Black Crows Atris Review

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Black Crows launched the Atris back in 2015 and with all the associated hype I had to give them a try. The cool graphics and colours were easy to fall in love and with double rockered, full under foot camber design, I expected these to be a high performance all mountain ski that would speed scrubs and be equally happy floating over pillows as landing fakey. Now with a lower spine that barely rotates, landing faley isn’t in my list requirements for a ski unless I start planning on skiing backwards while looking through my legs. But the soft tail that allowed this ski to ride fakey also ate into my confidence that it would lose its edge on the steeps and high side me down the slope. Try as I might, this ski just didn’t do it for me and I reverted to Navis FB for big mountain touring and steeps.

Fast forwarding to the 2018 season and the new redesigned Atris arrived with everyone saying I had to try it. To be honest I was pretty skeptical but I did have an ulterior motive. I needed a ski to guide clients on, one with smaller radius and very quick pivot, even at lower client speed. So I decided to give the Atris another go.

The new Atris has the same turning characteristics as the old one but it was immediately evident that the ski had a more homogeneous stiffness from tip to tail tailoring it for the big mountain environment. Very quickly I was using this ski up the Argentiere basin on Col des Courtes, Couturier or Col de la Verte. Whether powder or chalk, charging hard or going slow, this ski worked and it felt lush. For me its easily the best and most polyvalent ski in Black Crows line up and this season I’ll have one pair with PLUMs and one with a harder charging free ride binding in my quiver.

At 108 under foot its fast edge to edge and while it weighs more that the dedicated freebird touring skis, the extra dampening material in the ski is what makes it perform so well without being prohibitive for tours up to 1000 m. For sure if you are touring every day then you’ll want something lighter but if you want to maintain the performance for the downs this is a great choice.

Atris evaluation

Hydrapak Soft Flask Review

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In a world where weight and packsize is becoming everyone’s current obsession, reviewing every item you carry and evaluating its necessity has become the norm. These days I use a 27 l Dorsa pack for 6 day hut to hut touring where 15 years ago it would have been 35 l. For years the near unbreakable nalgene was the go to water carrier but a rigid litre bottle does take up a lot of space in your bag. While bladders with hoses have their place, their use in the Alpine environment often lets you down as fluids freeze in the hose and they become frustratingly unusable. Enter the soft flasks into the marketplace.

The concept is simple, make a flask robust, flexible and compressible and once its empty it takes up very little room. Ideal for packs or even if you head out for a run with one in your hand that can then be stuffed in a pocket once its empty. I’ve used these for all sorts of stuff from alpinism, guides tests, hard multipitch rock, cycle tours, skiing and running and even on expedition on Baffin Island. They are pretty robust and in all that time Ive only punctured one, and in the same period the rough treatment my kit gets has caused two nalgenes to crack.

Hydrapak also make these flasks under the Salomon brand name but one of the features I love about the Hydrapak own brand ones is a lockable nozzle. If  you are like me and avoid surgery gels, take your on hill booster in the form of expresso macchiato in a 150 ml flask and avoid milk leaking in your pack and going off. If you are a gel person then a few gels can be decanted into a 150 ml flask and you avoid the mess of empty gel packaging and that oozing sticky mess in your pockets.  I also use a 250 ml if I’m only out for an hour or two and have a couple at 500 ml and a 1 l flask to cover all types of adventure. One minor downside is they are only rated for 60C so if you like your drinks really hot then you’ll have to take a thermos which will keep them warm longer anyway. I’m not too fussed by hot drinks on the hill and often mix the Marche tea from the refuges with some cold water just so I have a caffeinated drink with me. These are truly brilliant pieces of kit and a must have.

Julbo Chamonix Sunglasses Review

Last month I received a pair of Julbo Chamonix glasses through the post to review.

Julbo was created by Jules Baud in 1888 and founded in the Jura Alps just North of Geneva in a response to requests by the Chamonix crystal hunters need for optical protection from the harsh radiation at altitude.

To this day Julbo has continued to design wicked sunglasses to protect mountain users while branching out into other sports such as sailing and mountain biking which have their own unique demands for protecting your priceless eyesight.

In the 1950s Julbo produced the Vermont glacier glasses and the design went on to become a classic adopted by rockstars and climbers, and a collectors item.

1970s heralded the dawn of professional mountaineers and by that I mean athletes doing routes rather than mountain guides. Yannick Seigneur was an engineer and a product of the grand ecoles. His parents disapproved of mountaineering and it wasnt until his mid 30s that he went full time into mountaineering with an incredible resume of 8000 m peaks in the Himalaya as well as a legacy of new routes around Chamonix.

To this day Julbo continues to be a small family run business with a big heart and passion for what they do. On any given day I might end up rubbing shoulders, ski a line or working with many of the Chamonix stars that are supported by this brand. Vivian Bruchez, Sam Favret, Valentine Favre, Glen Plake to name but a few. World Champions to powder whores like myself.

So when I opened the package I wasn’t surprised to find a timeless classic design glacier glass that has evolved from the original Vermont 1950 edition. Construction quality is to Julbo’s highest standards with metal frames and category 4 glass mirrored lenses to combat radiation up high. White leather baffles stop anything getting around the side.  Rubber nose pads and temple tip/earpieces so these babies will never slide down sweaty noses when you look down and spot your feet.

I took mine guiding to the roof of Europe, Mont Blanc. These sunnies are light despite the glass and I had no issues with soreness on the arch of the nose and after a long day on the mountain my eyes were free from the ache of overexposure to the sun. They are robust too, a wildly gesticulating Italian guide knocked mine for six straight off my head in the refuge – no problem!

So they do what they are supposed to but the thing I like the most is strip off the leather baffles and you basically have, dare I say it, a Ray Ban Aviator for looking cool round town or driving your car. I’ve fallen in love with these in a world where plastic frames and glasses have dominated for so long.

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

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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