Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Photos From A Late Fall Inversion

The Bitterroot has been in the grips of a late fall inversion. Days dawn with blue skies and temperatures around 12 F.

This change in weather has prompted a reinvigoration in my interest in trail running. We've gotten just enough snow to offer a taste of the coming winter but not enough for the skiing to be really good.

The running however is phenomenal. Hoar frost and frozen leaves crunch under foot and familiar vistas are made new again.

Most of these photos were shot up Blodgett but even the town park has been filled with cold weather surprises like a fuzzy friend waiting on a log or a bald eagle surveying the frozen river.

Sunday we headed up to Lolo pass for some mellow turns. The snow was crusty, thin and covered in hoarfrost but the views were stelar. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Pocket Wilderness

Signs of Beaver in Hamilton's River Park

I've always been attracted to the small wild places. Growing up near Puget Sound I would seek out the one spot of old growth Madrona forests along the see cliffs or run deep into the old clearcuts around my town to find a lonely spot with a view of the Olympic mountains.

A view up towards Blodgett Canyon a few minutes form our house on foot. 

In Seattle we lived near Discovery Park. It is hardly untouched but you could still find solitude and a view on some of the less traveled trails and beaches.

And another a few days later with more snow.

Now I am fortunate to live near the edge of one of the largest bits of Wilderness areas in the lower 48 states. We can be somewhere truly wild and remote with a days walk. I still treasure the small places though. The places you can reach after work or on a morning run. The places you can get to without needing a car.

Blodgett canyon is a long bike or run or a 15 minute drive from our house.

I think that everybody needs such places. A place you can go to catch the evening light after a crazy day or to be somewhere wild before a day at a desk be it a town park or a nearby trailhead.

A beaver pond up Blodgett.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Boulders and crags under snow up Roaring Lion Creek

Last week's storm cycle blanketed the valleys as well as the peaks in the Bitterroot.

To my eyes, the first few snowfalls accentuate the landscape.  Shadowy trees and rocks that usually blend into the background stand out starkly in their frosty finery.

We brought both snowshoes and chacos - but used neither.  The slippery log above saved us from wet, cold feet.  We'll need another storm or two before snowshoes would be useful down low.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Backcountry Ski Gear on the Cheap, Fall 2013

I'm not planing on buying any new ski gear this winter but I can't help watching for deals so I thought I'd compile a list of some of the best deals I've seen this fall and some of the tricks we used to gear up on a budget in past years. The links in this post are affiliate links so if you buy something through them you are helping us fund hillmap.

Use Coupons and Sales

I've found some great deals using coupons from the Sierra Trading Post deal flyer. They send out a coupon most days. The best one is a coupon for 35% off your entire order that comes out ever two weeks or so. I filter these and all emails from retailers to a "deal offers" folder in gmail so I can ignore them except when I'm looking for something.

For the rest of the day (11/14) you can get an extra 25% off snowsports equipment from REI outlet using the code SAVE25OFF.

Lots of retailers including REI, backcountry.com and campsaver.com have 20% off coupons throughout the year. There should be plenty of these around Thanksgiving and before Christmas.

Don't skimp on Safety

Your friends lives depend on your beacon probe and shovel. This is not the place to skimp on safety or save weight.

You can still save money though as there are sales and your local shop may have a package deal where you can get a discount for buying beacon, shovel and probe at the same time.

Best Deals


You should only consider buying a modern 3 antenna beacon that gets five stars on beaconreviews.com. If a partner shows up with a cheap one antenna Pieps Free Ride I am not going to want to ski with them. The Zoom+ is simple but well reviewed.

Sierra Trading Post also has a few other quality beacons at the moment though coupons don't seem to work on them.

In past years, 20% off REI member coupons have worked on beacons. They stock a lot of them. There should be a coupon around Christmas or Thanksgiving if you can wait that long.


G3 Backcountry.com AviTECH Shovel

You should only consider shovels made from high quality 6061 T6 aluminum. Shovels made from cheaper aluminum or plastic won't stand up as this study shows.

Fortunately, both the top rated shovels in that study can be had affordably. I prefer the G3 Avitech which packs much easier and can be found in this discounted backcountry.com version. The Voile Telepro T6 is also a great choice that isn't that expensive to start with but is slightly harder to pack due to the neck of the shovel blade.


Here is a test of avalanche probes that stresses ease of deployment and sufficient diameter.


The Scarpa Maestrali are light on the feet or after you take them off and strap them to your pack.


Boots play the biggest roll in determining the performance, comfort and ease of touring of your new setup. Different brands and models fit differently so it may be worth buying from a store that can help you find the right fit. Some stores like Second Ascent in Seattle carry last seasons models at discounts as good as you can find online and have knowledgeable staff who can help you get the right fit and mold your heat moldable liners.

Many touring boots also come in several versions a high end carbon version, a stiff and light Grilamid or Pebex (or PX) version and a more affordable but heavier Polyurethane (PU) version in addition to Men's and Women's versions and 3 or 4 buckle versions. Make sure you know what version you are looking at before you decide if it is a good deal.

There are lots of great deals around on previous years' models. I've seen various versions of the Dynafit Zzero which fits narrow feet and the Black Diamond Quadrant Prime and Slant which fit wider feet.

The latest generation of boot are lighter and offer more range of motion for touring if you have a bit more money to spend. The Scarpa Maestrali (similar to the gea/blink/rush/pegasus) started a trend towards $500-600 boots that ski and tour really well. The Pegasus is the most affordable of the line made from PU, with the more expensive versions being stiffer and lighter. I have the orange Maestrali and love them. If you decide to go this way take a look at the Scott Cosmos (last years Garmont branded version had tech fitting issues) and La Sportiva Specter as well. Backcountry.com stocks most of these and some are on sale. 


Dynafit Speed Radical
Dynafit Radical ST
Fritchi Bindings from Sierra Trading Post

It is worth splurging for dynafit bindings as they tour better and weigh less then frame bindings. They rarely go on sale but, if you don't need brakes you can save some money by going with the light and simple Speed Radical. I prefer a binding with ski brakes like the Radical ST for use in avalanche terrain or in bounds where brakes or leashes are required.

If you can't afford Dynafits, sierra trading post has some deals on older Fritschis (use an email list coupon to save even more).


I thoroughly enjoy my BD Justices 

BD, G3 or Dynafit Skis from Gearx
Black Diamond or G3 Skis From Sierra Trading Post

Black Diamond has been continually revamping their ski line for the past few years and there are some great deals around on older models that still ski well. There are also some past season G3s and Dynafits around. I wouldn't recommend anything narrower then 88 underfoot for your only backcountry ski.

My top picks are:

BD Carbon Justice for a powder oriented ski (my review).
BD Drift or Starlet for an all around fat turny ski (Jen's review).
BD Aspect for a ski mountaineering ski

Voile skis are also reasonably priced to start with.


Black Diamond Ascension Climbing Skins from Sierra Trading Post
Cosmetic 2nd G3 or BD Skins from Gearx

Black diamond and G3 both make solid skins that can be found on sale. It used to be G3's had more glide and BD's climbed better but the latest versions from both companies are pretty similar. I recommend nylon skins for your first pair.


You can use your existing 30-40 liter pack but if you have some extra money there are some deals to be had on Black Diamond avalung packs which offer dedicated "wet room" pockets for shovel and skins as well as the avalung safety device which may let you breath in an avalanche burial or tree well.

Adjustable Poles

Black Diamond Adjustable Poles from Sierra Trading Post

If you have them, you can use non adjustable poles or get powder baskets for some trekking poles. A pair of adjustable poles is nice for long tours so you can extend them out to cross country ski lengths for kicking and gliding through long sections of flat.

Puffy Coat

Eddie Bauer also has some sales throughout the year on the super warm Peak XV

Brooks Range from Rei Outlet (act today and use the extra 25% off code).
Bergans Down Parka From The Clymb

If you don't already have one, a nice warm puffy coat is an essential piece of gear for rest stops and for safety should you need to spend the night out. I would use a synthetic for a warmer wet climate, a light down for dry climate and a full on baffled down parka for a very cold climate. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Going Light to Earn Some Early Powder Turns on Ward

While I get my fair share of long days, few would accuse me of going "light and fast" on a regular basis. Jen and my usual style tends more towards well fed and comfortably warm. We also find it hard to pass up opportunities to check out interesting boulders and scenic swimming holes.

Saturday dawned beautiful, blue and sunny. I could see hints powder up high so I decided to experiment with a lighter style then I usually use to see if I could get in a decent bit of skiing despite a late start.

Ward Mountain is kind of my nemesis; I've started up it many times but never summited. This status is more a matter of convenience then anything else. It is 15 minutes from my house and the trail climbs steeply from the trailhead to the summit 5000 feet above. I've never given it a proper attempt but head there after work or late morning when I'm in need of a quad burning workout. Maybe someday I'll be fit enough to but it out in a few hours.

Its low angle upper slopes are covered by a forest that holds powder making it a good spot for mellow and safe skiing. (Map with slope shading.) Too bad they start 3k above the trailhead.  I left the car around 11am in running shoes with my home rockered 88mm underfoot skis strapped to my pack.

I dressed lightly in summer weight softshell pants and a Capilene 4 hoody with no baselayer but packed extra clothes for the upper reaches and a hunters orange vest for safety in the forest down low as hunting season is in full swing.

View from the overhanging boulder overlook.

The biggest move I made to lighten my pack was carrying less water than normal. I strapped a bike bottle to my shoulder strap and brought a Jetboil to melt snow. At the last minute I added a half full Nalgene after I saw how high the snow started from the highway on the drive up. I used some Skratch drink mix in my bike bottle and carried a ziplock of gummy bears in my pocket to keep a stable blood sugar and energy level with minimal breaks.

These moves proved worthwhile and I ran and hiked the first 3000 feet to the top of the clearcut in two hours. I stopped for about 20 minutes to switch to ski boots and eat an energy bar at this point and quickly melted some snow even though I hadn't yet finished my bike bottle. If I do this again I'll leave the extra Nalgene in the car.

I skinned another 1200 feet or so and reached my turn around time at a point along the ridge where you could see the true summit and valley bellow. I was incredibly happy to have got this high in around three and a half hours.

First turns of the season.

The top six hundred feet of skiing was quite enjoyable with boot top powder from the last storm lurking on a decent base. Bellow that I was picking my way through  downed trees and stumps.

I de-skied at the top of the clear cut and booted back down to the overhanging boulder viewpoint where I ate my sandwich, switched back to running shoes and rigged my hunters orange vest as a flag from my skis for the the sunset hike out.

I'm sure I would need more clothing for a windy midwinter storm day but I was pleasantly surprised at how warm, dry and well hydrated I was able to stay while moving quickly. I'll do some full reviews in the near future but I was really happy with both my Cap 4 hoody and Vertical K running shoes. I got back to the car feeling dry and comfortable from head to toe. I look forward to experimenting with this style more.

I also know that, while my home rockered 88mm underfoot skis performed well I'll be seriously tempted to bring the fatter skis next time as they do make those powder filled forest much more fun, especially when logs and stumps lurk not too far down.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Torres del Paine Circuit Map & Photos

Valle Frances

One of my best life decisions was trekking in Patagonia for six weeks in my early twenties.  I went alone, armed with the Lonely Planet Guide to Patagonia and an enormous backpack.  I expected to pick up some backpacking necessities in local shops, and indeed I found everything I needed except a map.

Lago Nordenskjold, I believe

Yes, there were maps, but none with the detail I was hoping for.  Most I found looked like a US national parks map - it shows the trail and information about the area, but not much in the way of topography.  This is true for many international destinations - the United States Geographic Service does an exceptional job producing (expensive to make) topographic maps of the US, and some governments don't want to widely distribute sensitive geographic information to protect national security.

Los Cuernos

Hillmap.com has two different map layers that cover many international locations, including Patagonia and Torres del Paine.  They are not as detailed as the US or Canada map layers, but they display more topographic information than the maps I found at local shops.  It has been a few years, so there may be better maps available now (and if you've been and found great maps, please share in the comments so others will know!)

Here are snapshots of the map layers

Google Terrain and Satellite


I did not take a gps with me, but you can find gpx trax for the Torres del Paine Circuit on the Without Baggage blog, and import the gpx track to hillmap to explore the terrain further on both map layers.

Print a few maps at home for free, and bring them on your trip.  

Los Torres at dawn

Lago Grey

Self portrait

Torres del Paine was one of the parks I visited, and I was ok without a detailed topo map since I stuck to the well worn trail.  All visitors must camp or stay at the hostels along the route, camping where you want is not allowed.  It is possible to get a permit for climbing and other adventures that take you off the main track.  

If I return I will certainly explore beyond the trail.....