Orb Freebird Review

The Orb Freebird has been in the line up at Black Crows since the conception of the Freebird touring range and is instantly recognisable by its iconic fluro yellow topsheet and matching sidewalls.

My initial ski test of the Orb Freebird back in spring 2014 was on a loaned pair. Back then the ski was traditional camber construction which provided plenty of pop and power but wasn’t the easiest thing to pilot on soft snow. I used them to ski Whymper Couloir during a traverse of La Verte from Couturier Couloir.  That day a cruel southerly wind stopped things softening but the Orb’s edge grip did the necessary.

This year the ski has undergone some changes and it’s designer Julien Regnier added a front rocker to the ski to bring it in line with the now well established Navis and Corvus Freebird skis. The Orb FB 178 has put 1 mm on its waist line bringing it to 91 mm and the pair weigh in at 2.99kg. I mounted mine with the 2017 PLUM race 170 bindings with the additional bolt on ski crampon mounts to give me a light but very strong ski for steep skiing above 4000 m, long days and expedition skiing.  The addition of the rocker has been a necessary revolutionary work over for the Orb and made it easy to ski while maintaining its founding characteristics.

Orb freebird evaluation

 

 

 

Black Crows Corvus Freebird Review

Black Crows Skis is the Cult  brand in France, conceived by Camille Jaccoux and Bruno Compagnet and born in Chamonix. The name derives from the friendly mountain crow the Choucas,  the legend being each bird is the soul of a dead alpinist or skier. Treat them with affection next time one pays you a visit on a airy ridgeline. Chamonix lays claim to be ‘the World Capital for Skiing and Mountaineering’ and whether you love or hate it, there is no denying that its the ultimate testing ground for high performance, big mountain skiing. The guys in the ski films like Glen Plake, Scott Schmidt, Andreas Fransson, JP Auclair, Seth Morrison, Sam Favret, Aurelian Ducroz, Oli Herren, Nate Wallace, Alex Pittin have all served time perfecting their arts in many different disciplines of skiing before coming to Chamonix and undertaking a long apprenticeship in the unforgiving big mountains  before they could turn on the style on the big test piece routes. This ain’t Alaska where you throw caution to the wind and tomahawk a line and walk away unscathed, make a mistake here and the next second will probably be your last. Its the perfect testing ground, equipment has to perform and withstand abuse (dry skiing, morraines rock, roots) or it gets left in the cellar.

The Corvus has been Black Crows Sovereign ski since the brands conception, and with each year they have added some extra width to drive the market trend. The Freebird version landed in 2016 and won many awards. It is a backcountry orientated ski, lightened to help you get up the hills,  and for a 109 underfoot ski at around the 3.6 kg mark, its boasts a lot of performance.

Like its full weight brother, this is a ski that likes to charge, and the harder you push the more impressed would will be with its stability as it shows its calibre. You can ski pow with dustbin lids but when its variable, crusty or firm then you start to appreciate the all round abilities. I’ve skied this on heavy touring boots but the combination of stability, ease of pivot and dampening has meant I’m happy to go out on this in the mountains with my Scarpa Evo F1.

Photos by Michelle Blaydon on the Shoulder of Aiguille du Tacul above the Mer de Glace.

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Black Crows Skis is the Cult  brand in France, conceived by Camille Jaccoux and Bruno Compagnet and born in Chamonix. The name derives from the friendly mountain crow the Choucas,  the legend being each bird is the soul of a dead alpinist or skier. Treat them with affection next time one pays you a visit on a airy ridgeline. Chamonix lays claim to be ‘the World Capital for Skiing and Mountaineering’ and whether you love or hate it, there is no denying that its the ultimate testing ground for high performance, big mountain skiing. The guys in the ski films like Glen Plake, Scott Schmidt, Andreas Fransson, JP Auclair, Seth Morrison, Sam Favret, Aurelian Ducroz, Oli Herren, Nate Wallace, Alex Pittin have all served time perfecting their arts in many different disciplines of skiing before coming to Chamonix and undertaking a long apprenticeship in the unforgiving big mountains  before they could turn on the style on the big test piece routes. This ain’t Alaska where you throw caution to the wind and tomahawk a line and walk away unscathed, make a mistake here and the next second will probably be your last. Its the perfect testing ground, equipment has to perform and withstand abuse (dry skiing, morraines rock, roots) or it gets left in the cellar.

The Corvus has been Black Crows Sovereign ski since the brands conception, and with each year they have added some extra width to drive the market trend. The Freebird version is touring orientated ski  that has been lightened to help you get up the hills and for a 109 underfoot ski at around the 3.6 kg mark, its boasts a lot of performance.

Like its full weight brother, this is a ski that likes to charge, and the harder you push the more impressed would will be with it stability as it shows its calibre. You can ski pow with dustbin lids but when its variable, crusty or firm then you start to appreciate the all round abilities. I’ve skied this on heavy touring boots but the combination of stability, ease of pivot and dampening has meant I’m happy to go out on this in the mountains with my Scarpa Evo F1.

I rated the ski on the 10 qualities I look for in a ski:

corvus-freebird-2016-evaluation

Petzl Laser Speed Light Ice Screw Review

In the mountaineering and ski touring World weight means everything. Its simple physics that the amount of energy to elevate an object is equal to mass x gravity x height raised, hence why we are all obsessed with shaving a 100 grams off one bit of kit or another. For example, in theory to raise 1 kg 1000 m in elevation take 1 x 9.81 x 1000 = 9801 J or 9.81 kJ and that does not account for significant the additional frictional losses from walking or skinning or wind. So it can be seen that carrying one kilogram less will easily result in the energy from an extra bar or two being saved, plus the added benefit of moving faster and more easily and saving the accumulated strain on your neck, shoulders and spine.

In the last 2-3 years we have seen big advances in ski touring boots and skis. Right now a pair of boots weighing 2.4 kgs skis 90% as well as a 4 kg pair of boots did 3 years ago and the same is true with freeride touring skis loosing 1 kg/pair over the last few years – thats a 25% weight reduction.

Our attention to our kit should not stop there, every item of your gear clothing, hardnesses and equipment should be scrutinised for pack size, weight, is it overkill, can I make do with something lighter? This goes for clothing, harnesses, backpacks, crampons, axes, ropes, etc. As an engineer the downside of reducing the weight of an item is the fatigue life is reduced, and for the majority of us fatigue from every day use is the governing factor in the design life of an object. For those of you who are heavy on kit then the overall strength of an item will be the governing factor and maybe going light is not right for you.

Petzl have done an amazing job with their  Laser Speed Light ice screws reducing the weight from 192 g for a steel 17 cm screw to 101 g for the ‘light’ version, thats a weight saving of 91 g per screw. Thats 1.1 kg saving for 12 screws in a cascade rack! So how is this possible?  Ice screws have been around in the steel form for decades with the main innovation being the introduction of winder handles for quick placement and removal. About 20 years ago there was a short period where titanium made and entry on the scene with larger diameter tubes but these were difficult to sharpen and poor quality control of materials from Russia often meant these were unreliable. Petzl have taken a step back and have engineered a screw with an aluminium hanger and tube with hard steel teeth bonded to the tube to cut through glacial ice. Petzl technical spec states there is unlimited lifetime on laser speed light so there are extremely  confident in the new design.

So far I have used mine for climbing alpine faces where neve and ice are present or for ski touring where I’m most likely to use them for an anchor on glacial ice or for creating an abalakov v-thread anchor to abseil from. For ski touring its brilliant as 99% of the ice screw is just a precaution for glacial travel and rarely used in anger and I have not noticed any difference in performance between the ‘light’ and the steel versions.

Price wise they are only a few euro more than the steel version so make sure you check them out.

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17 cm with bue winder handle and 21 cm with the green handle. 13 cm are also available

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The steel teeth on the laser speed light

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17 cm laser speed light on the scales at 101 g

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17 cm steel laser speed on the scales at 192 g. Thats 91 g heavier than the light.

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Equalised double abolokov in the shaded cooler ice backed up by the ice screw.

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Skiing in wild places with exposure after coming through an icy mixed section

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September 2015. Me racking up under the Grandes Jorasses photo : Ben Tibbetts

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Heading up the initial ice field on Michto – Polish, Grandes Jorasses. Photo Ben Tibbetts

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Its starting to get steeper now. Photo Ben Tibbetts

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Shacking out on a small bulge. Photo Ben Tibbetts

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Ben Tibbetts enjoying the sunshine on the summit ridge

Lenz Heat Sock Review

During the 2016 winter I was preparing for a spring ski mountaineering expedition to the north east fiords of Baffin Island. Situated deep within the Canadian Arctic, this area has granite walls that soar up to 1500 m out of the frozen fiords. Where there are diagonal weaknesses between the walls is where you find the couloir skiing. The team will be dropped into the fiords by snow machine and from that point onwards we will operate on our own for 3 weeks; skiing, eating and sleeping from a tent on the ice. With temperatures there regularly in the -20C range and dipping as low as -40C, its important to test all equipment thoroughly beforehand. I had been to this area before and found that the sea ice acts like a heat sink sucking the heat out of your feet and legs, which became a constant worry to stop my toes freezing. The nearest helicopter is 3000 miles away in Halifax so rescue is not straightforward or fast. For this trip I chose the Lenz Heat Sock 1.0 combined with the most powerful battery option (RCB1800) to help keep my feet warm, using solar charging systems to recharge the battery at night.

When I received the socks I wanted to test them with my ski touring boots and get used to operating them. The product is well made with the high quality you would expect. Out of the box the batteries were partially charged and only took a few hours to fully charge.

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Marcus Waring and Michelle Blaydon in Gibbs Fiord, Baffin

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Michelle Blaydon in Crosshairs Couloir, Baffin Island

 

Before Christmas there was only 50 cm snow in the Alps, just enough to get around on the glaciers in the high mountain. With low avalanche risk we were ski touring a lot and managed a trip to the beautiful old Couvercle refuge in the Talefre Basin. This coincided with the full moon so the night skies were due to be spectacular.

It usually takes 3 hours to go from Aiguille du Midi to the Couvercle refuge but the lack of snow and the need to rope through the Salle a Manger on the Mer de Glace meant slow progress and in the end it took 6 hours. I was happy the sock felt the same as other merino socks and didn’t cause any problems such as heal rub. The heating element runs under the foot and although you initially feel it when you put the socks on, you soon get used to it and completely forget its there. The socks have 3 heat levels and I set them on the lowest during the tour and then went to level 2 later in the hut when the outside temperature dropped. The battery clips in place to stud fasteners on the top of the sock. The sock cuff then wraps over the top of the battery. Its worth taking the time to ensure the sock cuff is fully wrapped down over the battery as I found in the lift queue its quite easy for people to graze the outside of your leg and knock the battery. Once you are aware of this it’s easy to avoid. In comparison, other ski boot heaters I have used with batteries at the rear of the boot tend to get damaged/knocked off on chairlifts so it’s a better system.

 

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Michelle Blaydon on the Leschaux Glacier with the Chamonix Aiguilles behind

 

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Full moon over the Vallee Blanche

 

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Ross Hewitt on the ‘roof’ of the Couvercle getting ready to ski down.

 

The next test planned was more onerous with an alpine climbing trip to the classic 700 m, TD- Fil a Plomb ice route (700 m, TD-) on the north side of the Rognan du Plan near Aiguille du Midi. I teamed up with Andy Houseman for this and as always, in the shady north faces, its pretty cold in the short December days. With the benefit of heated socks I chose my lighter, less insulated Scarpa Phantom boots to enable me to climb quicker. The test here was those periods standing belaying where you usually get cold feet pretty quickly. I set the battery to level 2 and was really pleased to find my feet stayed comfortable throughout the day. Without the heat socks this was definitely a day I would have used more insulated bigger boots which are less fun to climb in. We reached the cable car around 3 pm and after 7 hours on setting 2 my batteries were starting to fade but they had done the job brilliantly.

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A thin, fragile initial pitch

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Crux pitch of Fil a Plomb

 

Since then I have used the socks for the 3 days ski technique course that forms part of the training on the British Mountain Guides scheme. Training days tend to have some time discussing topics when you can get cold and I was pleased to keep my feet warm with the Lenz socks.

These tests have confirmed the socks are brilliant in ski touring and climbing boots and the element under the foot does not affect performance and is not felt after a few minutes.

Note : If you have world cup fitted race boots then the sock may be too thick to fit in the boot and you should check the fit with the boot.

Roll on 2 years. I am still using the same battery packs but changed socks in spring 2016 to the Lenz Heat Sock 5.0. This sock has the element running over the top of the foot and wrapping over the toes so there is nothing under the foot which can be noticeable in boots. Two seasons of hard use and I can confirm the sock is hard wearing and the system sufficiently robust for all the abuse I throw at it.

Whether I’m guiding at a more relaxed pace or having a big day on the Midi where you put your skis on in the tunnel and ski flat out to town, the heat socks are the only thing that stop my feet freezing as they plough through -30C snow and all the blood gets directed to my quads!

So to recap, the heat sock 5.0 works best in ski boots due to the element position and combine this with the RCB1200 or RCB1800 batteries depending on how long your days will be.  For alpinists definitely go for the RCB1800 which I use, for skiers doing half days then consider the RCB1200.

 

 

 

 

 

Navis Freebird Review

New Zealand skiing Ross Hewitt Tom Grant-1-2

The Navis has been in the Black Crows line up since the early days and became a cult ski amongst the Chamonix steep skiers. In 2015 Black Crows introduced the lightened Freebird range for the back country.

Initially I was suspicious that the ride quality and dampening was going to be compromised by the lightened poplar / carbon / glass fibre core and I was slow to get out on them – how wrong could I be!  I mounted mine with PLUM guides for the 2015 winter and was really surprised by how dampened the ski is. It skis similarly to the classic 2012 Volkl Mantra but without the weight of the metal sheets.  My skis are the 179.4 / 133-102-118 / 19.

After the European winter I took my Navis Freebird to ski mountaineer in New Zealand where big walks carrying kit are the order of the day. They make the perfect compromise of weight, float with 102 under foot and edge holding.

Since then I have remounted them with a PLUM 170 race binding and the set up weighs 4120 g. The 2016 version has been lightened by 400 g so with any type of low tech binding it would give you a 4 kg set up. These are still my go to ski and the 102 under foot makes them much better for edging on firm or spring snow.

Navis freebird evaluation

Avatech Awareness Day with the BMG

In the lead up to Christmas I was lucky enough to get invited to an Avatech training and awareness day offered to the British Mountain Guides. Avatech rep Craig Widdicombe who happens to be my neighbour, hence the invite, ran the course. For those of you who have not yet seen the Avatech system, its a smart probe that gives you a snow profile in under 30 seconds. Compared to a manual pit which could take 30 minutes! The probe has a pressure sensor built into the tip that records the different resistances offered by the layers in the snow.

We started off in the classroom with a run through the application, its layout, how snowprofile data and associated observations / photographs are input and how to find historical data for your chosen route or ski area. Data from the probe is transmitted by Bluetooth to the app on your smart phone where it is uploaded to Avatech’s site. The interface is really user friendly and intuitive so its pretty easy to find your way around. It also incorporates a map system which can be used for your route planning.

The system has already become popular amongst the professionals in north America where it is hailed as a game changer. Meteo France and the Italian avalanche forecasters have also invested in a number of probes. A probe costs around 1800 Euros so its a significant investment but you can subscribe to have access to the website on an annual basis.  The real benefit is if these become the industry standard and a number of snow profiles are performed on a particular slope of pitch giving subscribers a good overall picture of the stability on that particular slope.

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Screenshot from the Avatech site showing the mapping system with data and observations

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Like herding cats, a ‘clowder’ of British Mountain Guides searching for a snow profile location

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Andy Perkins and Craig Widdicombe confirming suitable snow depths

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Craig deploying the Avatech probe

 

 

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A snow crystal comparator plate

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Taking snow temperature profile

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Manual recording of the snow profile in the field

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Shovel shear test result.

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The Avatech probe showing the snow profile. The resolution here was set to low to compare with the manual profile however it was obvious the Avatech probe has the sensitivity to pick up very thin layers which could possibly be missed on the manual pit.

 

High Trail Evotec Glueless Climbing Skins Review

I was sent a pair of these skins to test at the end of the last season so they have been burning a hole in the box waiting to get out. As I collected my ski pass the other day it seemed like it was the right time to cut the skins for my Black Crows Corvus. For the last five years I have religiously used Black Diamond STS mohair mix so they set the benchmark for comparisons.

So how does a glue-less skin work? The Swiss made High Trail use a silicon based coating which creates a molecular bond to adhere to the ski. They come in a stylish box with a very effective Stanley knife style skin cutter, stuff bag, and comprehensive instructions on how to fit them.  For all of you who will only read the instructions as a last resort, there is a useful video here for fitting the skins. The product has a high quality feel and appearance as you would expect from a Swiss made item, only time will tell on the performance.

The thing that remains to be seen is how well these skins hold up in wet or cold conditions and the overall durability of the glue-less system. Unlike conventional glue, the coating can’t simply be reapplied.  One major benefit is that the skins are much easier to peal off a wide freeride ski. Weight wise there is nothing in it. The tail of the skin has a easily adjustable clip that looks more robust that the Black Diamond skin tails which tend to perish after a season or two.

So all we need now in Europe is for it to snow so I can really put them to the test!

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