Arcteryx Nuclei – Insulated Jacket Review

The Arcteryx Nuclei jacket is a synthetic jacket with an incredible warmth to weight ratio and an unbelievable packed size making it the ultimate ‘puffy’ to stick on the back of your harness on almost any climb of more than one or two pitches.

What is it for?

Ever since lugging my heavier Haglofs Barrier Q II synthetic jacket on an overnighter on Mount Stuart one warm day in July, I realised I should be in the market for a much lighter, smaller warm layer for such outings where weight and packability were a crucial factor but the warmth of a heavier down or synthetic were not absolutely critical.

Katie and I prepare for a night on our Bivi ledge on Mt Stuart – I lugged my extra warm synthetic Jacket up all 20+ pitches in lieu of something less bulky.

Its hard when reviewing insulation layers, since everybody has there own system for layering and runs at different temperatures so, in my opinion, there is no ‘bad’  insulation piece, it just comes down to personal preference. But for me, as a climber first and foremost, most of my needs for gear come from that activity and as I mentioned previously, in this instance my priorities were a jacket with a good warmth/weight ratio and something that would pack down really small. I had in mind a jacket that I could carry on my harness or that would take up minimal space in a backpack. I wanted something that I could carry while climbing alpine multipitches when I would need something a bit warmer than my Arcterxy Squamish hoody windbreaker. Yes, I own heavier stretch fleeces and Windpro/Polartec pieces that could probably give the same insulation but the problem with these is packability. Climbing specifically always produces two very different conditions which make it hard to regulate body temperature; you are either working hard and producing heat as you move quickly or you are stationary after that exertion whilst belaying. So for me the ability to quickly throw on or shed an extra layer is a high priority. On top of that – whilst a light down puffy would seem like it would tick all these boxes – (given that down inherently has great warmth to weight properties and packs down small)  as an alpine belay jacket I wanted something that would save my bacon if I got caught out in bad weather and a synthetic jacket has that added resilience to wet weather that I was looking for.

Keeping warm on the summit of the Lotus Flower Tower

More often than not I have embarked on long alpine climbs that can typically be done in a big push (under 24hrs) and even once topped out you move quickly on to the descent so an additional thin wind breaker and just more thinner layers whilst climbing has typically been a successful strategy for me. However after the Stuart experience I realised it would be handy to have something to fill in the middle ground between my Squamish hoody and my Barrier Q II, especially since my trip to the Cirque of the Unclimbables was up coming and our objective of climbing the Lotus Flower Tower could involve a cold night with minimal gear on the top of the tower or somewhere high on the route.

The stats.

So as usual when looking to buy a new bit of gear I did some pretty extensive and geeky research to make sure I really was getting the best product for my money. I’ll spare you the extended version of all the jackets I looked at and why some didn’t make the cut and just share with you some quick comparisons on the two other jackets that I short listed; the Rab Xenon and the Patagonia Micro Puff Hoody (I added the relevant stats for the Atom too incase it is a useful measuring stick, note that the two have slightly different purposes so aren’t really directly comparable, the atom is much more durable and doesn’t have its own stuff sack).

 

As per the table the Nuclei is still the lowest reported weight and is the only jacket that packs 80gm of insulation into the core section of the jacket – on paper it looked to be the warmest and the lightest. I’m no scientist and I can’t tell you the objective difference between Arcteryx’s Coreloft insulation and the Primaloft in the Xenon, nor can I be 100% sure if the units are comparable – so I went to try a couple of jackets on to see how they felt.

 

Fit and feel

 

The jacket fits snuggly so it makes you feel warmer already. The hood fits well over a helmet too so you get the added warmth on a cold hanging belay.

Often for me, once I’ve shortlisted a few products in the same category and know they roughly aim to give the same range of properties (in this case light-weight synthetic insulation) it then comes down to ‘how warm does it feel’ and ‘how does it fit’ because once you get down to the minutia, so many factors seem to go into making a jacket feel a little bit warmer than it’s competitor. The wind resistance and the snugness of the fit can make a jacket with theoretically less insulation feel warmer than one with more. Since these jackets were all pretty close on paper, the real life feel was going to be the ultimate test.

Firstly, I couldn’t get my hands on a Xenon to try on in my size, it turns out Alpine specific technical jackets for Women are not that easy to come by and none of the plethora of outdoor shops in Vancouver had any I could take a look at. On to Patagonia, where disappointingly and surprisingly, despite usually being a fan of Patagonia’s stuff the Micro Puff didn’t put up much of a fight against the Nuclei. The jacket would have ticked a lot of the boxes I was looking for but the overall fit was a little more clumsy and not as snug as I would have liked, the jacket didn’t feel like it would be that warm despite meeting the weight criteria.

The cuff detail is clean and the jacket stays extended to the wrists even with out-stretched arms.

When trying on the Nuclei my decision was made easy. The women’s medium was a perfect fit and was consistent with the sizing of the other Arcteryx jackets I own. It gave me the perfect balance of feeling snug to my body to feel warm and cosy yet still allowing freedom of movement during activity. The insulation in the mid body seemed to loft really well and despite being a super light weight jacket it felt like it would be really warm.

Field testing

On the final pitches of the Lotus Flower Tower Headwall

Since taking it home from the shop I have had over a year to field test the jacket and have gotten to know how it performs in all seasons and all types of environments. The first time it made it out with me was on a rather ambitious early season attempt to climb Harvey’s Pup on Mount Harvey on Vancouver’s North Shore. The outing was ambitious because despite being a June day of 30 degree heat, the route is North facing and would likely be wet, cold and probably still holding a lot of snow on the approach. I climbed most of the day in my Squamish hoody and despite being dripping wet by the end of the route the Nuclei stayed in my pack. I was super glad to have packed the Nuclei though since on the descent it seemed pretty likely at one point that we would need to spend the night and I was very glad to have a warmer, back-up jacket. Even though I did not wear the Nuclei it had already performed one of the main things I wanted it to – being so light and packable I didn’t need to question it’s necessity in my pack and knowing I had it as a back up layer eased my mind somewhat throughout the day.

Over the summer I took it on a few other alpine outings, sometimes in my pack if we had to carry one but often just clipped to the back of my harness with the handy stuff sack that comes girth hitched to the pocket.

Additional stuff sack girth hitched to inside of pocket.

The stuff sack has a handy loop stitched into it where you can attach a biner – it does feel a little precarious though, I feel like it might snap off if I squeeze through a chimney or something

Whilst I still have some issues with this design and I still don’t think Arcteryx have quite nailed the best solution yet – I much prefer this stuff sack over having to MacGyver a ‘fold into the pocket solution’ like the Atom SL – at least the stuff sack is purpose built and allows the pack size to remain optimally small. Climbing with the jacket on the back of my harness proved to be no issue and did not feel at all cumbersome or annoying.

The last pitch of acid baby in the Enchantments with the Nuclei attached to the back of my harness.

 

Climbing a multi pitch on Terrace Tower in the Cirque of the Unclimbables

As I have mentioned it is during climbing multi pitches and long alpine routes where the jacket really comes into its own for me but it has also has a strong place among my quiver of backcountry ski gear, as again its lightness and stuff-ability make it a no brainer to have it in the pack as that warm layer you throw on at the summit while you transition, or on especially cold days as a layering peice.

Lunch stop on the summit of mount Mulligan, a beautiful spring skiing day.

Another summit shot just before ripping skins for some sweet powder turns in McGillivray Pass, BC.

Durability

The face fabric of the Nuclei is made of Arcteryx Arato 10 which is the thinnest and least durable face fabric material compared to the Squamish hoody and the Atom series. Thats OK though – as long as you understand that the Nuclei is designed as an insulation piece primarily and not as a blue collar hard working tough piece to use while climbing off-widths or shwacking through alder. Using the less durable face fabric is one way that Arcteryx can keep the Nuclei so light and that is fine with me.

Dave got a little chilly high up on Snow Creek wall so borrowed my jacket to belay and follow the pitch. The Nuclei can take a bit of a beating but not too much.

Despite this I have climbed in it on occasion when I haven’t been brave enough to take it off after the cold belay. I try to avoid any super abrasive moves (chimneying/wide crack) and so far the jacket has fared really well. I did discover one small tear in the arm a couple of months ago but that was easily fixable with some tenacious tape and I figured it was par for the course.

Pro’s

I’ve said this til the cow’s come home but the number one thing that makes this jacket so awesome is the warmth to weight ratio. It’s incredibly light, it packs into a neat bundle and it’s really warm. These are the most crucial things I want from a belay jacket/alpine insulation piece. It does what it says on the tin and I’m thrilled that it is so good at it’s job.

Belaying Paulie on the Penguin in the Cirque

Other things I really like about the jacket is it’s snug yet non-restrictive fit. The jacket is pretty simple in many respects – no stretch side panels added in for extra comfort or any other frills that help jackets to be more versatile in their fit and potentially more durable. Yet despite this it still feels like it gives me a warm hug while letting me stretch up and start dismantling the hanging belay.

Lastly, for a jacket that sacrifices durability to save on weight, its still pretty damn tough. I’ve put it through the ringer for something that I was warned was not really meant for climbing in and its held up surprisingly well .

Con’s

There are definitely several things  I don’t love about this jacket but although there might be a few of them, they are much less important items than the the ones on my Pro’s list so don’t get the wrong idea, the summary is still that this jacket is awesome at what it does.

Firstly, lets not pretend I don’t look a little bit awkward in my bright yellow, slightly shiny jacket anywhere except high up there on a sweet summit in adverse weather. Even then the styling is definitely a little bit brash. Although I’m super pleased that Arcteryx introduced some brighter colors into their women’s range and would continue to encourage them to do so, they perhaps took this one a little too far. I guess I didn’t really realize quite how canary yellow it was when I ordered it!

All this ranting about color is more to say that the Nuclei is not exactly in the same league as the Atom when it comes to styling. It’s not as good at living the dual life of performing in the mountains while still avoiding looking like a total dink if you throw on an outdoorsy jacket to nip down to the pub in on a chilly evening. Even I have some reservations about throwing on my Nuclei for apres or making an early morning coffee run before the sun has come up. Yes, a lot of this has to do with color, but it’s not all the yellow’s fault. I’ve seen the jackets in other colors and while they are a little less garish the shinyness and the transparency of the Arato face fabric definitely hurt the eyes somewhat.

Looking like a Unicorn puked on me while enjoying post ride beers in Skaha with Beth

That being said, I don’t really care too much about this, after all, this is a pretty technical jacket that performs really well for its intended use, so who cares if it looks, well, techy? All I’m saying is, heads up, this is probably not the universal jacket for dog walkers and snow-shoers looking for something understated and versatile.

While were on styling ( I told you the Cons had significantly less weight than the Pros), one thing that irks me is the color of the zips – I know I know – I’m getting really pedantic, but the off white/dirty grey pocket zippers seem really out of place on the yellow jacket and just don’t seem intentional. This mostly only bugs me because usually Arcteryx are so hot on all of their detailing and all their products seem really well thought out, even down to the placement of the logo, that this just seems incongruous with their usually expetionally high standards. On top of this the main jacket zipper doesn’t even match the pocket zippers! Neither of these proponents help to drag the classiness factor up on the jacket but again, functionally there is zero issues with the zippers.

Off white pocket zippers are a different colour and style to main zipper

I couldn’t write a ‘Cons’ section without at-least touching on the stuff sack situation. Yes, stuffing the jacket into a purpose built bag is better than nothing and yes, its also better than stuffing it into its own oversized pocket and having it bloat out to that size so that it sits clumsily on your harness, but as I said I still don’t think this is the ultimate solution. I don’t know what that is yet either – but its not my job to (yet???). There must be some solution that avoids having to writhe around in your pocket accidentally grabbing a spare bit of fabric every time you search for that hidden cliff bar. And while were on the subject of the stuff sack; about that special little loop they added for clipping a caribiner to it – it’s an awesome idea, please Arcteryx, just make it a little more robust so that I don’t feel like I’m going to wear through it next time I’m thrutching in a chimney fearful I’m going to drop my jacket from the 10th pitch.

So in a nutshell, the Nuclei is a really great, light alpine belay jacket that doesn’t compromise its technical specificity for a stylish look.

Whats the deal with that Arcteryx??

Just before I finished writing up this blog post I found out that the Nuclei is no longer available in Women’s – it has been discontinued and the Men’s will cease to be continued after this year. Word on the grapevine is that the Nuclei just didn’t sell all that well and there isn’t a plan to replace it with another comparable jacket. My guess is that it couldn’t compete with the versatility of something like the Atom. This is all speculation of course, but it saddened me to think that this might be the start of the dumbing down of previously highly technical products to appeal to a more mass market. I have nothing against the Atom, in fact I think it is also an incredibly well thought out piece of outdoor apparel, but I get a little scared when I see companies like Arcteryx, who were known for so long for really pushing the boundaries in high-performance technical outdoor gear showing signs of favoring a more muted urban demand.

I wanted to continue to finish this review of the Nuclei, even if it may be somewhat obsolete, to show that it is still really important to us for companies like Arcteryx to keep a commitment to high performance niche gear. This is not meant as an abashment of Arcteryx for its growing assortment of urban wear, even my rudimentary understanding of business gets why it’s savvy to appeal to people beyond a niche community. However I wanted to share my concern for the potential direction the company could go in and to be a voice giving support to the continuation of Arcteryx’s roots in highly specific Alpine apparel. Oh, and bring back the Nuclei!

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Yak Peak

The end of June (2017) brought a very very hot weekend with it and we were hatching a plan to get out in the mountains to avoid the heat. It was a pleasant surprise that it was my boulder crusher boyfriend Honza who was the main instigator of our adventure up Yak Peak; proclaiming “I want to climb that cool looking rock slab that you drive past on the Coquihalla so that every time I go past it I can say I have done it”. This was perfectly fine by me as I love a good adventure in the mountains, I love spending time with Honza and I had also wanted to do Yak Peak for a while.

To make a weekend out of it we decided to go and explore some of the more ‘off the beaten track’ boulders in Hope on the Saturday and camp over in the van nearby so that we could sleep in a little bit before Yak in lieu of the 1.5hr drive it would be from Vancouver. We were both pretty stoked on our plan.

The boulders we sampled in the Grid area of Hunter creek were really fun and the developers did a great job of making the area’s access pretty straight-forward. We easily found some fun warm up boulders and then Honza and I both found a really classic line each to work on in our respective projecting grades. I was stoked on a really cool looking fin shaped boulder that was host to a steep V4 called the Beast of Burden. It had a good landing but I still couldn’t commit fully to the top moves, especially with my ankle still not feeling fully recovered from it’s sprain back in early spring.

Fun warm up boulder – At a guess its V2/V3.

Honza cruising the flash of the Beast of Burden, V4.

Honza got some serious stoke for a proud line on a tall boulder called the Sea of Simulation. The V10/V11 problem called New Moon starts standing and goes up a very cool looking tufa to an easier but airy top out.

Honza trying the opening moves of New Moon V10/11 on the sensational Sea of Simulation boulder.

For more information on the area check out this Squamish Climbing Magazine article and this video of Tyler Thompson making the 2nd Ascent of New Moon.

We were pleased to check out what the Grid had to offer but unfortunately we didn’t last too long in the 30 degree heat with the army of mosquitoes that were playing out in the forest too. We opted to head to Dairy Queen for a blizzard and then went to find a lake to swim in. Silver Lake; south of Hope was a great place to cool down and afterwards we parked the van on the approach road and set up our Coleman and camping table to make dinner and settle in for the night.

All set up for the nights camp with dinner on the stove.

As Honza did the dishes I started to organize our gear for an early start the next day. “Hey Honza, should I clip this Prusik cord to your harness for you” I asked as I casually sorted the kit. “Oh shit!!” replied Honza, looking pensive as he realised how he’d forgotten to take his harness out of the gear closet back in our flat in Vancouver. We giggled at the absurdity of our situation. The last time we came to Hope to boulder and then climb Yak Peak we had set the mini van up for dinner and camping on an FSR and then realised we had forgotten gas for the Coleman stove once we had already chopped all the ingredients for dinner and then when we pulled up in the parking lot to go climb Yak the next day we realised that I had forgotten the rope!

Ignoring all the signs we sent a few facebook requests out to see if anyone we knew had a spare harness we could borrow in Chilliwack and when the responses didn’t come in time we decided to drive back to Vancouver to go and get Honza’s harness.

All our attempts to negate an alpine start were moot now that we were driving back to Vancouver to pick up the harness. Thankfully we agreed that leaving the house by 6.30am would be sufficient and we were back in Hope within an hour and pulling up at the trail head by approx 7.30am. Having done the research for a previous trip we knew the approach beta pretty well, we pulled off at Junction 217 (The Zopkios rest area) and coming from Vancouver we needed to go left under the tunnel to get to the other side of the highway. We parked up on the east side of the big parking area there (east of the washrooms) at the edge of the trees as we knew we were headed up along the on ramp to toward the east anyway.

Approach map from Zopkios Rest Area at Exit 217 of the Coquihalla.

I put on my harness and half the rack at the car and back-packed one half rope, Honza carried the other rope and half the rack in my Arcteryx Alpha 30L which I’d begrudgingly agreed to climb with (I prefer not to carry a pack where possible!) We walked beyond the concrete barrier alongside the on ramp on the highway for maybe about 5-10 minutes (approx 1km from parking) looking out on the North for a path down to the swamp/creek. It was pretty easy to find the path through the grass but I remember it wasn’t quite as worn as I expected.

Approach and descent topo

We crossed some obvious logs at the swamp to keep our feet dry and headed steeply up the very easy to follow trail for about 40mins. I’d been mostly cragging in Squamish all summer up until this point where a 10 minute approach would be considered long so although this was incredibly accessible by most alpine standards, the approach was still a bit of a shock to the system!

Crossing the swamp on logs (on the way back out).

We reached the scree quickly and followed cairns until they petered out and we were deposited at the bottom of some low angle slabs. Here the beta seems to be a little loose and since we could see where we were aiming for roughly (the crack systems up to lunch ledge forming the lower pitches of the climb) we decided this was the point at which we needed to choose our own adventure. We solo’d up some easy slabs and across to reach a corner system which I recognised to be the start of the route in this picture on Mountain Project. The large flake/corner that I started up got a little wider at this point and I felt uncomfortable climbing it un-roped in approach shoes so I stopped here and made a belay and we started our roped climbing from this point (approximately where the red line starts in the photo).

My first pitch got us to the bolted belay which I believe is actually described as the starting point of the route in the latest Mountain Project pitch by pitch description – Honza had to do a couple of metres of simul-climbing to allow me to get far enough along the traverse to get to the anchor though.

From this anchor the pitch by pitch description now made sense and we were able to follow it successfully for the most part. I’ve added it below with some of our pictures and a few notes that may help to make it even easier to follow:

P1 (HK) – make 5.7ish moves left from the belay up a flake to gain the hand crack on the front face of the flake (small pro). Climb 5.6 crack to a belay out right at a slung pinnacle on the arete. ~55m

Honza making the 5.7ish moves across the flakes on the corner feature to gain the hand-crack on the face on P1 (our P2)

P2 (JL) – Climb crack to a slung block in a chimney. 5.6 60m rope stretcher. Can split this pitch in two at a slung tree half way up. We did the rope stretcher – another bit of simuling for Honzi – albeit short.

P3 (HK) – Climb crack to top of pinnacle (Lunch Ledge), belay 10 feet higher at bolts. 25m 5.6. Straight forward and obvious.

P4 (JL) – Climb sometimes crumbly rock left at first, then up and right (some pro behind flakes and a fixed piton) to a bolted stance. 35 m 5.7. (Can link 3& 4 with 60m rope and long slings on gear to avoid rope zigzags). We didn’t link because of expected drag and to keep it simpler but should be easy to do.

P5 (HK) – An obvious vertical wall can be climbed via a corner on the left side (5.8) or a series of face holds to a vague hairline crack on the right (5.8+) then follow cracks and ramps up and right to a two-piton belay (back up with cams) 5.8/5.8+ 50m. Hard to see the crack at first but head up to the face holds pictured below and trust that it is coming.

Honza leading through steep but good holds on the right face to the hairline crack of Pitch 5. Great exposure!

P6 (JL) – Move right from belay and climb a left facing 5.8 corner for about 10m then step right around arete at big hold (can also step right of corner at bottom but you miss out on the cool layback). Climb up flakes, pass tree, up to two overlaps at a roofy feature. place gear then move thru overlaps into crumbly, easy groove, climb to bolt belay. 55m 5.8+ (junction of Yak Crack and Reality Check) This sounds complicated but it was easy to follow, the initial lay-back was fun and one of the few sections of sustained solid climbing on the route.

P3 (HK)- You are now leaving Yak Crack for Reality Check. Climb up 5m from the belay on rock resembling oatmeal, then move left on a solid horizontal dyke until you encounter many flakes. undercling left, then up at end of first flake, climb more flakes to highest undercling at roof. Move left (5.9) awkward under roof, to corner “Cave”. There is a possible belay here under roof on a fixed nut and piton. HOWEVER, despite topos, it is best to go right here onto the arete of the cave and climb up about 10m (5.9 face) to a big ledge with bolted belay on the right. This avoids the spelunking tunnel through the flake done on the FA which is awkward with a pack on, and avoids belaying on sketchy fixed pin and nut tied off with a single webbing chunk. 50m 5.9 We avoided the spelunking and like many of these pitches it sounded more complicated than it was. Climb some improbable looking terrain (easier than it looks) following the ‘faint’ Dyke before reaching good flakes that are hard to spot from the belay. Head up to undercling the obvious roof  – this is probably some of the most sustained and fun climbing on the root and well protected. Some fun moves pulling out on the face of the block that forms the cave on the right lead you to a bolted ledge on the right.

Steph abeggs photo of P7 flakes

P8 (JL) – Traverse the ledge (top of through-flake) to a bolt belay on left. 30m 3rd classThis is a real short, easy and cool pitch where you walk left across the top edge of the block that makes up the tunnel, it feels exposed and precarious but you reach the belay below the corner of the next pitch in no time (I’m pretty sure you can actually see it from the previous belay).

P9 (HK) – Climb flake and ramp up and right for a pitch ~40m 5.8  After Honza got to just above where the woman in the photo below is he was unsure where to go as unlike the descriptions for the other pitches, this one was much less detailed and alludes to the pitch being both short and obvious, its neither. You head right at the top of this initial dirty lay back but at first there seems to be a lack of pro on very dirty rock – it looks improbable but it is the way to go. The cleanliness of the rock and the pro improve once you commit to this direction. You head up the shallow corner above the undercling pictured for a while before stepping left and finding a bolted belay (Check out Steph Abegg’s photo of corner pitch 11 (our pitch 9) 

Pitch #9

P10 (JL) – Supposedly one of the two 10a pitches. Face climb up 3m to a bolt, move up and right 3m to another bolt, then back left and up 5m to a corner (bolt on left arete) Climb right of the corner up the face on dishes and flakes then move up and right on a nebulous line past more bolts and gear under flakes to a bolted belay on a small right facing corner/ramp (cant see belay until 5m below it). ~45m, easy 5.9 face, total of 5 bolts on the pitch plus gear. Can easily get into 5.10a terrain with lackluster route finding as the most direct line is not the easiest one. I found this pitch to easier to route find than expected and good edges, crimps and dishes just kept coming so I followed those. The line wasn’t always the most direct as the description suggests, follow the holds and not the bolts and this pitch goes fine. I actually had quite a lot of fun! 

P11 (HK)- climb up flake above belay and either climb directly where it goes right, or move left and up good cracks on the face, to a ledge. Above this is a low angle slab with 3 bolts. Originally graded 9/10a by the FA party, subsequent ascents have cleaned holds on the slab of lichen making it more secure – now feels like an 5.8/9. Belay at bolted stance on ledge above. ~40m 5.8/9 this is where you would rap from if you planned on rappelling. I can’t remember for definite but I think Honza went left for the good cracks on the face. I remember this pitch being fun too and the climbing didn’t feel too challenging apart from the last slab moves moving up to the belay ledge which feel quite thin and a little run out. I was pleased Honza lead this!

P12 (JL) – 4th class up low angle slab (no pro) for full pitch to trees above. 45m 4th class. Can escape into trees lower down if you want to. I totally underestimated this pitch. Its low angle but it is a friction slab without many holds and with NO PRO for a whole rope pitch I didn’t want to take my chances of a foot popping on some pine needles or crumbly rock, I got wigged out after about 20m and escaped left into the bushes. This was still pretty sketchy as the rock was loose and the brush thick but I managed to make it to a tree big enough to belay off and bring Honza up. Thankfully he was able to get us to the top via another rope length on loose scrambly terrain, I wouldn’t have wanted to be unroped for this so would say there is at least 2pitches of climbing after the last belay at the top of the 5.9pitch.

From here, hike and scramble up towards the top, pass the sub-summit on the right side on a good ledge (exposed).

From here we were able to take off our climbing shoes and pack up the ropes. We were very pleased to be off the climb and not needing to put our feet into black rubber fireballs anymore. It had been the hottest day of the year up until that point at a sizzling 33 degrees and we had spent 8 hours of it climbing a south facing slab. Our feet were on fire and we both tried hard to stop the spirits from dropping lower than they were. We had both really been struggling with our feet in the heat and this slowed us down considerably as we tried to rest them out of our shoes at each belay, which just strung out the suffering even more as we spent more time baking on the wall.

Yak peak summit

Smiles from the summit

Pleased to be back in the comfort of approach shoes and socks we headed for the way down, I was a little nervous of what this might hold since it was early in the season and we had had a heavy snow year.

We headed up and right until we were at the shoulder between the descent and the sub-summit. From here we had a good view and although there seemed to be a decent amount of snow we could spot a way down and footprints gave us a good idea of previous travel.

Descent route

Look back at the still large depth of snow after traversing exposed ledges off the sub-summit

Honzi heading down the snow keeping back from the cornice

After descending the snow we could clearly see the well defined dirt path and we headed for that. While there was still patches of snow sticking around on the path we could mostly avoid it and stick to the well worn dirt path.

Yak Peak descent

Well defined dirt path on the descent

While descending we passed some pretty fat looking marmots and made it quickly to the base of the route again where we had started that day. There was still a tonne of snow as we skirted back to the talus but the going was pretty fast as we could glissade most of it and it wasn’t very steep.

Fat marmots on the descent path

Yak peak

Back at the base of the route.

The sun wasn’t long off setting once we got back to the road and we were super glad to see the car. It had been a long day. Feeling tired, smelly, a little sun burned but ultimately successful we dragged our sorry asses to the Yellow Deli in Chilliwack for a wholesome feast before returning to Vancouver. Over an artisan sandwich we recalled the day. Honza seemed a little frustrated that he still didn’t quite see the same fun factor in this sort of stuff that I seemed too, I tried to reassure him that whilst the adventure part was still really enjoyable for me, Yak Chek hadn’t been quite the quality route that I usually love. If you’re in the vicinity its an absolute must do and certainly a worthwhile outing, but I have certainly climbed lots of other moderate classics with more solid rock, cleaner pitches and more varied climbing. All these things surmount into helping to make the moderate grade feel more serious. Heed the advice if yo are not comfortable running out 5.7 – 5.9 slab this route will be even less fun.

Its September now and both Honza and I look back on the day we climbed Yak much more fondly than when we were chugging acai smoothies in Yellow Deli that night. Having an absence of memory for all the negative things is a great way to stay motivated for alpine climbing. It seems likely now that I can convince Honza to be my partner in crime again on some more adventure style long routes, but perhaps next time i’ll use a less crumbly route on a cooler day as my bait.

 

Arcteryx Satoro AR base layers review

I have had a set of Satoro AR base layers (zip neck shirt and bottoms) by Arc’teryx since October 2016 and have been testing them out this winter season on the ski hill and in the backcountry.

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The Satoro flaunts the use of Arc’teryx’s advanced fabric technology – Nucliex™ which wraps Merino wool around a nylon core.

 

 

For anyone who’s been living in the dark ages as far as outdoor apparel and technology is concerned, here is a quick lowdown on Merino wool; it comes from a really tough breed of sheep that live in extreme alpine conditions so not only does it have the insulative properties of normal wool but it is much more bad-ass at dealing with extreme conditions-meaning it’s breathable in summer too. Not only that but it is soft and lightweight AND very good at absorbing odours, which has been a real beat down on its synthetic competitors. Wool in general has seen a real revival in the outdoor industry especially for base layers and light weight pieces. People swear by their wool garments over synthetic for many outdoor pursuits these days. However its generally agreed that the one big flaw of wool is its durability. When Arc’teryx developed their Nucliex fabric it was with this flaw in mind. Utilizing Nylon gives the fabric a durable core which Arc’teryx say makes it  20% stronger in burst strength test and 50% more abrasion resistant.

Now before we go much further with this review I have to confess that I am not much of a strong advocate either way on the whole wool vs synthetic divide – I know its supposed to be a Marmite type of argument (you either love it or you hate it) but its just not like that for me. I have owned garments from both categories that I have really liked and disliked for their respective pro’s and cons. Synthetics were always a durable and economic choice but they would almost always start to smell bad after a while, merino wool pieces I’ve owned were always a nice feel, breathed well and were warm, they didn’t have the same smell problem as synthetics but were typically more expensive and way less durable.

If Arc’teryx really have solved the durability  issues with wool though the Satoro could be the first apparel line to give me reason to have a stronger bias towards it.

FIT:

In more recent years I think Arc’teryx have changed their women’s fit a little and I have to say that 90% of products seem to fit me really well. I’m typically a medium in Arcteryx stuff – top and bottom, the Satoro base layers do not stray from my typical. The top feels really great, it cuts down low enough at the bum to not feel like it would ride up with an overhead reach, yet it is slim fitting and figure hugging enough to feel like a true snug fit base layer. The sleeves also feel the right length for me and the arm seams are cut into the armpits at just the right place. I used to find – with Arcteryx shells at least – that the jackets would come up too high on my waist and back and this short fit was exaggerated with the arm-pits and sleeves being ill-fitting so that when I would reach over head it would ride up further. Thankfully, they seem to now base their clothing patterns on a person just my size – lucky for me!

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The bottoms seem to fit great when I first put them on, they are long enough (I am 5’7″ and my inseam is 31″) and they don’t sit too low at the back or front either – in fact they come high enough that you feel you can comfortably tuck the top into them which I personally really enjoy on a blustery winter day – no gaps of exposed skin please! The same as the top the bottoms have just the right amount of a ‘hugging’ fit so that you feel they are a true base layer and sit right next to the skin but are not too tight. For my body shape I find this is not always as easy as it sounds. Having an athletic start by playing soccer for 15 years I have pretty meaty quads – disproportionate to my waist, so I often find pants to be either too tight in the legs or too baggy in the waist. Perhaps this good fit can be attributed to the Elastane Arcteryx use in this fabric.

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One thing I found when I actually started moving in the bottoms though, mostly within the first 1km of the skin track is that somehow the waistband of the bottoms rides down in the back and does end up leaving me with that unwanted cold gap of skin – which is disappointing and also surprising given how well they seem to fit when I put them on at home in the morning. This is particularly annoying skiing as I wear the Arcteryx Theta SV bib shell pants and digging out my long-johns to pull them up is not a task that you can do subtly or even very effectively on the hill!

FEEL:

Apart from the pants riding down which is pretty annoying the overall good fit means the base layers feel really comfortable to wear. I took them both on a 4 day back-country ski trip and I felt just as happy sitting around the lodge in the evening drinking a beer in the nice merino top as I did wearing them both as technical pieces out on the mountain. The merino wool feels really nice and soft and the Elastane helps to move with your body.

DETAILS:

Neck zipper:_I don’t own many base layers with a zip neck collar, typically I prefer the simpler the better, but in this case I like the half zip and collar on the Satoro. Its not noticeable at all when its up (i.e. the zipper doesn’t catch my skin or anything) and the extra material on the neck makes it a little warmer for playing out in winter but allows effective cooling when you get too hot.

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Neck zipper on Satoro base layer top.

 

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Zipper pulled open for more ventilation

Arm pocket:_Again usually I wouldn’t be sold on something like this and I haven’t yet had much reason to use it, I guess I haven’t worn it as the outermost layer yet so it doesn’t make it so handy to get to. Perhaps when it comes around to climbing season and I can wear it in the mountains or on a multi-pitch it would be handy for keeping my car key or a chap-stick in, but the main thing is that the pocket isn’t annoying and doesn’t add any bulk. On a totally aesthetic level I really like the excuse it gives to highlight the accent color!

 

Arm pocket

 

Seams:_Arc’teryx uses what they call a ‘Merrow’ stitch which keeps the seams smaller and narrower. This is something I wouldn’t have noticed until it was pointed out to me, but the fact that I don’t notice these things means they are not catching my attention in a bad way, they are not scratchy or annoying which is a real testament to Arc’teryx’s time honored attention to detail. Even just looking at the stitching it looks like a quality product.

seams

 

Logos:_I really appreciate when a product has the company logo placed in a position where it has been well thought out. For some reason I really like the use of the subtle logo on the back of the pants on the waistband, its considerate and although a small, purely aesthetic detail, it exudes quality to me.

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SMELL:

I have only worn a few wool items before and one was a sleeveless ice breaker vest which I wore all the time in hot conditions climbing and approaching long alpine climbs in the height of summer. I was really impressed by the lack of smell even when I wore it multiple days in a row on trips. The same can be said with a wool t-shirt I bought a few years ago. I always thought the whole odorless wool thing was a bit of a myth or an exaggeration, but I was pleased to find otherwise. However, unfortunately I can’t quite say the same for the Satoro shirt. Even after a day of sweating it out on the skin track on a ski trip I could detect a subtle odor and I wouldn’t say I consider myself a heavy sweater or anything typically. Don’t get me wrong it didn’t reek or anything and it was probably only a smell I could personally detect but I was surprised after my previous experiences with Merino wool garments that there was anything at all. After four days in the backcountry there was definitely a detectable smell but admittedly not nearly as bad as I would have expected from a synthetic piece.

COLOUR:

Arc’teryx have done well here and there is actually quite a good choice for  what I would expect from base layers. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised or particularly upset if it was just black and black. I mean, usually I’m the one advocating for women’s colors to be bright and bold not wishy-washy pastels and baby pink, but these are base layers. The fact that there is any choice at all is good and although the colors for women are black, blues and pinks, the hues are not those that say ‘I’m just here to look cute’ they say ‘I mean business’. I like the dusky maroon for the top that I have especially with the accented brighter zip and laminated pocket and the blue hues (navy and turquoise) are nice if you prefer a more subtle color. I would always vote brighter though and would be thrilled to start seeing more oranges, yellows and greens in Arcteryx’s women’s lines.

Ripping skins at the summit of Mt Mulligan after hours of skinning in the sun.

Ripping skins at the summit of Mt Mulligan after hours of skinning in the sun.

CONS:

There really isn’t too many. I already mentioned that it is annoying that the bottoms seem to ride down but another small thing that irks me is that although the bottoms are described as ‘midweight’ base layers, they seem to be much more thin and more see-through that the upper body counter part, this is not a huge deal, but it would be nice to be lounging around the lodge or throwing on a big sweater and stripping off your shell layer on the way to the pub for apres and not feel like you are baring more than you should to the world – small thing I know!

SUMMARY:

In summary I am really happy with the Satoro base layers and there is definitely some considered details gone into the design and the manufacture of the products but I can’t say that I have discovered anything about them yet that decidedly sets them apart from any other base layers that I have owned.

I own a very similar pair of wool bottoms by Patagonia that I really like and the only difference so far is that the Patagonia bottoms fit me a touch better (they don’t ride down) and after three years of owning them they are beginning to fall apart with lots of holes and many areas looking very threadbare and thin. I also own an MEC synthetic long sleeved shirt, it fits well and it very comfortable, it does smell pretty bad after a couple of days on the go though and doesn’t have any of the nice features the Satoro has like the zipper and pocket.

I think it is a little too early to tell if the Satoro has something special because for me the selling point would be if the top and bottom are holding up in 2 years time after a bunch of abuse from a few climbing seasons being abraded against rock and pushed and pulled around as well as serving as temperature control through more ski seasons. I would like to find out how the odor control changes over the years and months, if it gets significantly worse then that won’t be great. But they don’t start falling apart in a few years time like the Patagonia bottoms (which to be honest lasted longer than I thought being wool) then I think the Satoro will go up hugely in my estimation.

Bouldering in Leavenworth in late October

Bouldering in Leavenworth in late October

Perhaps the current unremarkable opinion I have of the Satoro peices currently actually points to the fact that they are utterly nailing their jobs as base layers; excellence through understated simplicity and comfort that doesn’t bring things to my attention because base layer don’t need to be all singing all dancing with gimmicky features? I could totally buy this theory I proposed to myself.

If the way I feel about the Satoro now was compounded with some serious durability that contended with that of a thin synthetic as well as the fact that they smell better, then I would say they had something that would make me spend $170 and $140 respectively on them. Otherwise it would be hard to justify. I will update this and let you know how that durability goes a little way down the line.

Cloudburst Mountain from Chance Creek FSR

Saturday January 28th Beth and I set off from Vancouver at 6.30am to go try get ourselves a summit and some nice views. The forecast was for warm and sunny without any new snow in the week preceding. Freezing level was at around 1650m, only 200m below our intended summit and Avalanche Canada was showing green with a yellow in the alpine.

Both of us had wanted to head up Cloudburst for a while and having considered the conditions in depth we decided this was a suitable objective given the day, it was likely to be a clear vis’ day and we weren’t going to have FOMO of powder laps elsewhere in the Sea-to Sky corridor.

We arrived at the trail head a little before 8.30am after coffee and gas pit-stops. Matey was out of commission (Beth’s 4WD Toyota Matrix) so we decided on approaching from the East and the Chance Creek FSR as it seemed the likely-hood of getting up the road from Squamish Valley would be very slim in my non-winterized van.

Overview of Route

The Chance Creek Forest Service Road is 32km North of Squamish on the Highway. The pullout isn’t well signed from the highway so watch your odometer. As you turn in you see a BC provincial sign labeling it as Chance Creek so you know you’re in the right place. The main parking lot is just 1.6km up this road at the cat-ski operation but I was still a little nervous how that would go in my van. Turns out it was totally fine and no one was getting in any further  on the steep logging road beyond anyway,  even in their trucks, so we parked up and prepared to put the skins on.

There were a lot of people in the parking lot – skiers and snowshoers but thankfully at the first junction, just more than a kilometer up the road they all turned off to head North toward Mt Brew. We skinned in along this road in blissful solitude until the road ended around 5.3km.

Skinning in on the initial road that continues 5km beyond the parking lot.

Skinning in on the initial road that continues 5km beyond the parking lot.

The terrain on Cloudburst is quite complex and there are many ways to approach and gain the summit, with cliff bands, exposed ridge lines and various steep bowls. This not only makes it navigationally complex but also the complicated micro-terrain makes managing avalanche hazards tricky. We had read a few trip reports and figured we would try to follow the route outlined in the trail peaks page, as it seemed to pick its way through the least hazardous terrain and although not the most direct route, it seemed to make sense for us given the high winds forecast for the day too.

As we left the main road we continued traversing to the West on a narrower road for a short while whilst gaining elevation gently (under 1km). After this there was a skin track put in and soon we noticed a large party of 5 or 6 just ahead of us. As we turned more due South-West and gained some more elevation we put in a few steep and annoying kick turns made worse by the sugary sloughing snow constantly sliding out from under us. The party ahead of us – seemingly a family – continued in this manner, gaining elevation rapidly with short kick turns through steep trees. Consulting the map Beth and I decided we could avoid that nastiness by staying on a South west bearing and gaining elevation more gently through less densely gladed slopes.

Beth enjoying the views as we skin up the smaller Cat roads

We headed back into the trees due south after this (at around 900m) to put in some more steep switchbacks as we got sick of contouring. We continued on a South-ward bearing as best we could, deviating to avoid the steepest terrain where necessary. A cliff band stopped us from progressing too directly at around 1200m and we skinned west again to avoid it, breaking trail all the while.

Facets forming? The surface snow was perplexing for the temperatures but the large structures were like ball bearings or the next layer.

Facets forming? The surface snow was perplexing for the temperatures but the large structures were like ball bearings for the next layer.

Eventually we popped out of the trees into the sub-alpine, the sun was out and the views were pretty stunning. We had somehow been skinning for almost 4 hours. It felt warm in the sun but the added wind worked to undo any of the temperature increase. Taking shelter in a huddle of trees we threw down some food before continuing, we were both eager to keep moving as we knew we were quickly running out of time but we really needed to take on board some fuel otherwise we were certain to crash.

Eventually some views again as we reach the Alpine

Eventually some views again as we reach the Alpine

We carried on up through an open gully where the snow was really wind effected and began to feel a little touchy and to start to slough. Something didn’t feel quite right. We pushed on beyond our lunch spot for another 20 mins or so and could now see the ridge we needed to gain with our summit in view – finally! We both knew that it was too close to our agreed turn around time to make the summit at this point though, reluctant to give up we pushed on a little further anyway.

Gaining the apex of a small rollover I saw a crack shoot out from under my ski and suddenly the whole thing propagated and slid. Thankfully I was only uphill of a huge flat bench by a couple of metres and the consequence was nothing more than an even more heightened awareness for the touchy snow conditions.

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Beth checking out the area I had triggered while skinning up the corner of the roll over

Given our time constraints, the high winds we could see happening on the ridge ahead of us and the touchy nature of the wind affected slopes not to mention the low potential for getting to any better skiing if we ventured higher, we decided to turn back.

Checking out the view of the summit we didn't have time to tag.

Checking out the view of the summit we didn’t have time to tag.

There had been some nice looking snow through the trees on the upper parts of our skin track that we had intentionally stayed off of on the way up in anticipation of our ski down. We ripped our skins at the edge of the bench and initially headed skiers right into a small bowl which had some nice turns if a little short and wind affected in places.

After this we headed back west to enjoy some nice mellow turns through the trees in some pockets of powder close to our skin track. Unfortunately this was a little too short lived and as we reached a cut block lower down the slope with some nice looking pillows the snow started to get crappier and heavier. We still had a fun time weaving in some turns though.

Headed into the trees for some mellow and fun slopes

Headed into the trees for some mellow and fun slopes

In almost no time at all we had hit the road again. We skinned on the cat track for a while before reaching the main road and ripping our skins once again. I snowplowed almost all of the 5km back to the car as thin and variable snow made it really dicey to make turns and the continued steepness also made it feel too sketch to really open up – especially with all the little bumps and dips.

Beth leading the way home along the cat track with views of the Black Tusk

Beth leading the way home along the cat track with views of the Black Tusk

The days skiing had disappointingly felt all too similar to my last weekends outing on Metal Dome where we’d come close to summit yet not close enough to pull it off and had some fun turns  whilst retreating. It was a satisfying and fun day out nonetheless and I can only hope that all this ground work will add up to successful summits sometime in the near future.

Thanks to Beth for a great adventure as always!

 

Metal Dome from the North

On Sunday 22nd January there had been a storm that passed through the few days leading up and the Avalanche Canada report was showing as Considerable for the Sea to Sky area. Kate and I were looking for some tree skiing or mellow slopes to hit up given the current snowpack. She’d recently been to Gin Peak and we weren’t keen on driving as far as the Duffey given the decent base further South, we’d both spent an early season day on Metal Dome back in late November but we’d approached from the South since the road was clearer and in high winds and heavy snow we’d fallen short of the summit but found some fun terrain to ski. We decided to explore Metal Dome but approaching from the North to see what we could find in the trees and perhaps some lower angled slopes in the alpine.

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Overview of our route approaching from Highway 99 (to the East) and skinning the North Slopes

 

Detail of the route map

Detail of the route map

Alex decided the conditions were passable to his tastes and we were fortunate to have him along for company too. We drove their Subaru to the trail head which is a turn left off Highway 99 approximately 44km beyond Squamish heading North toward Whistler. The Road is the Callaghan Valley Road and you will follow this another 6km until a turn on the left takes you up 100m or thereabouts to a parking place with an FSR road forking off to the right (this is where you skin from) If you round the corner and spot the dog facility you’ve gone too far.

We left the car around 8.30/8.45am and started skinning up the road which gains elevation gently for about 4km with great views out on a clear day to Blackcomb, Rainbow and Wedge.

Views out to Blackcomb from the Road we skinned in on.

Views out to Black-tusk from the Road we skinned in on.

Once we got to the end of the road we cut up into the trees but continued contouring a long and gradually gaining traverse. There was one party of two behind us who cut up much earlier than us on a steep skin track that gained elevation quickly. From the maps we had we were confident in our way finding and carried on breaking trail on our  traverse North West. We crossed the creek around 960m and continued on in the same direction until 1100m approx. Here we cut back and tried to gain more elevation quickly.

Kate testing the snow coverage of the creek before crossing

Kate testing the snow coverage of the creek before crossing

We had been breaking trail for a long time when we eventually popped out into the Alpine around 1.30pm – slightly frustrated at how long it seemed to take us and how far away the summit of metal dome still looked to be.

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The route I assume we would take to gain the summit. traversing into a bowl beyond the shoulder in the horizonline and into the gulley to go around the back of the peak

We had given ourselves a turn-around time of 3pm so still had some time to continue on but knowing we wouldn’t make it to the summit  in the time left and not seeing any desirable or indeed safe terrain worth pushing on for, we traversed over to a small shoulder above some trees to transition.

As we contoured over to our ripping spot we saw what we thought were other skin tracks over to our East which was surprising as we hadn’t seen anybody all day since the two guys who left us for a steep skin track not long into the trees.

As we mosied on over Alex shouted ‘Wolverine!’ and we all stopped dead in our tracks. I was disappointed not to spot the magical beast but Alex was adamant it had popped behind some trees less that a 100ft in front of us. We paused for a few seconds trying to spot it again until we realised that wasn’t the greatest idea and we carried on our way with a bit more haste in our steps.

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Wolverine track!

It wasn’t until we got closer to what we thought were the skin tracks right in front of us that we realised they were actually one singular track about the width of a snowboarders down-track – similar to the width of a Wolverine dragging its hind legs and bushy tail through deep powdery snow!!

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Alex enjoying a powdery run through nicely spaced trees

Alex enjoying a powdery run through nicely spaced trees

We ripped our skins and headed for the trees. The reward for all our patience was some really awesome light and deep snow in amongst some nicely spaced trees. It was a good long run through the trees that planted us right at the start of the road but we all agreed that it would have been nice to get a couple of laps in like that.

I kept my skins on for the road back out as there was mixed ascents and descents and I couldn’t be bothered with all the extra energy that shuffling and skating would cost me. Kate and Alex went in ski mode and whilst they were a little slower than me on the ups they beat me to the car by a few minutes. Kate said it was kinda sketchy and I was happy with my method.

We avoided the Whistler traffic by stopping off in Squamish for a beer and a burger at the Copper Coil which is becoming a bit of a regular hit for post ski adventures.

With hindsight we realised we probably contoured for much longer than we needed to and could have taken a much more direct route to at least the point where we transitioned so that tree laps would have been possible. It was a fun adventure non the less and nice to know there is the option of some great tree skiing here for another day when Avalanche chances are higher than would allow for other alpine objectives.

I’d also like to come back for the summit at some point, perhaps with a quicker/more direct up-track and longer daylight hours though!

Thanks Kate and Alex for a great day! can’t wait for the next.

(To see a fancy 3-D video that my watch produced from our GPS track click here)