Friday, January 16, 2015

Lonnie Dupre Successfully Completes Solo January Summit of Denali

On his fourth attempt, after years of struggles and bad luck, Lonnie Dupre finally manages to complete his solo summit of Denali in January, the coldest month on the mountain. A January summit of Denali has been completed only once before, by a Russian team. This is the first successful solo attempt.

At 5:04 pm (central time) on January 11, 2015, Lonnie Dupre summated Denali, confirmed by a SPOT locator.

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The above picture was taken during the descent from an airplane by John Walter Whittier. In the right corner you see the edge of the airplane wing. If you look very closely at the mountain side, you will see a white spot, which is Dupre’s headlamp as he descends from the summit in darkness.

Dupre started out from base camp on December 18, 2014. On the lower elevations he pulled a sled with 165lb of supplies.

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Once above the Kahiltna Glacier, he transitioning to packs for higher elevation.

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According to my count, he reached the summit of Denali 25 days after leaving base camp.

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On some of his previous attempts Dupre relied only on snow shelters rather than a tent. On this attempt I understand he carrier a Hilleberg Soulo tent, although from the pictures he has posted I’ve only seen snow shelters. He also seems to be using Granite Gear packs, Granite Gear being a sponsor.

Yesterday, January 15, 2015, Lonnie Dupre finally made it back to base camp, nearly a month after starting his attempt.

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It is indeed an amazing achievement, many years in the making. You can find a more detailed account of his journey on his site here. If cold weather travel is your thing, his book Life on Ice is excellent in my opinion and well worth a look.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Trip Report: Taconic-Hereford Multiple Use Are 1/2/15 – 1/3/15

So, I know I’m still behind on the trip reports. This last weekend however I stayed home, dealing with the closing, so with this post I will be up to date with the trip reports.

For this one I decided to try an area which had been mentioned to me by a friend of mine, but I had never visited before, the Taconic-Hereford Multiple Use Area. He had hunted there in the fall last year for squirrel with good success. I figured I would bring the rifle along and give it a try.

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The morning was cold. When I started out it was just barely above 10F (-12C). The weather has been continuing to fluctuate wildly, going from single digits above 0F (-18C) to nearly 32F (0C) within the span of a week. This morning it was on the cold spectrum. I hadn’t brought my facemask, so my face suffered for it. My hands didn’t fare much better, but I hate shooting with gloves.

This Multiple Use Area (MUA) seems fairly well used, and is crisscrossed by a number of trail, which I understand are logging roads. The area is still used for timber. The terrain is largely comprised of hardwoods, so any squirrel in the area wouldn’t have much room to hide.

Even so, the forest seemed dead. I didn’t see or hear a single noise, to a degree that was a bit creepy. Not only did I not spot any squirrels, I didn’t see or hear any sign of life. This is the first time I’ve had this experience. It is not unusual for me not to see anything, but usually I can hear life around me. I spent the early hours of the morning hunting, with no success. At that point I decided to put the hunting on a backburner and do some exploring. I headed east, and bushwhacked for the rest of the day, nearly traveling through the whole width of the MUA, and reaching some private forests on the other side.

It is clear that this area was occupied at one time. The forest is littered with abandoned ruins of old houses. The long stone walls probably indicate it was used for farming. I wasn’t able to find any history of the area. 

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As I continued east, the forest became more dense and the remnants of old building diminished. Eventually I reached a series of small ponds.

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They were all covered by a thin layer of ice. It wasn’t thick enough to walk on, I imagine because of the weather being all over the place, so I had to spend some time navigating around them.

The sky was overcast all day, and around 3:30pm it started to get dark. It was also starting to snow, although it was more like ice. It would come down for a few minutes and then stop, then repeat. I decided to call it a day and around 4:00pm set up the tent on a small patch of level ground.

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I took some time to clean my rifle. I’ve “winterized” my guns, so I’ve removed most of the oil and lubricants. That makes them susceptible to moisture like this sporadic ice I was getting. I didn’t want to put the rifle in the tent while iced up, so I took the time to clean it. After that it was lights out. Temperature overnight was in the 5F (-15C), but I had my Western Mountaineering Antelope MF with me, so I was plenty warm.

The next day I woke up to a light snow cover. It was coming down relatively hard. It is a good thing I got up early, which saved me the trouble of cleaning too much snow from my tent. I packed up and started moving. I had a full day of bushwhacking to get back.

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The snow kept coming down for the rest of the day. Unfortunately the weather had warmed up, which made for very sticky, wet snow. It makes gear maintenance very difficult.

As I was trying to make my way back, with most of the forest features gone, I stumbled into some more ruins.

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It was an old fireplace and chimney. This one was clearly newer than the other ruins I had encountered. There was some concrete used, and the bricks were well made. There was even some metal sheeting remaining where the roof once met the chimney.

The snow kept falling, and I kept chugging along.

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Late in the afternoon I reached a road, which I followed back to my car.

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I dug the car out. Usually when people ask me about winter camping, the questions revolve around sleeping in the woods. For me, that is not the hard part. The hard part is getting to the forest and then getting back home, i.e. digging the car out and getting it to a plowed road. I carry all sorts of gear in my car to assist in that task, but even so, I have found myself stranded in the woods a number of times because I couldn’t get the car out. This time fortunately I had no problems, although I drove past several serious accidents on the way home. 

Something to point out from this trip is that being lazy can get you in trouble. The way I handled the second day wasn’t too smart. To start off, I assumed that the temperature would be the same as the previous day. It wasn’t. I should have known that because while it is not unusual to be cold when you first get up, things like the fact that my nostrils weren’t freezing, and I didn’t feel any needle prickling on my face should have let me know that it was warmer. I didn’t bother to check. Even though it was warmer, I ended up wearing the same amount of insulation as the previous day. As a result I was overheated. I knew I was getting out that day, so I was too lazy to alter my layers, especially since the snow was coming down hard and I didn’t want to remove my shell in order to adjust the layers below. Forget all claims made by different manufacturers about their materials. It doesn’t matter how well something wicks moisture, or how breathable it is. If you are overheated you will sweat and you will get wet. Wicking and breathability are not a solution to overheating. This wasn’t an issue since I got out as planned, but if I had gotten stuck and had to spend another night in the woods, it would have been annoying to deal with all the damp clothing.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Mountain Hardwear Direkt 2 Tent Long Term Review

I usually don’t write much about tents. I’m not a tent guy. I don’t have or use many tents, and it’s hard for me to offer you any side by side comparisons. In all of my years camping, here are all the shelters I have used in that order: Kelty Gunnison 2 tent, DD 3m x 3m tarp, GoLite Shangri-La 5, GoLite SHangri-La 3, and now the Mountain Hardwear Direkt 2 tent. I have now been using the Direkt 2 tent for over a year, and wanted to give you some of my reasoning for choosing the tent, and my experience with it.

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Before I get into any details, I think it would be fair to acknowledge that the Mountain Hardwear Direkt 2 tent is designed as a pure mountaineering bivi tent. It is tiny, it is light, and it is designed to function in extreme conditions. It does not give much thought to comfort, space, or ease of use. In that respect, i.e. as a mountaineering tent, it has already secured its place and proven to be a good tent. There isn’t much I can tell you about the tent in that capacity that others have not already demonstrated much better.

In the above picture you see Ueli Steck using the Direkt 2, the tent he carried on his solo summit of Annapurna. In fact the tent was designed by Mountain Hardwear specifically for the task. So, that’s the end of my review of the Direkt 2 as a mountaineering tent. If it’s good enough for The Swiss Machine, it’s good enough for me.

My review of the tent however is not over. That’s because I wasn’t looking for a dedicated mountaineering tent, I was looking for a ultralight four season free standing tent for year round use. In this review I want to look at the Mountain Hardwear Direkt 2 tent from exactly that perspective and share my experiences with it.

For quite some time I was very happy with the GoLite Shangri-La 3. In fact, I’m still happy with it, and I still own one. I love the room and open floor space, as well as the very low weight and volume. However, I decided to start looking for a similarly light four season free standing tent with a small footprint. The reason was that despite all of the benefits of the Shangri-La 3, it’s large foot print and need to be staked securely made it challenging to pitch under some circumstances. A small free standing tent offered the solution. This tent however would still have to be capable of year round use, and offer certain amount of livability when in the woods, at least by my standards.

When we factor in the above characteristics, i.e. light weight, small footprint, four season use, and free standing, the field very quickly gets limited to single wall mountaineering tents, particularly those used in alpines style climbing. I knew of the Mountain Hardwear Direkt 2, so that was an immediate contender. I also knew of the Black Diamond Firstlight, and some additional research lead me to the Rab Latok. Here is how they stack up:

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Tent Direkt 2 Firstlight Latok
Tent Fabric 30D PU coated nylon NanoShield 3 layer eVent
Weight 2lb 12oz 2lb 13oz 3lb
Height 45in 42in 31in
Length 81in 82in 87in
Width 45in 48in 47in
Cost $550 $350 $500

The Rab Latok got eliminated first. While I like the eVent construction, it is just too low to the ground. That would be ideal if you have to overnight on the slopes of Everest, but way less than ideal for year round use. I can’t imagine trying to change clothing while in the tent.

It came down to the Direkt 2 and the Firstlight. The Black Diamond Firstlight is a well tested and respected bivi tent, and comes in at a lower cost than the Direkt 2. The reason why I chose the Direkt 2 instead however is that the Firstlight is not truly waterproof. The NanoShield material which comprises the tent body is a proprietary breathable membrane. However, there are plenty of reports of it leaking when saturated with water. This of course isn’t an issue if you are climbing above tree line in freezing temperatures, but for year round use, when I can be trapped in a rain storm for several days, it makes a big difference.

Even though I had made my decision, I held off on buying the tent because of the cost. As luck would have it, it was offered to me for testing,, and later I bought one myself from REI at a sale where it was 50% off. And so, I began testing it. My main concern was lack of space and condensation. In order to be completely waterproof, and at the same time light weight, the shell material is not breathable. Combined with the minimal ventilation of mountaineering tents, it was a real concern.

Let’s look at some details:

Size:

The tent, as expected is small. It is just long enough for me to stretch out. I’m just under 6 feet tall and when stretched out I’m almost touching the two ends of the tent. The tent is just wide enough to fit two sleeping pads (read people) next to each other. Doing that however will leave absolutely no space in the tent. If you are climbing and share a sleeping bag with your partner, that works fine, but otherwise, this is a one person tent.

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The tent height is surprisingly good. I have no problem sitting up in it, or even kneeling, an important consideration when trying to use a pee bottle.

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Overall I have been very happy with the tent with respect to size. It offers just enough room for one person. I can stretch out in it, I can sit up in it, and it fits all of my gear and leaves room for me to do any prep or repairs to my gear. The only downside when compared to an open floor tent is that cooking inside with a remote canister or white gas stove is very difficult and risky.

Weight and Packability:

The weight of the tent will somewhat depend on what components you bring. I use the tent just with four 8in carbon fiber stakes. Mountain Hardwear lists this minimal weight as 2lb 12oz, but on my scale, including the stuff sacks for the tent and tent poles, the weight was 2lb 11.7oz. The difference probably comes from the after market stakes I use.

If however you expect some serious weather, i.e. high speed winds above tree line, you would want to bring extra lines and stakes to really strap down the tent. In that case the weight will go up slightly.

When it comes to packing it down, the tent is a little bulky, but still very portable.

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The tent poles and stakes come in a separate stuff sack. In the above picture you see both the tent poles and tent body next to a Nalgene bottle. I still haven’t figured out exactly how to fold the tent so that it fits well into its stuff sack. In the above picture the sides of the stuff sack can compress a lot more.

Other Features:

The Direkt 2 is a single wall tent. It is pitched with the use of two crossing tent poles which are placed on the inside of the tent. Since it is a free standing tent, no stakes are required, but they make the job easier and make sure the tent doesn’t fly away while empty. The white patch you see in the picture below is snow, not light. The tent is fully enclosed.

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A clever system of snaps holds the ends of the tent poles in place. This largely eliminates the risk of puncturing the tent body. The poles are then held onto the tent with Velcro closures. In order to give you a mountaineering tent that can stand up to severe weather while only using two poles, the pole system is extremely stiff. The entire time the poles operate just under breaking capacity in order to provide the required rigidity.

While the system works, and the tent feels solid, actually getting the poles into position is an extreme challenge. After a while you’ll figure out a few tricks which will help you do it, but there is no way to make the process easy (at least one that I have discovered).

The tent has one door, which is held open with a strap, and has zippers along the bottom and side in order to fully secure the door.

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Opposite the door, there is a small ventilation flap, the only ventilation point for the tent other than the door. Otherwise the tent is completely sealed.

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The vent is covered by mosquito netting and can be zipped closed. If you need to get any more serious ventilation going, you have to unzip the top of the door, which provides a similar vent point. If you are in the tent with another person cooking, one person can breathe through this vent while the other breathes through the door opening.

Under the vent is a small removable mesh pocket. It is not much use, so I removed it on my tent. There are no other storage compartments in the tent.

Livability:

Overall, the tent has been great for my purposes. It is exactly what I was looking for. It is relatively light, and very light for a free standing four season tent. It has a small footprint, but is large enough for me to use it comfortably.

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The big surprise for me was the lack of condensation. I was expecting to be drenched in water after every use of the tent, but a year into using it in just about every imaginable weather, I have not experienced any noticeable condensation. I always keep the ventilation flap open, and I imagine I have gotten very lucky, but so far I have not had any condensation in the tent. That is pretty spectacular for a single wall bivi tent. 

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Even though I have not had any condensation, the tent provides a surprising amount of warmth. The space is small and enclosed enough that it definitely provides for some dead air space. With the wind completely shut out, sleeping in the tent has been very comfortable. 

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As designed, the tent is minimal in every aspect. Even the one tiny storage compartment is removable. Everything else is pure function.

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There is a surprising amount of light that comes into the tent, largely through the transparent material where the tent poles are held in place. The orange color is pleasant when in the tent, although when you come out of it the world seems a bit bland from a color perspective.

The one and only downside I have experienced with the Mountain Hardwear Direkt 2 tent is the pole system. It is just too hard to pitch. I can not imagine successfully doing it with frozen fingers. I understand that this is due to the requirements put on the system. It is very hard to make a mountaineering tent using just two poles, and as a result they need to be pushed to the limit. I don’t see a good solution to it, but it is problematic.

Less of a problem, and more of a preference issue, I don’t like that my ability to cook inside the tent is limited. It can be done, but you either need a canister mounted stove, a platform, or a hanging stove in order to do it. Sitting in the doorway with the stove just outside is my preferred method, but it is not a good option if the weather is particularly bad. Of course, this is an issue for all fully enclosed tents without vestibules.

Conclusion:

The Mountain Hardwear Direkt 2 is definitely not for everyone. It was designed to be a mountaineering bivi tent, and it excels in that role. If you are searching for comfort or multitude of features, this is not the right tent for you.

If however you are looking for a small, lightweight tent, that has been stripped of anything not absolutely necessary, and are interested in being able to use the tent year round, then the Direkt 2 is worth a look. It has performed very well for me. I have used it from warm Summer nights, to Fall hunting trips, to Winter outings, and it hasn’t let me down.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Ultimate Survival Alaska Season 3: Same Drama, Different Format

This past Sunday, we saw the return of Ultimate Survival Alaska on the National Geographic Channel for a third season. This post just reflects my thoughts on what I saw, for what it’s worth.

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Initially I was a big fan of the show, or more precisely of the idea of the show. Too many of the current survival shows are just scripted nonsense, teaching skills which while entertaining are largely inapplicable in a real survival situation, let alone general time spent in the wilderness. That is why I was excited when Ultimate Survival Alaska first went into production. The way the show was described to me was that it would have a group of people who had to travel through the wilderness to achieve an objective while carrying all of the gear they would need for the whole journey on their backs, having only minimal food. I though the emphasis on mobility, carrying your own gear, and lack of competition would demonstrate some actually usable skills and gear selection methodology.

The show however quickly devolved into a staged competition between teams. The gear people carried kept changing from episode to episode, and the producers were working over time to create drama, with every slip and stumble being set to dramatic music and cut half way as a transition into a commercial brake. On top of that the teams were clearly pushed to perform certain “exciting” tasks each episode. Somehow, no matter where they traveled, they would have to repel off something or climb something, even if it was the worse option available.

So, we are now back for season three. On the upside, the show has stopped pretending to have anything to do with survival. The concept was put on back burner last season when the show was turned into an adventure race, but this season it is not even mentioned. This season is purely a race between four teams. It’s not what I hoped the show would be, but at least there is less pretending. On the down side, the same over the top drama and staged antics persist.

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You can see this season’s teams in the above picture. One of the aspects about this show that I still like is that all of the team members are experienced outdoorsmen. In a surprising turn for such shows, all of the participants have serious credentials under their belts.

This season the competition again seems to be between Team Endurance and the Military Team, which were minutes apart from each other during the first two stages of the race. Team Alaska has three very experienced mountaineers on it, but Marty Raney just doesn’t seem to have enough in his battery to keep up and make the team competitive. He adds a lot of character to the show, along with some bizarre gear choices, but poor gear selection along with too many miles under his belt make him the team’s boat anchor. Lastly, Team Lower 48 seems to serve no other function so far than to embarrass the lower 48 states. Team member James Sweeney seems to have serious anger management issues, or possible some type of substance abuse problem, and just about every scene featuring the team is composed of him being an all around poor example of a human being.

The most interesting part of the show for me was seeing this season’s gear selection. While in prior seasons the teams were more diverse, this season the gear choices seem to have converged, possibly because we have so many returning contestants who have already figured out what works and what doesn’t.

Everyone wore mountaineering boots. I saw a few Nepal Evos and Baturas and a pair of plastic boots. Everyone seemed to have a pair of ice tools, and the military team was heavily loaded with commercially available gear, from packs to clothing. The only outlier was again, Marty Raney, sporting a wooden pack frame complete with a gold sifting pan hanging from the back. Luckily when it came time to actually ski, he got rid of the pair of old wooden skis he had sticking from his pack and put on the functional pair that was provided.

Anyway, still a fun show to watch. I look forward to seeing who wins.