Gear Review: Åsnes Mountain Race 48 Cross Country Skis

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Åsnes Mountain Race 48 skis. Narrow and light enough for fast skiing around the track, wide and sturdy enough for serious backcountry pursuits. Waxable with skin lock, 60-48-53 width, 3/4 length metal edges and a sintered race base. It may be the one cross country ski to rule them all!

When I was a kid I had one pair of cross country skis. They were made of wood, had 3-pin bindings and worked for everything. I’d use them to go for weekend skis with my mom and dad on the endless tracks at Nordmarka outside Oslo. If we decided we wanted to leave the tracks and bushwhack across the forest or meadows, I’d use them for that too. Our school would have monthly cross country ski races and at recess, we’d build jumps and launch ourselves off them (I got a good black eye from an errant landing). They worked for that too. They were utilitarian, jack-of-all-trade skis.

A quick look at our ski rack today and it’s easy to see we’ve diverted heavily from the one ski quiver. To our defense, we’ve been working in the ski industry for almost a decade now, where pro-deals are the candy to entice people to stick around. Lately though, I’ve been thinking about simplifying things and I’ve been wondering if it’s possible to have a ski that actually works well on groomed tracks and in the backcountry?

On a recent trip to the motherland I spotted a new Åsnes ski in a shop in Oslo called the Mountain Race 48 that caught my attention. Featuring a narrow profile and sporty, green racing stripes, it was svelte, sexy and light to the touch. And yet, it had some features to make it backcountry worthy, including 3/4 length metal edges and Åsnes’ signature skin lock system for climbing steeper hills deeper in the mountains.

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Elaine spots the Mountain Race ski at a ski shop in Oslo. Now THAT’s a backcountry nordic ski selection! 75% of those skis are waxable, a far cry from the U.S. where waxless skis rule.

It is also a waxable ski. In the U.S., when people buy backcountry nordic touring skis, they almost always buy waxless skis. Most of these skis handle poorly, to the point where they really detract from the enjoyment of the sport. It’s kind of like…if mountain bikers were all still riding fully-rigid 26″ inch bikes with steep head tube angles. Yet in America, waxless backcountry nordic skis are pretty much the name of the game. Things have not evolved much and as such the sport has stagnated in this country.

To truly enjoy backcountry nordic skiing, I believe a willingness to delve into wax is essential. Yet it seems the concept of waxing has paralyzed most U.S. recreational nordic skiers to utter fear. Sure, racers use a gazzillion different waxes, but for touring it’s so simple. Pick up some Green, Blue Extra, and Violet and call it good. Learn how to apply it and wax away, a process that takes about sixty seconds at the trailhead.

In addition to a simple wax kit, Åsnes’ skin lock system is a game changer. Utilizing a narrow 35 mm mohair kicker skin that is easily applied under the ski, a skier can completely avoid using sticky and cumbersome klister wax when temperatures rise above freezing. The little kicker skins glide, they kick, they do everything needed for a good day on warm snow.

Elaine and I picked up a pair of the Mountain Race skis with the intent to use them on light and fast nordic backcountry adventures,  As such, we decided to shun heavier NNN BC gear and installed standard NNN track bindings on them. We did an adventure last week during a rare April cold snap that highlighted the perfect scenario for these unique skis.

When we woke up it was 15° and snowing, the kind of day that absolutely begs for a nordic classic ski. But it’s been a long season and Elaine and I were looking for something a little more low key and in nature than another seven laps around Eldora’s groomed trails. We also didn’t want to slog around in our leather boots. We wanted the best of both worlds, so we grabbed our Mountain Race skis, stuffed our anorak pockets with wax, a cork, kicker skins and some chocolate and headed to Eldora.

We started our ski on groomed trails, covered with an inch or two of new snow. We quickly found the sweet spot for ideal kick on the wax pocket and commented to each other, “hey, these ski like normal classic skis.” In the track they kicked and glided fast and light.

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Åsnes Mountain Race 48’s are just as home in the track as they are in the backcountry.

We hopped on an aptly named trail called Roller Coaster and immediately noticed that they descended a lot better than normal classic skis. Wind had blown in some snow drifts that deflect race skis, but these cut through the consolidated new snow no problem. The tips have a smidge of early rise rocker, which helps them maneuver and negotiate rough terrain.

For fun we looped over to Beaver’s Revenge, the steepest downhill at the entire area, and pointed them straight. The skis were absolutely confidence inspiring and fun…they rocked on the downhills. We backtracked and herring-boned back up the steep hill.  Instead of doing the same loops over and over, these skis wanted to play and explore.

We looped around Buckeye Basin, impressed by how well they performed in the track, not slow at all, even nimble. We continued skiing to the base of Rising Sun, a steep backcountry nordic trail that would be an absolute nightmare on normal classic racing skis. We pulled out our 35 mm mohair kicker skins and began working our way to the top of Tennessee Mountain and the high point of the nordic center.

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Eldora, like many nordic centers in the U.S., has some nice backcountry trails trails that jut off the main groomed routes. At places with this type of trail design, the Åsnes Mountain Race is a dream ski.

The trail was steep enough that we still had to occasionally herringbone, but for the most part the skins allowed us to walk right up. For this type of “mixed” skiing, it’s a good idea to put a slightly bigger basket on the poles, as my race baskets were occasionally sinking in on the soft side snow. There is no need to go with a backcountry pole however, as the intent of this type of skiing is to be able to ski in the backcountry but still have a functional set-up for the track.

We crested the climb, and kept the skins on across the rolling terrain to Tennessee Mountain Cabin. The 35 mm mohair skins glide well and offer more purchase on the loose new snow than just blue wax. A light snow was being whipped into a frenzy by a strong wind blowing off the Continental Divide, so we gladly ducked into the cabin, lit a small fire, and enjoyed some Norwegian chocolate in the rustic simplicity.

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Is there anything better than enjoying good company and chocolate around a wood stove in a rustic mountain hut part-way through a cross country ski? Probably, but I haven’t found it yet.

This is something I miss with just straight track skiing – the ability to be deep in nature, away from people. On the other hand I love the light, fast and free feeling of a fast classic or skate ski. It seems the Mountain Race skis offer the best of both worlds: wild and fast freedom. It is an intoxicating combination.

We left the cabin and made our way through the deep-and-getting-deeper snow along a ridge line to the Setting Sun trail. The trail climbed steadily to an opening, where it switchbacked and crossed over Volkswagen sized drifts shaped from a winter of windy rowdiness. This type of terrain is a nightmare on regular classic skis – kind of like driving a rough jeep road in a Lamborghini – but the Mountain Races ate it up with aplomb.

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For snow up to a foot in depth, the Mountain Race’s break trail just fine.

We crested the top, removed the kicker skins, and began a long descent back to the groomed nordic trails. It was a ripping downhill and we were even able to drop the knee and make some telemark turns, whooping and hollering with the joy that only skiing in a snowstorm can create.

Back on the nordic trails, we hopped onto Phoebe Snow and Meadows Loop – passing some skate skiers along the way, something that would never, ever happen on a wide backcountry nordic ski – and enjoyed perfect kick and glide and the sensation of moving fast. It was time to go home, but not before a fast drop on Gandy Dancer, where once again the descending capabilities of the skis shined.

It seems, more and more, genres of sports are blending. The most popular type of cycling these days is gravel riding, a melding of mountain biking and road biking into a style that is tough, fast and versatile. Same goes for trail running and hiking, where the lines and gear used for backpacking and traditional jogging are completely blurred. In this era of increased reliance on complex technology there seems to be a movement towards outdoor gear that offers versatility and less complexity, or in this case, one nordic ski to rule them all! It makes sense: the simplicity of the outdoors is a needed medication to the complexity of the other, real world.

Even without a higher cause for the greater social good, this type of hybrid Nordic skiing is fun. Probably the coolest thing about it is it opens up the mind to new possibilities. In essence, it basically doubled the skiable terrain we can normally enjoy at Eldora Nordic Center, and in turn enriched the experience. The only thing I’m disappointed about is we didn’t figure this particular ski out until the very end of the season. It’ll certainly be something to look forward to next winter.

Of course, no gear is perfect and this set-up has some limitations. If I was trying to win a 50 km classic race, this would not be my ski of choice (bigger lungs would be my choice). It’s a little too heavy and there are better skis out there for that endeavor. Conversely, if my daily ski consisted of running a trap line in Canada’s Northwest Territories breaking trail through 18 inches of new snow everyday, this wouldn’t be my ski of choice for that either, as I’d want something a lot wider and beefier. But for somebody who enjoys skiing the track and backcountry equally and doesn’t want a bunch of different pairs of skis, the Mountain Race is about perfect.

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Hot laps before dark at Brainard Lake on the Mountain Race 48’s.

The most difficult decision regarding this ski is what binding to put on it. I skied it with my normal Madshus classic NNN boots, and felt a little under-gunned on the tight, twisty trails at Brainard Lake. Elaine used it with a combi boot that has a stiffer sole and, more importantly, more lateral stiffness, and had good luck. In this case, I’d recommend steering clear of the most expensive boots, as more recreational models are generally stiffer and have more insulation.

No doubt, this ski paired with NNN BC bindings and boots would absolutely rock for Brainard-style, tight, twisty conditions, while giving up some performance at the track. For something like skiing across Greenland or Expedition Amundsen, where pulling a pulk adds additional balance concerns, I’d certainly install an NNN BC binding and use an appropriate boot (At Expedition Amundsen, it was THE ski of choice for the fastest competitors). And while I love the simplicity of 3-pin boots and bindings, to me that’s not a good option for a ski I plan to use at least a little bit in the track, as the sides of the binding will drag on the grooves.

I’d say if the intended purpose is 70% or more backcountry, install it with NNN BC. Anything less than that, and it’ll work better with a regular nordic NNN binding and a combi boot with some stiffness in the uppers. Of course, better skiers can get away with less boot stability, and visa versa.

The biggest single problem with this ski is availability.  Åsnes skis are very hard to get in the United States, and the Mountain Race 48 ski isn’t something shops currently bring in because it breaks the image of a traditional backcountry nordic ski. A grand total of three Mountain Race skis were shipped to the U.S. last year (a 180, 190 and 200 cm) It’s a tough sell in a category that doesn’t generally generate much enthusiasm in the first place.

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These skis scream adventure. A warning though – they are so much fun they tend to lead to late arrivals back to the car because a skier just ends up wanting to go deeper into the wild.

Which, I suppose, is part of the motivation for writing this review…showing the beauty of this type of hybrid skiing and making the skis more available to North American nordic skiers! If the people demand it, it will arrive.

In the interim, what’s a skier to do? Go to Norway and buy a pair there? Well, there are worse options in the world. Roundtrip flights to Oslo on Icelandair or Norwegian Air cost about $500 in the winter. It wouldn’t be that difficult to fly in with just a backpack and boots, take the train into the city, go to a shop that sells the skis, give the shop tech a little tip to mount them quickly, and head out into the amazing Norwegian forest for a backcountry/track adventure of a lifetime. If this seems intriguing, message us and we’ll gladly share more information.

In the interim, we’ll keep our eyes peeled for other skis that are waxable, narrow, 3/4 edged, offer a skin lock system and are available in the United States. As far as we know, the Åsnes Mountain Race 48 is the only ski in the world right now that has all these traits.

“Long Way Radio” Greenland Podcast

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A 300-year old sod roof cabin Elaine and I stayed at in Østmarka at the end of our trip.

We arrived back in the United States from our 16-day adventure in Norway late last week. It’s good to be home in our cabin in the mountains again, where we can be creative, go for little recovery skis, live cheaply and ease into some normalcy of life again. We’ve truly entered the “off-season” for Elaine and I. Of course we go out and ski, hike or bike almost every day, but right now it’s just for fun, there is no plan to follow and the pressure is off. It’s an absolutely necessary time of the year to refresh and relax mentally and physically before determining future goals and rebuilding for next season.

Personally, I have five main projects/goals for the next 30 to 40 days:

  1. Getting a lot of these adventures we’ve been on – Expedition Amundsen, Greenland and the Continental Divide Trail – beyond journal entries and into some sort of working written format, some for this blog, and some for publication.
  2. Improving knowledge about bikes and all things bike related for our new job. It’s an exciting challenge and it’s been fun learning something new.
  3. Carve a wooden spoon or something made of wood once a week.
  4. Improve flexibility. This is an essential part of the fitness rebuild process and necessary for injury prevention. That, and I’m stiffer than a 2×4!
  5. Start working on firewood for winter 2019-20. This is an extended process that requires cutting wood in the spring and then allowing it dry for the summer.

Late last summer a good friend of ours, Jack Fisher, paid us a visit. Jack worked with us at Neptune Mountaineering before the place went bankrupt a few years ago. Jack is one of my favorite human beings, with a good sense of ethics, an incredible work ethic and a sense of humor that often has me laughing out loud. Jack also has a penchant for unique adventures that includes going to India, renting a motorcycle and riding it to the Pakistan border. The inspiration I get from Jack is to do things a little more off-beat and not take everything quite so seriously! That’s a good way to be.

Jack recently went back to school in Oregon to become a journalist/story teller. As part of this process, he started a Podcast called “Long Way Radio,” that focuses on adventures and the folks that participate in them. Podcasts are a fun, relatively new way of telling stories, and indeed Elaine and I listened to them religiously while hiking some of the more dusty and boring sections of the Continental Divide Trail.

Jack convinced us to talk about our Greenland trip for a “Long Way Radio” podcast episode. The trip itself didn’t go quite as we’d planned, but the lessons we learned there have proven invaluable for everything we’ve done since. Besides that, it was a harrowing adventure, and it’s a good story.

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Two sleds in the vast expanse of the Greenland ice cap.

Thanks to Jack’s podcast, we’re finally able to tell a bit more of the story. If you are so inclined, listen to it on some headphones during your next adventure, or on the stereo while carving a nice piece of birch or cooking a good soup!

I’m not a podcast expert, but I believe it can be found on iTunes, or by clicking the link below. Happy listening!

Long Way Radio: Greenland Episode 5

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Jack Fisher: Podcast maestro or Professor of Botany at the University of Montana in Missoula?

Gear Review: Amundsen Peak Anorak, Knickers and Gaiters

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Elaine sporting the Amundsen Peak anorak, knickers and gaiters.

In the modern world of ski fashion and clothing, knickers and anoraks rank somewhere in the same spectrum as a pair of 205 cm Rossignol 4SKs. These days, it’s all about steezy (style + ease) Gore-tex garments with baggy cuts, uber high tech shells and colors that resemble a bag of Skittles. Classy style has given way to bright colors that look flashy on social media posts. That’s a shame, as the timeless looks found in those old black-and-white 1960’s ski photos hearken back to a time when skiing was stylish, soulful, sexy and functional.

To which I say – thank goodness for Amundsen Sports. I was first exposed to Amundsen Sports gear back in 2016 in a tiny gear shop in Tromsø, Norway, a real ski town, ringed by mountains that sits close to 69° north latitude. The skiing around Tromsø is the best I’ve ever experienced, with sheer, glacial carved mountains dropping straight into the Arctic Ocean.

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Just a bit of skiing in Tromsø. Elaine enjoying some svelte turns on Store Kjostinden above the Arctic Ocean.

The shop was perfect. Ski gear was packed into what can only be accurately described as an attic. To access the “attic,” there was a swinging rope bridge, not unlike what I imagine explorers would use to board old wooden ice breaker ships. Skis, boots and bindings were packed inside, a Jotul 602 stove was burning crisp birch and the walls were lined with skiing posters from across the eras – the Lange girls, signed racing photos of the great Norwegian ski racer Lasse Kjus and ancient grainy images of polar explorers crossing some distant land of ice and snow in the extreme latitudes of our planet. And everywhere, there was wood. The walls were wood, the wooden slats on the floor creaked when walked upon, and stacks of birch logs sat by the wood stove, ready to heat the shop on the cold arctic days and nights. When Elaine and I fulfill a dream and hopefully open our own gear/ski shop some day, it will look and feel a lot like this one.

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The ski shop in Tromsø where I first found Amundsen Sports clothing. When a place has as much character as this place does, I tend to believe what they sell is legit. To make a ski shop look like this, it has to be run by skiers.

Tucked in a corner, was a small wooden rack of clothing that caught my eye. It was a throw-back to the skiing days of my youth – the entire rack was covered with knickers and anoraks. Yet these weren’t cheap thrift store items from a by-gone era. A snazzy patch that said “Spirit of Amundsen” adorned the highly technical garb. It was expensive – apparently all made by hand in Europe – but I remember thinking to myself, remember this stuff.

My next exposure to Amundsen Sports came last winter. We were working at Larry’s Bootfitting, the premier bootfitting shop in the country, knee deep in another busy day fixing people’s hurting toes, when two gentlemen with an accent walked up to us and introduced themselves as Trygve and Christian. Their English was impeccable and it quickly became clear they were from Norway. They told us they had been trying to find us, as they had heard about our result in Expedition Amundsen the previous winter.

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Roald Amundsen statue in Tromsø, and the inspiration behind the Amundsen Sports brand. Amundsen was an explorer extraordinaire, the first person to reach the South Pole, and an inspiration to skiers everywhere.

Turns out Trygve and Christian were reps for Amundsen Sports, and wanted us to try some of their clothing. They handed us a catalog and told us to pick out a few items. Honestly, we were a bit stunned by the interaction, as people do not “seek out” Elaine and I to try their gear.

Fast forward to this fall and Elaine and I were working at Neptune Mountaineering in Boulder. I was talking to the clothing buyer at the store, a wonderful woman named Erin, who was running down the clothing brands we were carrying this winter. The list was what one might expect…Patagonia, Arcteryx, Rab and…Amundsen Sports?

I was instantly jazzed. I told Erin our story of the little shop in Tromsø and our interaction with Trygve and Christian the previous winter at Larry’s. Turns out we were going to be one of the first stores to carry this brand in the United States. Long story short, the Amundsen Sports clothing arrived, we were impressed, so Elaine and I decided to purchase some of it to try out this winter.

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Perfect clothing for a little tour around Brainard Lake on mountain touring skis and leather 3-pin boots. Warning – you’ll get a LOT of questions about this stuff if you wear it.

We decided to purchase the Amundsen Peak anorak and Amundsen Peak knickers. The anorak was a no-brainer. I’ve always enjoyed pull-over Anoraks, as they provide great warmth, a fantastic hood when the weather turns bad and, most importantly, a massive chest pocket for stashing a camera, a chocolate bar, a map, some wax and whatever else one might want to put in there (you could get a bottle of cheap red wine in the front pocket in a pinch). The Amundsen Peak pocket also has a sewn hole for running a set of headphones from the pocket into the jacket for your listening pleasure.

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The anorak pocket is plenty big enough for nine squares of chocolate and two pieces of Babybell cheese.

When pulling sleds, where it’s required to wear a chest harness, that center pocket is a godsend. With a regular jacket, it’s a complete pain to access the normal side pockets because harness straps go right over them. With an anorak, that’s no longer a problem. To me, anoraks have always been the ultimate ski shell. They are not currently overly popular in the United States – it seems Americans have a problem pulling something over their head as opposed to unzipping – but don’t knock it until you try it. What you lose with the minor inconvenience of having to pull the anorak over your head (and there is a massive side zipper to make this no problem), you more than gain in full weather protection.

The Amundsen Peak anorak was a far cry from the old waxed cotton anoraks I wore as child learning to nordic ski on the Nordmarka trails above Oslo. The shell is made of Schoeller fabric, a waterproof yet highly breathable material that is the epitome of high performance backcountry clothing.  I’m always flabbergasted at the amount of people skinning uphill in full Gore-Tex shells, sweating to the hilt. It’s important for gear to breathe, and also protect from the inevitable wind and snow that pounds the alpine. The Schoeller fabric in the Amundsen Peak anorak does that very well. And if it’s still too warm, the anorak features full pit zips for more ventilation.

The anorak also features snaps that allow the wearer to attach a coyote fur ruff to the hood. In arctic and above timberline environments where wind and cold are at a premium, the fur ruffs create a weather barrier that protects the face well. Coyote fur is certainly a controversial subject, and if you’ve spent anytime reading this blog you know my stance regarding predator hunting (I’m against it). That said, our trip to Greenland exposed us to different cultures where some things that offend the typical Boulderite are the norm, and indeed necessary for survival. Let’s put it this way – we didn’t get the coyote ruff for now, but when we return to the polar regions where conditions are extreme, we will.

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Amundsen Sports gear in its natural environment.

Unlike the anorak, the knickers were something of a gamble. Knickers were THE style back in the 1950s in nordic ski racing. In the “Ski Mountaineers Handbook,” a book written about backcountry skiing in the 1950s by David Brower (ex-Sierra Club executive director and one of the most prominent environmentalists of all time), he described knickers as the perfect ski pant because, “the knee is free for action!”

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Free the knee, drive the ski!

And yet, logic begs the question – how is this the perfect ski pant in backcountry conditions? If the snow is more than ankle deep, won’t socks and boots get absolutely soaked and frozen? Ah, but the folks at Amundsen Sports have a solution to this. In addition to Schoeller knickers, it is absolutely imperative that one order the corresponding gaiters to go with them. The gaiters button to the bottom of the knickers, pull over the top of the boots and strap underneath the sole, keeping the socks and boots toasty dry and warm.

In addition to being made of Schoeller, the Amundsen Peak knickers also feature some fantastic pockets, including a right leg pocket that is great for stashing items that, for some inexplicable reason, can’t fit into the massive Anorak pocket. They feature full vent zippers, which I found absolutely necessary in all but the coldest conditions on the uphill. The knickers have a clasp on the bottom that allows for tightening or loosening depending on how much venting the skier in looking for. Regarding zippers, the ones on the Amundsen Peak line are heavy duty and absolutely bomber. This stuff is clearly made to last. All Amundsen Sports clothing is made of materials sourced in Europe, and they are one of the only companies in the outdoor industry to make their clothing in Europe as well. That’s good not only from an ethical standpoint, but from a durability one as well.

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Closing down the Brainard Lake parking lot after another day of skiing. Elaine is 5’6″, 120 pounds and comfortably wears women’s small in all Amundsen Sports clothing.

The gaiters come in two models, slim fit and boot cut. The slim fit gaiter is meant to be worn over leather nordic boots, or possibly very narrow alpine touring boots, while the boot cut is for everything else. I would recommend the boot cut gaiter for any alpine touring boot, as I am unable to secure the slim fit version over my Dynafit TLT 7, one of the narrowest cuffed boots there is. I wear a size 26.5 boot…but even my wife who has the same boot in a size 22.5 has a tough time getting it to secure over the boot effectively. That’s an easy solution – just order the boot cut version.

When moving in the mountains, I believe these gaiters are the perfect ski pant. I find them to be more free feeling than a normal ski pant, and I enjoy the classic look. My only slight beef with them occurred during a winter camping excursion with blowing snow and 60 mph winds, where a little bit of snow sneaked in between the gaiter and the knicker. We talked to Christian about this, and he told us about a little secret clasp on the gaiter that tightens it to the knicker and prevents this problem. On our next excursion, utilizing this little technique, the problem was solved.

For nordic ski touring there really isn’t a finer clothing set-up available than the Amundsen Peak anorak, knicker and gaiter. It’s designed perfectly for this type of skiing. On cold days I also use the knickers for easy classic skis at the local nordic center (Amundsen Sports has another lighter weight knicker/anorak set up for track skiing called the 5-mila series – another review for another blog). I’m excited to try the knickers for spring skiing, as I imagine they will offer the perfect temperature range for booting up steep snow climbs, sans long johns, and then skiing back down.

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Protected from the elements on a deep day at the Fowler-Hilliard Hut.

One of the nicest features of wearing gaiters is how functional they are after the ski. In the mud room, simply take off the gaiters and remove boots. The knickers are high enough so no snow tracks inside. The knickers are absolutely comfortable enough to hang out in for lunch, eat a bowl of bolognese pasta and drink a glass of mead, and then head back out for an afternoon skiing session. Or, if I really want to kick off the aprés ski session right, I’ll toss on a nice sweater and a pair of mukluks and hit the town.

For this review I’ll give the Amundsen Peak anorak, knickers and gaiters the highest rating available. It’s a throwback item that is highly functional, technical and stylish. It’s not cheap, but after a winter of hard use the stuff barely shows any wear and tear. To quote the old adage, you get what you pay for. What’s not to like about that?

Amundsen Peak anorak, knickers and gaiters are available at amundsensports.com.

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Amundsen Sports, bringing back style one skier at a time.

Love and Packrafts

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The Little Blue Boat on its first river excursion back in 2008. It didn’t end well…a shallow creek bed and deadfall led to a long, swampy walk out. 

My very first foray with the sport of packrafting was back in 2007. Sore-legged and weary after the Soggy Bottom 100 mountain bike race on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, I found myself navigating a rental car through back alley streets of Anchorage on a clear, crisp fall day in search of Alpacka Packraft World Headquarters. I’d first learned about these rafts by reading magazine stories of a mystical, distant group of bike riders in Alaska who would ride along beaches and then paddle from inlet-to-inlet along the Alaskan sound, strapping their bikes to the front of the tiny rubber boats. Even then, the rawness and authenticity of these type adventures appealed to me, because it was like nothing I’d ever seen. They seemed like a warrior clan from another land. I wanted to be like them.

After scouring the internet I found the contact information for Sheri Tingey, the owner of Alpacka Rafts. Legend had it a few years earlier, Sheri built the first packraft because her son Thor needed something the cross the water-clad Alaskan tundra in the summer. Sheri sewed the boat in her garage and Alpacka was born. I traded a few phone calls with Sheri telling her I wanted one of her boats. With a wry chuckle she told me she had a factory second with a cosmetic defect at a discounted price that she could sell me.

Turns out the world headquarters of Alpacka was a cluttered garage in the home of middle-aged yet spry looking Sheri. When I arrived, Sheri was expecting me, and pulled out of a pile in the garage a shiny looking royal-blue rubber raft. She rummaged through another pile and pulled out a perfect fitting spray skirt, and had an old five-piece fiberglass paddle that she sold me for $10. Walking out of the garage with my new boat was exhilarating, a freedom similar to that felt by a child when he or she gets their first bike.

As I boarded the plane in Anchorage heading back home to Colorado, I felt a strong sense that big world of adventure had just opened up.

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The start of the 2007 Soggy Bottom 100 Bike Race and the reason I was in Alaska to pick-up that first packraft. This was simply an amazing 100-miler on the Kenai Peninsula out of the fun and quirky town of Hope, Alaska. I strongly remember the endless singletrack across the tundra and the never ending jingle of bear bells as I pedaled for 12 hours across the wilds of Alaska. Thus far, it’s is the last bike race I’ve done. 

Turns out I didn’t use that first packraft much. Winter hit early that year freezing the waterways and the next few years of my life were filled with enough chaos to make relaxing trips into the mountains to go rafting a rarity. I did do some exploring of high alpine lakes west of home, and enjoyed the novel idea of hiking to a lake and then paddling around it. I wondered if some if these lakes had ever had a boat on them. I even tried to raft a way-too-low creek connecting two alpine lakes and almost lost my neck to an overhanging tree strainer. I loosely formulated a plan to be the first person to packraft every single lake in the Indian Peaks Wilderness during the next few years.

Alas, life had other plans. I ended up selling that packraft to a guy in Norway to fund a trip to meet my eventual wife in Ireland. It was a worthwhile sacrifice: we ended up getting engaged after a tipsy night in Gallway and have been life partners ever since. In a  weird way, that Alaskan born packraft made that possible. It was barter to get the girl.

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First paddle in the Blue Boat on Lake Isabelle. 

In the past few years Elaine and I have seen enough Banff Mountain Film Festival-style clips featuring packrafts to instill a serious case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) in us. Our adventures seem puny compared to the unique, irreverent and quirky hike/raft, bike/raft, ski/raft excursions done by Luc Mehl and Roman Dial. These are the people we look up to, the people who make us dream bigger, folks creating adventures that are incredibly unique and authentic.

When Elaine and I came back from Greenland we were flat broke. Fortunately we were able to find jobs immediately upon return at the old gear shop we used to work at, and were able to get ourselves past the Raman noodle stage and into the pasta-and-a-decent-sauce stage fairly quickly. A lot has changed at the shop since we worked there last: the Little Red Lighthouse grew into the Great Grey Bridge. Synchronously, through a major remodel, a mostly new staff and reinventing its image, the store quietly started selling Alpacka Packrafts.

Alpacka had left distant Anchorage years earlier for a more business friendly factory deep in southwestern Colorado. The business simply outgrew Sheri’s garage. Ten years ago, when I mentioned packrafts to people I would get blank stares back. In 2018, almost all outdoor enthusiasts are familiar with packrafts and many people own them. It’s still a relatively small, niche sport, but it’s getting more popular exponentially.

The boats changed too. Instead of an oval they now had some shape that helps them cut through water better. The old packrafts required a substantial pack load on the bow to prevent the front end from jutting out of the water. The new ones are more balanced and handle better. Whereas the old rafts basically did a 45° rotation on every paddle stoke, the new ones track better than expected for a one-person raft with no rudder or keel. Features like cargo fly storage, thigh straps and removable spray decks have turned the early simple models into a game of “Pimp My Packraft.”

On our first day back at the shop we stumbled upon a packraft clinic accompanied by a tempting offer designed to get poor gear shop employees into a boat. It was slightly irresponsible, but we took the plunge and ordered rafts, from none other than Sheri’s son Thor, the recipient of Sheri’s first sewn boat. I ordered the same (but quite different) model as my first boat I picked up at that Anchorage garage: the Yukon Yaak. Besides the fact that it’s the right size for my six-foot tall frame, I like the name…the Yukon and my time there evoke strong memories for me. Elaine, who is 5’6″, ordered the smaller Alpacka model.

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The yellow and red dreamboat pack rafts.  

And then we waited. Six weeks to be exact, while the boats were created per our specs. I ordered mine in a bright yellow color – I figure it will look good on blue and grey glacial rivers with snow capped peaks behind, while Elaine got a shiny bright red boat. Elaine looks good anywhere, but the red boat will certainly compliment her well! We waited and worked and waited. And then finally, we got a notice of “package shipped and delivered.”

When we got home the first thing we did was rip open the packages to examine our new boats. They looked better than we imagined, and the folks at Alpacka tossed a calendar and some hats into the box for good measure. We didn’t get to bed until 1 am that night – too excited – but when we did the dream of floating down arctic rivers danced in our heads. In a way, packrafts have played a big role in our relationship thus far, and as such I can’t help but think they will play a big role for us as our relationship and adventures continue to progress. It’s time to fulfill that giddy excitement felt walking out of Sheri’s garage more than a decade ago.

But before all that, we need to practice…a lot. As such, to the lakes we go…

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Practice time on Lost Lake, our neighborhood lake.