The Outside Blog

Skiing and Snowboarding : Exploration

The Warmest Cocoon for the Coldest Days

This is the insulator you need for those frigid, hardcore backcountry trips.  

Weighing just over a pound, Mountain Equipment’s surprisingly compressible, 750-fill Xero down jacket is made for extreme alpinists who depend on their gear to keep them warm—even in the Arctic.

But there’s no reason why only professional explorers should wear the Xero. The silky outer fabric is durable and downproof, and combined with the down, (which I’d swear was closer to 850- than 750-fill), I was warm even on days well below zero. And when I wore the Xero as an outer layer during snowstorms, the DWR finish repelled melting flakes and kept the jacket lofted.  

This minimal jacket also has a hood, handwarmer pockets, and a baffled zipper. The final bonus? All of Mountain Equipment’s down is humanely sourced and traceable. The only complaint I heard came from belayers who wanted a two-way zip.


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When Wolves Attack

The Attack (As told to Joe Spring):

I decided to go camping on short notice as an end-of-the-summer deal with five friends—my girlfriend, her sister and brother-in-law, and two male friends. We drove up by Cass Lake, Minnesota, to Camp Winnibigoshish.

We were hanging out until about three in the morning. My girlfriend Rachel wanted to sleep outside. As she got ready for bed, everybody else went into their tents. She picked a spot by her Jeep. She had a blanket on the ground and another on top of her. Once she was situated, I walked over and lay next to her.

I had sweatpants and a sweatshirt on. I had my back down, my elbows on the ground, and my hands on my hips—all of which allowed me to have my head up to look at Rachel. We were awake the whole night, talking.

Around 4:30 A.M., I was mid-sentence when I felt something clamp down on the back of my head. I could feel the teeth, but I couldn’t see or hear anything. Rachel was looking at my eyes as I was talking, so she actually saw the wolf bite down.

I reached for the back of my head. My hands went to wolf’s jaws. It’s not like there was any precision to what I was doing. It was kind of a mess. I struggled. I moved my hands around, from its jaws to the side of its jaws, near its cheeks. I put pressure on its head with my hands. Eventually I just held its head in place and jerked my head forward really hard. I didn’t pry its jaws open. I just put pressure on its head and then pulled my head forward.

{%{"quote":"I never had fear of wolves. The other times I’ve seen them, they ran away from me. I have never seen any aggression. I had no idea this could even happen."}%}

After my head came out, I jumped up. It was maybe seven feet away from me, pacing back and forth, growling really loud. It was shaggy and pretty big. It looked like a coyote, but bigger.

My family is really big into hunting, so I’d seen wolves from our deer stand, but I never had fear of wolves. The other times I’ve seen them, they ran away from me. I have never seen any aggression. I had no idea this could even happen.

I thought the wolf was going to lunge back at me or Rachel. I started kicking and screaming at it. Rachel had had her head under the covers, but as I was kicking and screaming, she got up and ran to the jeep.

Rachel’s brother in law was in his tent. I yelled for him a couple of times. “Max! Max!”

After maybe five or ten seconds of yelling, the wolf turned and ran. It wasn’t a panicked run. It just kind of trotted into the brush. I don’t really know where it went after that. I was just focused on my head.

I could feel the blood dripping down the side of my face. I reached up with my bare hands. I was bleeding really bad, but there wasn’t really much pain. I don’t know why. Maybe adrenaline? Or maybe I just wasn’t able to focus on the pain because I was focusing on getting out of there? I quickly threw a blanket over my head and pressed down. Max ran out of his tent and helped me to the truck.

It took us a moment to clear the front seat. By that time, the blood had soaked the blanket, so we took it off. We grabbed a roll of paper towels and used them to bandage my head.

When I sat down in the truck there was this really sharp pain, and then throbbing.  I could feel each tear. I had a huge gash that was maybe four inches and then a bunch of puncture wounds. I could feel each individual thing and they all they had their own kind of pain, but the gash hurt the most.

I called my dad right away and told him I had been attacked. He told me, “Call 911.”

I called them next. They told me they’d send somebody out to see what was going on. I’ve never hurt that bad. I thought I was going to vomit all of the way into the ER. It was a 45-minute drive.

The paper towel soaked through a couple of times and I just kept putting layer after layer on. I knew I didn’t want blood all over the place. I had people telling me what to do. “Put pressure on it,” they said.  Everybody was a little shook up, but they handled it really well. “It’s going to be OK,” they said.

My dad met me at the ER. The bleeding had pretty much stopped. A nurse cleaned out my wound, but I had to wait probably an hour for the doctor. He came in and cleaned everything out real well, too. Once they cleaned my head, the bleeding started again. It wasn’t gushing, but it took probably three hours before the bleeding stopped. They put 17 staples in my head, gave me rabies shots, and bandaged up the area.

I’ve always told my friends, “You’re safer outside than you are in the city.” I just never dreamed something would attack me. My family is pretty outdoorsy and we camp a lot. I don’t fear that I will be attacked in my life again. It might be weird camping outside at night again, but I just have to work up to it.


Graham did the right thing by fighting off the wolf and then standing and yelling. “He needed to challenge the animal,” says Tom Provost, a regional manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “Running away may have further triggered the predator’s natural reaction to attack.”

Two days after the incident, officials trapped and shot an 84-pound wolf nearby. The dead animal’s muscle tissue matched DNA from saliva taken from the blanket Graham wrapped around his head. The DNA showed a pure wolf, not a coyote-wolf hybrid. The animal tested negative for rabies and showed no signs of canine distemper virus. Officials dug more. A necropsy, the animal equivalent of an autopsy, revealed the left side of the wolf’s jaw was shorter than the right side. His left upper canine had never irrupted out of the gums, and his upper molars and lower molars didn’t line up. A healthy adult male wolf can exert enough pressure with its jaw to snap a moose’s femur in a string of bites. The wolf that attacked Noah Graham was a one-and-a-half-year-old male with a messed up jaw.

The wolf’s stomach included only fish spines and scales. Not far from Lake Winnibigoshish, there are resorts with fish cleaning stations where fish guts and scales remain on the round. There are still other areas on the shore where fish are cleaned, or where dead fish may wash up. Campers reported seeing the wolf walking near tents the weekend it attacked Graham. It’s quite possible the animal was scavenging around the lake for fish or around campsites for garbage.

Further examination of the skull showed more. Sometime in the past, the wolf had an injury to the face that damaged its upper jaw. His nasal cavity suffered an inflammation at some point, and, as a result was deformed and smaller than average. The injury to the upper jaw may be the reason that several teeth didn’t irrupt. There was also a large dental cyst. The left front side of the brain was different than the right front side. The animal’s nasal nerve, olfactory bulb, and frontal lobe—which helps control emotion and decision-making—had severely atrophied. He had remarkable brain lesions that were more accentuated on the left side of the brain than the right side.

“We can’t know with certainty why this wolf approached and bit the teen,” says Minnesota wildlife health program supervisor Michelle Carstensen. “But the necropsy results support the possibility that its facial deformity, dental abnormalities, and brain damage predisposed it to be less wary of people and human activities than what is normally observed in healthy wild wolves and also affected its ability to effectively capture wild prey.”


Almost everything about a wolf evolved to run and hunt, and, at times, to decide whether to do one or the other. The animals often prey on ungulates, teaming up in packs of two or more to run down deer, elk, moose, and bison. They’ll also kill other predators—including cougars, black bears, and polar bear cubs—though they rarely dine on the meat. At times, they scavenge. In Minnesota, they may consume anything from chokecherries to cows, but they mostly hunt deer, which they track with an exquisite sense of smell. They usually go for the neck, slice open the abdomen with their canines, and then dine on everything from the entrails to bone marrow. It is not unusual for wolves to cover 25 to 30 miles in a day, and hundreds of miles of territory in a month, looking for food. State officials have witnessed the animals sprinting at speeds up to 35 mph. When they’re not pursuing prey, they may be running from perceived threats, which might include anything from the sound of an avalanche to the sound of a Chevy Avalanche.

It’s not an easy thing to count a population of wolves. Since they often avoid people and the scent of people, capturing them is difficult. They often live in dense forests and run over long distances, so aerial surveys have their limits. Their tracks often overlap and disappear, so counting signs is a monumental and sometimes misleading task. Still, officials in Minnesota did their best last winter. In November, they asked for wolf observation data from 11 national, state, and private organizations whose field employees might see wolves or signs of wolves. By the end of winter, they had received 2,898 wolf observations.

The majority of those observations—61 percent—were tracks. The next biggest chunk of data included howls, kills, dead wolves, and scat. Less than ten percent of the observations were of living wolves. Officials took all those observations and mapped them out to figure out the wolf’s range. They combined the observations with other considerations—such as habitat type and pack size—and came up with an estimated population of 2,211 wolves. Though the degree of error predicts the number of wolves could be anywhere between 1652 and 2640 animals, the current population estimate is much higher than the 750 estimated gray wolves living in Minnesota in the 1960s. It’s also a lot lower than the 2921 wolves estimated for the winter of 2007. The drop comes from a number of factors: the state instituted a 2012 hunt that claimed 413 animals, nearly 300 wolves were killed in response to depredations on livestock in the nine months leading up to the winter wolf survey, the state expanded hunting of “over-goaldeer populations in many areas, a mild winter made it harder for wolves to hunt the deer that were left after that hunt, and the Minnesota moose population declined.

Any skeptical reader might think that the number of animals hunted for sport and killed in response to taking livestock almost matches the decline of the last five years. They wouldn’t be wrong. Any skeptical scientist might point out that because the confidence intervals of the 2007 and 2013 surveys overlap, it’s possible that there has been no change in the numbers between the two surveys. They wouldn’t be wrong either. Estimating the population size of wolves is a complex thing.

It’s much easier to estimate and calculate the numbers of wild wolves that have attacked people in Minnesota. The state offers an interesting study area because it is the only place in the continental United States, aside from an island in Michigan, where the animals were not wiped out in the mid-1900s. The Minnesota DNR says this is the only documented incident in state history.

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Backcountry Cabin Escapes

Ski huts in the Alps are like small castles—most employ caretakers who greet you with beer or wine and cook you hot meals. The U.S. may not have the luxury or the sheer numbers (Switzerland alone has 213 hüttes), but we’re getting better. Last year, the newly formed, Colorado-based Grand Huts Association opened the Broome Hut at Berthoud Pass near Denver, and there are plans to add eight more linkable huts in the next decade. Until then, there are plenty of other options. At least ten states from Maine to Oregon have huts. With a little planning, you can piece together a world-class trip without the transatlantic flight.

Rocky Top
The 10th Mountain Division hut system in Colorado remains the premier—and most popular—network in America, and its 20 well-stocked cabins (with little avalanche danger along the access trails) are ripe for three-to-five-day powder trips. The best is a 28.5-mile route between Vail and Aspen. Start at the Polar Star Inn (elevation: 11,040 feet) and milk the tree skiing on the western flank of New York Mountain, located just above it. It’s 8.2 tough miles from there to the Peter Estin Hut, but prime bowl skiing nearby makes the slog worth it. End with a seven-mile ski to the Harry Gates Hut, which sleeps 16 and is perched on a bench facing Avalanche Ridge. The next day, ski out to your car on Fryingpan Road. From $33 per person per night.

Teton Traverse
When people think of the Tetons, they almost always think of the range’s east face over Jackson Hole. But the west side holds rarely touched, navel-deep powder. Begin by climbing 5.5 miles through the Jed Smith Wilderness to Baldy Knoll, a Mongolian-style yurt operated by Teton Backcountry Guides and surrounded by prime face-shot terrain. The next day, skin nine miles along Alpenglow Ridge at 10,626 feet to Teton Backcountry’s Plummer Canyon yurt; if it’s a whiteout, take the lower route through the trees. Once there, you’ll appreciate the amply spaced aspen-grove heaven. Looking ahead: a 314-square-foot yurt with bunk beds, a pellet stove, and a full kitchen is opening in Teton Canyon next winter, so you can tour an extra day. From $355 per night for the yurts, which sleep six to eight.

Sierra Stash
More than 50 years ago, the Sierra Club built a series of huts above Lake Tahoe’s west shore. The best time to link them up is in late January, when Tahoe catches the best snow. The most feasible route begins at Donner Summit and travels six miles south to the Benson Hut, which is perched at 8,350 feet, sleeps 12, and offers high-alpine terrain. Then it’s four miles south to the Bradley Hut, an A-frame with a detached two-story outhouse that often gets buried in deep winters. The Bradley doesn’t have beds or cookstoves, so come prepared. $20 per person per night.

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A Rider's Bucket List

Snow is bucketing from the slate-gray sky in Santa Fe today, and I was glad to find this video to fortify my evening workout—relocated indoors due to the grim weather. It’s amazing how a bit of beautiful footage of riding in glorious weather can motivate you.

It got me thinking, too, about all the riding I did last year and the riding I hope to do in 2014. For some of us, it’s that time of year: when training plans start back up, some good hard efforts start to rouse the body out of its rest state, and goals and racing plans begin to crystalize for the coming season.

But this video was also a pleasant reminder that it’s not just about racing. (I know, “Duh!” But it’s easy to get caught up.) One of my fondest memories of 2013 was a bikepacking exploration that my wife and I did in March around Las Cruces, New Mexico, and El Paso, Texas. We set out with enough food for a couple of days, linked a couple trails we knew with lots of desert singletrack we didn’t, braved some cold nights under the stars, did a bunch of hike-a-bike in deep sand, got lost on some backcountry trails and buzzed by an immigration helicopter, and took so much longer than we’d planned that we both missed a day of work. It was riding at its best: exploratory, impromptu, self-supported, out in the elements.

With that in mind, as well as the video footage still on repeat on my screen, I humbly submit a few more Things Every Cyclist Should Do:

11. Build a trail. Or at the very least, adopt one and help maintain it.

12. Introduce a friend to cycling. You know how happy it makes you.

13. Poach an illegal trail. But only if you don’t get caught.

14. Learn to wheelie. I was going to say track stand or bunny hop, but there’s something elegant about a wheelie. Manuals are even better.

15. Ride so hard that you crash. But don’t crash so hard that you can’t ride anymore.

16. Get girled. There are lots of fast, badass women riders out there—find them and learn.

17. Skip work to ride. Biking is somehow even better when you know others are stuck behind a desk.

18. Get lost. Enough said.
The snow is chiseling at my window, and mostly everyone I know is headed up the hill to ski. Maybe I’ll go tomorrow. But today I’m riding. Five inches of fresh in town is the perfect excuse to take the Borealis Yampa out on its maiden test ride.

Perhaps that should be 19: Skip a workout and ride for fun.

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How to Stay Charged in the Wilderness

Every few months, another travel-ready charger appears that’s intended to replenish your mobile phone when you’re miles from the nearest wall socket. Be it solar, wind, or hydrogen, the devices work by converting energy to electricity and charging a USB-connected handset in real time. (They can also store power in an internal cell or an external battery pack.) Most generate enough juice for a few clutch texts or calls, and that makes them potential life-savers whether it’s an off-the-grid vacation or Hurricane Katrina. We paired a dozen of the gadgets with a Samsung Galaxy SIII. Some worked faster than others; these four stood above the rest.

1. Goal Zero Nomad 7

How It Works: The magazine-size panel weighs less than a pound and is perforated with eyelets, so it can be hung from a branch or strapped to a backpack. When it’s exposed to direct sun, you can either connect your phone directly or fill an optional battery pack ($40) that, once charged, can be tapped after sunset. It’s the smallest, most flexible solar panel we’ve seen. ($120)

Charge Time for One Call: 12 minutes
For Full Power:
6.5 hours
X Factor:
Partly cloudy with a chance of rain.

2. Etón Boost-Turbine 4000

How It Works: This kinetic-energy generator uses magnets, a gear box, and mechanical motion—a hand crank—to charge an internal battery. It’s the only device here with a two-way USB port: power up the battery from an electrical socket before leaving the house and it’s good for two full cell-phone re-ups. Start cranking when the stored power is exhausted. ($80)

Charge Time for One Call: 6.5 minutes
For Full Power:
3.8 hours
X Factor:
Since it’s human powered, the BoostTurbine is the most reliable we tested for quick charges, but don’t plan on generating enough juice for a full battery.

3. Brunton Hydrogen Reactor

How It Works: The prototype we tested looked like a smaller version of the canisters used to fuel camp stoves, except that it uses hydrogen to generate power. Twist on a 2.3-ounce bottle and the gas is slowly released, flowing past a platinum catalyst that separates the hydrogen ions from the electrons. The resulting electricity is transferred by USB. ($150)

Charge Time for One Call: 10 minutes
For Full Power:
6.1 hours
X Factor:
Each refillable canister costs $15; run out and you’re on your own.

4. BioLite CampStove

How It Works: This wood-fired camp stove converts heat to electricity through a thermoelectric generator. The energy is transferred via USB and excess is stored in an internal battery. Bonus: An optional grill ($60) lets you sear steaks while your phone feeds.

Charge Time for One Call: Eight minutes of hot fire.
For Full Power:
Four hours
X Factor:
It chews through wood rapidly, so gather plenty before igniting.

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