Washington’s Cascades–beautiful, loose, rainy, and tough. Climbing there leaves the lazy alpinist in a dilemma — how to stay dry and comfortable without lugging too much gear on the steep, endless approaches?
Using a floorless shelter, typically a tarp or a ‘mid (a single-wall, floorless shelter that usually pitches with ski or trekking poles), saves several pounds, but carries some risk. A full-on Cascades downpour can erode your motivation in a few hours if you let your gear and sleeping system get wet, but with some judicious planning, it’s a great way to go. Tips:
1) Check the weather. Check as many sites as you can and make sure the models are in rough agreement. If you’re looking at no precip or low-intensity precip, then crack out the tarp/’mid.
2) Choose the right tarp/mid! Make sure you’re actually saving weight, because there are some chunky ‘mids out there and if you’re going to be within half-a-pound of your tent…just take the tent.
I had the good fortune to pass my final guiding exam, the alpine, through the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) two weeks ago. With me for the ride was Mike Arnold and he sent as well, making the two of us the 96th and 97th guides to earn IFMGA/UIAGM certification through the AMGA. Psyched! Mike’s from Maine originally and he’s turned me on to a great brand from there, Hyperlite Mountain Gear (HMG).
HMG makes great packs (check out my reviews of their Ice Pack and Summit Pack), but also builds ‘mids out of the same ultralight, waterproof fabric, Cuben, used in their other products. Mike brought along the four-person “UltaMid” ($825; 21 oz.) for our exam and it’s an awesome shelter, period.
First off–the cost. Yeah, it’s expensive. All of HMG’s products are made in Maine, using Cuben for the most part. The stuff is light, waterproof, extremely strong…and spendy. If you’re looking for packs or a shelter for smaller objectives and day-in, day-out use, HMG’s gear might not be the right choice. For an exam, big trip, or at-your-limits route, though, I’m not sure there’s anything better out there.
The UltaMid 4 takes up almost no space in the pack (it packs down to the size of a small puffy jacket) and sheds rain well–we had it out for a couple nights of showers, no problem. I slept inside the thing without a bivy sack, just a synthetic bag. Totally perfect. Part of our success was in using a 4-person shelter. We had ample floor space, so our packs and gear were nowhere near the perimeter. Depending on how you pitch the shelter (pole extended tall or low) you can vastly increase the footprint, accommodating four bodies with a low ceiling or Taj Mahal-style for two. I loved having the extra floor space on which to cook and spread out, without a penalty in terms of bulk/weight. The thing disappeared into a pack–and packing it without a stuffsack helped cram it around bulkier gear, resulting in an efficient, dense pack job.
The UltaMids have numerous guy-out points, a waterproof zipper, and built-in, stand-out vents at the top, to prevent condensation. These things are going to be the ultimate in winter shelter, as you don’t have to worry about free moisture nearly as much. Four our late summer exam, we both brought homemade ground cloths–mine a section of Tyvek and Mike’s an improvised strip of plastic sheeting. Companies like Gossamer Gear make pre-cut, superlight ground cloths for a mere $10, or you can wing it with a garbage bag, guides tarp, the rope, etc. Our system worked well and I slept on my inflatable Exped pad without incident, though Mike sprang a leak on his during the exam and spent a rough night trying to patch it–damn!
I’m angling for a two-person version this coming year. I can bum Mike’s 4-person if I behave, so having an even smaller, lighter model would be a great option for up-and-over missions. So far all my HMG gear has been durable and delivered above my expectations; I’m really digging the stuff. The UltaMid is my first experience with their shelters…and the tarps and double-peaked ‘mids look cool, too. Spendy, sure…but worth it? I’m saying “yes.” If you can splurge on the lightest-and-best gear for your big days, then HMG should make your short-list to consider.