abusive.

Breaking trail in untracked snow is about as enjoyable as slamming your hand in a car door, except you repeat it a few thousand times over a multi-hour outing. It’s tiring. It’s awkward. Your hip flexors hate you. You look like a big nerd. If you want to venture anywhere other than the most popular trails in winter, however, mountaineering snowshoes are a necessary evil.

Luckily for us, gear designers seem to understand how much snowshoeing sucks. Manufacturers in recent years have made incredible advancements in flotation technology. Nowadays, it’s more like just crushing your pinky instead of your entire hand. The negative effect is that the market has become saturated with dozens of different offerings, and it’s difficult for the uninitiated to understand what to purchase.

For the purposes of this guide, I’ve refrained from mentioning other less conniption-inducing flotation options. I doubt you’ll find anyone arguing that a backcountry ski setup isn’t worlds better than even the most advanced snowshoes, but skis require additional skill and at least six times the entry-level investment. Mountaineering snowshoes are also more versatile on steep, rocky alpine terrain. If you have $200, a pair of sturdy legs and an ample supply of self-loathing, they’ll take you anywhere you want to go.

Here are the factors to consider if you’re in the market for a new pair of mountaineering snowshoes:

Cost

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you can’t skimp on price. Sure, you can get a great deal at Costco or Walmart or wherever, but those models will break at the first opportunity and provide a maximum misery factor: insecure bindings, poor traction, heavy weight. Plan to spend $200-300 for a pair from an established name brand. Not only will you appreciate the enhanced features, they’ll also last a decade or more.

Traction

Buy a pair with steel crampons, for durability and traction on both snow and ice. They should also have teeth running along the side edges for stability on uneven terrain. This is perhaps the most crucial feature of a mountaineering snowshoe. If your footing slips even a little, especially on steep slopes, you’re going to have a bad time. An added bonus is that snowshoes with aggressive traction can be used fluidly on slopes up to about 30 degrees, without the hassle of stopping to swap into traditional crampons or MICROspikes.

Length

This will depend entirely on your stature. If you’re a heavier person, you’ll need bigger snowshoes to stay afloat. That said, for longer days and vertical ascents, gear weight is at a premium. The MSR Evo line is fantastic in that you can get a shorter snowshoe — 22-25 inches — with removable 6-inch tails for deep powder days. I’m a 6’0” and 185-pound adult male, and I’ve never once regretted owning 22-inch snowshoes. Consider also that these loathful beasts will spend a significant amount of time riding on your back as you’re traversing dry, wind-swept or hard-packed terrain. The 30+ inch varieties might as well be five-pound windsails, if they fit on your pack at all.

Heel Lift

Snowshoeing is hard. Snowshoeing on high-angle terrain is harder. The idea behind a heel lift is to remove some of the awkward strain on your calves, and it’s far from just a novelty. Used appropriately, a heel lift can turn a steep straight-up sufferfest into a relative pleasure cruise. It basically cuts the required work of snowshoeing uphill in half. Plenty of great snowshoes exist without heel lifts, but if you plan to regularly do more than 1,000 feet of vertical, spring for a pair with this amazing and underrated feature.

Bindings

The snowshoes, obviously, have to stay on your feet. You should be able to comfortably wear them for hours without any slippage, including on steep and uneven ground. You’ll also be putting them on and taking them off all the freakin’ time, so make sure you can easily manipulate the straps. You should be able secure or remove a pair in 30-60 seconds, while wearing gloves. Each company has a different take on bindings. Play around with what works for you and your winter boots. Flexible straps that lay flat are a nice bonus for when you have to carry your snowshoes on your pack.

Durability

You can’t go wrong with higher-end models from any the major brands carried at dedicated gear shops. Look for an aluminum or plastic frame to ensure the snowshoes don’t shatter the first time you fall through trap-door snow and make friends with a rock. I’ve spent eight years abusing my MSR Evo Tours, which are pictured above and sadly discontinued. They’re showing no signs of wearing out despite frequent encounters with rocks, dirt and pavement.

Igniting a Life Outdoors: A Jacket, WornWear, and Rebirth

Like a first love, it opened a world of possibilities.

I was 23 and a recent transplant to Boston when it found me on the glossy back page of an outdoor magazine. I was newly severed from the Rocky Mountains, for which I’d only just begun to develop an affinity, displaced into a world of brick and nonexistent social grace in pursuit of other capricious dreams.

Though I’d only dipped my toe before departing the West, mountaineering had seized my soul. The $199 Igniter jacket gracing the shoulders of some Eddie Bauer/First Ascent guide, probably Ed Viesturs or Dave Hahn, represented a connection to a captivating world I barely understood. No sooner had I put down the magazine than I e-mailed my mom to let her know what I wanted for Christmas.

The Igniter was one of the first real pieces of gear I owned, and certainly the first centered on mountaineering. I rocked it proudly around Boston as if every peacoat-clad businessperson in Copley Square would think I was a real, honest-to-goodness mountaineer, regardless if I only had three summer 14ers to my credit.

My favorite jacket returned with me to Colorado a few months later. I cycled through packs, shells, midlayers, boots and countless other pieces of gear as I dialed in my kit, but the Igniter survived every cut. My faithful puffy followed me to the tops of Mt. Rainier, dozens of winter 14ers, my inaugural frozen waterfalls and 18,500-foot Orizaba.

Of course I didn’t realize it until recently, but that beloved synthetic the color of an azure alpine lake performed the rare miracle of igniting (ba-dum, tshhh) an idea and subsequently seeing it through to reality. It not only inspired dreams, it accompanied me as they came true.

My Igniter succumbed, as things often do, to the inevitable arrows of time. The main zipper was weak and often pulled apart. One of the hand pockets lost its zipper altogether, and the other had a hole the size of a half-dollar ripped just beneath it. Part of the sleeve near the left shoulder suffered a gnarly snag that exposed large swaths of insulation. The jacket was still mostly functional, but by then it was five years old. The market was flooded with sexy alternatives. The role of synthetic belay puffy transferred first to a Rab, and later to an Arc’teryx.

I could never quite bring myself to get rid of the Igniter, as I did so easily with many other jackets. It hung forgotten in my gear closet, a tangible reminder of humbler days. There it remained as I finished the 14ers, ascended dream mountains, earned a full-time gig in the outdoor industry, signed on as an Arc’teryx Denver ambassador, accepted a contract to write an ice-climbing guidebook and once had like three whole people comment on one of my blog posts.

As my outdoor resume grew alongside my outerwear collection, I fell victim to the insidious trap awaiting anyone who stays in a hobby long enough to become a subject-matter expert. I lost touch with my roots. It became increasingly difficult to relate to mountaineering newcomers as I remained focused on my own goals and the insular group of veterans with whom I’d cut my teeth. Worse, gone was the magic that used to set my heart aflutter whenever my eyes first touched a lofty summit. Practicality and minutiae won out over the initial boundless promise of the American West.

Patagonia created a program called WornWear a few years ago, and they had representatives at the recent SIA Snow Show in downtown Denver. They offered to fix any piece of gear, within reason, for the benevolent cost of free.

I found my faithful Igniter where I’d left it, lonely and sandwiched between a twice-as-expensive synthetic belay jacket and my top-of-the-line down puffy. I shrugged it on with the familiarity of an old catcher’s mitt, reveling in the forgotten memories of each stain, stitch and tear. Within in hour of dropping it at the Patagonia booth, both ruined zippers functioned better than new. The rep also gave me the materials to mend the remaining injuries on my own. Like a phoenix from the ashes, my old jacket was reborn.

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I wore it a few days later during a snowshoe outing in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. Looking down at the mottled splash of blue recalled dozens of fond memories: relaxing at Ingraham Flats on my virgin trip to Mt. Rainier, a winter camp shared with a now departed friend, watching sunrise from 16,500 feet on Orizaba, hooting and hollering after my first pitch of ice and opening a long-anticipated Christmas present that brought me nearer to the distant mountains calling me home.

We were all neophytes once, dreamers with pockets full of airy ideas and empty of common sense. I envied those newcomers. I missed the feelings of reverence for the mountains that bubbled in my 23-year-old belly.

The outdoor community, sadly, often turns into the very rat race we’re seeking to escape. In some form, we all crave recognition, acclaim, sponsorship, likes, follows, free gear, blog hits, paychecks and so on. It is and always has been a constant cycle of one-upsmanship. The choice to remove ourselves and truly experience the centering power of wild places is a conscious one.

Reconnecting with a threadbare old jacket was an unexpected lesson. A reminder to look up, to stop and fill your lungs with the healing air of a frost-nipped morning, to follow your whimsical dreams and to allow yourself to enjoy the bountiful gifts of the present. That’s what brought me to the mountains. Long after any of my meager accomplishments are forgotten, that’s what will keep me here.

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The Other 5 Essentials

How you choose to fill your backpack on a given day is about as personal as picking your own bellybutton.

Most people who have ever set foot in the backcountry know of The 10 Essentials. Even hikers who skimp are likely to take along sunscreen, food and water, an extra layer and a basic first-aid kit on every excursion. Beyond that, what goes into a backpack varies wildly from person to person and trip to trip.

There’s seasonal gear, there’s gear you only carry on overnight backpacks or snowshoeing trips or to the crag, and there’s gear you excitedly bought on a whim that’s done nothing but accrue dust in the corner of your garage. The indispensables that never leave your side are few, and even those are seldom agreed upon.

Over the years, however, I’ve discovered fringe items that I almost always carry. They’re as essential as sunscreen and Snickers bars. You won’t find more appreciated gifts this holiday season, whether it’s for the outdoors-lover in your life — or yourself.

 

1. Vacuum Thermos

 

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Subliminal Message: JOIN THE CMC.

 

I often joke that of the thousands of dollars of outdoor gear I’ve garnered over nearly a decade, the best purchase I ever made was an $11 vacuum thermos. The more I say it, the more I realize it’s true. That rugged little sucker comes with me on nearly every adventure, whether it’s an alpine dayhike, Mt. Rainier, a morning ice climb or simply traipsing around the city during a snowstorm.

Thermoses come in all shapes, sizes and price ranges. I bought mine on sale, REI brand, back before there was an explosion in companies specializing in such products. Though most are much more than $11 these days, you can’t put a price on 12 fluid ounces of bliss when you’re eight miles into a winter 14er climb and can’t remember what it’s like to feel your appendages. I can’t speak for all brands, but mine can keep liquid steaming hot for nearly 10 hours.

It never hurts to have something to look forward to in the midst of a sufferfest. The possibilities are endless: Black coffee (there is no other acceptable form), peppermint tea, tomato soup, hot chocolate, spiced apple cider. Hell, you can even add some liquor. Speaking of…

 

2. Flask

 

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Subliminal Message: BUY ARC’TERYX.

 

It’s small, it weighs little and you’ll never find a better morale boost. It can be a victory celebration. It can be a bonding experience around a campfire. It can be the only thing that keeps you and your partner sane on hour 18 of being tentbound in a whiteout. A summit beer is great as well, but it’s heavier and takes up more space. There’s really not much reason not to carry vitality, warmth and courage in an easily transportable container. Of course, liquor should only be consumed responsibly once you’re in a safe location. (Hi mom!)

 

3. MICROspikes

 

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The one guy not wearing MICROspikes was never seen again.

 

I’d say traction devices, but this is a rare case in which I’ve developed such absurd brand loyalty that I look down my nose at anyone not using Kahtoola MICROspikes. To my knowledge, there isn’t really anything close to their ease of use, durability and assured function. Kahtoola has perfected the concept. Everyone else is just trying to find something they can lure people into buying at a lower pricepoint.

Now that I’ve assured my future Kahtoola sponsorship, I can’t overstate the convenience of lightweight traction devices in Colorado. I carry MICROspikes in my backpack 10 months out of the year, whether it’s walking Zia around the Elk Meadow Park Dog Off-leash Area in January or attempting a 14er in September. They’re on my boots as much as snowshoes or crampons, if not moreso. In certain situations, they’re absolutely essential to safe travel.

Just buy them. Carry them. Use them. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

 

4. Multiclava

 

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John is using his multiclava for yet another function, blowing hot air into it to unfreeze his eyelid.

 

Known colloquially by the brand name Buff, many companies are now making quality versions of a multiclava. What can’t these things do? They’re sun protection, sweatbands, face warmers, helmet liners, washcloths, potholders and a cool way to accentuate your campfire pirate impression. They’re like a pocket knife but more useful and with cool artwork. Buff even makes one with a neat Colorado flag print if you want everyone to know you just moved here from Iowa three months ago.

Seriously, I don’t go anywhere without a multiclava. Year-round. It’s the perfect piece of outdoor gear and I will fight you if you insinuate otherwise. There’s no better feeling you can have with your clothes on than dipping a multiclava into ice-cold creek water and putting it on your head during a hot summer afternoon in the mountains. Most of the hikes I go on in August are simply to chase that dragon.

 

5. Summit Pack

 

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You can barely see the summit pack? Yeah, that’s the point.

 

It’s a common sight on peaks across the world. The summit-day mountaineer taking the final few steps to the top, shapeless five-pound 70-liter pack on their back filled only with a handful of granola and a headlamp, overworked compression straps flapping solemnly in the breeze like some sort of flag representing the Republic of Suffering Climbers. Stop! Just stop. There’s a better way.

A good summit pack weighs 10-12 ounces and compresses to the size of Donald Trump’s hands. You can find them for as little as $30. Some even have ice ax attachments, water bladder sleeves, extra compartments and tons of other useful features. Sure, it’s another thing to carry in an already heavy backpack. I’m the first person to throw out all unnecessary luxuries for a long climb. You’ll never catch me with a camp pillow or a tent lantern on an overnight. A summit pack, however, is always worth it.

I hauled my Arc’teryx Cierzo 28 this summer on the entirety of the 40-mile round-trip trek to summit Gannett Peak in Wyoming. It was in my pack for four days out of five. Summit day, usually the most arduous on any mountaineering trip, made it all worth it. I’ll gladly trade an extra 10 ounces on the approach for infinitely improved comfort and functionality when the chips are on the table.

The real kicker? A quality summit pack can serve double duty for shorter, more leisurely hikes. I’ve long since ditched heavy daypacks that weigh three pounds and have more features than a 2016 Mercedes-Benz S-class in favor of the simplicity and lightness of the summit pack.

 

Have your own extra essential that you carry on every hike? Share it in the comments.

 

Buyer’s Guide: Ice Axes and Ice Tools

So, you’ve decided to get into winter mountaineering. Forget that you’d benefit exponentially more from snowshoes, trekking poles, a softshell, goggles, a pair of mittens or myriad other essentials – it’s time to get sexy with it. There’s no faster way to decorate your pack and impress your friends than purchasing an ice ax.

Choosing your ideal ax can be daunting. They come in many different shapes, sizes and, most importantly, colors. Depending on the kind of climbing you plan to pursue, do you need a traditional piolet, all-around ice tools, wickedly curved mixed tools, or a highly specialized hybrid? The answer is almost assuredly some sort of combination. It took me three years and a few wasted Benjamins to arrive at my ideal quiver, and now that I have a decent grasp on the ins and outs of the ice ax market, here’s a gentle rundown of what’s out there.

The Traditional Piolet

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Characterized by a long, straight shaft and a pick with a positive curve (envision a rainbow), piolets are the old guard of the ice ax world. Almost everyone owns one, whether you’re Noob McSelfie or Ueli Steck. Excepting steep, technical routes, this is all you need for winter/spring 14ers, the standard routes on most Pacific Northwest volcanoes, El Pico de Orizaba, the West Buttress of Denali and so on. If you’re reading this because you’re in search of your first ice ax, you likely need a piolet. I believe that’s French for backpack ornament.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Every brand brings something a little different to the table. They range in size from 50cm to upwards of 75cm. Some have a hammer, some have an adze. A few have rubber grips and pinky rests. What exactly is all that used for, and what do you need?

Let’s start with size. When holding a piolet in self-arrest grip (read Freedom of the Hills or take a class), you should just be able to touch your ankle bone with the spike. If you’re torn between two different sizes, I recommend going shorter. A trekking pole is a better option in most situations where you’d want a longer ax, and shorter shafts are easier to wield on steep terrain.

Keep your piolet as simple as possible. Rubber grips, pinky rests and bent shafts are best kept on technical tools and hybrids. These other options, which I’ll dive into next, will also likely have a hammer. For that reason, I suggest getting a classical ax with an adze.

Most outdoor retailers will carry three or four different brands of straight-shafted piolets. The truth is, other than what color matches your pack the best, there’s not much difference. Hold them in your hand, swing them around, decided how much you’re willing to spend and pick whichever tugs at your heart strings.

The All-Around Ice Tool

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The three big differences between an ice tool and a piolet are a curved shaft, a radically shorter length and a pick with a reverse curve (imagine, well, an upside-down rainbow). Don’t let the “all-around” title confuse you; these are meant for ice climbing. They can perform the functions of a traditional mountaineering ax in a pinch, but nowhere near as effectively. Trying to self-belay or self-arrest with an ice tool is expert-only stuff.

You should buy a pair of all-around tools if you want to (duh) go ice climbing, or a single all-around tool to pair with a piolet or a hybrid if you see semi-technical routes in your future. Comfort levels vary from climber to climber, but once a slope angle noses over 50-55 degrees, I prefer to have a second tool in addition to my piolet. One piolet/hybrid and one ice tool is the system of choice for classic routes such as the Kautz Glacier or Liberty Ridge on Mt. Rainier, the Adams Glacier on Mt. Adams, the East Slope of Mt. Bross and so on.

The reverse-curved pick is super grippy, even if only plunged into ice a few millimeters. The downside is this stickiness also applies when trying to self-arrest. If your technique is off, the tool is likely to get ripped out of your hands and become a flailing projectile hungry for puncture wounds.

As mentioned above, I strongly suggest ice tools with hammers. An adze is dangerous on ice or mixed routes, where a popped tool’s most likely landing place is your upper lip. Hitting yourself in the face with a hammer might be unpleasant, but hitting yourself in the face with a glorified knife is a hospital visit and a significant other who might never look at you with the same lustful gaze. In situations where an adze might be desirable, which are rare to begin with, you’re likely going to have a hybrid or a piolet along as well.

The best advice I can give for purchasing ice tools is to demo as many as possible before investing. The weight, swing angle and grip can wildly differ between tools that look more or less the same. Figure out your preferences before being stuck with a $500 pair that, to you, feels like swinging wooden clubs coated in bacon fat.

The Mixed Tool

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Welcome to the second-briefest entry in this blog post. A mixed tool is an all-around tool on steroids. The curves on the shaft and pick are more wicked, the handles are beefier and the people that use them effectively are the demi-gods of the climbing world. If you’ve read this far, you probably don’t want or need mixed tools. These are used for scraping up blank rock faces with the occasional smear or pillar of ice. Most lack both an adze and a hammer for the face- and relationship-destroying reasons discussed above.

The Hybrid Tool

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I’ve used the term “hybrid ax” about a half-dozen times now, and they’re the most confusing category in the modern ice-ax market. In general, they are a cross between a piolet and an all-around ice tool. Gear companies have the freedom to be creative here. The design elements and included features vary considerably from brand to brand, and not all hybrid tools are created equal.

Speaking generally, a hybrid tool is shorter than a traditional piolet, has a slightly bent shaft and includes some sort of feature that makes it easier to swing like an ice tool, such as a rubber grip or a pinky rest. They come both with positive- and negative-curved picks, with some brands allowing for these to be interchangeable. Because hybrids are meant for more experienced climbers with developed preferences, I’ll leave the adze vs. hammer and positive vs. negative curve decisions up to you. I personally like my hybrid tools with an adze and a positive pick.

These are best for routes where you’ll be spending a lot of time on steep terrain and most people would prefer two ice tools, but there’s also a long easy-angled approach. Think glaciers. A hybrid won’t arrest, plunge or act as a cane as well as a piolet. It also won’t climb steep ice as well as an ice tool. What it does do is provide a bridge over the gap when you can’t decide which of those others to bring.

Hybrid tools carry more street cred than a traditional piolet and benefit from slick marketing campaigns, meaning many beginners skip straight to them. That’s fine, especially if you see yourself quickly moving into more technical routes, but understand that hybrids are generally much heavier and more expensive than a piolet.

My preferred system for AI2-3 glacier routes or very steep (55+ degree) snow routes is a medium-length (57-62cm) hybrid paired with an all-around ice tool. If I’m doing a more traditional snow climb, I save weight and bring my piolet at the expense of not impressing as many trailmates.

The Red-Headed Stepchildren

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Innovation is required to stay at the forefront of the outdoor industry. There are many piolets and ice tools that don’t fit into any of the above categories. I’m looking at you, Grivel. CAMP USA also makes several featherweight options designed for ski mountaineering, adventure racing and high-altitude. Once again, if you’re in the market for one of these specialized tools, you probably quit reading about 1,000 words ago.

For the record, my quiver:

  • 65cm Black Diamond Raven (piolet)
  • 52cm Petzl Sum’tec (hybrid w/ adze)
  • 50cm Cassin X-All Mountain x2 (ice tools)

Happy hunting.

10 Things You Need to Know for Hiking in the Snow

Most Coloradans consider “14er season” to be June through September, but such a viewpoint is severely restrictive. The fall, winter and spring months are often the most rewarding times of year in the high country. There’s nothing quite like having a popular summit such as Quandary Peak to yourself, looking out over a sea of white-capped mountains as you sip hot tea that warms your body from the inside out. Like many novice mountaineers, a few short years ago I viewed the gap between summer and winter climbing as insurmountable. I had too many questions, and the answers were too hard to find. The truth is, like many things in life, it really doesn’t have to be that difficult.

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1. An introduction to winter layering

This was one of the most confusing aspects to me when I was starting out. Hard shell or soft shell? Down or synthetic? How many layers do I need to carry? This stuff isn’t cheap, and with my limited disposable income, making the right choices was crucial. Everyone has their own system. I’ll offer mine as a guide, along with the reasoning and a more general perspective.

  • Polyester/spandex short-sleeve T-shirt: Avoid anything with cotton. I don’t like long sleeves here because it’s uncomfortable when you’re layering other pieces on top, which are almost all long-sleeve as well. If you do opt for long sleeves, find a baselayer with thumb loops to help keep them in place.
  • Fleece 1/4-zip pullover: This is my outer layer most of the time in winter. A simple T-shirt and a fleece gets it done when I’m moving, even in frigid temperatures. The other stuff piles on only on the windiest, coldest days, or when there’s precipitation.
  • Midweight synthetic pullover: Down would be fine here as well, but I prefer synthetic because it might get a little sweaty if you’re working hard. Synthetic insulation stays warm even when wet. I leave this one behind to save weight when the forecast is warm and dry.
  • Soft shell jacket with hood: Hard shells are fine too, but soft shells are generally more breathable. A cheap hard shell is often like wearing a garbage bag, and you want to avoid sweating as much as possible in the winter. Soft shells hold up just fine in Colorado’s dry snow.
  • Down over-it-all puffy with hood: Wearing a down jacket over a shell seems kind of weird, right? It’s not. I promise. This is the jacket that will stay at the bottom of your pack 95 percent of the time, but will become your best friend during long rest breaks, on summits or in an emergency situation. Don’t skimp. Again, synthetic works fine, but in general down is warmer, lighter and more compressible.

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2. Basic avalanche education is free

Several local organizations, such as Friends of Berthoud Pass, offer free one- or two-hour avalanche awareness seminars. A proper AIARE Avalanche 1 course wouldn’t be a bad idea, but as a hiker the most crucial piece of your avalanche training is learning what terrain to avoid altogether. Don’t go out in the winter without at least attending one of these free classes, and reading one or both of Snow Sense and Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain. I highly recommend Mountain Rescue Aspen’s Public Avalanche Seminar, which is held every year in January. For just $30 you get a three-hour lecture followed by an on-snow day practicing terrain recognition, beacon searches and more. Can’t beat that.

3. Winter is ridge season, spring is couloir season

People often equate winter with ice axes and crampons. Most of the time, that’s simply not true. You’re far more likely to use snowshoes and trekking poles than technical gear. Ascending wind-swept ridgelines keeps you out of avalanche terrain. Just look out for cornices and make sure there’s terra firma under your feet. Snow-climbing season typically begins in April or May, when it’s finally time to bust out the ice ax and crampons for those tasty couloirs. MICROspikes are likely all the traction you’ll need in winter, and snowshoes with a heel-lift and built-in crampons are the way to go for steep ascents.

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4. OpenSnow.com and the CAIC are your friends

Check these two sites daily, even if you’re not planning on heading out. It’s incredibly beneficial to your overall education and awareness. OpenSnow.com meteorologist Joel Gratz provides spot-on weather forecasts, and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center posts updates daily on avalanche conditions.

5. Water freezes

No duh, right? It’s shocking how often someone will be stuck four miles from the trailhead with a solid chunk of ice as their water supply. This is easily avoidable. For starters, leave the hydration bladders at home. Water will almost always freeze in the thin hose and block your access, even if you have an insulator sleeve. I give this advice often, and inevitably someone will respond by championing the incredible lengths they go through to use a bladder and hose year-round. I’m not saying that it won’t work on some days, or even most days. It just won’t work on all days. At some point, it’ll be too cold or too windy or you’ll forget to clear the hose, and you’ll be screwed. All that effort is an incredible pain in the ass, anyway. I prefer to keep a Nalgene, turned upside down, in an insulated koozie clipped to my pack’s hip belt for easy access. My other water bottles are in my pack, wrapped in extra layers and pushed against my back for the additional body heat. A bit of electrolyte powder also protects against freezing.

6. Pluck the low-hanging fruit

Many of the same 14ers that are considered easy in August are still considered easy in January. Mt. Elbert, Mt. Sherman, Quandary Peak and Mt. Bierstadt don’t require much more mileage or elevation gain than they do in the summer, and there are virtually avalanche-safe routes on each. Search the 14ers.com Trip Reports section for your intended mountain, and click only the checkboxes for the winter months. There are dozens of quality write-ups on the easier peaks in December, January, February and March.

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7. You don’t need $500 mountaineering boots

Sure, they’re yellow or orange or some other fancy color, and they make you feel like a badass. They’re also overkill for winter hikes and surprisingly not all that warm. Run-of-the-mill winter hiking boots are cheaper, lighter, warmer and more comfortable. As long as they have insulation and come up to your ankle or above, you’re golden. Such boots are even compatible with strap-on crampons. The big caveat is that you’ll want at least a heel welt, and likely both a heel welt and a toe welt, if you plan to try climbing ice. Those are for attaching hybrid or step-in crampons, which are more secure. Expensive mountaineering boots are also more rigid, saving your calf muscles while standing on steep snow or vertical ice.

8. The “Other” Four Essentials

The 10 Essentials list is even more important in winter, when the stakes are higher. I’d like to add four more: a thermos, a multiclava, goggles and mittens. The thermos might be a luxury, but there’s nothing better than hot soup or tea on a cold, windy day. I often joke that a thermos is the best gear purchase I’ve ever made. A multiclava is a close runner-up. These little pieces of fabric have myriad uses, including as a facemask. You need to be able to cover every inch of exposed skin in the winter to prevent frostnip or frostbite. That’s where the goggles come in, too. You need to see even if it’s windy and dumping snow. No need to break the bank here, a simple $20-30 pair will suffice. Finally, buy a good pair of mittens. Even the nicest gloves can’t compare to mittens for warmth. I recommend Black Diamond Mercury Mitts to anyone who will listen.

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9. The sun is your enemy

OK, not really. The warmth of the sun feels pretty damn good in the winter. It’s just doubly important to have proper sunglasses and apply SPF30+ sunscreen every two hours. The sun reflecting off the snow is lethal. If you don’t take the steps to protect yourself, you’re in for a world of pain. I’m speaking from experience. Pack sunglasses that cover your full field of vision — glacier glasses are best, and they’re really not that expensive. Keep sunscreen easily accessible, such as in your pants pocket, to limit the excuses against applying it regularly.

10. Carry enough to survive a night out

Like a layering system, this will vary depending on a person’s risk tolerance, attitude and experience. The key is being confident in your ability to live through a night in the open. For some that means a tent and a sleeping bag, for others a bivy sack, and for still others simply extra layers. I fall into the latter category. It would be far from comfortable, but I trust my down puffy and other layers to get me through a winter night. I also carry a tarp to wrap myself in should I need protection from the elements.

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.