Thursday, October 31, 2013

Adding Rocker to my Rock Skis (a TR and How To)

So I added some rocker to my old Black Diamond Voodoo skis on Sunday as I waited for the first arctic blast of the season. The process was surprisingly easy and seems to have went well though only time will tell if the shape holds or if the tips break off.

The Rationale

Digging trenches with the Voodoos in Cascades Concrete.

At 88 underfoot with minimal tip and tail rise, the Voodoos are fun in powder but distinctly not in heavy or crusty snow where the tips tend submarine. Even with the vertical din on my Dynafit ST bindings set to 9 I've released out of them just by getting them stuck in a wet snow bank. In heavy slop they tend to want to stay stuck and go straight more than turn. 

Justice vs Voodoo before the Mod.
I haven't really skied them much since I got my much fatter, rockerd Black Diamond Carbon Justices which are a great ski for backcountry descents in the Cascades or here in the Northern Rockies. They surf over soft snow be it mid winter powder or spring slop. Part of this is their 111 underfoot width and part of it is their modern rockered shape. In cut up refrozen and remelted Cascades styrofoam snow you can just tilt them on edge and ride the rocker around in big turns. 

The Justices can be a bit much on the up though. At 8 lbs for my 175s they are only 3/4 of a pound per pair heavier then the Voodoos but wider skins and more snow on top add weight. A bigger issue is the increased effort to side hill on firm snow while skinning. This all adds up when you're trying to pull off a long day of powder skiing.

After the Mod
This has lead me to wonder about skis with a modern soft snow geometry in a skinnier package. There are actually a few of these out there with the Black Diamond Current being the most intriguingly modern powder ski shaped I've seen and coming in around 6 lbs in 175 for the new 2013/14 model (last years is heavier). The La Sportiva GTR, Dynafit Cho Oyu and G3 Zenoxide C 88 also offer a bit of rocker and impressively light weights but look to be a bit more hard pack focused which is not what I want.

None of these skis are cheap so I decided to see if I could make my Voodoos into something even more powder focused and give them a test in the full on blower powder on rocks conditions our early season snow pack is sure to entail. Whats more, I can add as much rocker as I want and see if I can come up with a true skinny soft snow ski instead of trying to balance hard snow performance which I really don't particularly need. I think backcountry ski manufacturers are too often held hostage to the fact that their skis will be reviewed and demoed on groomers at events like Outdoor Retailer. The vast majority of my skiing is on soft snow and I'm willing to have to pick and sideslip my way down scraped out egress trails if it means I can surf over slop and breakable crust.

The Supplies

  • Bit of closet rod or wide dowel.
  • Heat Gun Capable of reaching around 1000 Degrees F

The Process

The First Bend

The Second Bend
Here is the process I used. I think this would differ widely for different types of ski material but this seems to have worked well for my wood and fiberglass Voodoos. I also would only do this with skis you don't mind risking total destruction as there is a possibility of weakening the ski or causing delamination. 
  1. Rig up the ski as shown, include a Voile strap between the bindings to hold the camber flat. You may want to make a few bends to get an even rocker, start near the tip and work back.
  2. Set up a work station with a chair on either side of the skis and grab some entertainment. I watched Futuama on netflix on my phone. The time remaining counter doubles as a timer which is nice.
  3. Turn the heat gun on and let it warm up. I set mine to the max around 1100 F and slow air flow.
  4. Heat each side of the ski for 5 minutes keeping the gun moving and being careful to avoid the voile strap. Be precise and watch the time (this is where the Futurama comes in) to keep things even. At first I tried switching back and forth every two minutes but I think doing each ski for a full five minutes at once works better. You only need to get the inside of the skis to around 200 degrees so keep the air moving. I got some top sheet bubbles but I think that is fine.
  5. Allow the skis to cool for at least an hour before removing the forms.
  6. Remove the forms, inspect and repeat steps 1-5 for any additional bends needed. If the skis get uneven, repeat the steps but only heat the less bent side (maybe for less time depending on how uneven the skis are). I made 4 bends plus one bend to only one ski to even things out. If you need to make a bend further up towards the tip than one of your existing bends, loosen the strap around the bindings to release the camber so that you aren't flattening your existing bends at the same time.
  7. Rig up the clamp and dowel to be outside your widest bend so that all the beds are under tension and leave the skis overnight. I plan on letting them sit for a while longer before testing them to make sure the epoxy has reset and because we still need more snow.

The Results

I'll do a follow up once I've had a chance to ski them and see if the shape change lasts but the difference is visibly noticeable and i'm excited to try them. I'm debating adding a bit of tail rocker though the twin tip on the Voodoo already works a bit like that. After I have a chance to ski them I may also add more rocker to the front either pushing further back towards the binding or adding more curve towards the tips.

Oh yeah

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Scouting A Ski Tour Before the Storm

This is not a trip report with a map or a location. Rather, it is an encouragement to study maps, dig for clues in old books and online and go out and find an amazing spot that is new to you and do something cool there.

Saturday may have been the last summer like day of the year. An arctic blast arrived Sunday afternoon and the mountains are now sprinkled with snow. Taking advantage of splitter blue skies Saturday we set out to hike another new-to-us bitterroot peak. We found excellent warm fall conditions and a stunning spot we are sure to revisit on skis. Yet another reminder of what brought us to Montana and why we created Hillmap.

Sunday I prepped ski gear. More on that later.

Somebody dug up a bee hive for a snack. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Companies that make ethical down jackets and sleeping bags

I became a vegetarian at age 16 after driving past stinky, stinky feed lots full of miserable cows in my home state, Iowa.  It took me until a couple years ago to realize that down can also come from miserable geese subjected to all sorts of things I'd rather not think about.

I'm not the only one, and many outdoor companies have responded by doing their best to source down produced in the most humane way possible.  The general agreement is that the most ethical down is not live-plucked off birds, but comes from geese killed for food - not including foie gras.  If you want more info, see the resource links at the bottom of this post.

In my experience, there are some outdoor garments that perform best when made with down.  Synthetic insulation just doesn't last as long or give as much warmth for the weight - not to mention poofy comfort.  So, I set out to research which companies are making the most ethical down jackets and sleeping bags.  Tip: some companies reserve their ethical down for a few select products, and their cost reflects the materials.


Patagonia has long been a leader in good environmental and business practices.  However, in 2010 they received a surprise attack by the German organization Four Paws, which claimed that they were using live-plucked down.  Patagonia denied this, but then did the right thing and followed up on their supply chain.  Turns out they were using live-plucked down, even though the company they purchased down from certified that their down was from the food industry.  Finally, in January 2013, Patagonia was able to certify that its Ultralight down line is not sourced from live-plucked geese or geese raised for foie gras.

I tell this story to illustrate the complexity of sourcing humane down, and to give a shout out to Patagonia's transparency and work to audit their supply themselves.

Mountain Equipment

Mountain Equipment "aims to have the most comprehensive and transparent auditing mechanism for our down supply chain of any outdoor manufacturer in the world."  Their website has great information on how they audit their down, and where their different down comes from.  Not all of their down fills are verified as ethical down yet, the ones that are: 850 fill goose down sleeping bags, 725 fill duck down sleeping bags, 675 fill duck down sleeping bags, 750 goose down clothing.

Mountain Equipment does not audit their down sourcing themselves but outsources it to International Down and Feather Laboratory.


Tundra is an interesting company that uses down harvested from geese nests to fill their sleeping bags. They say that the geese get to live like wild geese too.  I have never had the opportunity to handle a Tundra bag, if you have, I'd love to know your thoughts!

Brooks Range Mountaineering

When I contacted Brooks Range they didn't give any details, but said that all of their down is a by product of the meat industry, and does not include down from geese raised for foie gras.


When I contacted REI they responded that they are "committed to only using down and feathers from animals treated in an ethical and humane manner."  They are working to "track and validate" that their products are made with down that meets their policy.  Reading between the lines it sounds like REI is on the right track, but not yet 100% sure that all of their their down comes from ethical sources.

Mountain Hardwear

Mountain Hardware says that they are "committed to ensuring that the natural goose down used as insulation in many of our products is obtained from suppliers that employ humane harvesting methods." Not live plucking.  This language is vague, and when I contacted them for more information they said that it is proprietary information.  However the person who emailed me said, "I can state that all our down products are made with ethical down."

Do I believe that?  Absolutely not.  From my research it seems that there are many responsible companies in the outdoor industry that are working on ways to certify that the down they use is actually 100% humanely harvested.  But there is no certification yet.  And companies that are transparent about their sourcing, such as Patagonia, show how and why it is so difficult to trace the origin of all of the down used in their products.  Unless Mountain Hardwear is sure enough of their down sourcing to be transparent about it, I think they are making an overstatement that all of their down products are made with ethical down.

Ethical Down Certification

There is no industry wide certification for ethical down at this point, but they are working on it. Patagonia, REI and others are involved with the Outdoor Industry Association's Sustainability Working Group to tackle the problem of sourcing and certifying ethical down.  

These companies will continue to pursue better certification for ethical down as long as there is a demand for it.  I think it is worth it to save and buy an expensive down jacket or sleeping bag from a company that is making the effort to create an ethical product.

Follow up

I researched and contacted a range of companies for this article, and have not heard back from most.  If there are more companies that should be added to this list, let me know.  I'll pass along what I find out.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A Fall Day up Mill Creek and Dry Sautéing Wild Chanterelles

We've spent a bit of time climbing at the north rim of Mill Creek and even hiked up to the falls before but we've never been past that. Saturday we set out to rectify that.

The high cliffs and lack of trees from the 2000 Blodgett Fire make Mill Creek one of the most scenic-from-the start hikes in the Bitterroots. The giant sized helping of fall colors we've got this year thanks to a cold-but-dry October only accentuate this.

As with neighboring Blodgett Canyon the trail enters the forest again after 4 or 5 miles. We kept chugging for a bit and then spotted a surprisingly fresh Chanterelle Mushroom. Chanterelles were one of our favorite mushrooms in the Cascades but this was the first time we've found any in the Rockies.

I had wondered if Chanterelles even grew in the Bitterroots but now I think that we just have more to learn about the seasons here. I had assumed that it had gotten too cold for Chanterelles but the ones we found were in good condition. Perhaps with more time and more exploring we'll even learn to find our other favorite fall mushroom, Matsutakes, again.

We spent some time poking around the woods out there and found enough mushrooms for an excellent fall dinner of Chanterelle tacos with a mild brie and baby kale. 

I highly recommend this as a simple and quick recipe perfect for post hike. Make sure you "Dry Saute" the mushrooms as described in All That the Rain Promises and More. Tear the mushrooms into long shreds and then start cooking the mushrooms in a hot cast iron pan with a bit of salt but no oil. All of the water from the moist forest and any washing you do will boil out of them and you can pour it off and then add butter.

Pairs well with a single hop ale from Bitterroot Brewery.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Will the Rab Stretch Neo Pant keep me toasty on cold ski tours?

Me just after dropping off a ridge line in a poofy coat and softshell pants with cold legs last season.

I have a problem with cold legs when I get up high on a windy ridge.

I've been a dedicated user of softshell pants for years. I've written about my layering system before but, even in the rainy Cascades and Olympics I'd wear my Rab Exodus softshell pants for days skiing in the rain. I didn't even own a pair of hardshell pants for a few years.

I'm using the terms softshell/hardshell in the classic sense. A softshell is a highly breathable non-membrane, non-waterproof fabric as opposed to a less breathable fabric that includes a waterproof membrane.  Some manufactures have started to use the term softshell to refer to any stretchy garment, which confuses the issue. The Exodus pants aren't fully waterproof but with a fresh DWR the only time you'll really notice this is sitting on a soaked ski lift seat or wading through wet snow or brush. They breath much better than any hardshell and they are perfect for a typical day yo-yoing in the Cascade backcountry.

Versatility and ventilation options are key in touring pants like the Exodus pants shown here. 
However, they also offer less protection from the wind than a membrane garment. Last winter, after we moved to Montana, I started to feel like I needed something more. As we tackled days with more vert in colder temps, I'd find that my legs were too warm skinning uphill in the sun but too cold up on a windy Bitterroot ridge line. I needed a system that combined the breathability of my softshells on the ups with better wind protection and warmth retention up high.

First Look at the Rab Stretch Neo

After shopping around quite a bit I found a pair of Rab Stretch Neo Pants deeply discounted in's outlet section. I'll do a full review once I've used them in a variety of conditions but here are some initial notes covering features and fit.

The most exciting thing about the Stretch Neo is that it is made from Neoshell. This is a new waterproof shell fabric from Polartech designed to compete with Goretex and eVent by offering increased breathability at the expense of some wind protection. All the reviews I've read of this fabric are positive. My hope is that it will block enough wind to be warmer than my softshell's on exposed ridges yet still breath well. The thiner fabric of the Neos also makes them a few ounces lighter than my Exodus pants which is an added bonus.

The second most exciting thing about the Stretch Neo pants is the 3/4 side zip. I use the zip thigh vents on my exodus pants all the time and I think the longer side zips on the Neo will allow even more ventilation. My hope is that these zippers will allow them to be almost as cool as the exodus while skinning while offering better protection from cold winds up high, allowing me to get by with a thinner base layer.

The zippers also allow me to take the pants on and off even while wearing my mondo size 27.5 Scarpa Maestrali ski boots. This isn't quite as easy as it would be with full side zips but I may experiment with wearing thin softshells and carrying the Neo's in my pack as an add on layer on trips with especially variable conditions.

I sized up to extra large as there were no larges available but am happy with the fit. The pants are a trimmer climbing oriented cut so they are less baggy than many ski pants even when sized up. They will also fit over a variety of layers when needed. They have a highly elastic waste band which should keep them secure and also include belt loops and 4 attachment points for suspenders.The tag at the back can be used as a middle attachment point for three point suspenders like my Outdoor Research Suspenders.

The Stretch Neo's have a simple cuff with a drawstring, a button and two grommets to attach a bit of elastic to in place of gaiters. It is wide enough to slide over the top of my ski boots without too much trouble. They include a section of burly fabric on the inner ankle for protection from ski edges and crampon points.

They lack hip or butt pockets but have two pockets which should be fine for maps, cliff blocks and other things I generally keep in pants pockets. They are less stretchy than my softshells but do give more then some hardshells.

This years version looks similar but comes in Spring Green as well as black.

Some Other Options

I'm hoping I get a chance to test these pants doing this soon!

During my search I decided I wanted to stick with something lightish and with the flexibility of a pant
instead of a bib but I considered a number of options that either offered better wind protection in a single garment or as an add on layer.

Despite good early reviews of Neoshell, the Stretch Neo's are the only lightish side zip pants made from it that I am aware of. Since I originally wrote this post GoLite has come out with a line of Crestone NeoShell Jackets and Pants that look like a great light and affordable option if you don't mind storm flaps instead of waterproof zips. They have some nice looking Eolus Power Shield soft shells as well.

There are also a couple of bibs available this year or next including Eddie Bauer's First Ascent's Neoteric Removable Bib and Brooks Range's intriguing Neoshell bottom/fleece top Armor Suit.

Flylow Compound Neoshell Ski Pants

There are also some of heavier Neoshell ski specific pants available now or soon including some from Flylow, the Mountain Equipement Arclight and Rab Wasatch.

Some of the stand out pants made from other fabrics are:

Patagonia's Knife Blade Pants which are made from Polartech Power Shield Pro which is a membrane softshell that is supposedly almost-but-not-quite waterproof but offers great wind protection. Colin Haley gives a glowing review here but I decided that I needed more ventilation options.

Outdoor Research's Furio, Patagonia's Triolet and Arc'teryx's Beta AR Pants which are all made from Gortex but have full side zips.

Rab's Latok Alpine Pant are made from eVent which is reputably more breathable than Goretex and have partial side zips like the Neo.

Camp's Magic, and Flash Competition are light wind pants designed as add layers for ski mountaineering races or fast packing. The light weight of these pants makes them really intriguing but I don't think they would hold up well to the often brushy skiing we do.