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Winter 2004 Gear Watch: Backcountry Equipment for Climbers, Skiers, and Snowshoers


by the Product Review Staff | 2004-01-01 03:00:00-07

Winter Market '03 Updates!

Backpacking Light will be reporting from the 2004 Outdoor Retailer Winter Market, January 29-February 2, 2004, Salt Lake City! If you want to stay informed of OR Winter Market news, updates, and new product info, be sure to sign up for our email newsletter. As always, Premium Members get in-depth information about new products we feature in our dispatches.

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This of course, is not a comprehensive review of winter backpacking gear. However, we thought we'd take some time to highlight some categories that have seen important innovations in lightweight design over the past few years, focusing primarily on new products that were introduced in 2003, and that we've been reviewing the past two winters.

Herein, we discuss gear that is most applicable to people who like to play in the mountains in the snow. Thus, backcountry skiers and snowboarders, snow campers, snowshoers, winter ice climbers, and alpine climbers will find some useful information here.



The Petzl Edelrid might be the most recognized helmet among today's alpinists. That doesn't necessarily mean that it's among the climber's best-loved pieces of gear. The Edelrid typifies the brain buckets of old school mountaineers that are bulky, heavy, and uncomfortable. However, increasing recognition that wearing a helmet can dramatically improve safety in a number of backcountry activities, including backcountry skiing, snowboarding, and climbing, has kickstarted a new wave of helmet design over the past few years. Bike helmet technologies are now available, in addition to slimmer designs, better styling, and lighter weight. Two helmets in particular are worth mentioning here, because they break the 10 ounce barrier. The Kong Scarab offers excellent protection and is an ideal multi-use helmet that serves adequately for adventure racing, mountain biking, backcountry skiing, and climbing. It's comfortable, easy to adjust, and has great styling. For even less bulk, consider the Every Helmets Sky Helmet. It is the trimmest helmet we've seen - it even fits well under parka hoods that aren't necessarily designed for helmet use. The Sky weighs a scant 9.3 ounces, has the slim styling of a high-end skateboard helmet, but is still CE certified for climbing. We've been using the Sky this winter for waterfall climbing, resort skiing, and backcountry skiing, and it's our choice for those who insist on a helmet that embodies the light-and-fast philosophy to the T.

Avalanche Probes

Backcountry ski poles that could be disassembled and reassembled into avalanche probes created quite a stir when they hit the market - they appeared to address the needs of ultralight backcountry winter enthusiasts because they could then not only save weight, but completely eliminate an item from their pack - the dedicated avalanche probe. Unfortunately, probe poles are heavier than the lightest ski and trekking poles, so swing comfort is certainly sacrificed. In addition, removing frozen baskets from the poles while reassembling the poles into a probe remains a technical hurdle that the major manufacturers have not yet addressed. Consequently, probe poles remain somewhat of a gimmick solution and are not carried by those who understand the serious consequences of lost time during avalanche rescue.

All is not lost - probes are getting lighter, easier to use, and faster to deploy. Among the best are new models from Life-Link, including a 196 cm aluminum model that weighs 6.5 ounces (the Life-Link Light Probe 196), which features one of the fastest deployment cords we've used. In spite of a recent wave of research that suggests that probing a depth of greater than six feet does not appreciably increase the chance of live rescue, old schoolers will appreciate the extra length - and no weight penalty - of the Life-Link Carbon Speed Light, a 246 cm probe made with carbon fiber tubing and is long enough to maintain a six foot probe depth without significant bending, reducing fatique and increasing probe speed. Even lighter, but not as slick to deploy, are the Kong Carbon 8.5 (6.0 oz and 8.5 foot deployment length), and the Ortovox 200 Carbon, a 6 ft 7 in probe with a packed size of only 13 inches! If you're thinking this is the nirvana of lightweight probes, hold your breath - the SOS Mini Probe extends to 7.5 feet, also packs to 13 inches, and weighs only 4.7 oz. For serious backcountry users, the Life-Link Carbon Speed Light 246 is a clear winner in a pack of probes cluttered with lookalikes. For ski touring in moderate terrain where avalanche risk is real, but low, the our top pick is the Ortovox 200 Carbon for the best balance of stiffness, length, easy deployment, and weight, but it's hard to ignore the featherweight SOS Mini.

Here is a survey of sub-8 oz avalanche probes suitable for backcountry touring and occasional use (avalanche professionals may want to consider longer, stiffer, and more robust probes more suitable for heavy use), where weight and collapsed size are the most important criteria:

Avalanche Probes for the Ultralight Winter Traveler

Model MSRP Weight (oz) Collapsed Length (in) Extended Length (ft, in)
Life-Link Light Probe 196 $40 6.5 oz 16" 6' 5"
Life-Link Carbon Fiber Speed Light Probe 246 $65 6.5 oz 18" 8' 1"
G3 Professional 200 Probe $50 7.5 oz 16" 6' 6"
Ortovox 200 $40 7.1 oz 13" 6' 6"
Ortovox 200 Carbon $68 5.3 oz 13" 6' 6"
Ortovox 280 Carbon $82 6.7 oz 16" 9' 4"
Black Diamond QuickDraw Tour Probe 190 $39 7.4 oz 15" 6' 3"
Black Diamond QuickDraw Carbon Probe 230 $65 7.6 oz 15" 7' 7"
SOS Mini Probe $67 4.7 oz 13" 7' 6"
Kong Carbon 8.5 Probe $50 6.0 oz 17" 8' 6"

Avalanche Transceivers

"Avalanche transceivers are mostly all the same", I recently overheard from a sales employee at Bozeman's largest backcountry ski retailer, "just pick the one that has the coolest color." This motivated us to conduct a review of avalanche transceivers that focused on one mission only: speed of locating a victim and ease of use. We put several transceivers into the hands of both novices and pros and came up with some results that definitely suggested that "not all avalanche transceivers are the same".

We tested the following transceivers: Pieps DSP, Mammut Barryvox, Ortovox F1, Ortovox X1, Ortovox M2, and the Backcountry Access Tracker DTS. We evaluated them primarily on their ability to dial in the location of a victim quickly with a minimum of rescuer movement and guesswork.

The lightest and smallest transceiver was the Mammut Barryvox - 6.0 oz including batteries. Its compact size fit was the least noticed while sitting in an inside pocket and wasn't so cumbersome as to require a special harness. It was also one of the easiest transceivers to use - once you jumped an initial learning curve - and was among the fastest to locate victims.

The technology crown, however, goes to the Pieps DSP. It dialed in the location of victims faster than any transceiver in our test, and it's the only trasceiver on the market to utilize digital signal processing to locate multiple burials.

Snowshoe and Ski Gear

Lightweight backcountry winter travelers have always had secret weapons in their arsenal for overland travel - Northern Lites snowshoes and Dynafit alpine touring skis. Both brands continue to set both technology and weight standards in their respective markets, and have been enjoying little competition the past few years. One up-and-comer, however, is worth taking a look at: Dion Snowshoes offers full size backcountry models that weight less than four pounds, or racing / short models that weight less than three pounds. The innovation, however, lies in their modular design - a customer can pick their own combination of frame, cleat, and binding to spec a shoe that exactly fits their needs.

Atlas, a market giant for U.S. snowshoes, tells us they are now making a sub-two-pound snowshoe in the Atlas Dual-Trac SL. So, we picked up a pair to see if could match the performance and weight of the Northern Lites Elite. Weight for both snowshoes was the same - 34 ounces. But the Elites' longer length (25" vs. 22" for the SL) and more decking surface area (the SL is a racing shoe with a tapered tail) clearly outshined the Atlas in softer snow conditions. So for now, stick with Northern Lites and watch out for slick marketing of lightweight shoes from other manufacturers that entice you into a racing style.

Dynafit has now packaged a new alpine touring (randonee) ski system that will make backcountry AT riders and climbers happy. The Dynafit D410 skis, with a 130 cm "approach" length, are the first skis we've seen that have a 100 mm tip but weigh less than four and a half pounds. Combined with the 24-ounce Dynafit Tourlite Tech binding and mated with the climbing-friendly Dynafit MLT4 AT boot (4.5 pounds), this system is probably the lightest high-performance climbing/ski approach system available. We've been testing this new setup this winter, courtesy of Life-Link (Dynafit's distributor), and you can bet they'll earn a priority corner in our ultralight gear closet. The MLT4 boots are surprisingly good ice climbing boots, with enough stiffness to power the approach skis on moderately steep downhill runs. This isn't a downhill setup for big mountain powder on the steeps, but for 99% of the ice climbing appraoches and descents we've had to make this year, they've served the purpose better than anything we've tried before.

Another new development in backcountry snowshoe and ski touring gear: nordic walking poles are being seen in more hands of backcountry winter travelers. Why? Thinner grips that are more comfortable with heavier gloves and mitts, very comfortable wrist straps, and lighter swing weights. Stay tuned, and check them out for yourself. We like the new ones from Leki, such as the Leki Nordic Walking Instructor.

Climbing Gear

Alpinists will cheer at the 2003 introduction of a 9.2 mm single rope in the U.S. this year - the Mammut Revelation. Combined with a thin rappel rope, this provides the lightest dual rope setup for alpine climbing. The 55 g/m x 60 m Revelation has the ability to shave a few pounds off your current single rope setup while still maintaining a 5-fall (UIAA #101) rating. Because the Revelation does not pass the sharp edge fall (UIAA #108) test, it is best suited for steep alpine face and couloir climbing with little risk of vertical falls over sharp edges.

Alpine ice tools are getting lighter, too. The constant battle for developing lightweight tools that appeal to alpinists but provide the technical performance of more demanding climbs continues to rage. Grivel and Petzl-Charlet are leading the way with technical ice tools that break the 22 ounce barrier. Grivel's Light Wing and Petzl-Charlet's Aztar tools have bent shafts suitable for plunging as well as hammering pitons, excellent swing balance (always a challenge with lighter tools). We tried both sets of tools at a recent ice festival and were even pleased with their performance on hard, brittle waterfall ice and mixed ground.

No longer does the alpinist need to lug around technical crampons that weigh 38 ounces or more for remote ice and mixed climbs. Petzl-Charlet has introduced the Petzl-Charlet Sarken, an alpine crampon with a low-balling horizontal rail design and integrated forged vertical front points. We've tried them on alpine ice couloirs in the Beartooths, mixed ground at Hyalite, and the bullet hard ice of the Canadian Rockies, and can unequivocally say that we are more excited about this technical development for alpine climbing than any other introduced in 2003. The Sarken's are an alpinists dream. Oh yeah, we forgot to mention the weight: 29 ounces. Where else can you maintain performance while saving more than half a pound?


"Winter 2004 Gear Watch: Backcountry Equipment for Climbers, Skiers, and Snowshoers," by the Product Review Staff. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2004-01-01 03:00:00-07.