Monday, October 4, 2021

American Alpine Institute Guides Choice - 2021

The American Alpine Institute is pleased to announce the 2021 Guides Choice Award Winners! The Guides Choice has been a highly valued award for over 20 years and long coveted by manufacturers and industry insiders. A core group of AAI guides thoroughly test products in a variety of demanding conditions across 6 states and 16 countries. 

This year four winners have been selected.

Hilleberg Niak Tent

Guides need something that is reliable, since they go out constantly and not always in the best of conditions. So when you are selling a lot of one item to guides unprompted, you know that it is a good product. We do this constantly in the Shop. 

In comes the Hilleberg Niak! 

First introduced to the market back in 2016, this tent has brought rave reviews Before this tent came out the Unna was the go to for the overall mountaineering tent within our ranks. When the Niak came out everyone was making 'oogly' eyes due to the weight savings and packability. The question that needed answering though, since this new lighter weight used lighter materials, was what kind of weather can this thing hold up in? Additionally, we asked how durable the tent was; and how was this tent going to hold up in the long run?

The results are in! It turns out this tent can hold up in some pretty nasty weather. Even though it is deemed a 3-season tent, the Niak can still take on heavy wind and rain extremely well when pitched out correctly. That said, those that use it need to remember that the fly does not go all the way to the ground, so wind and rain blown sideways can sometimes make it inside. I should also not that the lighter material isn't going to work in the absolute worst conditions. Those conditions are where you will require a 4-season tent.

As far as durability goes, they hold up really well too. Quite a few of our guides have this tent and use it throughout the summer and winter, and I have not heard of any durability problems (Trust me I would hear about it if there was).

So the lighter and more packable categories have been checked off. Also on the list, you'll find that this has the versatility of a free standing tent. You get an 'actual' 2-person tent with a good amount of interior space, vestibule space and a low profile for mountain weather.

To sum up this tent is versatile and lightweight. The biggest con is it's durability in extreme conditions.  But if you are like me, and don't really plan to have an adventure in a hurricane, then your bases should be covered.

Guide James Pierson: I have the Niak, and I really love it. It's lighter than the Unna, just as roomy, and can stand up to all but the harshest of conditions. I had it on a Mt. Baker trip in June where we had 60mph sustained winds, with probably 70-80mph gusts and it survived. Admittedly, it may be heavier than some of the other 3-season tents out on the market, but I never have to worry about it standing up to the elements. I also love that it has a real vestibule. I purchased the extra pole holders and am able to set it up with either just the fly or just the inner if I want to go super light in good weather. I would highly recommend it.

Most mountaineers out there are looking for versatility. Cool. This product does the job it's designed to do, but can it do more...? In other words, how can I be more efficient? For example, I have a down puffy that I am using as a down jacket, but can I also implement it in my sleep system, so I can take a lighter sleeping bag to save weight and bulk?

Versatility was the deciding factor in giving the Rap Line the award for 2021. We have an assortment of 6mm static lines for guides to choose from, but there are not an assortment of static lines going out the door. Guides only want to use the Rap Line .

There are many options out there for thin static cords, and if you have a really specific set of needs for a rope like this, then maybe there are other better options out there for you. If weight is your main priority then consider the Petzl RAD Line. If the maximal strength rating is a priority, then consider the Sterling 6mm TRC Cord. Or if the only priority is that you need a tag line, then you can consider the Petzl PUR Line...But for overall versatility, the Edelrid Rap Line takes the cake.

The Edelrid Rap Line has a pretty good feel as well, meaning that it is more supple and is nicer to manage with your hands. The sheath is grippy and the rope itself has a good shape to it. This is important because it gives you the ability to use prusiks on the rope when hauling, rappelling, or climbing out of a crevasse.

The thing that really sets the Rap Line apart from the others is its dynamic reserve, meaning that it has enough stretch (relative to a ‘static’ line) that it makes the rating of two falls from the EN 892 test when being used as a twin rope. Edelrid was able to accomplish this in a really clever manner, implementing Aramid fibers into the rope. These fibers will break under a certain amount of force allowing for the stretch that this rope offers. Due to this particular property of the rope, it's important to inspect it on a frequent basis, as well as after a fall.

The stretch is designed to absorb some of the forces generated from a fall. This can decrease the force applied to you, your anchor, or a piece of protection. This does not mean that you should lead climb on this rope (and that is emphasized in the instruction manual). This rope has some stretch, but not enough to safely use it as a lead line. That said, it can give you the flexibility to belay someone up on an anchor, or to provide a body belay. That is the big takeaway here, the Edelrid Rap Line can do all the things you might need of a 6mm static line.

One other thing to consider for lines like these is belay/rappel device compatibility. Since they are so thin, if you are rappelling off this cord only and not using it as a tagline or partnering it with a thicker rope, make sure that you have a compatible device with you. One option is the Edelrid Mago 8 device, which is tailored to handle thinner cords such as the Rap Line. Always practice and get a feeling for things before actually using them in a 'real' situation. If you plan on using this cord for ski mountaineering, practice rappelling at a crag with heavy gloves on. This will give you a feel for what it is actually going to be like.

NOTE: The use of thin static cords is an advanced technique, and it is highly recommended that you have  proper knowledge of crevasse rescue, rappelling, and mountaineering before including a thin static cord in your system. Always read the instruction manual of the manufacturer and adhere to their recommendations.

If you want to know if a piece of equipment has been seismic in its impact on the climbing sphere, take a look at the average rack around Camp 4.

Where Chouinard’s hardened steel pins had once been the buzz of the Valley, the Totem Cam is now emblematic of the bleeding edge. Friends, Camalots, Aliens: the lineage of camming devices that have moved the needle in free and aid climbing need make room for one more.

Totem understands that the world isn’t perfectly splitter, and where most cams work most of the time, Totems excel in the weird, the untrue and the uneasy placements. The smaller end of the available spectrum has been the most impressive, fitting and holding where other cams dare not go, which has created an almost cult-like following.

Whereas the Aliens used a softer 6061-T6 alloy cam lobe to achieve their signature stick, Totems crank up the engineering and employ a fully flexible stemless design that ensures equal load to distribution to all of the lobes, even allowing for a climber to load just two lobes on marginal aid climbing placements (body weight only). This trademarked Direct Loading System also allows for the cams to be placed in horizontal cracks without worry of being over-leveraged or working their way out.

Our only quibble lies with the racking, which splays the cams widest side out along our harnesses due to the sling design. But we can forgive this given their undeniable function, you just wouldn’t want to rack up with triples. The weight of Totem cams is also a wee bit on the heavier side, but again given their ability we are willing to get a bit stronger (or make our partners carry the rack).

With the capacity to act like offset cams, combined with a larger camming angle as well as a more svelte head width, Totem Cams have taken to not only filling the blanks left by other camming units, but surmounted them on many fronts. As an aid climbing piece they are revolutionary, and for trad climbing they significantly punch above their weight class in terms of sheer utility, which easily lands the Totem Cam a Guides Choice Award.

Guide Ian McEleney: I was skeptical about the Totems at first; there was a lot of hype around them and they looked heavy and bulky. I was quickly won over, however, on an ascent on El Cap where they proved to be incredibly useful, and quickly became gear that I saved for particularly tricky sections. Now a double set of Totems (and maybe triple of the coveted black size) are mandatory for any wall climbing I'm doing. I think the narrow head size and super flexible body let these cams stick in weird flaring placements where other cams will just rip out. Despite their added weight and bulk, they come along any time I'm on unclimbed terrain or on funky rock like limestone.

As a class of protection, nuts often get the backside of the harness. You can’t much blame them, however. They lack the flash of active pro, and there’s only so far you can stray from the old railroad nuts before you end up with something completely foreign. With cams becoming the pro-du-jour on pitches the world over, passive protection has become more refined and specialized. 

Enter the Offset Nut.

Produced from the original Hugh Banner design (there’s something undeniably fulfilling about a pedigree) the DMM Offset Nut leans fully into its roots and understands that constrictions rarely exist in only two planes. Flares, pin scars and awkward pods that would otherwise spit traditionally shaped nuts out receive Offsets handily.

Tuned like a gem, DMM’s Offset Nuts display a variety of facets that taper downward, producing a far more plug-shaped nut that nestles into constrictions with ease. By employing different angles on each face, the nuts can be rotated until the prime placement is achieved. When surface-area contact is the name of the game, having a number of different options greatly increases your ability to place solid protection.

As a set, from 12mm to 30mm, the Offsets are an excellent supplement to your existing traditional nuts, and you may often find reaching for them more often. Being rated at 12kN each and slung with a swaged steel cable will ensure they’ll be able to stand up to multiple seasons of abuse.

Almost comically, the only trouble we have with Offset Nuts is also why they are so good: they can occasionally be tough to get out! Because of their offset profile, the old rip and go style of removal doesn’t yield an extraction as often as we’d like, and fiddling with a nut tool is often the best way to clean.

The Offset Nut has nudged its way onto many of our guide’s harnesses and seems liable to stay put for a while, earning it a Guides Choice Award in 2021.

A Note from the Judges:

In choosing our award winners this year, we opted to do a bit of cleaning up. We awarded some well deserving products that have been on our minds for a number of years. Indeed, the DMM Alloy Offsets in particular, have been on the market in some form or another for years, and were an easy choice in making an award winner. Their shape has made them the nut to have on harnesses across the globe, many even opting to carry only a set of Offsets and supplementing with a few extra in the middle sizes. If that’s not proof of superior use-ability, I don’t know what is.

The Totem Cam, too, has had a long time coming in becoming a Guides Choice award winner. While our guides racks are always changing, we’re beginning to see a new standard forming: a single rack of Camalots, and a single rack in Totems. This speaks volumes about Totems as not only being the specialty pieces you might bring for a couple difficult placements, but rather as a full-fledged and well-developed line of cams that can stand on their own on anyone’s trad rack.

On the new and exciting side of the spectrum, the Edelrid Rap Line is a cord that we are particularly enthusiastic about. As a pull cord it functions just about as well as most on the market, but where the Rap Line truly shines is in its almost off-label uses: as a glacier-travel cord and in navigating quickly changing alpine terrain. These cords have seen wide use on glaciers, and particularly with ski mountaineers who are keen on trimming weight on anything that’ll slow them down on the ascent. We are excited to see companies like Edelrid push the bleeding edge, and believe that the Rap Line is well deserving of a Guides Choice award.

And finally, while we have given many awards to designs by Hilleberg the Tentmaker in the past, the Niak simply couldn’t be denied. It is a testament to the ‘built for the worst’ philosophy that we’ve come to enjoy about Hilleberg tents, and would easily call this a 3+/4- season tent, where Hilleberg only calls it a 3. It’s this hedging against the worst-case scenario that’s baked into the Niak, and what places it above almost any 3-season tent on the market today. On any given weekend, you’re likely to see American Alpine Institute guides unfurling their Niaks on any number of North Cascades peaks.

This year’s equipment choices are all examples of excellence in their respective niches, and we are excited to be bringing them into the spotlight with the honor of the American Alpine Institute Guides Choice Award.

--Christian Schraegle and Nick Belcaster, AAI Shop Management

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