Thursday, September 15, 2011

Still The Best: Cold Cold World Chernobyl

If you've read any of my other pack reviews, you'll recall that I have had several Black Diamond packs over the past few years. My most recent heavily used pack was a Sphynx 32, a 35-ish liter bag that worked for nearly all of my daily and multiday climbing pursuits and was reasonably durable. I say "worked" because I don't really feel like it excelled at all those things.

The Sphynx was the right size for cragging, alright for day length or overnight alpine climbs and a bit too small for full-on "bring the whole kitchen sink" winter endeavors. The non-reinforced bottom and fixed top lid were, in many ways, detrimental to the pack's design as a day/multiday alpine load hauler. Whereas my older CCW Chernobyl had almost four years of devoted guiding and recreational climbing use on it before I retired it, the Sphynx was looking pretty knackered after only a year and a half. The lid and top load adjuster straps were ripping off, there were two dozen small holes in the non-reinforced bottom, the drawstring grommet had ripped out, and worst of all, the suspension design caused the pack to squeak like a dying duck all the way to the cliff.

It was time for a new pack. After a lot of searching I came to this conclusion - my hope for a more well-built and better designed all-around bag than the Chernobyl was an absolute pipe dream. Yes, there are times when it would be nice to have more suspension, and times when would be nice to have a pack that was superlight, but not at the cost of added weight, complexity and a lack of durability. I am a minimalist, and while I do have a lot of specialized gear, I like to have gear that serves many purposes whenever possible.

I looked at almost all of the available bags out there, including the Cilogear and BlueIce bags, and determined that having a local guy (Randy Rackliff) from NH make me a durable well fitting bag made the most sense. No other bags have the same build quality, value, or the lightweight/durable combination shown in CCW's packs.

So, knowing that I wanted a new Chernobyl, I dropped Randy an email. I mentioned that my old Chernobyl felt too short in the torso. He suggested making the torso length 1" longer which I liked, and offered it at no additional costs. Less than two weeks later I had the package at my doorstep. It took one day to ship from Jackson, NH and with shipping cost me a whopping $188.

After receiving the package, excitedly opening it up, and inspecting the pack I was impressed by the workmanship. No detail has been left unattended - there are no loose threads or missed stitches. The pack is flawlessly crafted, and despite the use of durable materials and large, fairly heavy-duty buckles, the pack is lightweight. There is nothing superfluous in the design - no modular suspensions, rotating ball joint hipbelts, squeaking framesheets or fancy straps and buckles. The design remains much the same: a straight-sided top loader with a floating lid that allows for maximum versatility in a year-round cragging/alpine climbing pack.

Randy has made some simple design improvements to the CCW packs over the past few years. Some of these improvements include ice clipper attachments on the waistbelt, a layer of ballistics nylon reinforcing the bottom of the bag (as opposed to the older double layer of packcloth), and more durable fabric on the shoulder straps and waistbelt which make the straps feel stiffer. The 1" longer torso is going to make a huge difference when carrying heavy loads. Everything else about the pack is pretty similar to my older Chernobyl, making this newer version about the best climbing bag I've ever owned.

My only addition is a thin stiff framesheet with a single aluminum stay from an older backpack. This helps the bag keep it's shape during the constant unpacking and repacking associated with cragging. During multiday alpine trips I remove this framesheet and store my Big Agnes Aircore pad alongside the foam backpad. I remove the Aircore pad at camp. The softer foam suspension helps the pack climb well when it's a bit more empty during summit attempts or day-length objectives on a multiday trip.

So, after using a Black Diamond Sphynx 32 and a Black Diamond Epic 45 (look for a review of this bag soon and perhaps a comparison with the Chernobyl) for a short while, how does the Chernobyl compare? Well, for one thing, it doesn't squeak. I also noticed right away that the Chernobyl is very straight sided, meaning the bag is easier to cram your stuff into, and stays upright during packing more easily than the Sphynx. As far as carrying goes, the bag is comfortable and rests right up against your back. It moves with you like few other packs do, but is going to be hot to wear on long tedious approaches and may not carry as well with really heavy alpine loads. The Chernobyl carries well with moderate loads, but like many other "suspension-less" packs requires careful packing so that it doesn't feel too top heavy when overstuffed.

I'm just now wrapping up a 17-day trip to Montana and Washington where I've been doing short (2-4 day) alpine climbing objectives. I brought the Chernobyl along for the trip and used it to haul a big load into Montana's Cowen Cirque for 4 days, for a trip up and down the Fischer Chimneys on Mt. Shuksan, an overnight on Mt. Baker, and a 2-day trip up Forbidden Peak in Boston Basin where we carried our loads up to the col on the West Ridge. It worked brilliantly for all of these, demonstrating it's versatility. It's a functional and durable alpine pack that I plan on having along for most of my alpine and winter objectives.

In fact, I was so pleased with the Chernobyl that I've ordered a CCW Ozone as my cragging pack. When I return home to Massachusetts tomorrow it should be there waiting for me, so look for an Ozone review sometime down the line.

As climbers and consumers we seldom think long and hard about where our gear comes from. For me, the time to think about these things has come; I encourage others to do the same. I want gear that, as much as possible, supports fair labor practices and promotes a high standard of living for those involved in the production process. Over the next couple of years I'm planning on replacing my aging fleet of gear with products from companies like Cold Cold World (NH), Wild Things (NH),  Sterling Ropes (ME), Misty Mountain Threadworks (NC) and Metolius (OR). All of these companies make their products locally in their respective regions, consider durability and functionality as necessities, employ local climbers and receive feedback seriously when developing new designs.

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