The gear I love, 2014/15 edition

Hello Dear Reader!

At long last, it's time for another edition of, "The Gear I Love". This blog post was promised to you many moons ago, and I procrastinated for quite some time. The reasons were many, and mostly they were stupid, such as, "I need to make another coffee first". Lame!

Regardless, I have now compiled some information for all of you, namely the ladies, on key pieces of clothing and gear that I find useful for various alpine applications. I guess I'd be lying if I didn't say there will also be an emphasis on the "cuteness factor" of a certain piece of clothing, because let's be honest, making your butt look good is a key element of clothing "functionality," just as water-tight zippers and chest pockets are. This can be taken too far though...

I will try to be as specific as possible about why I like each piece described below, and how they factor in to a specific clothing system. I've also got a few "gear hacks" to share with you: Some cool little tricks I've learned along the way to turn a semi-functional piece of gear, into a high functioning performance machine. As well I've included a "thinking outside the box" chapter where I reveal some creative uses for some MEC gear. 

First off, I want to include a minor caveat. My primary sponsor is Mountain Equipment Co-op, so naturally, the clothing and gear I am going to review here, is MEC product. Before signing off from regular society and becoming a dirtbag, I was employed by MEC for four years, working in their Vancouver corporate office. They were fantastic employers, and to be given the opportunity to represent the Co-op as a full-time sponsored athlete was pretty much the opportunity of a lifetime. Because of my longstanding relationship with MEC, I've had the incredible opportunity to work closely with MEC's design team on new product, and tweeks to old product. I must say I am supremely impressed with the work MEC has done so far. So much has changed for our beloved Co-op over the last six years. MEC works with some of the newest and most effective textiles available. The design team also places special emphasis on making gear that looks awesome, while still being super functional. No more Rad Pants here, people. Below I will share with you some of these pieces that I think really exemplify this change in direction for the Co-op. I'm proud to wear MEC gear, and I feel that a little shout out needs to be given to the incredible work they are doing behind the scenes. I think it's time we all take notice.

Let me introduce some of the design team to you. MEC's marketing team has put together these great product videos. They make me laugh everytime I watch one. First off meet MEC's pack designers James, and Mark. These guys are the masterminds behind the Travel Pack series, and Alpinelite pack series, both of which I'll share more about with you below.

Meet Kerri McKenzie, MEC's Materials Developer, and Spring Harrison, Backcountry Apparel Designer. Kerri and Spring are both some of the best dressers I know, they're also just really nice people and have awesome ideas.

And, last but definitely not least, meet Katy Holm, my climbing mentor, turned friend, turned MEC Women's Alpine Apparel Product Manager. As this video describes, Katy and I first met on a climbing trip to Joshua Tree in 2005! It was love at first sight. For me at least. Hahaha!

After that, Katy kind of took me under her wing. She helped teach me how to traditional climb, and took me out for my first real multi-pitch climb up Freeway on the Chief. It pretty much blew my mind. I can't believe she was willing to take me up that thing! Katy also happens to have an impressive list of accomplishments both on the rock, and in the mountains. I look up to her, but she's also just a really good friend.

A memorable photo for me. Katy takes on the crux pitch of Freeway, 5.11d while I belay from a granite perch 300 m off the deck. I was delirious with fear at this point. Photo, Jeremy Frimer.

And here's the real hero shot. Katy climbs through the crux with nothing but air between her and the ground. I think by this point, if Katy wasn't already my hero, which she was, she was going to be after this pitch! Photo, Jeremy Frimer.

I really just had to include this for a laugh. This is Katy's husband, and my good buddy, Kelly. It kills me to see the look on Katy's face here! Photo, Jeremy Frimer.
Fast forward to today, and Katy's responsible for the whole women's alpine collection at MEC! I couldn't think of a better person for the job. Now, I get to hang with Katy and her family in the boulders around Squamish as I always have, but we can talk gear at the same time too! It's pretty fun!

What I Wear

I originally wanted to share clothing systems specific to my season in Patagonia, but since returning home in February, I've been doing a lot of ice climbing, so might as well share some systems that work for this too. First up we'll focus on some days in the mountains in southern Argentina.

Climbing in the austral summer of Patagonia is not that unlike alpine climbing in the boreal summer of British Columbia so my systems and recommendations are applicable to those of you who don't intend to make the pilgrimage to Patagonia any time soon as well. Let's start with what I wear for long days of alpine rock climbing.

My go-to baselayer for most alpine climbing is the T1 Long Sleeved Zip-T. It's a silk weight layer that I find comfortable next to skin when wet from sweat, and also dries quickly. It's a versatile piece because of it's high spandex content making it extra stretchy, but also prevents it from bagging out. There's nothing I hate more than a piece of clothing that gets sloppy and baggy when I sweat in it. Finally, the fabrication makes it nice and slippery against your skin, and any piece you layer over it. So the T1 won't grab and bunch as you're pulling on your Obsession Jacket over top. OK, I'd be foolish if I didn't mention too that this piece comes in the coolest prints. I mean seriously, ladies, check them out!

This season in Patagonia I pretty much used the new Obsession Hoodie everytime I went into the mountains. Why you might ask? I am the worst kind of person for high output days in the mountains. Once you get me going I sweat like a horse, but everytime I stop I seize up in cold spasms. Seriously, it's annoying. The Obsession seems to be the best of both worlds. It's made of highly breathable lightweight soft-shell, but also lined with Polartec Alpha insulation (apparently an award winning textile) where it matters. Also, I'm always a sucker for generously stretchy fabric that allows unimpeded freedom of motion when I'm climbing, and the Obsession has that.

For big days in the mountains in Patagonia I wore the T1 Long Sleeved Zip-T and the Obsession Hoodie for the duration of the day. The remainder of my layers came on and off as needed.

Next up is the oh-so-awesome Farpoint Jacket. This jacket is the most versatile piece of clothing that MEC makes in my opinion. As you'll recall from my previous "The Gear I Love" blog post I rambled on and on about the importance of a throw on layer that packs neatly into a tiny pouch and can be attached to your harness with a carabiner. Well, the same still stands. The Farpoint packs away into a tiny compartment but offers some serious weather protection against the wind. A biting wind more than a lot of other "elements" can make a climber cold, so having the ability to add degrees of warmth to your body with a tiny 106 g jacket is amazing! I typically layer the Farpoint over the Obsession at belays, or when the wind picks up while climbing. The Farpoint and Obsession jackets do have similar degrees of wind permeability, but I feel that adding one more layer of protection seems to do the trick to really shut down the system to a cold wind.

Finally, I'll bring along the Uplink Vest to throw on for the rappels, or if I am getting really cold sitting at a belay. The Uplink uses lightweight synthetic PrimaLoft Gold fill. It's surprisingly compressible and also packs into a tiny little pocket that can be thrown into your followers pack, or clipped to your harness.

This season in Patagonia for bottoms I pretty much climbed exclusively in the UpTrack Pant. I can't find it on these days, which leads me to believe that they've sold out? So, make sure you jump on a pair when they turn up again for fall/winter 2015! Alright, what is so great about these pants? They're a special soft-shell fabrication created by MEC's design team. Instead of just being your typical highly stretchy, unlined soft-shell there is an embedded layer that adds a degree of warmth to the pant. The pants are intended for colder weather ice climbing, and backcountry pursuits, but for me, I found them perfect for alpine climbing in Patagonia.

The textile is supremely durable. My current pair doesn't have a nick or scratch to speak of, and I'm not kind to my pants. They've got a solid amount of stretch and therefore lots of range of motion. Remember, you always want to find a pair of pants for the mountains that allow enough freedom of movement so you can easily highstep. There's nothing worse than sketching out on a pitch and not being able to high step your foot easily because your pants are too tight, or lack stretch.

I'm usually not a fan of cargo pockets on mountain pants, but low and behold, I kind of like it on these pants. I always have a tube of SPF lip balm, some hair elastics, and a gel in my pocket while I'm climbing in the mountains. This cargo pocket seems to be just the right size for all those things. Lastly, and of course, maybe the most important, they look cute on! They're skinny, but not too skinny. There is enough room in the cuff to fit over your mountain boot. One word of advice: MEC recently changed their fit blocks, and where I would normally fit into a size 4 or 6 pant, I'm now wearing a size 8 UpTrack Pant. So, Ladies keep this in mind when you're selecting your size.

Below are some clothing system samples, but there are many ways to wear the pieces described above. That's what makes them so great, they're versatile!

Here's a system I used for a day of alpine rock climbing on Aguja Guillaumet.  My next-to-skin layer was the T1 Long Sleeved Zip-T, followed by the Obsession Hoodie, and finally the Farpoint Jacket. The weather was warm enough that I simply wore the UpTrack pant and no long johns. These pants are warm enough on their own that this is a great option when you think you'll be getting pretty toasty while climbing.
The Farpoint Jacket, and UpTrack Pants in action on Aguja de L'S. Photo, Jenny Abegg.

Here is the clothing system I wore to climb a great 5. 11 rock route on Aguja Medialuna, just below the east face of Cerro Torre. For more versatility, I wore the Sparrow Grass Short Sleeved as my next-to-skin layer. Then the Obsession Hoodie, The Farpoint Jacket, and finally the UpLink vest for rappelling and shady belays. I also paired the UpTrack pant with the T1 Long John because the day was forecasted to be quite cold. The T1 Long John has all the same great features as the T1 Long Sleeved Zip-T described above.  
I've just described clothing systems for purely alpine rock climbing in Patagonia. Now, I want to take a second to share some systems specific to snow and ice climbing in southern Argentina. As a baselayer I use the T2 Zip-T. It's made of Polartec Power Dry, so is a degree warmer than the T1 layer. I pair the T2 Zip-T with my all time favourite MEC piece the, Alpine Refuge Jacket. Recall if you will that when in motion I sweat like a horse. It's embarrassing. So regardless of the temperature for snow and ice climbing, I almost always wear simply a base layer followed by the Alpine Refuge Jacket. Seems crazy, but I start to get slow when I overheat and this system seems to manage my temperature for me. I'll get into what I throw on over these pieces at belays shortly.

The Alpine Refuge Jacket, ah the Refuge Jacket. This might be the single best piece of clothing or gear, outside of the renowned Genie Pack, that MEC has produced. The Refuge is made of a wickedly stretchy nylon and is pared down to the bare essentials; No pit zips only two simple hip pockets, and a fully adjustable hood, that's about it. What really sells this jacket is that it operates as if it were a soft-shell. It's a highly stretchy and smooth fabrication all the while being waterproof. It's soft-shell qualities also make it highly breathable, hence why I like it for high output snow and ice adventures. Unlike standard 3 ply Gore-Tex this jacket has a ton of give when you're moving. In fact, I don't think it offers any restriction in movement at all for me. 

When I start to get cold, either while climbing, or at belays I throw on the ever trusty Uplink Vest. Finally, the down Light Degree Hoodie Jacket goes on over everything. Here's a word of advice when selecting a belay jacket. Always keep in mind that this piece needs to fit over a bunch of layers. Throwing on a jacket that is too tight will only make you colder as it will restrict movement and blood flow. My Light Degree is a size medium and I can wear it comfortably over my Alpine Refuge and/or Uplink Vest. There are some rad changes coming to MEC's insulation line, so the Light Degree is actually about to be revamped. I'll share more about it's replacement below. 

Finally, the good ol' UpTrack Pants on bottom with the T1 Long John work quite nice.   

Here's the system described above, in action. Apologies for the look of pure misery on my face. That story is for another time. Regardless, here we have the Alpine Refuge Jacket, with the Light Degree Jacket thrown over top at a belay on Cerro Piergiorgio in Patagonia. Photo, Colin Haley.

A photo from the same adventure. As you can see, I threw on the UpLink Vest over my whole system for extra warmth while we completed the raps. Note to self, I should probably get a size medium UpLink Vest for future use too. This is a size small, and doesn't quite work to throw over the whole shebang. Photo, Colin Haley.
Like I mentioned above, after coming home from Patagonia I decided it was high time I really learned how to ice climb. My impression of real ice climbing was that it...well...sucked. But, turns out it's kind of fun! I think I've been able to dial into a clothing system that really works for me. So here we go.

The best way for me to manage heat while climbing is to pair the T1 Long Sleeved Zip-T with the Alpine Refuge Jacket. Notice in the photo below this seasons seriously lovely purple Alpine Refuge! As described above, the silk weight baselayer paired with the Alpine Refuge provides the perfect amount of "weather" protection while climbing ice, and also a supreme amount of stretchability and breathability. I discovered that climbing ice without a hood on means you've got cold ice bits dribbling down your back all day. I'm happy to report that the Alpine Refuge hood fits quite nice and again, that stretchy fabrication allows you to turn your head side to side really easily while climbing.

If it's pretty cold out, I'll climb with the Uplink Vest on and tucked under my harness too. And finally, tucked into it's stow pocket and attached to my harness and ready to be pulled out for belays is the brand spanking new Spicy Jacket. This yet-be-released jacket is insulated with 850 fill down. It's light as air and again, in a size medium I can easily pull it on over all my layers. 

I climbed exclusively in the UpTrack Pant again, paired with the T1 Long John. The UpTrack Pant offers a ton of stretch, it's perfect for waterfall ice climbing. I've included the women's Freeride Glove  in the picture below as they were my go-to ice climbing glove this season. I'll explain them in greater detail below.

Here is my typical system for a day of waterfall climbing on a relatively mild day.  The T1 Long Sleeved T-Zip followed by the Alpine Refuge Jacket and the Uplink Vest for added warmth. Then, I carry the Spicy Jacket on my harness to pull out for belays. On the bottom I wear the T1 Long John, and the UpTrack Pant. I've included the women's Freeride Gloves here, as my go-to waterfall climbing glove.

There were a couple times this season where it was pretty cold during our day of climbing. In these instances I brought out the big guns, the brand new Socked In Jacket. Again, this piece won't be released until fall/winter 2015 but it's going to be well worth the wait. Here's what's so awesome about it. For one, look at the beautiful floral liner on the inside of the jacket. I mean, come on, it's killin' me! The jacket is effectively an Uplink Jacket on the inside, and a proprietary waterproof-breathable on the outside. It's an insulated storm proof jacket. So, on really cold days I'd leave behind either the Uplink Vest, or Spicy Jacket and throw the Socked In Jacket in the followers pack so I could throw it on as a belay parka. Maybe what also sells me on this jacket is the fact that it's so flatteringly cut. It's got the cutest little drop tail on the back, which Ladies, as we all know does wonders for the backside. 

"New, new. Ain't come out yet!" ~ Outkast. Here's the Socked In Jacket to be released for fall/winter 2015. Check out the awesome floral pint on the inside!

The above clothing system in action on Colfax Pk. Photo, Colin Haley.

Here's a photo from one of the belays on Murchison Falls in the Canadian Rockies. I've got the Spicy Jacket on to keep me toasty until I blast upward and put the Spicy back into it's pouch and clip it to my harness. Photo, Seth Adams.

And here's a shot of a colder day climbing on the Stanley Headwall in the Canadian Rockies. As we rack up I've got the Alpine Refuge, Spicy Jacket, and Socked In Jacket all on to keep me toasty before starting up. Once we left the ground though, I left the Socked In Jacket behind. Photo, Seth Adams.

Gear Hacks

I like to think of myself as a creative person, but let me tell you, next to my boyfriend Colin, I look like an old cat lady who likes to drink warm milk every night before going to bed. So I can't take full credit for some of these creative gear hacks. Most of them are derivations of tricks I've learned from Colin. Regardless, this information should be shared!

Alpinelite 50 Backpack

First up, the MEC AlpineLite 50 Backpack. I love this pack. It's my go-to pack for carrying big loads in the mountains. I use it to hike into the various climber bivy's in Patagonia, or to walk a big rack and rope up to the Top Shelf in Squamish -- it's a 45 minute approach straight up hill. The first image is the Alpinelite 50 as it comes straight out of the box. It is hard to tell, but the hipbelt that accompanies it is overkill. It's highly padded and bulky. Amazingly, the MEC pack designers James and Mark were one step ahead of us, and designed the hipbelt from the Alpinelite 50 and Alpinelite 35 to be removable and interchangeable! Perfect!

The bottom two images are my tweeked Alpinelite 50 with the Alpinelite 35 hip belt. The Alpinelite 35 hipbelt is lightly padded and narrower. I've never felt discomfort hauling this pack around full of climbing gear and food rations and it saves a few grams off the weight of the Alpinelite 50. I'd encourage you to consider giving this a try!

In my previous "The Gear I Love" blog post you might recall I waxed on and on about the Travel Light pack series. Originally created as an ultralight pack for international travellers, it just so happens that it works perfectly as a leader or followers pack in the mountains. Below is an image of a Travel Light Top Load pack straight out of the box. The image below that, shows a tweek I made to mine while in Patagonia. In the mountains you often want a mountaineering axe, or technical tools for the approach, descent, or during the climb. I added 4 mm cord to the bottom two webbing loops, and then sewed in some additional cord to the webbing attached at mid-height so I could attach two  Velcro ice tool closure loops. Hard to describe really, but the image below gives a good visual. 

Turns out, I came up with this idea all by myself! On one particular outing to the mountains for some alpine ice climbing I carried my Petzl Quarks with me. They have a full aluminium shaft and on this particularly cold day everytime I grabbed my tools by the shaft, my hands froze right through my gloves. Add to that, the shafts were super slippery. After that trip I decided to seek out some sticky hockey tape. I grew up in a hockey family, so was well familiar with the tricks hockey players use to have better grip on their sticks.

Enter 3M's Hockey Grip Tape. This stuff is amazing. Simply wrap the shafts in the tape and suddenly your tools are stickier when grabbing them by the shaft, and there's a tiny bit of insulation now to keep the biting cold from transferring from the tools to your hands.

The pink Quarks in action! Photo, Colin Haley.

Web Source 1/4" (6.5MM) Shock Cord

This one is simple and most likely you do this already. But, I still wanted to share because it can mean the difference between a bearable walk of shame or an unbearable walk of shame. The UpTrack Pants, and many other MEC alpine bottoms come with small eyelets at the ankle. These eyelet's are for attaching a piece of shock cord and will act as a gaitor when trudging through knee deep isothermic snow. It's a tricky job to get the length of the shock cord just right, but if you have your pants and boots on during the process you'll be able to gauge the optimal length for high step mobility, while holding the pants snug enough around your boots to keep the snow out. 

Thinking Outside the Box

Alright, we're down to the last "chapter" of this overwhelmingly long gear post. I may not be the most "creative" person when it comes to tweeking existing gear, but I am good at thinking outside of the box and finding ways to use gear that others may never consider. Let me share a few of them with you here.

Reactor Explorer 2.5 Pad (Kids)

Yes, this is a kids self-inflating sleeping pad. But, for us Ladies it's also just a perfectly fitted women's ultralight sleeping pad. I used this pad exclusively in Patagonia. It's light, take a look at the stats. It weights 510 g and is 150 cm long. I'm 5'7 and it works perfectly for me if I place a back pack at my feet. The MEC women's specific Reactor pad is 660 g and 171 cm long. Not that much more length, and 150 g heavier. The Thermarest ProLite in size small weights only 335 g, but is a measly 115 cm long. To top it all off, the kid's Reactor pad is $59 compared to roughly $75 for the other two.

Freeride Glove

The women's Freeride Gloves are obviously designed for just that, Freeriding. But, as a waterfall ice climbing glove they work perfectly. Sufficient amount of insulation, and lots of dexterity and are lined with a waterproof-breathable membrane. I've got really stubby fingers, and the size extra small fits great. For waterfall climbing dexterity is kind of key, so finding a glove that fits stubby fingers is a big win.