Saying hello to spring is always bittersweet for me.
I enjoy winter immensely. Mostly because it's surprising how fast you can get lost snowshoeing in a white out. Even only a few hilltops away from my back yard. Night was falling and my brain said go left. But my GPS said go right.
Generally, I'd believe the GPS, but I've seen about a dozen stories on Gizmodo, through the years, about folks who follow GPS mindlessly at their peril; either a drink in a lake or up to the edge of a closed road.
I don't mean to over dramatise the situation, I wasn't confused for more than a few minutes. But I was absolutely sure, using nothing but my sense of direction, that home was down and to the left from my current bearing.) But disproportionate to the time I spent confused was the amount I liked that feeling of being unsure, in a day where status updates and information comes readily and with certainty.
I used my brain to figure out that the GPS was right. It took a mountain, barely visible through the storm, and some landmarks to realise the right way home was at my back towards the lake where there were no trees. But the point is, I was scared for a moment when my own sense of survival and my technology conflicted. And I really like this feeling of having to use my brain to keep me from freezing to death in the woods only a mile from my cabin.
In an age where so many gadgets are good, yet none of them really keep you alive, its really hard to be impressed with what I see at work every day. So every year, after the madness and general disappointment of CES, I retreat to snow country to overcome seasonal gadget writer burnout. It's quiet here. I enjoy some sort of waking hibernation away from the city buzz. And the internet has less hold on me as I take breaks in snowy fields. But it's not that I stop obsessing over gadgets. Actually, I soak up knowledge where the other side of my gadget addiction comes into effect. I research and try lots of gear that keeps me safe in the outdoors.
I'm not a snow country native. I didn't grow up in Tahoe but I am learning all the lessons of how to get by little by little. More often then not, it's just a bit of wisdom. What height and density of snow you can and can't get away driving through; when you should try to leave town before a storm and when you should stay put; what night the local place has half price tacos. Sometimes it's not about the wisdom of action, but the wisdom of knowing what gear to use.
Most important of all, are the snow tyres on my station wagon. I'd take snow tyres over AWD, any day. Because AWD helps with acceleration, but tires help with grip during all manoeuvres: handling and braking and going forward, because of lower temperature rubber compounds and sips, which are little grooves for water to displace into, rubber hits ice/snow and grips it better. They say snow tyres give you about 30 per cent more traction than all-season tyres. But I've got both snow tyres and AWD, and that's saved me in this year's strange el nino snow, which falls thicker and heavy and throws your tyres all over the road. The contrary piece of gear to my snow tires is my iPhone which I am often tempted to check twitter on while cruising or puttering in traffic. On a particularly nasty storm, when I was descending below the snow line, I picked up my phone and looked back to see the car behind me spin out in slow motion. I put the phone down, and stopped being an arsehole.
I could use a few more inches of clearance on my car because the car still does get stuck once in awhile. I've got a shovel in the back, folded up (it's a backcountry shovel that departs from its handle). I also have a set of small pieces of kindling. Firewood. Jamming them under the tires, the knobby pine has saved me several times.
I also endorse the use of Rain X window cleaner and water beadier.
I love riding storms at my local mountain, which is not a mega resort, sheltered from the wind and open during the worst wind. So, I have Goretex everything. I've got a pair of high topped, suspender'd pants that keep the snow wedgies away and a jacket. Both a few years old. The brands aren't that important. You get what fits from a place with a good reputation for sturdiness. I never feel the need to replace such gear, because it always works.
I've moved from mittens to gloves this year. My hands sweat too much so I prefer the surface area. The best damn gloves I've tried this year are the Black Diamond Guide Gloves. They're palmed with leather, and aren't very waterproof. But it doesn't matter, because they're wool lined on the backs, and so, warm even when wet. I wish they had a wrist leash, but these are the best gloves I've ever used, and they've kept me warm in Aspen and Hokkaido on -10C days. Even the bum index finger on my right hand which has bad circulation from trying to tighten a nut without tools while sailing a few years back.
Wool. I've started trying it out. And I like it better than synthetics in some cases. I tried a merino base layer from Patagonia. Compared to the synthetic ones I live by from the company, the thin shirt felt much warmer for it's given weight, but seemed to wick moisture slightly worse. Perhaps it was because I was warmer. And it was odour free. I read somewhere that wool passes vapour instead of getting bogged by moisture, so far less bacterial growth occurs on the fabric. I don't know if that's true, but I also tried some smartwool socks out, and they provided the same benefit that my synthetic silver laced anti-stick socks did before the silver washed out.
The only meta drawback I can see is that wool's expensive, but I'd definitely use the wool base layer for dryer, colder climates, and I'm moving to wool composite socks exclusively next snow season.
Some of the gear that's helped me snowboarding is gear I've gotten rid of. I've lost about 5kg of spare weight from surfing in the off season. A recent outside magazine article said that for roughly 5.6kg of useless weigh lost equates to you not carrying a gallon of water around as you hop around in whatever sport you do. (Or something like that.) I've also got a new snowboard that's way lighter.
Unlike the rocketed (v shaped) boards that were getting super popular last year, this one is completely flat. It tracks really well, I can feel the ground and unlike rocker boards, I can pop off of it during jumps pretty easily, although not as easily as with traditional boards. I choose it because it placed in the board tests from three major magazines this year, and thought I'd give it a shot. It's got carbon fibre spines in the back for a nice stiff tail and cushions under the bindings that help dampen the ride under choppy conditions. It's made a big difference in my riding, from jumping to tackling uneven terrain and because of its low weight, it's surprising not terrible in powder compared to boards sized a bit up. It's called the Slayblade from K2. I like it.
I have some gear on hand I'm not particularly fond of, too. I bought some rubber band mounted ice spikes for slipping over boots. They fall off. My splitboard, a snowboard that turns into skinned skis for ascending, is kind of a shitty snowboard, and a shitty set of skis, because when you take the climbing skins off of the skis, they don't go back on with much conviction without a rear clip for the skins on the tail. Alpine touring skiers get to go up and down and up without any transition in modes; I have to freaking build my board and build my skis on each up and down. This isn't the gear's fault. I just need to learn how to freaking ski.
There's a mountain hardware heated jacket I saw a prototype of from Ardica. The Mountain hardware jacket is inferior on account of the power cable, which you can feel on your shoulder. Wearing a backpack with such a jacket would be a nightmare, as the cable pressed into your shoulder. Also, Ardica's heating system was just recalled! I still love the technology's potential, and I even loved Ardica's prototype jackets and vests, but this tech needs another season, at least, to mature.
I used several ski apps on my iphone. One is the free North Face snow report app. It can be free because they're paying for the development and data costs via their marketing budget. There's also Ski Lodge, which has the best UI of any snow report app around, but you have to buy a new version every year so the developer can pay for his data access costs. There's also the app called Ski Report, which is laden with powerbar ads, but also, has crowdsourced ski report data, which is only half useful. Oh, and there's SnowDays, a rudimentary counter for tracking how many times you've been on the hill so far this season. This year, I've only been on the snow 25 days so far, whereas last year I ended the season with 57 days. I'm not complaining.
Oh, I got a new jacket, which I kind of insisted on wearing everywhere. The Patagonia nanopuff. It's meant as a mid or a light jacket, but its design philosophy is neat: warmest, per ounce. It's a pullover, and has one pocket, which also doubles as its own stuff sack. The jacket is packed with the warmest polartec liner, but just a little bit of it. What's most interesting is its temperature range, which was comfortablbowe from 1.6C to 21C, with just a t-shirt underneath. It isn't as porous as a fleece, so I didn't ever try exercising in it, but it was the perfect travelling jacket while crossing climates and I only felt cold on a -10C night in Niseko, Japan, packed tight with three layers underneath. (Which is way colder than this jacket is designed for. I was in fact so cold I thought I could feel my soul leaving my eyeballs. )
I, strangely, stopped using a camera when out on the slopes. Just figured the iPhone was good enough. And I'm still waiting for a rugged pocket slow motion camera.
That's about it for me. What stuff gets you through winter?
[Top Photo of Niseko, Hokkaido by Adam Lam. The rest, by me.]