Sunday, September 30, 2012

The $39 Wonder - MEC Alpinelite 30

Ok, so I guess I might just have a climbing pack fetish. I'm not afraid to admit it. Mostly, I go for highly functional daypacks that will work well across all climbing disciplines. I've reviewed several versions of the Cold Cold World Ozone in past posts. For simplicity, durability, and price the Ozone takes the cake. The fact that you can have it tailor made to your own specifications, with or without things like spindrift collar, axe loops and compression straps makes the Ozone about the best available option.

One other worthy contender, especially if you're looking for a low-priced alpine climbing pack, is the MEC Alpinelite 30. Clearance models of the pack are on sale right now at the MEC site for $39 CAD. Regularly priced at $54, this pack is worth the money and should last through many alpine or rock trips. At 660g for the standard length, the Alpinelite 30 is also one of the lighter packs available. Since the Ozone is about as good and simple as packs come,  I'll be using it as a reference throughout this review.

I've been aware of the Alpinelite 30 for several years now. MEC has produced many quality packs over the years, and their Serratus packs (discontinued several years ago) were the best value on the market. The Serratus Genie, a superlight summit pack has been used on many fast and light ascents. Look at some pictures of cutting edge Alaskan ascents from a decade ago and you'll spot the Genie on the backs of many climbers. I've kept my old Genie around just in case I needed it for an alpine trip or as a template for a new custom pack. MEC is now selling the Genie again, and both the Genie and the Alpinelite 30 are reasonably priced and highly functional fast-and-light pack choices. And on to my review....

The Alpinelite 30, a nice looking simple bag, is sized similarly to the CCW Ozone (true to size at about 30L) and comes in two different torso lengths. I bought the longer length and it fits my 6'1" body perfectly. The torso length is about 19.5", which is about 1-2" longer than the stock Ozone. The pack is constructed of lightweight 210d dyneema/nylon ripstop fabric. The bottom is 420d nylon for added durability. As a reference, my ripstop Ozone is constructed entirely of 500d spectra grid fabric that feels much more burly. The lid on the Alpinelite 30 is fixed and the pack (without backpad) can stuff into it's own lid for easy packing during a longer trip where a small summit pack will be needed.

The lid attachment is a weak spot

On day 1, as a I unboxed the pack a few of the Alpinelite's weaknesses quickly became apparent. Where the lid attaches to the body is an obvious weak spot. If you repeatedly grab the pack by the lid eventually the stitching will fail. After a while this happened on my old BD Sphynx pack too. The other obvious weakness to this pack results from it's lack of any real frame. It comes with a single sheet of 10mm foam that can be removed to use as part of a bivy pad. With just a single piece of foam as a backpad the pack flops around and is very challenging to pack well.

After a bit of tinkering I managed to come up with a method for stiffening this pack. I added a folded piece of 5mm Evazote (you can get this from MEC too, and its the same piece of foam I use in my Genie) sized similarly to the original backpad. I also bought a piece of corrugated plastic and cut it to the size of the backpad. After a bit of fidgeting and folding I was able to fit it inside the sleeve correctly. Now, with 20mm of padding and a full length plastic framesheet this pack has become my daily use pack.

Additional foam helped stiffen and pad the back
of the pack

The pack has just enough of the right features, and nothing additional to clutter it up. The lid is small, but will hold essentials like a first aid kit, headlamp, knife, tape, and some energy bars. It's actually reversible and if you're so inclined the Alpinelite 30 can stuff into it's own lid for use as a summit pack on longer trips. The small uretek zipper does feel a bit flimsy and I can see a repair being necessary somewhere on the horizon. The lid lacks the elastic underside of the Ozone, part of what helps the Ozone pack well and hold a lot. The lid on the Alpinelite 30 doesn't sit as well when the pack is fully loaded. The lid is not removable, but tucks inside the bag easily when you're not carrying a full load.

The body is a simple and well shaped tube, which like the Ozone, is made of a single piece of fabric. There are no seams to blow out along the sides of the pack. When the pack is full it will just about rest upright. Like most narrow alpine climbing packs, it wants to tip over when loaded.

Compression strap attach at the edges

On the outside several key features make this bag attractive. Two ax loops at the bottom, plus attachment points above allow one to carry two axes, or a shovel handle easily. The ax loops adjust in size, so one could probably carry four tools on the outside if necessary (not that uncommon for me during a normal craggging day - sometimes I bring a set of conventional tools and a pair of leashless tools too). The Alpinelite 30 also has compression straps that are removable. A series of D-rings along the backpad allow full circumference straps to be attached. You can then carry skis, a shovel, sleeping pad or crampons externally. The option to remove the compression straps is awesome, and it seems like a concept all pack makers should embrace. I don't use them 90% of the time and my guess is that most other folks don't either.

A simple strap system still carries well once
 a plastic framesheet is added

The strap system on this bag is simple. Like many other lightweight alpine packs, the Alpinelite 30 doesn't have a padded waistbelt.  A single piece of 1.5" webbing wraps around your waist. The sternum strap is both adjustable and removable, another nice touch. The shoulder straps feel thin but carrying heavier loads with it hasn't been a problem so far.

The Alpinelite 30 seems like a suitable pack to use across all climbing disciplines. It carries a full day or rock or ice gear easily, can carry skis, and could easily make the transition to light alpine overnights. The slightly empty pack will climb well. A single chimney might trash it, but otherwise this is a really versatile pack.

I've been using this pack for several weeks now and I'm very happy with it. All in all, it's a nice pack. It holds more than my 18" torso (stock) Ozone, but less than my custom alpine Ozone. However, with a shorter spindrift collar it's much easier to manage the constant repacking at a crag than my alpine Ozone. It feels durable enough to stand up to everyday use, but I know it's not going to last nearly as long as one of the CCW packs. For $39 who's complaining anyways?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

How to Stiffen A Lightweight Climbing Pack

Many lightweight climbing packs come with a single piece of foam that acts like a suspension and protects your back from the contents of the pack. Packs like the entire Cold Cold World lineup, Wild Things, and MEC Alpinelite 30 and Genie come with foam backpads.

Depending on your preferences or packing methods this may not be enough support for the things you choose to carry in your pack. In my own experience, once the lid of a pack has items in it a soft pack will flop over, making packing more difficult.

There's are a few easy fixes to this problem. One is to use a framesheet from an older pack. I save the framesheets when I discard my older packs. That way I can cut or modify the sheet and aluminum stays to fit one of my newer packs. The other solution is lightweight, simple and relatively cheap. You can buy corrugated plastic and cut it to fit the size of your pack.

I have to admit this isn't my originial idea. I have a friend who's done this in the past to stiffen his CCW Chernobyl. However, when I tried to find the right material I ran into a brick wall. Corrugated plastic is hard to find. Often, you need to buy it in bulk, and when all you need is enough for one pack that doesn't make sense.

Where to get corrugated plastic

After a bit of searching I found a good source for "coroplast" in New Paltz. PDQ, a custom printing shop in the Stop and Shop Plaza, uses coroplast for custom signs and sells it for $2/foot2. I bought 3 ftfor $6 and cut it to fit two of my packs. 4 ftwill easily make two framesheets with some extra just in case you make a mistake.

You can also buy corrugated plastic at Dick Blick, an art supply store that has a few locations throughout New England. If you're passing through stop by and see if they have it. Here's the information about coroplast from their website. If you mail order it you may have to buy 10 sheets of it to satisfy their requirements.

Cutting corrugated plastic to fit your pack

Once you have your sheet of corrugated plastic you'll want to size it appropriately. I did this by laying my foam frame insert atop the plastic and tracing it's pattern onto the corrugated plastic using a magic marker.

I slid the plastic sheet between layers of folded foam on the

Now that I have a rough idea of the size of my framesheet I can go ahead and cut the corrugated plastic. I decided to make the framesheet a little smaller than the padding. In order to protect the pack and padding I also chose to round the corners. This keeps the edges from feeling sharp and poking holes in my packs.

One final addition, that I didn't do, would be to wrap duct tape along the edges of the corrugated plastic to protect both the pack and the edges of the corrugated plastic.

Here's a link to another post about making alpine packs stiffer. Good luck and have fun!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Patagonia Wavefarer Short

I heard a short radio news piece the other day about President Obama's wardrobe. Apparently he decided, only a short while into his presidency, that he was only going to keep gray and blue suits in his closet. That way he never has to think about what he's going to wear. Even small decisions like deciding what to wear can take valuable time out of one's day and distract one from more important tasks.

My days are certainly not as busy as Barack Obama's, but I still don't like thinking about what I'm going to wear each day. I decided to stock my closet with only a few specific items long ago. I love and hate outdoor clothing. When you climb a lot things wear out. Having functional new gear is nice, but finding the right product can be really challenging. Often replacing those well-loved items presents a significant challenge because manufacturers no longer make certain functional products, having moved on to something newer, lighter, or "better".

Certain designs are timeless and functional though, and smart gear and clothing companies opt to keep these products' design, cut, and construction the same or similar to past iterations of that product. Products like Cold Cold World packs, The OR Ferrosi Hoody, and FiveTen's Guide Tennie all come to mind. They've remained relatively unchanged over the years because their simple design is functional and minimalist. Things don't need to be changed just because competitors are releasing "better" new products.

One such item is the Patagonia Wavefarer Boardshort. For five years I've been almost exclusively wearing Wavefarer shorts during the summertime months. They're simple, lightweight and durable. I bought two pairs of Wavefarers in 2007, and two more pairs in 2008. Since then I haven't bought another pair of shorts. I've run, climbed, hiked, swam, surfed, and clowned around in them on every summer day during the past five summers. They're light enough to approach alpine climbs and then stuff in your pack when you change into pants as the weather cools or the terrain changes to snow, and they're durable enough to butt slide down rock slabs with a pack on during warm days on the rock. Ironically, there are much better boardshorts out there for surfing, but if you want a short that does it all these are the real deal.

Constructed of simple Supplex nylon, Wavefarer shorts have a minimum of pockets and seams, things that will break, tear or wear out. A classic one button/drawstring flat-lying waist keeps them snug on your hips and won't chafe with a pack on. One zipper pocket on the right side is big enough to hold my wallet, phone and keys, but only barely. Don't plan on carrying too much in there. A knee-length inseam makes these shorts long enough but not too long.

Sizing the Wavefarer short correctly is important. The waist isn't very adjustable so getting the right waist size will make them fit properly. For me, size 33, which is the same as all other Patagonia pants I wear, is the right size - snug when they come out of the dryer and stretching to a comfortable fit once I've worn them a few days. If they're sized too loosely they'll fall off. Unless you can find them to try on in a store, mail ordering a few pairs in various sizes and returning the ones that don't fit might be the way to go.

Over five years, wearing three pairs (I lost my favorite pair shortly after getting them), the only problem I've had is that the stitching along the butt has blown out on two of the pairs. This is easy to fix with a needle and thread - there's no need to replace the shorts, just repair them and keep going.

Several of the pairs I own have solid color Supplex fabric. Recently Patagonia has been making the shorts with print pattern fabrics, which I'm not in love with. However, several of the more subdued print patterns are fine, and after the shorts break in you won't notice the pattern at all. This year's lineup includes solid patterns again, which is nice, and also includes stretch versions, and longer and shorter inseams. At $60 a pair, the Wavefarer short isn't cheap, but if you calculate the number of days you'll wear these the cost seems reasonable. If you're looking for shorts that you can wear 24-hours a day during the summer months, the Wavefarers are the way to go.

Last year's model are on sale now at the Patagonia website. They're $41 which seems pretty reasonable given how long they're going to last.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Check Your Tails

In the past I've commented about rappel stations in the Gunks. Many of the community rappel stations get junked up with lots of extra webbing. People feel the need to add slings to any already strong fixed rappel tree to "strengthen" it. They're essentially leaving garbage, as many of these stations already have several pieces of very strong, relatively new webbing on them.

This summer I noticed the same phenomenon on rappel stations in the Cascades. Fear seems to induce the act of leaving behind webbing or cord for many recreational climbers.

Most days I come home with a pile of semi-worn webbing. I cut the oldest slings off of the Gunks anchors I encounter, leaving two or three of the best pieces remaining on the tree. Fear does the opposite thing for me. I'm more scared for others, and what they don't see when there's 8 pieces of worn webbing on a rappel anchor.

Recently I've noticed water knots tied in webbing with very short tails and water knots tied using dyneema. Two little red lights should go on after reading the last sentence. Hopefully it's obvious. If not, read on.

So, what are the two causes for concern mentioned in the first sentence of this paragraph? Well, for starters, the water knot has been shown to slip over time. Cyclic load tests using an average person's body weight have demonstrated that the outside layer in a water knot slowly pulls through the knot. What this means is that each rappeller shortens the outer tail on the water knot when they load and unload the anchor during rappelling. Over hundreds of cycles (hundreds or thousands of rappels) one of the tails gradually slips until it passes through the knot.

another set of short tails on the same

There are two ways to manage this situation. The first is by using a knot other than the water knot. We're conditioned to think that the only knot you use to tie webbing is the water knot, but the double fisherman's knot (grapevine), while messy looking, actually has better overall holding power throughout cyclic load testing. So, one solution is to use a double fisherman's knot in place of a water knot. The other solution is to tie the water knot using very long tails. That way the tail will take much longer to pull through. Either solution is fine. Either way you should always inspect your rappel anchors before using them.

My second cause for concern is over the use of Dyneema runners at rappel stations. Dyneema is very slippery. In this video, DMM tests water knots tied in spectra/dyneema slings to show what happens to them when they're loaded statically and dynamically. The results are interesting and should help you decide not to use Dyneema slings in this fashion. Wikipedia mentions that Dyneema's coefficient of friction is comparable to that of Teflon. Yes, pure dyneema is tougher than steel but as slippery as Teflon. Skinny dyneema slings don't hold knots well. That's why they only sold as pre-sewn runners. Tying Dyneema runners around a tree as a backup is a misapplication of the product and demonstrates a lack of awareness about the materials one is using as a climber. Shouldn't we all be aware of how our actions will affect us and others in this very dangerous sport?
A Mammut Dyneema sling, which should not have it's ends joined by a knot, next to
an ultratape sling with a higher blend of nylon. 
This purple sling will probably hold knots well
 enough to use as a rappel


The bottom line here is that we, as climbers, need to use the right techniques and materials at the right time in order to be as safe as possible. If you're unsure about how to use something properly don't be afraid to ask for help.

 Here are the links mentioned in this post: