"The goal is to become the unique, awesome, never to be repeated human being that we were called to be." -Patricia Deegan

Monday, April 11, 2016

My (Sub)Arctic Gear Review

This one's for those niche nutters who might like to pursue a snowy/wilderness adventure and would find such a gear review helpful. It will at least give you another option for muddying the waters ;)

What follows is the list of gear from my pre-race blog post for the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra and commentary on what I found useful - or not so much - and why.
My world fit into a 5 foot pulk. The map case eventually cracked from cold.
  • Rented Carinthia ECC Expedition 1200 sleeping bag (rated comfort -27C/extreme -65C)
    • Sadly, the bags did not arrive from the sponsor in time. I was allocated a brand new The North Face Inferno 800 fill bag, rated to -40C. There was no "comfort" vs "extreme" rating, so one might like to assume -40C is comfort. Of course it's not. Which is what I've found with all sleeping bags over the years. The rating is what you'll stay alive in. Temperatures never dropped below -35C as far as I'm aware (maybe even not quite that low), but even getting into the bag warm (as in my body was warm) and wearing more than base layers, I was shivering within an hour. Putting a down jacket under the bag (on top of the sleeping pad), and wearing another down jacket, made it possible to sleep for up to 1.5 hours. I loved the TNF Inferno bag itself - very well thought out, easy to get in with the centre zip, great draft collar, handy small internal stash pocket. It just wasn't warm enough for this event for me ... likely partly because of my low body fat. I'm not normally a very cold person.
  • Exped vapour barrier liner
    • What can you say about sleeping in a plastic garbage bag? The liner was robust and did the trick, though I really didn't have to worry about sweating into the sleeping bag, given my issues with the cold!
  • Therm-a-rest Zlite Sol sleeping pad
  • The Zlite Sol
    • Closed cell foam is certainly functional for this kind of event. It's given an R value of 2.6, which is decent amongst sleeping pads, but it's still really only functional to around -1C. Even the best down sleeping bags are compromised as soon as you lay on them...because you've obviously squished the air out from between the down. Hence my need for a down jacket under my sleeping bag. I'd love to tweak this sleep system to improve it. On previous winter camp trips I used two sleeping mats - one self-inflating style and one closed-cell foam. Two mats beats one, for sure. The Zlite Sol is bulky, but it's really light - a win for pulks. I'd probably have to add my Therm-a-rest NeoAir next time.
  • OR Alpine bivy
    • This bivy bag is robust and was roomy enough for me and my giant sleeping bag, my clothes, and shoes. But the single folding pole was a pain in the neck. You don't have to use the pole, but it goes over your face area and keeps the bag from being closed in on you. A rather nice concept. The pole was hard to work into the bag when the bag was warm (the material is very rigid), so when the bag was frozen (more rigid), it was really hard. The cord inside the pole stretched out after the first day, making it very frustrating to get the pole in and out (sections would come apart within the fabric tube). A bit disappointed with the pole thing, but it's likely what I'd take again.
  • Rented Northern Sled Works Siglin 5 foot pulk and 250 litre Snowsled pulk bag
    • I was happy with my pulk and the pulk bag. Both are slightly unnerving items to rent (well, what isn't unnerving to rent when you're in such an extreme environment where gear is critical?). If a pulk is dragged over gravel or rock, it gets gouges in it and that means it'll be harder to pull. I was meticulous about taking care of my pulk during the event and carried it (loaded, yes) across any scratchy surfaces. They were few - roads in Whitehorse, entrances to checkpoint rec centres. Similarly, the pulk bags are waterproof and have a PVC/polyester surface on the bottom. That's especially good because snow gets into the sled and melts there when you take your pulk indoors at rec centre checkpoints. The water melts all over the floor of the hall (caution walking around in your wool race socks in the rec halls!), but the contents of your pulk stays dry... as long as the bag has not been dragged across any rough surface. It is prone to getting holes like a tarp would if you weighted it and dragged it across your lawn. I bonded so much with my pulk bag by the end I wished it was mine.
      I added love notes for myself on my pulk straps ;)
  • Silva Trail Speed 400 lumen headlamp (battery pack runs on a long cord so it can be warmer on your chest)
    • Long cords are so annoying. The headlamp has a simple one-button system, but I found it hard to tell if it was on max, min, or wide, presumably because of the reflecting action of the snow (and mounting fatigue over days). Given the battery life of only 2 hours on max, and that the device is a battery pig (4 x AA), one doesn't want to accidentally have the thing on high beam. Silva says the batteries should last 7 hours on low, which shouldn't account for use in very cold temps. From memory, I'd guess I was actually getting a bit more than 7 hours per set of batteries - but I was using lithiums. On the last night, I actually pulled out my backup Led Lenser SEO7 (see below) and was so happy with its simplicity. It ran 3 hours on low - with its stock rechargeable battery in it - and had not run out of juice by the time I finished the race at 9:30pm. I doubt I'd use the Silva again....unless I could be convinced in a -40C year that something with a head-mounted battery pack was going to freeze up and not work.
  • Backup lamps: LED Lenser SEO7 and Petzl e+Lite
    • I used my SEO7 on the last evening, as above. Temperature was -25C to -30C, I think, and it ran fine. Never used the Petzl, as it only puts out 26 lumen. It wouldn't be functional to race with, but it's so small it works as a backup for the backup. The Petzl was originally going to be my sole backup, but I decided that was a poor choice. If the Silva broke or got lost, my race would be over.
  • MSR Whisperlite International stove, plus pot and spoon
    • I never used my stove during the race, as I planned not to. I'd be tempted to consider the simple alcohol stove systems - even the "tuna-can-with-holes" system, given that my stove is really just an emergency device for making snow/ice into water. I don't need precision heating for simmering or anything. I got myself a long-handled Titanium spoon, which was handy for eating expedition meals from bags. I had some duct tape around the handle with my name on it, which also helped insulate a bit from the cold of holding onto a metal spoon in -30C!
      Perhaps the simpler way to melt snow, though I've never tried it
  • Evernew Ultralight Titanium double wall mug with lid
    • Loved this little cup. I had many "mental health cuppas" with it. Good little insulation on the handles to help keep the cold conduction down when sipping.
  • Leki Cressida poles (my old buddies, Nearer and Further, from Bibb FKT days)
    • Trustworthy friends. Still ticking. These things are gold. Cork handles, which I'm sure is a bonus in those temps.
  • Primus Trailbreak vacuum bottle - 1 litre x 2
    • Wicked good. Heavy and crazy expensive but so worth it. Boiling water stayed hot 24 hours, easily.
  • Nalgene 1 litre bottle plus insulating bag
    • I started the race with a 3ltr Camelbak (see below) on me, plus 3 litres on the pulk. My plan was not to have to take on water between checkpoints, which I reckoned shouldn't be more than 18 hours (but could be 24 hours if it was a tough day). Generally, I was consuming about 3ltrs/day. If I were to use dehydrated expedition meals (I only did the last day), I'd need another 1ltr, perhaps. The Nalgene and insulating bag worked well - I'd always use that water before the vacuum flasks - but I ended up leaving it in a drop bag later because 6ltrs was just way more than I needed.
      The blue Osprey pack with extra stash pockets-no need to clasp waist belt
  • Camelbak insulated 3 litre bladder (in a dry bag, held in an Osprey Talon 11 pack)
    • I liked this system and it worked well, provided (1) I kept the bladder against my base layer, under my coat and (2) the bite valve was tucked into my sport bra. If the Camelbak-and-Osprey didn't fit under the coat (it wouldn't fit under my Montane Extreme Smock), the tube froze within minutes. I tried blowing air back into the tube after drinking, but after a while, that stopped working, too. The Camelbak was most appreciated on day 1 when the temperatures were warmest. Without the bladder on (day 5), I'd make regular stops every 2-3 hours for larger drinks from the flasks. I also liked the waist belt pockets on the Osprey when I wore it - extra storage that was easily accessible!
  • SPOT tracker
    • I used my own SPOT rather than a rental. It shut the tracker off a few times, which I've never had happen before. The device would still be on, but it wouldn't be in "track" mode anymore. My SPOT lived on top of the pulk so it could beam directly up to the satellites with the best view. It's good to read your fine print and know that SPOT/GEOS doesn't cover you during certain kinds of races and such. It shouldn't be your only form of "insurance" going into an event like this.
  • Timex Expedition Shock watch plus a loud digital kitchen timer (for waking when really, really tired)
    • The watch was huge on my wrist, but it just made me feel more hardcore. The buttons were easy to deal with, the time readout was big, and the back-light was great. I was afraid of over-sleeping, shutting off the alarm and falling back to sleep. So I got a Taylor kitchen timer with a LOUD alarm! I'd set both in the bivy.
  • Garmin eTrex with waypoints loaded
    • I fired up my eTrex about five times to confirm I was still headed towards a checkpoint. It lived in my jacket, so was kept slightly warmer than if it was on my pulk. It fired up well each time I used it. The tricky thing about using a GPS in this way is that it only tells you distance as the crow flies. The reality was often much, much further, as the trail weaved through forests and jumble ice.
  • Kahtoola Microspikes
    • I happily wore my microspikes for the first 8 hours, at least - as long as I was on the big rivers at the start, as there was a lot of ice (rather than snow) and side sloping terrain. After that, I never used them and ended up putting them into a drop bag.
  • Julbo category 4 sunglasses. Ski goggles in case of extreme weather
    • The sun barely gets above the horizon in February that far north. I rarely wore the sunglasses, but did find them really useful when needed. If I happened to be on a big lake crossing early afternoon, when the sun was at its peak, the glare could be pretty harsh. Ski goggles were not needed - no snow/wind storms. 
The Julbo sunnies and Featherlite Cap on my post-race mushing day
  • Head: Montane Featherlite Mountain Cap, Montane Balaclava, ColdAvenger with neck gaiter
    • You'd be hard pressed to find a photo of me in the race without my Featherlite Mountain Cap on. I loved it - right down to the little string under the chin. I could cinch it up tight at colder/windier times and could loosen it off to increase venting around the ears when it was warmer. I could also pull it off and let it hang around my neck by the string during a heat-inducing hill climb. The balaclava was never worn, but I was glad to have such a lightweight option available if a storm had set in. The ColdAvenger mask requires compromises/special considerations for its use. The neck gaiter part of it was comfy and warm on neck and cheeks. A win. The nose piece didn't sit really nicely on me, but I could let that go for the benefits of having warmed air hitting my respiratory tract. I don't have asthma, but I still found myself (as did many others) developing a lot of thick mucous, due to breathing in cold air. But the negative side of the mask is that water droplets leave the mask and drop down onto whatever clothing is below. If it's a waterproof shell and the temperatures are extremely cold, you're fine. The droplets will freeze on the jacket. If it's a bit warmer and/or you have a down jacket open exposing your chest base layer (as I did the second time I used it), the water drops onto the base layer, soaks in (due to body heat warming the base layer) and you end up with a very wet base layer/chest. That's a very bad thing. I do like the ColdAvenger, but it should come with a plastic bib ;)
      A drop of water about to fall from the mask
  • Hands: Mountain Equipment Redline Mitts (for extreme cold), Montane Extreme Mitts, Montane Resolute Mitts, Montane Prism gloves, Montane Primino 140 liner gloves
    • Thank goodness the Redline Mitts just got dragged for 300 miles. I'm okay with that. I never thought of myself as having warm hands - in fact, I used to have Raynaud's up until my 30s - but I found I could wear the Primino liner gloves without any overglove some days (during the day). I was using poles all the time, so that presumably helped keep my hands warmer (i.e., arms were active, not passive). At night and at other colder times, I wore the liner gloves under the Extreme Mitts. In fact, I just wore the fleece liners of the Extreme Mitts, as they were warm enough and they are crab-claw fashion. On a few occasions, after stopping, I'd have to scrunch my fingers into a tight fist in the crab mitt to get them warm again. I wore out the Primino liner gloves after the first two days (little holes developed in the fingertips, which was fair enough). So I started using the Prism gloves as my daily wear. They were awesome. If it was very cold, I put the Extreme Mitt over the Prism. The Resolutes never got used, either.
  • Leg layers: Montane Primino 140g Boy Shorts, Montane Primino Long Johns, Montane Power Stretch Pro pants, Montane Terra Thermo Guide pants
    • I was concerned the seam on the back of the boy shorts might chafe my back, but it was okay. I wore boy shorts with the long johns and the Power Stretch Pro pants on top. It was warm to around -20C when moving. The first time I got cold enough to put the Terra Thermo Guide pants over top of the other two layers was around the third day, from memory. From that point on, the weather stayed cold enough to leave them on. I had a fresh pair of boy shorts at each of the three drop bags. The Power Stretch pants have a nylon face to increase durability, but they still aren't meant to have something rubbing on them 24/7. I had a small pouch on the front of my waist harness and that rubbed the upper thigh with each step. I didn't even notice the rubbing, but after a few days, I had a small hole there. A shame, as the pants are wickedly warm and comfortable for active pursuits. The Thermo Guide pants were also really comfy, and the lower leg zip and ankle snaps were brilliant, but they were extremely awkward for cold-weather use. Which is presumably what they were designed for. The reason was the belt. The pants come with a belt. Every time I had a toilet stop, I had to fight with the belt. It would invariably "retract" itself past the front belt loop, so I'd have to try to re-thread it (meaning gloves off, potentially). The clasp was very hard to work in cold and with gloves. Maybe a bloke with a belly could throw the belt away, but I needed that belt to keep the things on! Not sure what I'd do next time...try to find a simpler belt system or choose an entirely different layering system, I guess.
  • Chest layers: Champion seamless sports bra, MEC Merino T2 Zip (180g), Montane Extreme Smock, Montane Black Ice 2.0 jacket
    • Beloved Black Ice jacket, accumulating moisture through the night
    • My Montane Primino 220g zip top base layer got lost in the post, so I picked up a Mountain Equipment Coop Merino T2 Zip that was slightly lighter. The zip is non-negotiable, I reckon, for venting. And for tucking a hydration bladder bite valve into. The Extreme Smock was a great disappointment. It was lust at first sight, but we got into a lot of bitter fights every time we tried to go out together. The smock has a horizontal front pocket/pouch, which seemed a great idea - gear won't fall out of that unless I do a handstand. The fleece lined side/hand pockets went right through - it was one giant pocket. The result of having that pocket on the front as well as the pouch one meant a tendency to put waaaay too much stuff in the pockets and feel like a pregnant penguin. If you can avoid the desire to actually fill those pockets, it would feel a whole lot better on. The side sleeve pocket was a great stash place for emerg firestarter supplies. The hood and chin guard were well designed, soft, and warm. There are side vents ... in theory. Half zips from the waist up on either side. However, in reality, they are not functional when wearing a harness/waist strap - it really precludes the ability to get air through the side when there's a harness there. Finally, the smock was just ridiculously warm. So warm that the snowmobile drivers in the event were wearing them. Keep in mind that they aren't exercising and are creating quite a wind chill as they ride speedily along the trail. I think in the -50C year last year, the racers loved the smock. The other deal-breaker for me with the smock was that it was too tight to fit my pack and hydration bladder under. I still love the smock, but I'll be looking for better ways to use it. The Montane Black Ice 2.0 jacket was my favourite jacket. It was an all-rounder. Well-placed and numerous pockets, a great adjustable hood and chin guard. The only down-side was literally that - the down. It tended to get moisture-laden after 24 hours of use. A few hours at a checkpoint near a hot stove would do the trick...but on the last day I didn't have that option and had to revert back to my smock. Which I rejected within minutes and ended up draping my Deep Cold Down jacket over me instead (see below for more on that jacket).
      A glance at other pulks and shoes at the start (100 & 300 mile racers)
  • Feet: Injinji Performance Liner Crew socks, Icebreaker Mountaineer socks (alternate socks: Woolpower 400g & 600g)
    • Don't confuse the liner socks with the regular ones - these are really, really thin. I normally use Injinji's for daily running and races, as they reduce chances of blisters for me. So I had the liner plus an Icebreaker Mountaineer over top. I've used Icebreakers for my wetter events with great success. I changed the liner and oversock at each of the three drop bag points. The Woolpower socks seemed to work as well as the Icebreakers. I can't recall now whether I actually used both the 400g and 600g - I know I kept one pair spare on my pulk. (Things were a bit hazy out there!) I wouldn't change a thing about these sock combo's. I did sometimes use chemical toe warmers, particularly because I was concerned I might not feel the beginning of frostbite, given my neuropathy in the toes. The toes were never cold. There were cases of frostbite and immersion foot/trench foot out there this year, but I wasn't one of them.
  • Shoes: Inov-8 Roclite 275 GTX (one size big, extra insoles to help them fit until feet swell). Backup shoes in drop bag at 100 mile point: Hoka Tor GTX.
    • I wanted to love the Inov-8 so much. Most of my running shoes are Inov-8 - they work for me. The extra insole added some cushion and a surprising amount of cold protection. I'd do that again. Unfortunately, there was an issue. Snow would pile up on top of the toe box and melt into the shoe because of heat coming off my foot. It couldn't get all the way down to the sock because of the GTX membrane. So it would sit there until it froze again as a little ice dam between the GTX layer and the top layer of fabric. If the shoe had a solid upper, that would be prevented. But it's fabric. So the ice dam formed and there it sat, pressing down on my toes. I was quite concerned for increased risk of frostbite - my toes were constricted by the ice putting pressure on them. I heard later of a couple other guys having the same problem with this shoe. Thus, at the 100 mile checkpoint, I switched to the Hoka's. I've never been a fan of Hoka brand and I have tried a few models. But these had the most potential for me. They were, however, even bigger and they were high tops (ankle high). Given that my feet weren't really swollen enough to fit them, I knew I was headed for blisters due to excess movement. Terrible blisters, which I had to stop to treat several times over the next 200 miles. The high tops also caused grief to one Achilles, which I fortunately noticed during a blister stop, so I could re-lace the shoe to relieve pressure. Had the Hoka's been a better size, maybe I'd have a better review. And maybe they would have made it back from Pelly Crossing. But I hope there's a First Nations person out there right now enjoying the northern lights and getting some great use out of them.
  • Overboots: NEOS Adventurer (for crossing water/slush/overflow)
    • The overflow sections I crossed were frozen or only a wee bit slushy. Time of day can make a difference. So the NEOS never went on. But I'd have them again, for sure. And that style, as I wouldn't want a lower height one.
      Rocking the cap, Black Ice 2.0, Prism pants, and Roclites post race
  • Extreme weather outer and for stops: Montane Prism pants and Montane Deep Cold Down jacket
    • The Prism pants were uber lightweight, so worth carrying, despite my not needing to use them. When I stopped to bivy, I was into the sleeping bag within minutes and stayed warm getting things organised before I climbed in. I didn't sit around making tea or anything sedentary or I surely would have needed them. The Deep Cold Down jacket made appearances as mentioned above. It became my extra layer for my sleeping set up and was also my jacket on the last night, when the Smock was grieving me. It's wickedly warm, that's for sure. I couldn't put it on and zip it at -30C without getting too hot moving. Very well thought out details, just like the Black Ice 2.0.
  • Wind weather outer: Montane Astro Ascent eVent trousers and Montane Direct Ascent eVent jacket
    • These were never pulled out of their stuff sack. I don't think I'd take them again, as I can't really see them being useful. There's always a down jacket option for wind. And the eVent gear gets really brittle feeling in extreme cold - not a nice feeling at all. (The Alpine bivy also gets that same rigid feeling.)
  • Misc included: compass, folding saw, sunscreen, scissors, teatree foot powder, SportShield towelettes, space blanket, antiseptic wipes, multi-tool, cable ties, duct tape, whistle, windproof lighter, waterproof matches (several, stored in multiple locations), fire starter, Sea to Summit dry bags and stuff sacks. Food for 48 hours at a time (approx 9,000-10,000 calories, which is supplemented by 2 aid station meals in that timeframe).
    • Mandatory gear included the compass and folding saw. I used neither, but also wouldn't scrimp on either, as they are emergency items and you want something that works. 
    • I got the Mawaii winter sport sunscreen and lip balm recommended by the RD and it was brilliant. An absolute ordeal to get shipped to Australia (via someone in England), but worth it. I should have applied it on day 1, though! Oops. The chapped lips I got were awful.
    • Foot powder was a new one for me - the idea was to avoid moisture build-up (sweat) in the socks. I used too much. Don't use too much. It cakes and hardens and makes little ridges between toes that I think helped blisters form. There's a reason why they say moderation in all things!
    • 2Toms SportShield towelettes (body lube) were great, as they didn't freeze. I tended to use one at least every drop bag stop - I'd apply it to my sternum, shoulders, hips (for the harness), and feet/toes when I re-did my socks. Last of all, I'd run the towel over the nether regions. A must-have.
      About the best a space blanket can do. Mild AUS temps and a jacket over.
    • Space blanket was mandatory - it's probably pretty useless in that kind of cold, to be honest. But it takes up little space and any help with heat would be good if in an emergency situation. But hopefully you're carrying a change of dry thermals in a dry bag on the pulk, which would be a much wiser choice than relying on a piece of aluminium foil to save your life.
    • A whistle was also mandatory and I have yet to have a whistle (even those that promise the loudest blast) work when I've wanted to attract someone's attention out running or racing. But maybe one day there will be a situation where it comes into its own.
    • Antiseptic wipes - I had little individual povidone-iodine swabs, which work well because most options will freeze. I used a number of them over the last 200 miles with my blister issues. Another must-have. 
    • For firestarter, I had dryer lint as well as cotton buds soaked in candle wax. These were stored in several locations, along with matches.
    • I brought a waterproof notebook and pen so I could write reminders for myself and not have to rely on a shattered brain. It really took the pressure off to have it.
    Bibbulmun 2011. Give me a whole bin of food and I can reject it all.
    • Food. What can I say? I get so food-weary in events like this. I'll be hungry, but nothing sounds appealing. I just have to force it down. Sugary foods were evil and gave me canker sores within 2 days. That made eating even less desirable. My favourite items were (1) oatmeal, (2) Fruit-to-Go (for the first 3 days, then I grew weary of them, as I'd eaten so many), (3) Rolos (a suggestion of Mark Hines and nothing I have eaten since I was a kid - they went down far better than other chocolate items I had), (4) gluten-free pretzel balls (tiny little balls, not actually pretzel shaped), (5) dried mango slices, and (6) Primal Strips vegan (soy) jerky.