VSSL Supplies Survival Gear Review

I’ve been involved with survival skills since I was a young Boy Scout, then later, as a US Infantry Marine, and currently as an expert Wilderness Navigation Instructor, Climbing Guide, and Mountain Rescue Service Team Member. So when a friend of mine introduced me to the founder of VSSL (pron. vessel), a new company producing outdoor utility tools with a focus on survival, my interest was naturally peaked.

A couple weeks later I received the VSSL Supplies Model. There are already a ton of positive reviews out on the inter-webs regarding this product along with it being featured in quite a few national magazines:

VSSL Supplies Survival Gear

Photo from VSSLgear.com

Instead of jumping on the brief positive review bandwagon I’m going to break this clever little device down into its realistically smaller parts and review each piece with a focus on performance & real life practicality. Let’s get to it!

VSSL Supplies Survival Gear

VSSL Supplies Survival Gear

The Case:

“Each VSSL unit is 9″ long* by 2″ diameter made from seamless extruded military specification anodized aluminum… Weighs 18 ounces (1 pound, 2 ounces).” – VSSLgear.com

*my at home measurement put the length at 9″ 7/18th (just about 9.5in)

It is unquestionably rugged weighing in at 18.3 ounces. In hand it feels like something you could drop down a 300 foot cliff without it receiving more than a couple cosmetic scratches.

The gist of VSSL is to take the style and durability of the classic rugged Maglite flashlights, switch to energy efficient LEDs, and replace the large heavy D alkaline batteries with small 3 N-type (generic name), or E90 (Energizer) batteries, freeing up storage space in the handle to pack various supplies. Currently offered in 6 different models (including the comically intriguing “Zombies model“) I received the “Supplies” model for this review.

Let’s take a look at everything included:


VSSL Supplies Survival Kit

The Compass:


VSSL Supplies Compass

On the bottom of the unit is an oil filled compass. Comparing its accuracy to my professional grade compass it was spot on. As a wilderness navigation instructor I would emphasize that this style compass is not a replacement for a dedicated compass that can also function as a protractor for re-section and trip planning. As far as a “backup” compass it is probably the nicest one I have seen, with no visible bubble in the liquid and resolution to 2 degrees, however without an index line that resolution would be hard to take advantage of.

The Light:


VSSL Supplies Light

On the other end of the unit you’ll find the dual mode LED flashlight. Official lumens, range, duration, etc. will have to wait while the company seeks “ANSI/NEMA FL-1 portable light certification”. Many of us don’t know what a “lumen” is anyways and we just wanna know how darn bright this thing is and how long will it last? To that end my testing reveals the following (with fresh batteries);

  1. Range– On “high” setting the light has a use-able range of about 20m. My personal definition of “use-able range” is enough light to make out a person standing in open woods. I know, that sounds weird, but to me that is “use-able range”.
  2. Field of View (FOV)– After conducting some market research the company decided to go with a “flood” beam as opposed to a focused “spot” beam. The first thing I noticed about this flood beam was its gigantic FOV, my estimates putting it at about 120 degrees. I can’t help but wonder if some of those polled during the research wanted to make sure zombies couldn’t sneak up from the sides, and with a FOV like this I think those surviving a zombie attack might have a fighting chance ;)
  3. Duration– This is not so much a “negative” point in the review but definitely a case of real life practicality. While switching to compact E90 type batteries frees up valuable space it obviously cuts down on duration. In this case the company reports about 20 hours “usable/functional light time”, and 40 hours in “SOS mode”, which is just a strobe effect. My obvious solution to improve these numbers was to look for lithium batteries in this size, and alas, they do not appear to exist. This has some negative implications for cold weather use; alkaline batteries suffer greatly in sub-zero temperatures. So what to do? Consider this, like the compass, as a “back-up”. Continue to carry a dedicated hands-free headlamp in your day kit. For a really nice option on a emergency headlamp check out the Petzl e+LITE!

Fishing Tackle:


VSSL Supplies Fishing Tackle

I’ll be honest, I am no expert at fishing. I have a few fly fishing friends that have been inviting me to get to it though so I plan on sharing this neat little kit with them for their candid take on it. For those who do know what they are looking for in emergency fishing gear this .75oz little tin stocks;

  • 3 barbed hooks
  • 3 lead weights
  • 3 swivel leaders
  • 3 rubber worms
  • 1 swivel spoon
  • 50′ of 20lb test fishing line
  • 1 EVA line winder – bobber

Rope and Razor Blade:


VSSL Supplies Rope & Razor Blade

I’d be lying if I didn’t say I smirked a little when I saw this little tin labeled “rope”. What functional rope could be inside this tiny little container? How about 25 feet of 250lb breaking strength rope? Basically a thick thread, this could have countless uses in a real-life survival situation, but don’t expect to go rappelling down your local crag with it ok? The included razor blade can be used to cut said rope, or fishing line, or other gear that needs cutting, or, if you land a fish with the above mentioned fishing gear, a much easier way to skin your catch!

Trail Markers & Whistle:


VSSL Supplies Trail Markers & Whistle

I wasn’t sure what trail markers would look like, but when I opened this up my first thought was “how clever!”. These 30 little thumb tacks are 50/50 white/red reflective arrows. While they probably wouldn’t have helped Anthony Hopkins out of the wilderness I can see the most practical implication being a remove-able flagging system, perhaps from a main trail to a preferred bivy spot, to mark an unofficial climber’s approach trail, or if you know rescuers are looking for you a way of leaving a bit of a bread crumb trail. The included whistle benefits from being “beadless” so it performs quite well even when wet.

Firestarter & Mirror:


VSSL Supplies Firestarter & Mirror

A fire-starter is on every basic “essentials” list for good reason. This fire-starter is composed of;

  • 10 quality weather proof matches
  • 1 striker (under the lid of tin, I almost missed it)
  • 5 Tinder Quik fire starters
  • 1 acrylic signaling mirror (protected by a remove-able microfilm)

Beeswax candle:

VSSL Supplies Beeswax Candle

VSSL Supplies Beeswax Candle

This 100% Canadian Beeswax candle is nestled in the unscrew-able end cap and boasts a 6 hour burn time. Accompanying literature recommends removing the candle from the end cap if burning for more than 15 minutes as the end cap can get quite hot (it is aluminum after all). I imagine cleanup would be a bit more involved if you burned the candle down in the end cap over an extended time.

Wire Saw:


VSSL Supplies Wire Saw

Another eyebrow raiser was this little tin claiming to hold an effective saw. Turns out this is the same saw issued by the British military. Utilizing canvas handle straps, which are better than the metal ring “handles” you typically see, this is a pretty sweet looking bow saw.

  • Wire saw (high tensile, 60lb working strength with handle straps)
  • Made of 8 independent, tightly woven stainless steel wires
  • Standard issue used by the British Military (United Kingdom Special Forces)
  • Can be used in areas hard to reach with a traditional saw
  • Cuts through wood, bone and soft metals like aircraft aluminum
  • Canvas strap handles make it easier to form the wire saw into a bow for the most effective cutting

I’ll try to get some video showcasing the effectiveness of this soon.

Can Opener/Water Purification:

VSSL Supplies Can Opener & Water Purification

VSSL Supplies Can Opener & Water Purification

  • 1 P-38 military rations can opener (world’s smallest functional can opener)
  • 6 Aquatab water purification tablets
  • 1 set of Aquatab instructions (also useful for starting a fire)

Having enough purification tablets to treat up to 12 liters of water is a great addition to this kit. The “P-38” can opener has a slight learning curve to it. Luckily YouTube member “Horizons” has created a how-to video regarding this opener.

First Aid Kit:


VSSL Supplies First Aid Mini-Medical Kit

Properly named the “mini-medical kit” this, like the light & compass, should be considered the “back-up” and not replace a dedicated first aid kit for wilderness & survival adventures. VSSL even sells a dedicated First Aid model. I’ve long since learned though the most important thing about a first aid kit is the training of the person carrying it. To that end take a wilderness first aid course from a quality provider. I highly recommend SOLO wilderness medicine training. With courses all over the continent you owe it to yourself  and those you adventure with to take a 16 hour Wilderness First Aid course.

Finally a set of brief instructions covering each “tin” is included in the metallic sleeve:

VSSL Supplies Instructions

VSSL Supplies Instructions


It’s obvious that this company is carefully considering everything that goes into this product. A lot is accomplished in 36 inches of cubic space and just over a pound of weight. Could it be improved? Sure. I’d love to see lithium batteries in it, but that would require finding room for AAA size batteries. Stuffing one pair of nitrile gloves into the first aid section would add value for me. These thoughts are diminished though if you take my advice to consider the light feature as a back-up to a traditional headlamp. I think that’s where I keep getting hung up. You can’t fully replace dedicated items to your kit when you are planning an adventure. Compass, Headlamp, First Aid Kit… those are key. But what if you weren’t planning on the %$^# hitting the fan? How difficult is it to just toss this thing in my pack and know I have 6 of the classic “Ten Essentials” already covered.

The answer? Not difficult at all. While this might not ride in my pack all season long, it will definitely be grabbed during short impromptu trips where I plan to be back in a few hours anyways. I think it will also become a standard in our vehicle, as driving to remote places in the winter always has me second guessing our level of preparedness in the event of a break-down in sparsely populated areas.

The kind folks at VSSL have supplied me with a discount code for any of my readers, so if you’d like to pick one of these up use “scout15” at checkout and get 15% off! You can find this model on their website here.

What does your emergency kit look like? Share in the comments below!

Thanks for reading… see you in the mountains,


Disclaimer: While this product was provided to me at no cost the opinions above are entirely my own.

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VSSL Supplies Survival Gear

VSSL Supplies Survival Gear

Posted in Land Navigation, Mountaineering, Product Reviews, Self-Rescue | Tagged | Leave a comment

Fifth Annual Eastern Snow & Avalanche Workshop (“ESAW”)

Each year I mark the beginning of thinking about snow with this annual workshop. I haven’t missed one yet, and each year friend and colleague Jonathan Shefftz writes a summary article for The Avalanche Review about the presenters and topics (as well as organize vendor booths and collect raffle items). This year the American Avalanche Association and Jonathan have given me permission to post his article here before it goes to print!  *All photos are mine and not part of official TAR article

Our venue, the Omni Resorts Mount Washington Hotel

Our venue, the Omni Resorts Mount Washington Hotel

The Grand Ballroom, plenty of room for 225+ attendees

The Grand Ballroom, plenty of room for 225+ attendees

Fifth Annual Eastern Snow & Avalanche Workshop (“ESAW”)

by Jonathan S. Shefftz

The fifth annual Eastern Snow & Avalanche Workshop (“ESAW”) on November 7 attracted a record of more than 225 attendees near the base of Mount Washington in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range.

This year’s ESAW was once again a collaborative effort. The organizing partners included the Snow Rangers of the USFS Mount Washington Avalanche Center led by Chris Joosen, and the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol. ESAW also once again relied on a grant from our lead sponsor the American Avalanche Association (“AAA”), led here by AAA Eastern Representative Chris Joosen, with your faithful correspondent as AAA Member Representative. Additional support came from the American Alpine Club and our headline industry sponsor Outdoor Research. Registration fee proceeds over and above hosting costs benefited the White Mountain Avalanche Education Fund, which provides avalanche education to youth of the Northeast.

ESAW 2015 kicked off the prior Friday evening with a social event hosted by the Friends of Mount Washington Avalanche Center and fueled by Smuttynose Brewery at the International Mountain Equipment shop and guide service. Then Saturday morning the avalanche presentations started up at the aptly named Grand Ballroom of the Mount Washington Hotel: famed site of the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference that established the post-WW2 international monetary order (including the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank).

Although your faithful correspondent’s economics expertise pales in comparison to that of the 1944 conference’s John Maynard Keynes et al., our ESAW speaker line-up this year measured up to the best of them. Read on for proof. (And no more economics references, promise!)

Chris Joosen introduced us to our first theme of Warming. Dr. Bruce Jamieson, Professor in the Applied Snow and Avalanche Research program at the University of Calgary (along with far too many other positions and accomplishments to enumerate here), presented on “Warming of Dry Snow: Instability and Decision Making.” When Bruce offers training on this topic, the response is often, “Come back in March.” But this phenomenon can occur at any time of the season, even during otherwise wintry conditions. Assessing its potential is complicated by the lack of any direct numerical forecasts for solar radiation, as opposed to precipitation, temperature, and wind.

Dr. Bruce Jamieson, presented on “Warming of Dry Snow: Instability and Decision Making.”

Dr. Bruce Jamieson, presented on “Warming of Dry Snow: Instability and Decision Making.”

And if that wasn’t sufficiently technical for us, the snow science level was ratcheted up by Dr. Sam Colbeck, retired from the U.S. Army’s Cold Region Research and Engineering Laboratory (in Hanover, NH) after three decades of groundbreaking cold lab and field research in snow crystal bonding and wet grain relationships. In his fourth year of ESAW presentations, this time Sam explained to us “The Physics of Warming.” The scale varied from micrographic pictures of snow crystals to the varying effects of global climate change upon Greenland versus Antarctica.

It got a bit deep here in the physics realm

It got a bit deep here in the physics realm

The next theme was Communicating Avalanche Information. Don Sharaf, co-owner of the American Avalanche Institute and forecaster for Valdez Heli-Ski Guides, presented on “Communicating Avalanche Information Effectively within Operations.” Along the way, he touched on the perception of “too cold for avalanches”: a colleague once saw an avalanche at … -48F!

We were then whisked all the way from Alaska to Europe by Dr. Rudi Mair, Director of the Lawinenwarnzentrale (Avalanche Crisis Center) for the Tyrol region of Austria on the topic of “Avalanche Danger Patterns.” The “clearly predicable course of events” for most avalanches was illustrated by many incidents that concluded with variations of, “he was found clearly dead.” (The his-and-hers paragliding avalanche incident though was certainly an atypical context!)

From there we went up into the “cloud” for “The Impact of Social Media on Decision Making” presented by Jerry Isaak, Chair for the Department of Expeditionary Studies at Plattsburgh State University of New York. Although we can easily be so dismissive of selfie-stick narcissism, social media is simply the modern technological expression of the ancient human impulse to tell stories.

Jerry Isaak presents “The Impact of Social Media on Decision Making”

Jerry Isaak presents “The Impact of Social Media on Decision Making”

After the lunch table we were treated to a round table panel discussion on “Traveling into New Terrain: Responsibilities, Questions, Risk, and Making Good Decisions” moderated by Chris Joosen, with participants Bruce Jamieson, Don Sharaf, Rudi Mari, and Jerry Isaak. The most dramatic example was probably Jerry’s planned trip for this coming season with his university students to Kyrgyzstan!


Round table panel discussion on “Traveling into New Terrain: Responsibilities, Questions, Risk, and Making Good Decisions” moderated by Chris Joosen

We then retreated to nice safe bucolic Vermont, the neighboring Green Mountain State. But perhaps not always so safe everywhere, as Neil Van Dyke, SAR Coordinator for the Vermont Department of Public Safety, reminded us with “Avalanche Terrain of Vermont.” And this is no mere conceptual threat, as a decade earlier Neil led the response to an avalanche fatality in Vermont.

The final theme was Stability Analysis. Don Sharaf led off with the highly pertinent “Easterners Heading West on a Backcountry Ski Vacation: A Stability and Decision Approach.” Among a wealth of valuable advice he reminded us to: “Listen to the locals … but don’t necessarily trust them.” (So apologies in advance if any of us sound skeptical this coming season when soliciting beta from you!)

Then Bruce Jamieson addressed “Field Observations and Snowpack Tests: Which is Best When?” And Rudi Mair presented on “Avalanche Forecasting Operations.”

Bruce Jamieson addressed “Field Observations and Snowpack Tests: Which is Best When?”

Bruce Jamieson addressed “Field Observations and Snowpack Tests: Which is Best When?”

We concluded with our annual expo, including displays from reps for the American Alpine Club, Backcountry Access, Black Diamond / Pieps, Catamount Trail Association, Dynafit / Pomoca, Friends of the Mount Washington Avalanche Center, Hagan, La Sportiva, Mammut / Barryvox, and Outdoor Research (our headline industry sponsor). We raffled off donations from these companies plus the American Avalanche Association, American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, DPS Skis, Free Range Equipment, Mountain Hardwear, MSR, Ortovox, Sterling Rope, Toko, and Voile.

In a break from tradition, instead of subsisting for the evening on scarfed-down free pretzels at the expo, we sat down for a formal dinner at the hotel. This was a memorial to Ronnie Berlack and Bryce Astle, U.S. Ski Team alpine racers who died in an avalanche only ten months ago in Austria. In addition to some other presentations, Rudi Mair delivered the keynote address on “How do we deal with avalanches and their mortal dangers when we can’t understand the risks in their whole complexity?” A U.S. Ski Team racer who was with Ronnie and Bryce at the avalanche incident addressed us via video, and was capped by a heartfelt address by U.S.

Congresswoman Ann McLane Kuster and prepared remarks from U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen read by Chuck Henderson, her Special Assistant for Projects and Policy.

By far the most moving moments were a tearful address from Bryce’s mother that brought many of us to the same, plus one line in particular from Ronnie’s mother that summed up everything we are all trying to achieve:

“We want to keep you from suffering our loss.”

Jonathan Shefftz lives with his wife and mondopoint-size 18 daughter (still too small for “Tech”-compatible ski touring boots) in Western Massachusetts, where he patrols at Northfield Mountain and Mount Greylock. He is an AIARE-qualified instructor, NSP avalanche instructor, and AAA governing board member. When he is not searching out elusive freshies in Southern New England or “coaching” his daughter’s skiing (i.e., picking her up off the snow), he works as a financial economics consultant and has been qualified as an expert witness in state and federal courts. He can be reached at JShefftz@post.harvard.edu or just look for the lycra-clad skinner training for his NE Rando Race Series.

Thank you Jonathan for all that you do to further avalanche education in the East and for letting me share your article!

The following day I returned for a focused workshop “Reducing Risk and Exposure for Avalanche Workers” led by USFS Snow Ranger Chris Joosen. This 3 hour session was targeted at search and rescue groups, Fish & Game, local climbing guides, patrollers, and others who work professionally in avalanche terrain.

Reducing Risk and Exposure for Avalanche Workers

Reducing Risk and Exposure for Avalanche Workers

Towards the end Don Sharaf, co-owner of the American Avalanche Institute and forecaster for Valdez Heli-Ski Guides, laid down some impressive statistics about how many times during his 25+ year career he has had an “incident”, companion buried, near miss, burial, or died (still at zero knock on wood). This particular graph was enlightening, especially when Don talked about some of the things that cause these big drops in confidence:

Confidence in avalanche skills over time

Confidence in avalanche skills over time

It was a very productive morning and I’m hoping Chris continues this professional development session after the official ESAW next year.

Well it’s time to find your beacons and put some fresh batteries in, avalanche season is right around the corner! General Advisory’s will be posted at the Mount Washington Avalanche Center once the season really gets under way, usually no later than mid-December. I also have a few beacons I’ll be reviewing this season, and a cool outdoor survival kit review coming this Monday so stay tuned!

Omni Mount Washington Hotel while leaving from the 2nd day of ESAW

Omni Mount Washington Hotel while leaving from the 2nd day of ESAW

See you in the mountains,


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Fall/Winter Review Preview (and Product Giveaway Winners!)

Over the years I’ve discovered one of the things I enjoy most about blogging is writing gear reviews. While this blog will still host various trip reports and “how-to” articles in the Skill Zone I’m going to start putting more effort into reviewing quality gear. 21 years in the outdoor gear industry and 11 years as a professional mountain guide have definitely given me the opportunity to form opinions on what works, and what doesn’t. Here’s a quick look at some of the products I’ll be reviewing soon:

Many of these reviews will also have some great product giveaways. Some of the “schwag” I have to give away includes ice screws, climbing knives, and foot powder. So if you are into reading about outdoor gear, and possibly winning some, consider following this blog. I’ll be posting a gear review at least twice a month.

Congratulations to Jay for winning the coolest climbing knife in the world and Ben for winning the best foot powder on earth as part of the first Outdoor App Review series.

See you in the mountains!


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EMS® Men’s Feather Pack 800 DownTek™ Hooded Jacket Review

This was my most anticipated item in this seasons Fall/Winter line at Eastern Mountain Sports. I was stopping by the shop about once a week since September and was visibly excited when I walked in last week and saw it finally hanging front and center. It may not be the newest iPhone but I was amped to pick it up just in time for a quick alpine climb on Cannon Cliff.

EMS® Men’s Feather Pack 800 DownTek™ Hooded Jacket

EMS® Men’s Feather Pack 800 DownTek™ Hooded Jacket

Built on the success of last year’s Icarus jackets (you remember, the ones that after the first production run EMS had low inventory right off the bat because employees snagged them all up?) this jacket falls in to the “light belay jacket” category. A few things set this jacket apart from your more casual winter coat and for me justified the purchase, even when my gear closet has no shortage of technical jackets!

EMS® Men’s Feather Pack 800 DownTek™ Hooded Jacket

1 fleece, 3 soft-shells, 1 hybrid, 2 hard-shells, 3 synthetic insulated and 2 down… off course I needed 1 more


The manufacturer states the average weight of a medium size is 15.5 ounces. My own scale measures my size large at 17.5 ounces. The closest insulated hooded jacket I have is my Wild Things Belay Jacket which weighs in at 24 ounces!


This jacket when stuffed into its internal pocket only takes up about 240 cubic inches of space, less than a football (pre-Deflategate of course). Dimensions when stuffed are about 8 x 6 x 5 inches with some room to squish smaller.

EMS® Men’s Feather Pack 800 DownTek™ Hooded Jacket

Stuff size of the EMS® Men’s Feather Pack 800 DownTek™ Hooded Jacket


This ultralight weight and extreme packability is achieved by using 800 fill DownTek. If you want to increase your knowledge of “fill power” in down products you can geek out on Wikipedia here. We’ve known for years that high quality down is the warmest insulation in outerwear, with one big disadvantage. Traditionally, when down gets wet, it looses 100% of its insulating capabilities and takes a decade or two to dry. Then came DownTek. Simply put it is water-resistant environmentally friendly ethically sourced down. You can dig into it deeper if you’re curious at DownTek’s Website. I just like watching videos:

Back to the jacket… and one other important piece of the “insulation equation”. Knowing that a jacket uses 800 fill power down is only useful if you know how much of that awesome fluffy stuff is shoved into your jacket. I had guessed it was 4-6 ounces but I wanted to know for sure and since this important tech spec was not listed on EMS.com I tracked down the Product Manager. The final answer? 5 ounces of 800 fill DownTek. That’s pretty darn good for a jacket in this price range!

Shell fabric:

EMS is using a 100% high denier ripstop nylon treated with a DWR (Durable Water Resistent) treatment:

“Woven with reinforcing threads in a crosshatch pattern, Ripstop Nylon prevents ripping and tearing. It’s one of the strongest forms of nylon around – they make parachutes out of this stuff.”– EMS.com

In hand it is very soft and light to the touch.

Color: As best as I confirm this will only be available in two colors this season. “Jet Black”, which is actually two toned (still boring), and “Warm Olive” which looks like no olive I have ever seen, whether warm or cold. Where do they come up with these color names?

EMS® Men’s Feather Pack 800 DownTek™ Hooded Jacket

Photos from EMS.com


Pretty much every technical jacket I own has a hood. Even some of my long underwear has a hood. A hood makes a jacket so much more valuable in the mountains.  This hood fits over my climbing helmet perfectly. There is an adjustment in the back to pull the sides back a bit so you don’t loose your peripheral vision and get ambushed by a moose.

EMS® Men’s Feather Pack 800 DownTek™ Hooded Jacket

Alpine Hoodlum


There’s four. Two hand pockets, not set high since this jacket would go over your harness and not be tucked in (like your awesome soft-shell jacket would be). One external chest pocket (it’s where I keep my phone warm). One internal chest pocket that has a “flipp-able” zipper for when you stuff the jacket into this pocket. One easy design fix here is to add a small zipper pull on the inside pull of this zipper. I like things that are glove friendly. That being said, I would probably only have this jacket stored in the internal pocket for two situations;

  1. Pre-packing for the day to maximize space. Once the jacket gets deployed it’s probably going to be going on and off through-out the climb (that’s why they call it a belay jacket, you wear it while belaying, not climbing, unless it is really cold… but it doesn’t get really cold in NH does it?) Taking the time to stuff it back into its pocket would be silly, just shove it in the top of your pack and get climbing!
  2. Single pitch ice/alpine climbing, to clip to the back of my harness if I’m leaving my climbing pack at the base. There is a small sewn loop here for this reason, but I would be concerned about that loop being the sole attachment between me and my warmth at the top of an ice climb so my solution was to make the added zipper pull a little bigger so it could be clipped with the loop.
EMS® Men’s Feather Pack 800 DownTek™ Hooded Jacket

Yankee Ingenuity


Ah, EMS Sizing. So reliable. So time tested. So never-the-same-two-years-in-a-row.

Here’s the size chart from the website (note it is “universal” and the disclaimer on the bottom):

EMS® Men’s Feather Pack 800 DownTek™ Hooded Jacket

So will it fit?

Humans are hard creatures to fit. So this is what I’ll do. I’ll give you my measurements, and hopefully you’ll have a good guess at what size you need (since you’ve already decided to buy the jacket if you have read this far).

I’m 5’9″, 180lbs, 42 inch chest, 34 inch waist, broad shouldered, average ape index (nice way of saying normal length arms). I tried the medium on first at the store (over a t-shirt and sweatshirt I was wearing. If felt pretty good, a more athletic fit. A bit too tight in the shoulders when I stretched forward (remember, broad shoulders). When I would lift my arms up (ice climber pose) it got a bit too snug to have full range of motion. I tried the large. The large may be a smidge roomy for me, but it definitely didn’t feel like a boxy house. Plenty of room inside for my skin/mid-layers/softshell (or hardshell).

Well I think we’re down to the last consideration (and why I am posting a Monday Product Review on a Friday).


This jacket retails for $219.50. I spent some time searching for equivalents from similar companies and could not find many that could compete in terms of construction, materials, design, etc. I think it’s a great value at full price. As off 11/13/15 this particular jacket that hit the shelves only a week ago is ringing up online and in-store for $153.65. That is a fantastic value on this jacket!

EDIT: As of 11/20/15 this jacket is ringing up 50% off! That’s $109.75! Get it before they sell out!

When the sale ends I’ll have to update this review so people are not devastated they missed it. You won’t be though. You’ll be smilingly broadly at the top of an early season ice climb snug as a bug in your new EMS® Men’s Feather Pack 800 DownTek™ Hooded Jacket. Oh, and before you forget and upset your better half by not thinking of her this Christmas, it comes in women’s too.

EMS® Men’s Feather Pack 800 DownTek™ Hooded Jacket

EMS® Men’s Feather Pack 800 DownTek™ Hooded Jacket

Thanks for reading,

Disclaimer: Neither the fact that I am an employee of Eastern Mountain Sports or that I obtained this jacket with my personal use discount has had any effect on my opinions on this jacket. They are mine, and if you like, I’ll pinky swear.

See you in the mountains,


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The Whitney Gilman Ridge, Cannon Cliff (11/4/15)

Yesterday Oliver returned fresh off his 5 day trip to Yosemite where he had bagged the iconic Royal Arches and Cathedral Peak. Next on my tick list for him back east was the Whitney Gilman Ridge, a classic east coast climb that should be on every climbers wish list!

We left Conway at 8:20am and started across the Kancamagus Highway.

About 10 miles later Oliver was telling me a story about forgetting one of the ropes after getting to Royal Arches and it dawned on me I had left our rope right next to my front door.

We left Conway at 9:00am and started across the Kancamagus Highway.

We drove north through the notch and after reversing direction pulled into the climber’s lot and checked the sign in box. No one had signed in for anything on the cliff. We filled out a trip plan for “the WG” and hopped back in the car.

I’m convinced that this climb is best approached from Lafayette Place Campground to the south despite almost every guidebook and website recommending to approach from the north climber lot. Two reasons;

First, at the end of the day when you hit the bike path you are much closer to your car and it is slightly downhill instead of slightly uphill.

Second, it’s a lot easier to be sure you’ve found the right approach trail. Many people trying to find it from the north have passed it then found the descent trail and believed it to be the approach trail. This leads to a lot of wasted time and perhaps some horrendous bushwhacking. When coming from the south you simply locate the first marked trail on the left (the descent trail), then find the next one. It also happens to be exactly .99mi if you are using any type of GPS device.

We left the car at 10:07am.

For us it was a 15 brisk walk to reach the approach trail.

Whitney Gilman Ridge

Our track log, red for approach, black for descent. Just under 2.8 miles round-trip.

We made our way up the talus field to the stunning ridge.

The Whitney Gilman Ridge

The Whitney Gilman Ridge

During our scramble I shared some of the fascinating history of the route. It is simply amazing that Bradley Gilman and Hassler Whitney pulled this route off on August 3, 1929! It has been suggested by the late climbing historian Guy Waterman that at the time of this ascent it was the hardest rock climb in the States!

It took us 52 minutes to reach the route, of which there are a few variations. I always prefer the direct start to the original line.

PITCH 1 & 2

Whitney Gilman Ridge Direct Start

Whitney Gilman Ridge Direct Start

The crux of this pitch is in the 5.6 – 5.7 range but it happens to be right off the ground trying to reach that horizontal on the right. You can get some really solid arm bars in the crack, which is featured if you reach far enough back, and you should be able to get up to that horizontal, get a good left arm bar and foot jam, and calmly place your first piece (SPOILER: .5 BD cam, clipped directly is perfect).

After that it is just really fun cruising to a nice belay ledge (140ft) with some attractive parallel cracks (often a fixed cam or two is in the left hand crack). This is an excellent place to stop to maintain easy communication, but you could push higher up if you are climbing on a 60m rope and feeling strong for the grade. (SPOILER: both cracks are fun but the right one is a little easier). I pushed on to the next ledge, technically the top of pitch 2. The options for a gear anchor on this large ledge are pretty far back from the edge which could make communication challenging as running it to here is about 55 meters. Using a method to extend yourself back to the edge of the ledge will really help with belaying your second.

While belaying Oliver up I could see our shadows being cast further down the cliff. You can easily see me at the top of the second pitch and Oliver reaching the large ledge at the top of  the first pitch:

Whitney Gilman Ridge

Can you see us?

The Whitney Gilman Ridge

Oliver finishing up the 2nd pitch in good style


From here I usually take the 5.8 right side variation. This variation brings you up a stellar splitter jam crack to an optional small belay ledge below the slightly overhanging “North Wall”. The moves leaving the anchor here are a bit tricky but the holds are positive and after a few feet the climbing eases up just before merging with the famous Pipe Pitch at the pipe itself. I think next time I head that way I’ll try skipping the small stance and continue up the steep North Wall & Pipe Pitch. I’m pretty sure the rope will make it and drag will be minimal if you run out the easier bits at the beginning before reaching the splitter jam crack.

Today though I decide to take the original line as I hadn’t seen how rockfall from a few years ago had altered this section and I was curious how it may have changed. I also liked the idea of another belay in the sun. The climbing was pretty casual and it was easy to avoid the loose stuff by staying right towards the end of the pitch. A fixed nut & cam in the left hand crack along with some of your own gear makes for a fast anchor, and you can stare at the splitter knee eating crack while you belay thinking about how not to put your knee in it. (Spoiler: Use the right most crack and face holds on the right and never touch the knee eating crack)

Pitch 4

Oliver arrived ready for the infamous “Pipe Pitch”. This is one of my favorite pitches anywhere. You just can not beat the exposure as you pass the historic pipe and the Black Dike drops hundreds of feet below you. I realize as I’m staring down at the damp looking Black Dike that the first ice climb of the season was done 16 days ago! Check out this pic from NEIce:

Black Dike, Cannon Cliff

16 days ago on the neighboring Black Dike! From NEIce.com, Photo by Majka Burhardt. More on their climb in this Julbo article

No signs of ice today as I pull through the crux in a t-shirt and sunglasses.

Whitney Gilman Ridge, Cannon Cliff

Oliver has just pulled the exposed moves on the Pipe Pitch and is all smiles

Pitch 5

Sticking with the original line I did a quick pitch up to the small stance below the final corner. The anchor here is a bit tricky. A .75 BD Camalot placed up high in an undercling flake, combined with a knifeblade fixed pin and a small alien to the right make it happen.

Whitney Gilman Ridge, Cannon Cliff

Oliver arrives at the start of the last pitch

Pitch 6

The moves off the anchor on this pitch are a bit funky. There’s a bit of “questionable” holds here and there (it is Cannon after all), but with a funky high-step and stretch to reach a pin higher, one move right and it’s all over. Happy cruising from there we reach the top at 2:30pm, 3.5 hours on route.

After un-roping and enjoying the view we head down the descent trail which takes a cool hour to reach the car (I really think that is faster than walking back up the bike path to the climbers lot.

Another fantastic day with Oliver! I’ve climbed a fair bit with Oliver in the last month or so and I was curious to see how much so I totaled up our 5 days of climbing we have had since our first climb on September 19th.

Day 1 Cormier-Magness, Whitehorse, first 4 pitches and Upper Refuse, Cathedral 900ft

Day 2 Standard Route, Whitehorse 1,150ft

Day 3 Thin Air, Cathedral, 3 North End Routes , 550ft

Day 4 Lakeview, Cannon Cliff, 1,100ft

Day 5 Whitney Gilman Ridge, Cannon Cliff, 600ft

4,300 feet of technical climbing in just over a month (plus a trip to Yosemite). Oliver is really getting after it! I can’t wait to get him out on some nice long ice routes this winter!

Coming Monday a review on the new EMS® Men’s Feather Pack 800 DownTek™ Hooded Jacket.

EMS® Men’s Feather Pack 800 DownTek™ Hooded Jacket

EMS® Men’s Feather Pack 800 DownTek™ Hooded Jacket- Top of Whitney Gilman Ridge, Cannon Cliff, Franconia Notch State Park, New Hampshire- photo by Oliver

See you in the mountains,


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Sterling Rope Factory Tour

Ever wonder what goes into making your climbing rope? Yesterday I had the opportunity to head over to Sterling Rope in Biddeford, ME with 6 other EMS Guides for a tour of their factory.


It is one thing to read a companies credo in a catalog or on their website. It’s quite another to experience it in person.

We left EMS North Conway around 8 yesterday morning and arrived at the factory at 9:30 where Sterling’s Market Manager, Matt, and head of Research & Development, Josh, greeted us and gave us a quick briefing before passing out safety goggles and leading us out to the factory floor. The first two things you’ll notice when passing through the factory doors are the immense size of the factory and the constant loud drum of dozens of machines producing some of the best ropes in the world.

Sterling Rope Factory Tour


We started on the far end where huge pallets held tons of spider-silk-thin nylon, dyneema, and polypropylene awaiting various treatments and processing before they would be braided into different styles of core for dynamic and static ropes. We were reminded to keep our hands away from machines since you would not see this thin material being spun at such high RPMs.

Sterling Rope Factory Tour

Lots of spinning & whizzing

I got to climb up a small ladder and watch as the rope cores were treated with Sterling’s proprietary DryCoat Treatment. Many rope manufacturer’s only treat the sheath of the rope. Sterling’s treatment of both the core and the sheath greatly increase the water resistance of your rope, which effects just about every property of the material from strength to durability.

Next we made our way over to one of the coolest machines, the “braider”. After all the work that goes into making the core of our climbing ropes is finished, these machines artfully braid the protective sheaths over the core at a mesmerizing speed. This machine is off while we are shown the core strands.

Sterling Rope Tour Braider

Sterling Rope Tour Braider

Then I captured some slow motion video on a nearby machine to see the process. You can see the final product sliding out inch by inch, at probably about an inch every 2 seconds in real time…

We then got to walk though the final product areas. Who needs 700 meters of the amazing Fusion Nano IX 9mm rope?

Sterling Rope Factory Tour

700 meters of 9mm? It would retail for over $2000 if cut to standard lengths.

After touring the distribution center we made our way over to the highly anticipated Sterling Drop Test tower. This tower allows Sterling ropes to pass rigorous UIAA tests that simulate a really bad fall onto a rope. Most climbers notice when purchasing a rope how many of these “worst case” scenario falls their rope is rated for. Off the top of my head I’d say I have owned and used ropes that passed anywhere from 6-12 of these falls. The fall imitates a fall factor around 1.77 with a 80Kn weight (about 176lbs).

And again in slow motion:

On the 7th drop the rope failed (and I was not ready with the camera). The snap was loud and impressive. It was interesting to feel how flat and warm to the touch the abused rope had become after multiple test falls, especially since we did not let the rope rest between drops.

After that we made our way to the Pull Test machine. This hydraulic beast can exert over 222Kn (50,000 pounds!) of force on ropes & gear in a measurable and controlled environment. We were encouraged to bring old slings and gear to destroy here in the name of science. Well, maybe in the name of pure fun. But science too.

Our school manager, Keith, had a plethora of slings and belay loops to test, with an emphasis on investigating the different rappel extension options we choose to use on such a regular basis while guiding and recreating. We also wanted to see if worn belay devices could pose a threat when pre-rigged on a rope. Ian had brought a damaged fixed quickdraw from the last bolt on the classic hard Predator route at Rumney NH. Jeff had a pine sap infused sling he wanted to test. Over the next hour or so we broke about 20 pieces of gear in the machine.

Sterling Factory Tour

Snapped Dyneema smells like burning nylon

Sterling Rope Tour

Ready to test

Sterling Rope Tour

That’s science son!

Some video of the tests:

The Results:

Sterling Rope Tour

The Results

So what were the main take home points?

Most methods of rappel extension are more than strong enough.

The single girth hitched dyneema sling actually broke at a slightly higher force than the nylon. While strength isn’t the biggest issue with this method I will often choose to girth-hitch the enforced tie-in point of the harness rather than the belay loop, namely to increase the life of the harness. While belay loops are incredibly strong one well documented fatality from a belay loop breaking after prolonged wear always lingers in the back of my head. I would also keep in mind the lower melting temperature of dyneema and watch those rappel speeds when the rope is passing close to the loaded dyneema sling.

A well used belay device that has developed a relatively sharper edge on the “outgoing” side significantly reduces the load needed to cause failure

Tthough still under a relatively high load (more than 10Kn). Even so while pre-rigging 3 people on a steep rappel it would be a bit more comforting to know belay devices where in good condition and not heavily worn. No need to be the “first” to draw attention to this potential catastrophic failure. Replace your belay device when it develops an edge on the out-going side.

The frayed quickdraw from Predator failed under 4Kn

This definitely draws attention to the quality of fixed draws that might be hanging on your project. Inspect fixed draws!

Thanks to Jeff Lea I also now know that sap does not weaken my slings. It’s still pretty messy so I’ll continue to avoid it when possible.

This visit to Sterling was highly educational and informative. I’ve been climbing almost exclusively on Sterling ropes for the last 3-4 years. I have regularly used the Sterling Evolution Velocity for cragging and top-roping and reserve my Sterling Fusion Nano for leading waterfall ice. Sterling also happens to be the official supplier of rope for EMS Schools. If you are in the market for a new rope this is a company you should be considering!

Do you own a Sterling rope? Which one and how do you like it? What other brands/models do you like? Let me know in the comments below!

See you in the mountains,


Sterling Rope Factory Tour


Posted in Ice Climbing, Mountaineering, Product Reviews, Professional Development, Rock Climbing, Self-Rescue, Trip Reports | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Outdoor Apps Reviews Part 2 (Snow Safety Apps)

A couple weeks ago I kicked off this seasons weekly gear reviews with Outdoor Apps Review Part 1, where we looked at three of my most used outdoor apps; ViewRanger GPS (USA)MyRadar, and PeakFinder Earth. While those apps covered navigation & weather, for Part 2 of this series I’d like to focus on snow safety apps. Check them out below and if I’m missing a must have app please let me know in the comments below so I can check it out!

  1. Theodolite – $3.99

“Theodolite is a multi-function augmented reality app that combines a compass, GPS, map, photo/movie camera, rangefinder, and two-axis inclinometer into one indispensable app. Theodolite overlays real time information about position, altitude, bearing, range, and inclination on the iPhone’s live camera image, like an electronic viewfinder.” – developer’s website

I use this app mostly in the winter while teaching avalanche courses and ski touring in the back-country. You can look down a slope or gully and get accurate information on aspect, elevation, and angle, three critical components to terrain selection when managing avalanche risk.

Check out this short video showcasing its features.

2. Mammut Safety App Free!

I usually suggest to my students on the first day of an avalanche course to download this free App, finally available on Android as well as iOS. It is packed with functionality but I use it most often for its quick and simple clinometer. Check out the other cool features here (and brush up on your German):

3. ULLR’s Mobile Avalanche Safety Tools $9.99

There are a few different “observation & recording” snow science type apps out there. This is definitely one of my favorite for its comprehensive scope and intuitive design. It is however an advanced app requiring a strong foundation in snow science and avalanche phenomenon to really be utilized. To put it bluntly, if you have never taken a formal avalanche course or had an amazing mentor this app may be a bit too much. Seek qualified instruction!

Ullr's Mobile Avalanche Safety Tools

Automatic graphing of snow pack observations and instant aspect/angle/incline measurements using iPhone’s camera, GPS, and gyro-meter.

So there are three apps to check out for this upcoming winter season. I’ve used them all on an iPhone 5s but will be switching soon to the iPhone 6s Plus, and I’d be lying if I’m not a bit giddy about all that screen space for navigation focused apps. I’ll also be testing a Thule phone case to protect that beauty from the type of abuse I expect it to take. Who knew Thule makes phone cases?

I have some other snow focused apps I’ll mention in Part 3 of this series. In the meantime let me know what apps you rely on in the winter in the comments below!


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