“A pack should just be a bag,” definitively pronounced internationally certified IFMGA mountain guide Joe Stock. I agreed wholeheartedly with him at the time, although then again as the sun glistened off the vast Alaskan glacier stretched out before us, I probably would have nodded along with just about anything anyone said on any topic.
But seriously, I had always preferred basic climbing-oriented packs with clean lightweight designs, while looking askance at “feature” laden “ski-specific” packs. Until of course Dynafit changed my mind.
Once nearly synonymous with its innovative and successful line of backcountry skiing bindings whose tour mode entails zero lifted weight and nearly no moving parts, Dynafit is now applying its innovation to a broad spectrum of backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering gear. (And just in time too, as new competitors move into Dynafit’s previously monopolized “Tech” binding market.)
My first dalliance away from climbing packs began innocently enough with the Dynafit RC 20 race pack, which enticed me with the ability to carry boot crampons safely in such a small pack. This is accomplished by means of the “safety box” at the bottom of the pack, reinforced with a removable Snow Claw (modified slightly with a little custom strap), allowing quick and easy access to boot crampons and/or ski crampons without removing your pack. I also liked the strap-mounted water bottle holder for spring and summer skiing, starting off super-long tours with only a single bike bottle, refilling frequently (given its easy access).
Even more impressive turned out to be the ability to quickly and easily affix and then remove skis without removing your backcountry skiing pack, as demonstrated in this video. (Certain CAMP packs have a similar attachment system.) Such a feature may seem trivial for anything but rando races, and perhaps the time differentials don’t add up to much over the course of even a long tour. But in the late spring and early summer when little portages become the norm, this feature takes the frustration out of the inevitable numerous transitions. (I’ve especially noticed this when partners with other ski-specific packs have had to play catch-up, and one partner even immediately vowed to buy a Dynafit pack for the following season during a rather long contour around the base of Middle Sister.)
The RC 20 additionally offers a clever little probe sleeve and shovel handle attachment, plus an equally clever ice axe holder, as well as a surprisingly generous amount of space overall for a pack that weighs only about a pound. (This model has been slightly redesigned for the current year, so I’ll omit any specific weight details.) But it is clearly not a general-purpose touring pack.
For general touring, and especially gear-intensive ski mountaineering, enter the Manaslu 35. A friend last spring was looking for a new pack, and so enamored of my RC 20, I suggested the Manaslu, then listed as the 32. He loved the pack, and I loved it so much too that I borrowed it for a summer ski trip on various volcanoes, after which I decided to buy my own.
The Manaslu 35 offers some small yet noticeable changes over prior seasons, although I’ll omit that from the discussion for the sake of (relative) brevity. Totally teched out the Manaslu weighs in at 3 pounds 3 ounces, although strip out the front water bottle carrier, safety box reinforcement (“Summit-Comfort”), ski carry, metal stay, and waist belt, but add back on a very basic webbing waist belt of your own devising, and the weight is down to only 2 pounds 5 ounces. All sorts of combinations part way in between are of course also possible.
So okay, three different water carrying systems (i.e., strap-mounted water bottle carrier, side mesh pockets, and internal sleeve for hydration bladder); three separate compartments for probe (and shovel shaft if relatively short), shovel blade, and crampons; super-slick and quick external attachments for shovel shaft, ice axe, and skis; quick-release tie-down straps (underneath the top lid) for climbing rope; two zippered pouches on waist belt; zippered rear access to the main compartment (with quick releases for the shoulder straps to get them completely out of the way); top lid compartment with separate see-through mesh sleeve — what’s possibly not to like?
Well, first and foremost, like many packs of its capacity, the Manaslu is one size fits most. For comfortable maximum weight-carrying capacity, I’m not quite sure, since my (borrowed) version last season lacked this year’s metal stay (although I did survive many hours of off-snow travel on a too-long Middle Sister daytrip carrying all my ski gear and glacier rescue gear on my pack).
The tail loop for the vertical ski carry is adjustable up to a circumference of about 320mm, which is more than enough for me, although accounting for cross sectional width of skis and skins, plus some clearance, that could rule out some very fat (by my standards at least) skis.
The separate compartments for shovel blade and probe are tight: I managed to get in all my medium-sized favorites, although some models probably won’t fit. Also no integrated bivy pad, no key clip (although easy to add your own), and no dedicated helmet carry (although with all the other attachment systems, something is bound to work for you).
Durability — based on a combination of my personal experience thus far and just the general feel of the materials — is probably just kind of typical for a pack. I did have a problem with a crampon point ripping into the safety box on last year’s Manaslu, but this has been addressed for this year with the removable reinforcement. I also had a problem with the stitching that attaches the ski clip to the elasticized strap, but I suspect this was just someone asleep at the switch with my bad luck of the draw, since I’ve used the ski attachment on my RC 20 and my friend’s Manaslu with no problems. (Might be a good idea to inspect any pack from this year though before use: you just have to slide up the little plastic/rubber cover to get a good view. If in doubt, any tailor can reinforce it in a few minutes.)
Finally, rounding out the line-up, 2010-11 introduces the Broad Peak 28, which is on my wish list as it is essentially half-way between the RC 20 and Manaslu 35 in most respects. And returning from last year is the Race Pro, which is essentially a wearable shirt that provides many pack features — yes, you read that correctly, and visit Dynafit.com for the mind-boggling details.
December 15 Addendum: Just received the Broad Peak 28, which is indeed a nice compromise between the Manaslu 35 and RC 20 just as I anticipated. Fully tricked out, weighs in at just under 2 lb 5 oz (which oddly enough is just what the Manaslu weighs when stripped down). Strip out the front water bottle carrier, safety box reinforcement (“Summit-Comfort”), some little removable strap, metal stay, and waist belt (ski carrier is not removable, just as on the RC 20), but add back on a very basic webbing waist belt of your own devising, and the weight is down to just over 1 lb 10 oz. Will be the perfect pack for light & fast spring daytrips out east here above treeline, as well as winter daytrips when avy gear is not carried. (With full winter clothing plus avy gear, seems like space would be too tight, although others might find it okay.)
(WildSnow guest blogger Jonathan Shefftz lives with his wife and daughter in Western Massachusetts, where he is a member of the Northfield Mountain and Thunderbolt / Mt Greylock ski patrols. Formerly an NCAA alpine race coach, he has broken free from his prior dependence on mechanized ascension to become far more enamored of self-propelled forms of skiing. He is an AIARE-qualified instructor, NSP avalanche instructor, and contributor to the American Avalanche Association’s The Avalanche Review. When he is not searching out elusive freshies in Southern New England or promoting the NE Rando Race Series, he works as a financial economics consultant.)