Category Archives: Gear

Mount Taylor (Quad-style)

Mount Taylor is a prominent mound north of Grants, named for President Zachary Taylor, a president who is mostly skipped in High School history and, given his period, was probably warlike and otherwise mediocre. Amid the current trend of renaming peaks, I note that it has also been named Cebolleta (tender onion) by the Spaniards, continuing the food-themed naming scheme demonstrated by nearby Sandia (watermelon) and Manzano (apple tree). The Navajo named it Tsodzil (blue bead mountain), one of their boundary peaks along with Blanca, Hesperus, and the San Francisco Peaks. The other local tribes, the Acoma, Hopi, Zuni, and Laguna, predictably gave the large stratovolcano their own names as well. People like to refer to landmarks, and therefore give them names; take your pick.

As it is a big tree-covered mound with Forest roads all over it, one must get creative to make it a challenge, and the best way to do that is the Mount Taylor Quadrathlon, an event almost as old as I am. Starting from the town of Grants, participants (or teams) bike 13 miles to the end of the pavement, run five up graded forest roads, then ski and snowshoe about two apiece to the summit before reversing the process to finish back in town. I was in the area and had the fitness, and in addition to enjoying racing, I believe it is healthy for the mind and ego, so I signed up.

Though I did not take it seriously enough to, say, do intervals, I did want to actually be a contender, so I borrowed my friend Mike’s fast carbon bike, and gave some more thought to gear choices. With six transitions, I focused on minimizing the time they took, which meant using the same shoes and clothing for every activity. To do that, I put flat pedals on Mike’s bike, and borrowed a pair of Altai Hok skis from a friend in Albuquerque, which have both snowshoe-style strap bindings and built-in kicker skins for the steep ascent. I also wore plastic bags inside my running shoes to protect my feet from the starting cold and snow higher up.

In retrospect, I should have focused more on performance, particularly on the ski. I may have saved about a minute per transition, but those six minutes were easily lost on the downhill ski, which was much slower than it would have been on my AT skis. Also, a one-minute transition probably costs 30 seconds or less, since it doubles as a one-minute recovery. In the future, I would still use flats, because it is a mass start and therefore easy to hang with the lead pack on the bike up, but would use aero bars for the descent. I would also use AT skis, which would make the downhill ski both much faster and a semi-recovery period. I would need a spare pair of shoes for the snowshoe, since doing it in my AT boots would be painful and slow.

All those changes might have saved me about ten minutes, enough to place higher, but not to be a contender. I was about 15% off the winning pace, far too much to be made up by better tactics and nutrition, and probably more than I could make up through better training. As I have written before, it is important to know your place, and that is mine. Interestingly, I was not beaten by a bunch of younger guys, but by four men around my age (the winner was 50!) and one woman who I gather has been utterly dominating local races recently. There were plenty of younger participants, but all ended up farther down the leaderboard. While age and place are positively correlated as expected for the top 100 (corr=0.12), they are negatively correlated for the top 20 (-0.20) and 10 (-0.34). Whether this is due to experience, interest, or equipment (i.e. money), I cannot guess.

In any case, conditions were near-ideal for this race through a wide range of ecosystems. A recent storm had added a few inches to the meager La Niña snowpack, but the day was sunny and calm, and the roads had dried the day before. Grants being subject to the high desert’s huge daily temperature swings, it was still in the low 20s for the 8:00 AM start. I easily hung in the lead pack on the flat roll out of town and the gradual lower climb. I seemed to be working slightly less hard than most of the guys (and one woman) around me, so I liked my chances. Unfortunately I had tried to adjust my seat beforehand and, fearful of breaking Mike’s fragile bike, failed to sufficiently tighten the seat post bolt. Therefore by the time we neared the end of the bike, the seat was far too low, slowed in its descent by the tyvek number taped around the seatpost.

A couple of stronger cyclists turned up the pace where the climb steepened, and I made the mistake of trying to keep them in sight. This made no difference in placing, as I passed them in the transition, but did put some hurt in my legs. I lack experience pacing for multi-sport events, but immediately noticed my mistake as my legs were sluggish on the run. I had expected multiple runners from teams to pass me, but only one did on the gradual five mile climb to the ski transition. About half of the road was bare dirt, the other half packed snow.

I liked my chances at the ski transition, and was happy with the Altais, which had just enough grip for most of the steeper parts of the climb. I was passed like I was standing still by one skimo guy, and saw another person behind me going up Heartbreak Hill, but still made decent time. I started losing on the snowshoe, where I walked some gradual uphills that I should have been able to run. I laughed passing the Viking aid station, then started the hike up the summit meadow with the next person just behind, who turned out to be a ridiculously fast woman. We chatted a bit on the climb, then she took off jogging where it flattened out, while I continued walking.

After a brief side-trip to touch the summit sign (I am, first and foremost, a peak-bagger), I ran the down-trail as best I could, singing “We come from the land of ice and snow…” to encourage the Vikings as I passed. I caught the woman ahead of me in the transition, but she was gone by the time I was gone, and since she was on AT skis, I knew I would never see her again. I had expected to lose some time descending on the Altais, but it was far worse than I had hoped. Not only were they slow and hard to control, but I had to work kicking and poling where I would have coasted on real skis, obliterating both potential recovery and any time I gained in the transitions.

I found a decent rhythm on the downhill run, but my legs were toast on the short uphills before the transition. Partly they were just fried from too many similar activities back-to-back, but partly I was running out of energy. I had brought only solid food, and was too dehydrated and breathing too hard to chew and swallow much of it. Between the sinking seat and my fatigue, my bike performance was fairly pathetic, but I made decent time on the downhills and flats. The one climb reduced me to a pathetic grind. I was glad for the race to be nearly done, as my feet and calves had begun to cramp, but I was passed with authority by a guy on aero bars with a TT helmet only a couple miles from the finish. Like everyone else ahead of me, he was in my age group, but I did not have the energy to jump on his wheel.

I ended up sixth overall, fifth man, and fourth in my age group. (Results here.) I was happy with my overall place, surprised to be crushed by an amateur woman, and disappointed by my age group place. As noted above, there are some easy ways I could improve my place and time via only gear and nutrition, but I would be hard-pressed to train well enough to podium. Still, I would like to return to a wonderful race to see how I could do with more refinements, and am sad that other priorities will probably send me elsewhere next winter.

Some software reviews

I was a flip phone holdout until late 2017, I have since become utterly dependent upon my smartphone (an iPhone SE, the last of the pocket-sized phones), and all of my international trips would have been somewhere between difficult and impossible without it and a few apps. I am also utterly dependent upon a few pieces of desktop software and web pages. is a convenient way to use OpenStreetMap data offline for both mapping and route-finding. The maps are usually good and reasonably complete, even in small South American towns. The route-finding is quirky, though. Sometimes it will not see roads that clearly exist on the map; other times it will suggest utter nonsense. While it claims to be able to plan routes for cars, bikes, and pedestrians, the car routes tend to be the least nonsensical. It can usually be trusted for short distances within cities, but you should always double-check longer routes.


This has been my go-to offline mapping program for several years. It offers offline USGS/USFS topo maps within the United States, and usable computer-generated “global topos” elsewhere. These topos can be downloaded either for the area around a peak, or for that around an arbitrary GPX track. The app also keeps track of peak-bagging statistics, for people who play that game. However, its offline maps have always been unreliable to download over slow connections, and have recently stopped working for me entirely. I am currently looking into other options, and have high hopes for the CalTopo app currently being developed.


I do all my route-planning with CalTopo, which has a variety of maps and satellite images for the whole world. I used the free version for a long time, but recently became a subscriber, partly to support the project, and partly to eliminate some restrictions on the app. While the iOS app is still a work in progress, I hope to someday use it to replace Peakbagger for my offline topo needs.

Windy has horrible, useless graphics on both its website and mobile app, but I use it anyways because it provides worldwide point forecasts from three different models: the European ECMWF, considered the best in the world; the American GFS, which is also good; and Meteoblue, which focuses on mountains and has higher-resolution models for some ranges (e.g. the Alps). Meteoblue’s summit temperatures seem to be most accurate, while ECMWF may be better at wind speeds. Comparing the three models is a good way to get a rough idea of forecast reliability: the closer they agree, the more you can trust the forecast.

Some gear reviews

I rarely review the gear I use here, but after living with quite a bit of outdoor gear non-stop for two months this winter, I have formed some opinions which I will share here.

Alps Mountaineering Phenom tent

Before this trip, my camping shelters were a one-person tent my parents bought me when I was in elementary school, a $10 painter’s tarp, and an OR bivy bag from an REI garage sale. The bivy bag was sufficient in Peru, but getting dressed on a cold, dark Cordillera morning in a bivy sack was never easy or pleasant. Since I would be living in my shelter for three months on this trip, some of that time in the harsh Puna de Atacama, I wanted something more than a bivy.

I looked at various double-wall mountaineering tents, but the big-name ones were all terrifyingly expensive, and in my limited experience, the lighter ones can be incredibly fragile. Fortunately I stumbled upon this two-person double-walled tent from Alps Mountaineering on sale for $100 including a ground cloth, or about one fourth of what I would have paid for a gold-plated tent. It is a bit heavier than the top-of-the-line stuff, but it has served me well so far in rain, snow, and wind. Since it is often impossible to stake down a tent in the high Andes, I had to upgrade it with more tie-downs, attaching accessory cord to the loops meant to hold back the flaps on the rain fly. These were not meant to be structural, but have held in winds strong enough to bend the poles.

Evernew Titanium cook pot

I don’t know how much it cost, because my advisor gave it to me in 2009, but my Evernew 1-liter titanium pot is still going strong. I have used it not just for camping, but for cooking in the car and in various apartments. After thousands of uses on various heat sources, foods being burned to the bottom and scraped off, and cleanings with everything from dish sponges to metal utensils to sand, the surface appears undamaged. After being crammed in packs and otherwise abused, it remains round. Even the rubber insulation on the handles remains intact, despite being singed a few times.

One liter of oatmeal, polenta, or other nutrient glop is about right for one backpacker. I suspect this will be the last pot I need.

MSR Whisperlite stove

I had never used a liquid fuel stove before this trip, having relied on isopropane canister stoves on my rare attempts at camping, and a Coleman stove while living in my car. It took some time to accept that using your stove was a skill to be learned, and more to learn it, but I am warming to this new piece of gear. First, a liter of white gas (bencina blanca, solvente) last forever, and I can simply unscrew the cap to see how much I have left. Second, I don’t have to throw away mostly-used fuel canisters, doing God-knows-what to landfills.

As for the “skill” part, I am still fine-tuning how best to prime my stove. Possible bad outcomes range from slowly covering the burner in soot, to setting my tent’s vestibule on fire. I have learned to prevent the former, and have fortunately avoided the latter. The key is that you want to make the stove hot enough to vaporize white gas, which burns cleanly (blue flame) as a vapor but dirtily (yellow) as a liquid, while not setting the whole thing on fire. Isopropyl alcohol burns cleanly as a liquid, so the best approach I have found is to put some of that in the priming cup, burn it until it is mostly gone, then open the stove valve. If I’m lucky, I can time it so the stove is hot enough to ignite the vapors; if not, I have to use my cigarette lighter a second time on the eye.

In any case, the Whisperlite is a simple device done well, which rewards those who take the time to learn how to use it.

Petzl Tikkina headlamp

In repacking my stuff for the road, I stupidly left my headlamp at a hostel in Santiago, and had to replace it with whatever was available in Mendoza. That turned out to be either a Petzl Tikkina or “El Cheapo off-brand thing,” so I chose the former. It is dead-simple, offering only low, medium, and high beams, toggled via a single button. It has no lockout, but seems to be designed to make it unlikely to be turned on by accident. If only Black Diamond could think to do this.

HydraPak flexible water containers

Perhaps as part of the more general trend of corporate consolidation, a company called HydraPak makes collapsible water reservoirs for many other companies, including Osprey (packs) and Katahdin (filters). While the plastic itself seems durable, HydraPak’s designs fall short elsewhere. Osprey makes some great hydration packs, but their HydraPak reservoirs seem to have been designed by someone who never used one for longer than a weekend. I have bitten through two bite valves (duh…) so far, each lasting a couple of months. The top closure is also failing, with the stiff plastic cracking from the repeated bending required to fill it. The resulting leaks make the thing somewhere between annoying and useless. On my previous CamelBak packs, the bite valves and closures have lasted for years. Osprey will replace the thing for free, but that’s not possible until I return to the States.

Other than an insignificant pinhole leak which I could tape if I cared, my Katahdin filter has held up well on this trip. However, a friend has had trouble with the flexible part separating from the rigid plastic around the cap, which would be harder to repair.

Summer Alpine gear

Some readers may be curious about the gear I have been using on my recent adventures in the Alps, where most people carry a lot more and move a lot slower. Since the North Cascades are called the “American Alps,” it is no surprise that I carry Cascades gear, but warmer: a fleece hoodie instead of a wool long-sleeved shirt, a wind shell with a hood instead of one without, heavier socks, and mitts as well as gloves. In more detail, here is what I have used so far.

For my feet, I wear medium-weight wool socks and knobby trail runners. I am currently destroying some Salomon Speedcross 4’s, but La Sportiva Mutants, New Balance Vazee Summits, or Adidas Terrex Trailmakers would also work. I also bring a couple of plastic bread-bags to put between my socks and shoes if needed. This can come in handy when transitioning from a warm, slushy glacier to a cold, windy ridge.

For my torso, I wear a t-shirt (cotton or synthetic — it doesn’t matter), and carry a Mammut fleece hoodie (like a Patagonia R1, but bought on clearance for far less than $200), and a used-to-be-waterproof shell I found on a peak in Nevada. I also carry a $5 poncho if I think it might rain lower down; I cannot climb in it, and it is no good in strong wind, but it is absolutely waterproof, and can serve as a sort of emergency shelter.

For my hands, I bring loose-fitting fleece gloves and mitts. The former do not climb well, but they breathe, and do not constrict my fingers. The latter are much warmer, and waterproof in case I have to spend a lot of time pawing at snow. I have some tighter-fitting, water-resistant gloves I can bring instead of the fleece ones if I need to climb a lot of wet rock and/or snow.

For snow and ice travel, I carry an alpine tool (most recently, the Petzl Sum’Tec I found) and Kahtoola K-10 crampons. This setup is best on low-angle ice and most snow, but can be pushed to handle hard snow and even a bit of ice up to 45 degrees or so. This takes practice, though — if I think I will be doing a lot of steep snow and ice, I will still bring heavy boots.

Griping about packs

It has served me well

In preparation for my soon-to-begin 2018 season, I went shopping for a new pack, as my trusty old REI Stoke 18 is on its last legs. I found something that will do the job, but was surprised at how difficult it is to find a pack that meets my simple needs:

15-20 liter main compartment

This is enough space for a normal winter day or an epic summer one.

2 tool attachments

I don’t do too many things that require two tools, but when I do, it’s nice to be able to strap them to my pack.

Stash pockets

I need to be able to get to food and store small items without taking my pack off, or having stuff in my pants pockets bumping against my leg. Why do no mountaineering packs have stash pockets? Even people doing “Extreme Alpine Assaults” need to eat and store things.

External attachment points

Sometimes I can fit crampons inside my pack, but sometimes I can’t or don’t want to.

Sternum strap and waist belt

They don’t need to be super-substantial, but the pack needs to not flop around while jogging.

Reasonable durability for the cost

If it costs $100+, it had better last at least a few years.

Nothing else

Many packs have all sorts of weird straps and doodads that catch on things and add weight. Sometimes simplicity is best.

Some companies come sooo close:

Gregory Verte 15, discontinued (image: REI)

Take a Gregory Verte 15, add a couple of side stash pockets, and you’d have a condender.

BD Blitz 20 (image: Black Diamond)

The BD Blitz 20 is similar (and no, a “waterproof zip pocket on lid” is not “easily accessible” for anyone with normal shoulder flexibility, as the pack still needs to come off).

UD PB Adventure Vest 3.0 (image: Ultimate Direction)

The Ultimate Direction PB Adventure Vest 3.0 looks decent, but I’m not sold on vests for everyday scrambling, it goes a bit overboards on bits and bobs, and its 13.3-oz weight suggests that it’s made of tissue paper. I’d happily carry 1/2 pound more (and probably save 30% in material cost) for something that lasted longer.

Anyways, I found something that cost less than $100, and should serve me well for at least a couple of seasons. It has some obvious shortcomings

Salomon Speedcross Vario

Cheap materials

Cheap materials

I have generally had good experiences with Salomon’s various “Speedcross” and “fell running” shoes, which combine an aggressive tread, adequate foot protection, and reasonably sticky rubber. So when I found myself out of shoes, and found the Speedcross Varios on clearance, I picked up a pair. Though they look more or less suitable for my purposes, the use of standard laces rather than “quick laces” should have tipped me off to what they are: a clumsy attempt at market segmentation between them ($120) and the even pricier Speedcross Pro ($150) and S-Lab Speedcross ($180).

Delaminating sole

Delaminating sole

Though I slightly prefer speed laces, I don’t mind using the regular kind, and had no trouble making the shoes fit. The problem with the Speedcross Vario is its shoddy materials and construction. Soon after I started using them, the soles started delaminating, something I have not experienced in years with non-Walmart shoes. After a bit of cross-country travel and scree-skiing, the toe rand tore and became unstitched, letting sand and gravel into the shoe and making it useless. I stopped using them after only a few weeks, and eventually threw them away with plenty of tread left.

Salomon shoes normally use good materials and construction, so I was surprised and disappointed. $120 shoes should be better than this.

Brief long-term shoe reviews

I had a gig reviewing shoes this spring, which put me in the unusual position of having more than one pair of new trail runners at the same time, and of owning shoes I did not choose. About half the shoes I tested were clearly not suitable for the mountains, and I have now mostly destroyed the ones that were. Here are my impressions of a few that surprised me. The Amazon links are just for reference, mostly for the photos — they’re not affiliate links or anything.

  • Salomon Sense Pro 2: While these were about as durable and comfortable as expected, they performed surprisingly poorly on class 4-5 rock. With relatively thick and soft midsoles and not-so-grippy rubber, they were scarier than I expected when edging or trying to smear on steeper rock. Salomon makes some shoes that work well in the mountains, but these do not.
  • New Balance Fresh Foam Gobi: I didn’t expect these to work well in the mountains, so I avoided using them until I had mostly destroyed my more capable shoes. I took them up the Mountaineer’s Route on Whitney (class 3) and SE face of Emerson (5.4), and found them terrifyingly bad on rock, with spongy midsoles, too much play in the toe box, and completely non-sticky outsoles. They are also not very protective, and would be similarly scary on steep vegetation and turf as found in the Cascades.
  • Adidas Terrex X-King: These feel a little clunky on trails, and the size 11s I tried (they only make whole sizes, apparently) are a bit roomier than I like. However, they really came into their own in the mountains. The aggressive lugs dig into soft surfaces, but are large enough not to squirm on rock. The rubber is predictable and sticky on rock, and the single piece making up the sole, toe rand, and heel cup is a smart, simple, durable design. The quick-lace system and soft upper make the fit highly adjustable, which in my case mostly let me compensate for the shoes being a bit too big. The shape of the toe box and placement of the lugs makes them climb fairly well — I have felt pretty comfortable on some mid-fifth-class terrain. The main downside is the ridiculous $160 retail price.

Review: La Sportiva Crossleather (RIP)

After two months’ hard use, my La Sportiva Crossleathers finally died. While I have been less than impressed with the durability of some other Sportiva shoes (Quantums), these both performed well and took an amazing amount of abuse. Sadly, they are being discontinued, so the pair I just bought for the rest of this summer will probably be my last.

The Crossleather is basically the Crosslite (mud-running shoe) with a leather upper. I bought them mostly because they were on sale, but found them well-suited to most of what I do, from day-tripping Gannett to climbing the Grand Teton’s Petzoldt Ridge, from long part-trail hikes to soloing 5.4 rock.

What made the Crossleathers work for me? Performance-wise, they have decent grip on mud and snow, their large lugs far better than some other models’ smooth waves. They protect both the toes and sides of your feet, though I prefer the Quantum’s squared-off toe guard. They both climb reasonably well and run like trail runners. The leather makes them somewhat more water-resistant in puddles, but also causes them to stay wet longer once they are fully soaked.

Durability-wise, they remained usable for close to 1000 miles before the soles started simultaneously peeling off and wearing through; the uppers are still in good shape. In the past, the Sierra Challenge (10 days on- and off-trail in the Sierra Nevada) has completely destroyed at least one pair of shoes, tearing the mesh sides and/or peeling off the soles. I expect my new Crossleathers to emerge in usable condition, and to last for the rest of my season.

If you need a light hiker or heavy trail-runner, pick some up while they’re still on clearance.

Miscellaneous gear reviews

I thought some readers might be interested in a few reviews of gear I have used over the past few years.

BD Spot headlamp: sucks

A headlamp should be bright, long-lasting, comfortable, and easy to operate with gloves. Black Diamond’s Spot headlamp could have been a nice piece of gear: it is small enough to be comfortable, and has “flood” and “spotlight” modes in three different intensities (plus “annoying useless blinker mode”). The obvious controls would be levers or switches for “off/spot/flood” and “low/medium/high/blink.”

Sadly, the folks at Black Diamond blew it: instead of something reasonable, the Spot has a single button (small and rubberized, so it’s almost impossible to use with gloves) that tries to do everything. Push it hard, and it will toggle between off/spot/off/flood. Push it “less hard” (again, hopeless in gloves), and it will cycle through brightness settings. A hard press often starts out at the brightest setting, but sometimes will start out where you left off the last time you had it on. You usually find yourself trying “less-hard” presses until you get to “useless blinker,” then proceeding from there to reach the desired setting. The angle adjustment is a hinge at the bottom, meaning that it presses annoyingly against your forehead when running, and can even slip to a lower angle.

My tiny Petzl e-Lite, while not bright enough for running or cross-country travel, at least has sensible controls, in the form of a little lever that sticks out from the light body and cycles through its many modes. I have not tried brighter Petzl lamps, but they have sensible center pivots, and may even have sane controls. How did the Spot ever make it through product testing? Spend an extra $10-$20 on something useful.

CamelBak Blowfish: rules

It was expensive, but this pack has survived five seasons of vicious use well beyond its design. While it is intended to carry summer stuff plus three liters of water, I have used it to carry gear for long summer days (3,000+ calories plus basics), moderate winter ones (crampons, an ice axe, and snowshoes), and névé/ice solos (two tools plus crampons). In its currently modded state, my Blowfish has two tool loops, but until recently I attached an axe to the reflective thingamajig at the bottom and the thin loop at the top with accessory cord.

It is not without flaws: it distributes weight badly when expanded (it should get wider, not deeper); the water bladder punctures easily (duct tape fixed that) and is hard to re-insert when the pack is full; it lacks front pockets for easily-accessible items; and it doesn’t run particularly well, since the waist strap isn’t substantial enough to hold it in place.

Still, the thing has taken an amazing amount of abuse, with only the outermost zipper and the bottom thingamajig giving out.

Note: For my ice tool mods, I used a #0 grommet kit and some thin accessory cord to add two tool loops to the bottom black material (2 grommets each), and two tool attachments to the top (1 grommet each). I also attach a small camera case to one shoulder strap above the chest strap, and will probably add something to the other to carry food.

$10-$15 sunglasses: rule

If you’re paying more than $15 for your sunglasses, you’re a sucker. I have used cheap K-Mart and gas station sunglasses for the past two summers, and have never suffered snow-blindness.

DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer: rules

National Forest campsite fees are approaching $20 in many places — roughly what you would pay at a KOA, but with no amenities. For that same $20 you can buy a state’s Gazetteer at most gas stations, with detailed road maps leading you to secluded, free camping. Better yet, they are serviceable topos, far cheaper than the relevant 15′ or 7.5′ USGS quads for spread-out states like Colorado and Washington. They are also great map porn, perfect for sitting down in the evening to peruse a state’s unexplored regions. Don’t waste $5 on lousy road maps, or $20 for a picnic table and fire ring.

In particular, the California Gazetteer even includes abandoned Forest Service trails like the Milestone Basin and Marie Lakes spurs, which are missing from some other maps, and indicates areas of forest and talus.

Trails Illustrated maps 205 and 206: rule

For about $25, these two maps cover most of the interesting parts of the Sierra, albeit with a small gap between Bishop and Mammoth. They list many relevant features, have 100′ contours, and are far cheaper than a stack of USGS quads.