Last weekend, on a trip to climb the 14,179-foot stratovolcano of Mount Shasta in northern California, I spent what has been my most harrowing night ever at altitude, with winds gusting to 80 miles per hour and an avalanche sliding a quarter-mile from camp.
But despite the tempest -- or perhaps because of it -- I was able to get in some good gear testing, including the near annihilation of a three-season backpacking tent. Here's a quick look at two products put through the proverbial wringer on that high mountain peak:
Stove: Jetboil PCS ($90) -- Plumes of vapory gas puffed benignly out of this stove when I tried to light it up at 10,500 feet to cook some soup. Though it was only about 20 degrees out, the stove would not work.
My solution: Huddle in my sleeping bag, stove clutched between my thighs, for 30 minutes. Mind you, it wasn't the fuel canister that was frozen, as I'd climbed with that next to my body to keep it warm. The actual stove unit was too cold to operate. I was kind of dismayed with this, though after warming the unit up in the sleeping bag it fired and cooked the soup in no time flat.
The problem, I later discovered, was with the stove's built-in piezoelectric sparker, which is made to ignite the gas. The tiny spark generated by the piezoelectric igniter was not intense enough to light the vapor that came about because of a cold valve in the stove. Had I used a match or cigarette lighter to ignite it, the plumes of vapor would have fired right up.
Tent: REI Sub-Alpine UL -- Go ahead and laugh. Yes, I used a three-season tent made for ultra-light backpacking (named the "Sub"-Alpine nonetheless!) for a full-on alpine camp at 10,500 feet. Add to this that we experienced 80mph wind gusts, and you'd think we would have been dead in the water up there.
Not so. This feathery tent actually held its own even when tents around us were ripping and tearing apart. Poles were snapping that night with some of our neighbors' tents, but the Sub-Alpine UL -- bolstered by three-foot-high snow walls, anchored in with ice axes plunged straight down into the snow -- didn't die.
Granted, a pole bent, and the whole night long the walls were shaking and whipping, sometimes bending in harshly as if to suffocate me and my sleepless climbing partner. But the next day we emerged warm and fairly dry, though spindrift did blow in through the screens.
My original plan -- just so you don't think me a numbskull -- was to camp low with this tent, preferably behind a big boulder and out of the wind. But plans changed, we had to go high, and the tent actually performed well beyond its capacity.
Stephen Regenold writes The Gear Junkie column for eight U.S. newspapers; visit www.THEGEARJUNKIE.com for video gear reviews, a daily blog and an archive of Regenold's work.
Note: REI has discontinued the Sub-Alpine UL; the $219 REI Quarter Dome UL is a comparable model.
Jetboil photo courtesy of Jetboil, Inc. Sub-Alpine UL photo courtesy of REI.