Southwestern British Columbia has been having an “average” snow year. This has led to some early-season angst among those with short-term memories who've remembered the past two years with above average and near-record snowfall totals.
“Average” is relative, as friends of mine from Utah and Colorado - currently in full on snow drought, again - remind me. Whistler has had 366 centimeters of cumulative snowfall this year and a 155 cm base at the upper mountain weather plot (divide by 2.54 to convert to freedom units). Alpine totals are usually about 1.5 to 2 times the weather plot totals, so coverage is healthy. I recently had the chance to tour into the Duffey area this past week and the snowpack in that area is also getting nice and “average.”
Skinning up to Lesser Flute. Technically this is Whistler inbounds. You can bootpack it, too.
Just an average snow year. Cruising a lap on Lesser Flute.
Just another average snow lap.
Railing Boundary Bowl.
Now that I got some skiing pow stoke shots out of the way, let's cut to the chase. I've got some product reviews to do and some initial impressions to give. Unlike other sites that just go on and on about gear, I like to show equipment in use. Since all of the products I am now going to showcase are ostensibly for backcountry gear, I'm not going to talk about its hardpack performance, but instead going to babble on about how they perform in powder - the environment in which they should be used.
- An “average” snowpack means one can let their skis run a bit more. I've got some G3 Districts in size 179 to try out.
- I need some boots to put on my feet. This year I've got the Dynafit Mercury and the Scarpa Maestrale RS to long-term test.
- Finally, I need something to wear. I'm fully kitted out in OR: Trailbreaker Pants, Ferrosi softshell hoody.
Below are as many products as one can cram into a set of photographs as possible.
Can't remember why I look so constipated. G3 Districts, Dynafit Mercury, OR Ferrosi hoody, Trailbreaker pants.
More posing - G3 Districts, Scarpa Maestrale RS, OR Trailbreaker pants.
I chose to try some pow performance in Whistler after 25 cms fell inbounds (see video) in the Lesser Flute slackcountry adjoining the resort and in the Duffey backcountry area. Especially on the Duffey, early season touring usually means a bit of trail breaking.
I filed snow observations with a local conditions service that read something like this: “Nface Chief P. 30 – 50 cms ski pen. 220 cms at ridgeline. No wind affect to speak of. 60 - 80cms fist. Temps -10 atl, -6 valley floor. Enough coverage to ski out comfortably all the way to valley bottom.”
In non-avalanche observations shorthand, that translates to balls deep trail breaking and over-the-head blower pow. Pictures follow.
Some short hand comments about the gear are in the picture descriptions. I've got a pretty heavy geek boot commentary coming, so I restrained myself from nerding out over boot minutiae until sometime in the next week, when I'll put out something specific to the Scarpa and Dynafit boots. More long-term running verbosity about the outerwear and the skis will also be inflicted on readers as I get more time on the gear.
The G3 District is a decently wide ski (140/112/130) with moderate sidecut. It has a 25-meter turn radius in the 179 tested; and is relatively light at 1850 grams per ski. It's got camber underfoot but a fair amount of early rise at tip or tail, but is not a twin tip. This is good, because I pretty much can't stand using twin tips for touring.
With just 8 days on them, impressions are preliminary. At my size, it's almost too fat, as I then need fairly light snow to get skiing in the snow feeling (as opposed to on top of the snow) that I personally enjoy. It's reasonably quick-turning, possibly because the tips and tails are softer than the mid-section. The G3 release video showed that it likes speed and long fast turns, but I found them to get knocked around a bit in chopped up inbounds pow, so maybe it's best for wide-open pow fields. I'll have to get into that kind of terrain to find out for myself.
The Dynafit Mercury is the slightly less expensive version of the much lusted-after Vulcan. This boot is the everyman's variant in Dynafit's "Free Touring" line (oh marketing jargon, how you make me barf) intended to balance downhill and uphill ability and incorporating Dynafit's wonderful deserving-of-praise patented Ultra-Lock walk-mode: In one motion, the top buckle closes top of shell and engages ski mode; reverse for walk mode.
At 1600 grams, the Mercury is average in weight for touring boots with a meaningful walk mode. I've used them about 3 times now, skiing them with tongues inbounds and without tongues in the pow. At my skeletal 75 kg weight (160 lbs in freedom units), I'm not going to stress out boots too much, so I expected to find these things to be plenty of boot. With 60 degrees of floating cuff that's easily engaged (open the top and middle buckle to flip to touring mode), transitions are quick. That same remarkable amount of floating cuff allows for an astounding walk mode that's best in class. Other than the difficulty of farting around with tongue removal and re-insertion in the field (try that in the cold in deep snow) there's not much complain about the Mercury.
Long-term impressions will concentrate on longevity of gear: wear at toe, buckles, cables, liner wear and tear, and how the boot does in varying temperatures.
I've already reviewed the Scarpa Maestrale RS and the Maestrale from which the RS was derived. The mango Maestrales, in particular, pretty much forced every other bootmaker to up their game when Scarpa introduced them in the 2010-'11 model year: A boot that was relatively stiff, had a best-in-class walk mode and that was cheaper than anything else? Impossible!
The Maestrale was Scarpa's best-ever selling AT boot. Other bootmakers have improved their offerings, but so has Scarpa. The RS is basically a stiffer, uglier version of the mango Maestrale with better hardware, but still with a fantastic walk mode - and - weighs in ever so slightly heavier at 1570 grams. I've had the RS since the end of last season and toward the beginning of this, so have had about 12 days on them. Prognosis so far is acceptable with no perceptible wear to rivets, buckles, straps or toe rubber. The RS is noticeably stiffer than the Maestrale (I'd guess 10 percent to 15 percent stiffer) but did not get appreciably softer in spring heat, which is possibly attributable to the Grilamid plastic used in shell construction.
One difference immediately noted is that the RS is even more sensitive to buckle placement than the Maestrale; an effect which extend to touring and to downhill. For example, I found that leaving the top buckle completely unlatched dramatically improved walk mode. The upside is that you can tune the boot to have a totally different feeling descending as opposed to ascending. The downside is slower transistions as you have to fart around more with buckles.
Longer term impressions will follow, of course.
Seattle-based Outdoor Research's Trailbreaker Pants and Ferrosi Hoody perform acceptably in over-the-head blower powder!
The pants are on the heavier side for backcountry-oriented softshells at 690 grams, but they have features normally found in waterproof shells like thigh vents, which allow the heat generated by trail-breaking balls-deep pow to escape. There's a lot of features on these pants which explain the weight: integrated ski gaiters, zippered ankles to let the legs flare out for ski boots, reinforced ankles, nice deep hip and waist pockets out of the way of climbing harnesses and big enough to swallow a VHF radio, and nice tough fabric.
At at 399 grams,t he Ferrosi Hoody is super light and packable. In fact, it packs into a small package into its chest pocket. A minimalist style, it has two deep useful side pockets, a chest pocket and a smallish form-fitting hood that won't quite fit over a helmet. As the jacket's so light, it's not an outer shell for colder temps but is best paired up with another layer for downhills. Perhaps it's best for warmer days (everyone's different, but I'd use it as an outershell if it was around -5C) and useful for skinning up in colder days.
I don't know how well the gear will do in that fugly near-to-freezing temps that we often get, but I doubt it'll be a gloriously comfortable experience. Will report back when I have the displeasure of venturing out in those conditions.
Thanks to Jameson “Barrelled” Florence for the pictures and video.
Thanks also to Sharon “Fully Involved” Bader for pictures.