Monday, 11 April 2011

Thunder on the Tundra - The Gear - Gimme shelter

During the planning stages of our trip to Finnmarksvidda I bombarded Jorgen with e-mails about what shelter I should take. I knew from his blog posts about the gear he took on his earlier ski tour to the Sarek that he used a Black Diamond FirstLight, a '2 person', 4 season single skin shelter. I liked the look of it but I wondered what else was out there. I looked at the Rab Summit Bivvies with their bomber design and eVent fabric but their 700mm height put me off. The Brooks-Range Rocket tent was interesting option but expensive to import and requires an avalanche probe to be carried. Whatever I picked had to be light but also able to stand up to high winds on the mountain plateau. I also wanted it to be easy to pitch in a hurry, use a minimum of stakes and keep the spindrift out of my gear. My searching kept coming back to the FirstLight. Despite a couple of negative reviews that appeared to concentrate on using it as a 3-season shelter there were plenty of people who thought it winter mountain worthy. With the help of Beni I found the new 'wasabi' green model for a good price in Germany and pulled the trigger.

So how did I get on with it?

First of all I'm pretty sure the FirstLight's 1.28kg is still well within the limits of what most people would call a lightweight shelter, especially considering it's size and suitability as a winter mountain tent. I thought I'd save a bit of weight by ditching the over-engineered stuff sacks for some custom cuben ones from Joe at Z-packs but then saved even more by ditching them altogether and just strapping the tent to the compression straps of my Pinnacle and poking one end into the bottle pocket. This makes it far easier to get at in a hurry and also stops you having to empty the contents of your pack onto the snow to get at it.

Going back to the size, the FirstLight is advertised as a '2 person' shelter and for ultra minimalist summit attempts by some very friendly alpinists it probably is but in reality it is just a very roomy 1 person 'palace'. Saying that it also means that in the case of losing or damaging one of our FirstLights then we would still be able to keep ourselves out of the weather in an emergency. There is plenty of room to lay your gear out around you. Sleeping diagonally offers a bit more room for those taller than my 6'1/2" (184cm) and this is how Jorgen fits his 187cm frame in. The seated headroom is fantastic. There is a lot of room to get changed and move about. You can even kneel up and pee in a bottle/bag...

No stakes to carry. The shelter was secured to the fjell-side with just our skis and poles. It would also be easy to use snowshoes, trees and other items with the inclusion of a couple of guy lines and this is how we used our Incredible Rulks as anchors (and potentially our SnowClaws) when the wind picked up. I also carried a couple of sil-nylon parachute anchors but didn't need them. The built-in floor (unlike all my other shelters) has a 2000mm hydrostatic head.

Being able to get out of the weather fast is a crucial aspect of shelter design in these environments and here the FirstLight really shines brightly. Wanna pitch your tent? Stick a ski in the snow, hook one of the rear corner tie-outs over it. Tent isn't going anywhere, even in storm winds. Take you other ski, stick it through the other rear corner tie-out. Do the same with the front tie-outs' using your poles as anchors. Unzip the door and slide you and all your gear inside. This takes less than two minutes if you're quick like Jorgen and just one more if you're still learning like me. The poles can be fitted in another couple of minutes once you're inside and that's it. Dome, sweet dome.

Once inside the design easily coped with the winds we endured on this trip, including a couple of Arctic storms that rolled in from the north. I have to admit to feeling a little nervous on the second night, when we got pinned to the Hillside from Hell, and the tent was bucking like bronco, but Jorgen was adamant that the FirstLight could cope and as the week wore on I became more confident in it's capabilities.

There really isn't much more to the FirstLight. The canopy material is a highly water resistant, breathable fabric called NanoShield. It breathes well and I happily used my stove inside the tent. It was also protective enough to keep the fat, wet snowflakes of the penultimate morning at bay. There are a couple of small internal pockets and an insect screen inner door but I don't use either of these. I am contemplating getting the scissors out. These features might be useful if I was going to use the tent at other times of the year but my FirstLight really will be just used in the winter mountains so they're dead weight as far as I'm concerned.


Downsides to the FirstLight? It's single-skin construction means it's more susceptible to condensation than a double-wall. In the winter mountains this manifests itself as frost. There is a zipped rear vent which when used in conjunction with opening the front door offers a degree of airflow but in certain conditions this can also lead to spindrift finding it's way in. Thankfully the steep walls and large size of the shelter meant that I didn't often come into contact with the frost. In high winds the frost is shaken free and falls onto everything. Our synthetic over-quilts kept our sleeping bags dry and the cold temperatures meant most of it could simply be brushed towards the door, swept up with the SnowClaw and dumped out the top of the door.

Talking of the door, the one on the FirstLight is not perfect in my opinion. I like the design of the Rab Summit bivys where the door is fixed at the side meaning in bad weather it's possible to gain a 'dry' entry by just unzipping the lower edge of the door and slipping in (this is made easier by digging a foot-well just outside the door). On the FirstLight the door is fixed at the bottom and unzips from the top which means some snow can enter the shelter when you're entering or exiting. It's not a huge problem and I learned to be quick and careful to minimise the ingress of snow.

I managed to break one of the poles but this was my own fault. After a week of use the elasticated cord inside the DAC Featherlight poles had frozen to the inside of the pole. Instead of freeing it properly I half-heartedly gave it a bit of tug. This left one of the sections slightly lose. When I put some pressure on the pole to push it into place the end of the section that was loose split the female section. It's was an easy job to fix in the field and a replacement pole has been ordered.

In conclusion I'm overjoyed with the FirstLight. It is light, easy to pitch and quick to set up in poor conditions. This means you're more likely to pitch it at lunchtime or during longer breaks when you need to adjust something or deal with a minor ailment like a blister. It offers really generous accommodation, useful if the weather is poor and you're forced to spend some time indoors. The minor niggles I have with it's design are easy to live with when used in the environment I use it in. It strikes a great balance of weight, price, size and function.

Gimme shelter on the mountain plateaus of northern Norway? Gimme a Black Diamond FirstLight.


Andy said...

Great review, Joe!

Interesting about the door, always wondered about that. As for the Rab bivis, I read somewhere that they're taller than 70cm; that it's just for legal reasons that they pretend it's only 70cm (the low fire-resistance of eVent kind of thing).

I use a Unna in winter, and it's 800g heavier than the BD, so it's definitely tempting!

Yeti said...

Seems like an interesting one person winter shelter, something I'm starting to look for. Shame it isn't long enough, though. From what I've understood I'm too tall for it with my 192 cm.

Jörgen Johansson said...

I think it will work. I probably shrunk during our trip, but I am now back at my usual 191 cm. It is not ideal, but what is. I sleep with my smock around the feet of the sleeping bag, which protects it very well while rubbing against the tent fabric.
Normally I also sleep on my side, which means I am slightly curled up. The Firstlight works well enough, so I think it would for you as well.

Unknown said...

Interesting Joe. Not a shelter I would even have considered before your Finnmark posts. I can see the advantage of a free standing shelter and the Sewn-in ground sheet I think is also invaluable for the conditions you met with. One comment I would add, based on my limited experience in winter: I'm absolutely unconvinced that an inner helps with condensation managment in deep cold. Whatever moisture there is just seems to condense on the first surface it meets, be it an inner or an outer and the effect is the same. Rime forms on your tent and drops on you and all it's contents. I'm happy to stand corrected if others can explain the value of an inner.

Jörgen Johansson said...

I tend to agree with you. In cold weather you get considerable amounts of frost on the inside of your inner tent. But you also get frost on the inside of the outer tent. So I guess it could be arguede that you get less frost falling on your sleeping gear in a double tent. However, for me the difference is adademic. Frost will fall, and the synthetic protection of a quilt has worked very well for me.

Anonymous said...

Hey this is cool Josephine!
Even though I only read the first sentence and then I figured I'd go do something else.

Joe Newton said...

Andy - thanks! Yeah, the door design isn't perfect. It's a minor niggle but doesn't appear too big of an issue to get right for the majority of users. The 2007 BPL review of the Rab Simmit Extreme measured the headroom at 850mm, higher than the 700mm advertised but still way lower than the FirstLight and too cramped for me to sit up and use my stove in.

Yeti - I was going to suggest you buy two FirstLights, your torso in one and your legs in the other ;) but Jorgen's correction of his height makes him almost as tall as you and puts the FirstLight back on your 'possible' list, especially if you're a side-sleeper.

Jorgen - my apologies, I didn't mean to underestimate your stature. Maybe you looked shorter on our trip due to the burden of keeping me alive ;)

Dave - Jorgen seems to have answered your question!

Yeti said...

Yes, it seems like a possibility after all, especially since I sleep on my side. I'll have to return to the matter next winter.

Nielsen Brown said...

Hmmm, nice winter tent, could be tempted, not much good for stealth camping in the forests though.

Do you have any views on the breathability of the fabric, for non extreme uses?

Thanks for an excellent and detailed report.

Joe Newton said...

Yeti - yes, let us concentrate on summer now, it's short enough as it is! I have a couple more Finnmarksvidda gear articles in the pipeline and then I am ALL about the summer.

Roger - yes, the wasabi green tent along with my 'golden' quilt, orange Rab jacket and electric blue WM bag was quite a sight...

As to the breathability of the fabric, I have no idea. On a fine night, with the insect screen door in place and the rear vent open I am sure it would be breathable enough.

Steffen said...

I think Black Diamond should give you at least all the extra poles you'd ever need alone for the stunning picture material present in this post.

Joe Newton said...

Steffen - thanks. Can you ask them for some new skis for me too? ;)

Anonymous said...

Why didn't you answer my comment? :'(