Life-Link Backcountry Gear

Life-Link Backcountry Gear

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Mike England

Day breaking over a high ridge; shadows slowly receding across a snow-filled basin; limber pines snaking skyward, their deep, earthy smell holding in the crisp alpine air—these are just some of the images that make backcountry skiing such a wonderful and rewarding respite from the hustle and bustle of the local ski hill. Not to mention solitude, quietness, the purity of the wilderness, and best of all, carving sweet, maiden lines through knee-deep powder, your smile wide and your spirit hovering somewhere up in the stratosphere. 

But however rewarding in terms of beauty and first tracks, backcountry and out-of-bounds skiing have their share of costs—namely, you have to hoof your way up the thousands of vertical feet to the top of the ridge, with the responsibility for your and your companions’ safety resting not on professional ski patrollers but squarely on your own shoulders. A single oversight could spell disaster. So before you leave the chairlifts and mid-day lattés behind, you have to make sure you’re properly equipped. That means two things: knowing what to do, and having dependable gear to do it with.

With this in mind, I decided to try out Life-Link’s latest backcountry ski gear at the Avalanche Center’s annual avalanche education course, held at Bridger Bowl. Life-Link is a widely respected outdoor company and many of their products are made right here in Bozeman—that’s reason enough to check them out. And outside of a real avalanche (which I try to avoid) I couldn’t think of a better way to put some of their new winter gear to the test. I chose the Variant Composite Ski/Probe Poles, 3D Composite Shovel, and the Rando ski pack.

I’d always been a little leery of ski poles that doubled as probe poles. To me, they looked way too flimsy—I imagined the thin shafts bending like a fishing rod on the first hard pole plant. Determined to prove my instincts correct, I set out before the course started and hit a few bump runs, hard and fast. The poles bent a little, but held up fine, and the adjustable shaft didn’t slip one bit. During the course, we buried backpacks with transceivers in them to simulate avalanche victims, and then used our probe poles to find them. As we enacted one avalanche scenario after another, I was able to unscrew the handles, pop off the baskets, and connect the two poles quickly and easily. I soon discovered that the fastest way is to step on the basket with both boots and yank, and before long I could actually beat some of the people who were using regular probe poles. Once we found the victims it was time to dig. The 3D shovel’s long, telescoping handle and stiff, nonstick plastic blade made digging efficient and easy on the back—it’s no wonder you don’t see many other kinds of shovels out there.

The Rando proved to be the perfect pack for carrying skis, avalanche gear, and all the other items one might need for a day in the backcountry. It’s light & compact, conforms well to the back, and has two separate storage compartments—one for a shovel and additional avalanche gear, and another for extra clothes, food, and other essentials. In addition to the usual side straps, there are two diagonal straps, so you have the option of either the classic A-frame carry or the cross-pack carry. I tend to use both, depending on the slope angle and tree situation, so it was nice to be able to switch back and forth without any jerry-rigging. There’s also a zippered mesh pocket for keys, wallet, and other valuables, plus a built-in pocket for holding a Camelbak.

All in all, the pack is very simple—no superfluous straps or complicated lumbar support systems—so there are few adjustments to be made. Just throw it on your back, cinch down the shoulder & waist straps, grab your poles, and you’re ready to head out with all your safety gear, through the bracing alpine wind, up the snow-covered slopes, and into those ethereal powder turns of a Montana winter.

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