If you could use bionic mountaineering gear...

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If you could use bionic mountaineering gear...

... would you? 

It's a question that I asked myself as I was preparing to return to Aconcagua this past season.  I started considering heated socks at the eleventh hour - after coming to terms with the idea that the 3lbs high altitude boots in my gear chest were much too heavy for my speed ascent intentions.  

 the Heat Sock 5.0 and battery pack

the Heat Sock 5.0 and battery pack

A google search quickly led me to zero in on Lenz, a premier provider of heat wear based in Austria. Their heat socks and gloves sounded great but... would the technology deliver on its promise? And what if not - would I be setting myself up for failure and frostbite, given upper mountain temperatures as low as -40*F?  

I wasn't fully convinced but decided that it was an option worth exploring: I had climbed Aconcagua once before, with "old school" heavy-duty high altitude gloves, and came back from the summit with numb fingertips that remained tingly for the next six weeks. I wanted this time on the mountain to be different, so I took the plunge. 

 first day trying out the gloves

first day trying out the gloves

Armed with the Lenz Heat Sock 5.0 Toecap and the Women's Heat Glove 3.0, I spent a few days in Canada's British Columbia putting the gear to the test in a somewhat less consequential environment than Aconcagua with its 22,838ft summit would be. I slept, hiked and ice climbed with the Lenz socks and gloves in -20*F temperatures and was delighted to see the gear deliver just as promised - with three different power settings and rechargeable batteries that last for up to 14 hours, my winter interlude in ice-cold Canada felt more like a cozy walk in the park than the typical frigid sufferfest.  I was particularly pleased to discover that the gloves were both dexterous and grippy enough to be suitable for ice climbing, making screaming barfies a thing of the past. 

After a week in Canada, on Christmas Eve, I boarded a redeye flight down to Argentina.  Next stop: Aconcagua.  Here, the heat sock enabled me to trade my heavy mountaineering boots for an ultralight three-season alpine shoe.  To be extra conservative I chose to include Grabber Warmer hand and foot warmers in my kit but the heat socks and gloves worked so well that I never felt like I needed backup.  Given the duration of the expedition - six weeks on the mountain! - I carried a Goal Zero solar setup to recharge batteries on the go, and I also brought replacement batteries.  I'm glad I did, because on more than one occasion I opened my pack to discover that the sock batteries (which in their current edition don't have a lock mode, my one point of criticism for the setup) had switched themselves on and were draining power.  Though after a while I learned to carry spare battery packs in a hard sunglass case or other container, and subsequently avoided those inadvertent power-on issues.  

 recharging batteries at high camp 

recharging batteries at high camp 

All in all, I had a hugely positive experience with both the heat socks and the heat gloves; thanks to Lenz' excellent gear I could reduce the weight of my footwear by more than 50%, and brought back a new women's speed record on the mountain.   

So, my verdict on bionic mountaineering gear? HELL YES. Lenz heat gear works better than I'd ever have expected, and even though these socks and gloves may be pricey they're an oh-so worthwhile investment for extreme environments - because how much are you willing to pay for your fingers and toes? 


Interested? Also check out my short write-up on the Lenz homepage 
(though I'm not sure I agree with the classification of 'Extreme Sportswoman' - ha!!)

 Running down low on the mountain

Running down low on the mountain

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A bombproof, four season tent that weighs just a single pound?

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A bombproof, four season tent that weighs just a single pound?

Yes, you heard that right. A bombproof, four-season tent that weights just a smidgen over a pound. I was skeptical at first too, as was my epic partner (or maybe partner for the impending epic?) Libby Sauter.  We were so skeptical that we googled reviews - and even when we found nothing but five star declarations of love we still weren't totally sold on it.  "Are you sure this is a good idea? Shouldn't we maybe take the i-tent instead even though it's two pounds heavier?"  But weight mattered a lot on this trip, and forced our hand. 

What is this magical tent that I am talking about you ask? Why it's Hyperlite Mountain Gear's Ultamid 2 Pyramid tent.

 Hyperlite's Ultamid 2 and Ice Pack

Hyperlite's Ultamid 2 and Ice Pack

Hyperlite Mountain Gear is a power player in the ultralight market. I've been using and loving their various packs and stuff sacks for just about a year now (full disclosure: Hyperlite has been kind to hook me up with free gear in the past), but I'd never yet used a tent of theirs. When Libby and I set out on a multi-day, multi-sport alpine project that would have us carrying way too much gear over large distances... I knew that it was finally time to try out the Ultamid. The Hyperlite website describes the tent as follows: 

Naked, flawless functionality meets rugged durability in the ultimate, ultra-tough pyramid tent–the Ultamid 2.  We considered minimalist alpine climbing missions, long distance backpacking trips and remote backcountry adventures when we developed this ultralight two-person tent. 

Bingo! That's exactly what Libby and I needed for our mission.  And to go truly minimalist, we opted to take just the floorless pyramid rather than packing the optional floored mesh insert (sold separately) which would have added 1.3 pounds of weight.  

We set out under bluebird conditions, humping skis and climbing gear into the Eastern Sierra. After a couple miles of muddy trails and spicy river crossings, we found snow and skinned up into what was intended to be camp #1 of 6. Snow conditions were marginal at best and the forecast predicted high winds for the following day, so we were happy to find a semi-protected camp spot with plenty of daylight hours left.  

 Starry skies but SO. MUCH. WIND.

Starry skies but SO. MUCH. WIND.

Setting up the Ultamid is child's play - identify what you're going to use for the center (we chose to repurpose a ski), lay out the tent on top of it; first stake out the corners, then put up the center pole.  Since we were camping on sugar snow, we had a bit of extra work burying solid deadmen anchors - note to self: it's probably smart NOT to bury the spare guy lines, and to leave at least one of your ice axes above ground too! Details, details... - and yet, we were done setting up camp in no time. 

The forecasted windstorm arrived shortly after we had moved in, and gusted as high as 65 miles for the night, the full next day and most of the following night. Sadly the storm lasted long enough to spoil our plans for the following week, but at least it allowed us to put the Ultamid to the test - and this little tent far exceeded our expectations. Even in the Ultamid's floorless configuration we were warm, mostly dry (after burying the windward side under a bit of snow to prevent flurries from drifting in) and fully protected from the storm.  

 Tent-bound for a day and a half; thankfully this Ultamid is spacious!

Tent-bound for a day and a half; thankfully this Ultamid is spacious!

Knowing that the Ultamid is made out of the near-indestructible DCF8 Dyneema® Composite Fabrics (i.e. Cuben Fiber) and that the guy lines consist of equally strong UHMWPE paracord meant peace of mind even during the strongest gusts of wind, though a user error made the first night slightly more exciting and uncomfortable than necessary: we failed to take into account the big layer of unconsolidated facets when putting up our center pole / ski, and paid the price as the relentless hammering of the wind drove the ski farther and farther into the snow which caused the tent to lose a fair amount of its tension during our first night in the storm.  Having identified the issue the next morning, we easily fixed the problem by burying a nalgene bottle below the ski to increase surface area against the snow and prevent the center from sinking again.  Lesson learned for next time! 

The storm subsided after about 36 tentbound hours, though sadly the longer-than-expected delay meant that Libby and I had to abort our mission. The Ultamid, though, proved its worth and demonstrated why - even at a sticker price of $715 - this is nifty piece of Cuben Fiber is the ultimate choice of shelter if you're looking for a featherlight yet ultrasolid four-season tent. 

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So hot right now: the new Woolx

So hot right now: the new Woolx

Remember a couple months ago when the days were still long and the sun scorching down and winter seemed like a distant afterthought?  I sure do - and not just because that was when I won a sweet Stingray tree tent and some new threads from Woolx in the Last Adventures of Summer contest :)  I am counting the days until I finally have the chance to start overnighting in the Stingray, but I've already been able to put the Woolx gear through the ringer and want to share what I learned.

(Disclaimer: this is a review of a contest prize e.g. free gear, but I am in no way obligated to give a positive review.) 

1) Merino Wool is awesome.  Okay, I already knew that before Woolx but really - merino is lightweight, stretchy, totally non-scratch, dries quickly, and doesn't stink.  Yes please! 

 Women's lightweight "Basecamp" hoodie from Woolx

Women's lightweight "Basecamp" hoodie from Woolx

2) Merino Wool is NOT just for the cold.  This one was actually a surprise to me, since I typically turn to merino layers for the cold season.  I just so happened to be in hot and humid Thailand right after getting the new gear from Woolx, and guess what: the lightweight tank top and merino capris were absolutely perfect for scorching, muggy days climbing in Tonsai. 

 Climbing with my Woolx tank top in hot, muggy Thailand (tights: adidas Outdoor)

Climbing with my Woolx tank top in hot, muggy Thailand (tights: adidas Outdoor)

3) Those socks rock.  And by that I mean the crew-length "Fearless" socks.  I've been using merino wool in functional footwear forever, but until Woolx I never owned any casual merino socks; enter the Fearless, which is my new favorite barefoot-around-the-house addition.  Plus they've already kept me company on almost half a dozen long-haul flights. 

 those socks :) 

those socks :) 

4) Woolx makes neat stuff.  Something I loved: they have an eye for detail, like adding a sleek external pocket on the capris; it's so stealth I didn't even notice it the first time I wore the tights, yet big enough to hold an iPhone.  Good stuff. 

All in all, I'm a fan - high-quality, functional clothing at a lower price point than the merino wool stronghouses Icebreaker and Smartwool.  The selection of styles is still a bit limited, but I'd expect that we'll see a broader selection of great stuff from Woolx as they're gaining share on the incumbents. And if you're looking for stocking stuffers and Christmas presents that don't break the bank, they've got a bunch of high quality accessories too! 

 

 

When every ounce matters: gear that'll get you to the top

When every ounce matters: gear that'll get you to the top

I spend a lot of time in the mountains, and usually I am trying to go fast - either because I am running an ultra marathon, or simply because speed means safety.  As such my kit needs to be functional and reliable and above all: light weight.  Yes, I am one of those mountain people that saw off the handle of their toothbrush to save space and weight; you can imagine that I pay great attention to the weight-to-value ratio of my gear, no matter if it's the caloric density of my preferred nutrition or the empty weight of my backpack.  Read on for a summary of my lightweight favorites, gear that accompanies me on just about every mountain adventure.  

  • Trekking Poles: Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z (295g / 10oz)
    I rarely ever go for a long run, big hike or heavy carry without trekking poles.  Black Diamond's excellent Distance series is not just comfortable and lightweight, but also sturdy enough to withstand some serious abuse - mine have been up and down Aconcagua, run a couple 100-Mile races with me, and kept me balanced while carrying a 70lbs pig down from the top of El Capitan. 
 22,862ft: Me and my BD poles on the summit of Aconcagua

22,862ft: Me and my BD poles on the summit of Aconcagua

  • Backpack: Hyperlite Southwest 4400 (1005g / 35.4oz)
    Hyperlite Mountain Gear has taken the market by storm, establishing itself as a leader in topnotch UL gear for extreme backcountry adventure essentially overnight.  Because who wouldn't love a near-indestructible pack that's waterproof and weighs almost nothing?  Exactly. That's probably why a recent backpackers.com review of the Southwest closes with "I might consider proposing marriage to the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest 3400, except for the fact that I’m already taken..." - I pretty much agree, though I prefer the larger 4400 version since its size allows me to hump Himalaya-expedition-worthy loads when necessary.
 The Southwest 4400 high up on Kusum Kanguru, a rarely climbed technical peak in the Khumbu / Nepal

The Southwest 4400 high up on Kusum Kanguru, a rarely climbed technical peak in the Khumbu / Nepal

  • Sleeping Pad: Therm-a-Rest Neo Air X Therm Max (430g / 15oz) 
    A sleeping pad with a high R rating is critical for my high altitude climbs and treks where it's not unusual for me to see temperatures near zero degrees Fahrenheit inside my tent at night.  With an R rating of 5.7, there's no better lightweight solution than Therm-a-Rest's Neo Air X Therm.  Good insulation means better chances for a good night's rest means more energy for long, hard days at altitude! 
     
  • Upper Body Attire: adidas Outdoor Terrex Skyclimb top  (192g / 6.8oz)
    I just recently got to add this top to my wardrobe - thank you adidas Outdoor! - and it has already become my new favorite piece of clothing.  In addition to being lightweight, the Skyclimb top has a super flattering design and wears like a dream - it is soft and fluffy but supremely functional, dries quickly and provides excellent temperature regulation.    
 the adidas Outdoor Terrex Skyclimb top: super versatile, super comfortable, super functional.  

the adidas Outdoor Terrex Skyclimb top: super versatile, super comfortable, super functional.  

  • Mountain Boots:  Salomon S-LAB X ALP Carbon GTX (1000g / 35oz)
    This boot is currently unbeatable in its category: it's light, crampon-compatible, waterproof, and climbs well.  I reviewed it in detail a few months ago - take a look at the original post here if you want to know more.   
     
  • Solar LightLuminAid PackLite 16 (85g / 3oz)
    I have been traveling with LuminAid's PackLite ever since getting a Cairn box that included this awesome solar light.  The PackLite provides up to 30 hours of light bright enough to read by, is waterproof, charges well, and packs up into a convenient compact format that carries on the outside of your pack as easily as a luggage tag.  
 The PackLite 16 on top of Surya Peak, Langtang National Park / Nepal 

The PackLite 16 on top of Surya Peak, Langtang National Park / Nepal 

There you have it: ~3kgs or 6.6lbs of awesome gear that covers most of the essentials; just add a pair of pants, sleeping bag, and food/water.  Speaking of - if you've got recommendations for pants / sleeping bag / other fabulous lightweight items, I'd love to hear them.  Comment or DM me on Instagram

#livethatvanlife: the treasure chest

#livethatvanlife: the treasure chest

As you may know if you're reading this, I became the Gear Coop's first ambassador earlier this year by winning their extremely sweet Live That Vanlife contest - hey, you even may have voted for me :) if so, thanks!!

It's been a few months since I got to claim my prize of gear worth $10k (and gas money too), and I've been enjoying all the awesome new toys that I got from the contest sponsors. One of my favorite parts has been discovering new gear that before the contest I would not have thought about buying for myself but that ended being amazing additions to my toolkit.

Take a look at my favorites from each sponsor below; some I would consider part of my typical kit - because really, show me the climber who wouldn't want to add a couple brand-spanking-new Maxim ropes to the gear closet - while others are totally out of left field for me: who would've thought how much better #vanlife could get through the addition of a cast iron skillet, a beach chair or a pair of ultra comfy sheepskin boots!

My favorites: 

Big Agnes & Helinox
The lightweight and ultra-packable Helinox beach chair.  Talk about out of left field! This chair is so comfortable and all around awesome that I've been carrying it around on overnight skitours with me.  Seriously.

 Yes, I really did carry this awesome chair on an overnight skitour. 

Yes, I really did carry this awesome chair on an overnight skitour. 

 Runner-up: the  Tumble 2 mtnGLO tent . Awesome for car camping!

Runner-up: the Tumble 2 mtnGLO tent. Awesome for car camping!

Deuter
The ACT Lite 75+10 - a pack big enough for even the burliest carries up and down El Cap, and comfortable enough even to use it as a carrying system for an unwieldly portaledge. 

 What better way to put a new pack to the test than by humping loads to the base of El Cap. En route to my first climb up the Big Stone with the ACT 75+10 and my boyfriend's portaledge :)

What better way to put a new pack to the test than by humping loads to the base of El Cap. En route to my first climb up the Big Stone with the ACT 75+10 and my boyfriend's portaledge :)

Emu Australia
The Hakea Hi boots have become my new camp slipper alternative - they are incredibly cute and wonderfully comfortable barefoot boots, no matter if for cold winter nights or during crisp summer mornings.  Way better than Uggs, and also the softest boot I've ever owned. 

 Those boots!

Those boots!

Granite Gear
I've been using Granite Gear compressions stuff sacks and drybags to organize my stuff for years but the contest introduced me to a new product line that I've come to love, the portage packs.  I've been using a Traditional Food Bag for a variety of purposes, first as my main packing system for an 8-day solo paddling tour of Lake Powell and then to optimize storage and organization in Eddie the Van. Super useful!

 Day 6/8 on the lake.  That Granite Gear Food Pack on the back of the SUP held my entire kit. Photo:  Christina Dowland

Day 6/8 on the lake.  That Granite Gear Food Pack on the back of the SUP held my entire kit. Photo: Christina Dowland

Jetboil
I may be a bit late to the party, but thanks to Jetboil I now finally own a lightweight pan that heats evenly and can be used for efficient simmering; the 8" Fluxring Fry Pan is one of those kitchen accessories that I should have bought years ago. 

Maxim
It's hard to pick a favorite among the Maxim contributions, as they are all tremendously useful for my climbing - out of the three ropes that Maxim sponsored, the one that's gotten the most use so far is the dry-treated Apex 9.9 70M which handles very nicely and has already been successfully broken in as a new workhorse rope. 

 The perfect cragging setup - thanks Maxim.

The perfect cragging setup - thanks Maxim.

Poler
Here's another left-field item that I didn't know I wanted and needed until I owned it - Poler's cast iron squillet. I've been hooked ever since cooking eggs and bacon on it the morning after the Poler box arrived in the mail, and by now it's become my most-used piece of kitchenware in the van.

 Yummm. Bacon and eggs for days...

Yummm. Bacon and eggs for days...

Redington
Another fun byproduct of being the #livethatvanlife winner was that I got to pick up some new experiences and skills; like, say, fly fishing.  Redington set me up with a full fly fishing kit including the Willow River Wader, wading boots, rod, reel and the works.  Since I had never fly fished before, they also sponsored a private half-day of instruction out in Mammoth, which was a wonderful experience.  Thank you Redington! 

 Learning to fly fish on the east side of the Sierras.  Photo: guide and photographer extraordinaire  Jim Stimson . 

Learning to fly fish on the east side of the Sierras.  Photo: guide and photographer extraordinaire Jim Stimson

Salomon
The S-Lab X ALP Carbon GTX is hands-down the most advanced lightweight mountaineering boot I've ever worn. I like it so much that I wrote a detailed review about it, which you can find right here

 Ultralight and crampon compatible.  These are some seriously kickass boots. 

Ultralight and crampon compatible.  These are some seriously kickass boots. 

The North Face
The North Face was incredibly generous and sponsored not just heavy-duty mountaineering gear and my attendance at Red Rock Rendezvous, but also $1500 worth of attire that has greatly enhanced my active wardrobe. The item that I am most excited about though is the Assault 3 tent expedition tent which I will be putting to the test on Aconcagua with an all-female team this winter.

 Home sweet home - the Assault 3 during a training trip on Mt Shasta. 

Home sweet home - the Assault 3 during a training trip on Mt Shasta. 

Yeti
My favorite item from Yeti is the Hopper 40. I already had a cooler in the van before the Hopper, but this portable and high-performance cooler has made #vanlife - particularly in the desert - a whole lot more comfortable and easier. 

 A highly portable cooler = luxury. (And my favorite camp chair, too :))

A highly portable cooler = luxury. (And my favorite camp chair, too :))

As you can see, lots of great stuff... and all of the above is only a small sample of the gear that the sponsors contributed.  Here's the cool part: the Gear Coop is already working on #livethatvanlife2 - tune in to Instagram to keep up with contest updates, and if you think you could use a ton of free gear... go put your name in the hat! 

 

Made for ultralight alpinism: Salomon's new S-LAB X Alp Carbon GTX

Made for ultralight alpinism: Salomon's new S-LAB X Alp Carbon GTX

SFS_160803-6533.jpg

I just got back from two weeks of alpine climbing in the Bugaboos, and my hips are still sore from the 70 pound pack that I humped the 3000 vertical feet from the trailhead to Applebee camp and back.  We all know how much weight matters in the mountains; that's one of the reasons why I'm in love with my new superlight Salomon mountaineering footwear, the S-LAB X Alp Carbon GTX.

I pretty much lived in the X Alps for these last two weeks, and I was continually impressed with their comfort and performance - not to mention grateful for how wonderfully light they are at just under 18oz. 

Where I see room for improvement: 

  • Most Salomon trail runners have a keeper pocket (garage) for or the Quicklace closure on top of the tongue; the X Alp does not have this feature, presumably because the gaitor makes it superfluous; that said, there were numerous occasions when I wore the boot with the gaitor unzipped and rolled over, and I would have appreciated a dedicated place to tuck in the Quicklace to avoid getting caught on rocks and branches.
    (**Update from previewing the new X Alp GTX 2: it features a Quicklace garage!)
  • Another challenge with the Quicklace closure: I noticed it would work itself a bit lose after prolonged crampon use. Not a big deal because the zipped up gaitor still provided plenty of backup stability, but it's a noticeable performance difference to how the Quicklace closure works on trails. 
  • Finish: after ~20 days of intense use, the boots are overall still in very good shape (including the soles, which I was happy to see are barely showing any abrasion) but the side seams of one of the tongues is beginning to dissolve. 

 

What I loved: 

  • It's the lightest, most comfortable mountain boot I've worn. The inner low-top shoe feels as comfortable as the Speedcross (my favorite Salomon trailrunner), and the weight speaks for itself. 
  • The X Alp GTX climbs like a pro. I covered a lot of 4th and easy 5th class terrain in these boots, and managed to get them to slip only once: on a wet lichen-covered slab. The Contagrip sole is excellent. 
  • The boots are waterproof thanks to the built-in goretex mini gaitors. Coming back from long alpine routes late in the day, I was often slogging through wet snow and slush (add the occasional stream crossing, too).  Throughout all of it, my feet stayed dry and warm. 
  • Good crampon compatibility. My Salewa Alunal semi-step crampons worked like a charm; I only had one of them come lose a single time over the course of two weeks. 
  • The Quicklace easy-cinching closure is awesome - I know and love the system from many of Salomon's trail runners, and appreciate having it on the boots; no fiddling with laces while wearing gloves.

All in all, I was highly impressed with the X Alp Carbon GTX and am excited to have this boot in my quiver for three season mountaineering.  I wouldn't use the X Alp for super cold temperatures (like my upcoming return to Aconcagua this winter) or sustained steep ice as I would want more rigidity for that, but for three-season mountaineering through variable moderate terrain this boot is the ultimate footwear.  

***AUG 5 UPDATE: the S-LAB X Alp GTX 2 is coming!

I just had the opportunity to check out the new and improved 2017 X Alp GTX 2 at Outdoor Retailer. It now has a Quicklace garage! Other updates include a slightly asymmetrical zipper on the bootie to improve flexibility, a slightly larger tongue, and a new black & blue design rather than the old black & white.  

 Soloing low 5th class terrain on approach to the NE Ridge of Bugaboo Spire, one of the 50 Classic Climbs. 

Soloing low 5th class terrain on approach to the NE Ridge of Bugaboo Spire, one of the 50 Classic Climbs. 

Hello - my Name is Sunny, and I'm a Gearhead

Hello - my Name is Sunny, and I'm a Gearhead

I've been lucky to receive a whole lot of wonderful gear through the Gear Coop and their awesome vendors that sponsored the Live That Vanlife contest in early 2016.  And then I'm also just a gear hog, with the van carrying everything I need from a tried-and-true high altitude mountaineering kit over big wall gear to ultra light trail running and backpacking equipment. I get a lot of questions on what I use and like, and will use this space to gradually share reviews of my favorite (and least favorite) items.  

If there's any particular gear/activity kit that you'd love to see on here or have questions about drop me a line! 

2016 Live That Vanlife Sponsors are: