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Echo Mountain — It’s a Place You Can Ski? 6 February 2012

Posted by magicdufflepud in Colorado, Reviews, Skiing.
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Echo Mountain‘s new tagline is “Let Traditions Begin.” This can only mean that the good folks who do Echo’s marketing have never actually experienced a tradition. Or maybe they’ve never been to Echo. Whatever the case, this is a hill best experienced for several hours. So why even give it a shot? Powder… powder in a snow-starved season.

This weekend’s storm dumped a foot and a half on Denver, maybe more on the plains. From six p.m. on Thursday through noon on Saturday, it took up residence over the Front Range. Grocery shelves emptied. People parked their cars halfway into intersections. And we’re in Denver. We’re supposed to be good at this sort of thing. But across the Continental Divide, another story was unfolding: only a few stray flakes had made it over the top. For Breck, Copper and the rest, it had been a shut out.

Figures. That’s been the story of the season.

Back on the Denver side of the divide, though, the storm had dropped an almost incomprehensible mount of snow. More than four feet in Coal Creek Canyon—and at Echo, nearly 60″. On Saturday, the folks at Eldora, the only other mountain east of the divide, were beside themselves. By 10:30, the place had sold out. You might think that it’s impossible for a ski resort to “sell out,” but Eldora proved otherwise. Turns out you can only sell lift tickets if you have enough room for people to park.

So, anyway, that’s a long way of saying the conditions I’m about to describe in my review of Echo are, um, rare—and phenomenal. In my ongoing, but not very serious, quest to ski all the Colorado resorts, I’d always imagined Echo would be last since I’d heard it was nothing more than a glorified terrain park. For the most part, that’s what it is: 85 acres, consisting of three “runs.” There’s a groomer, the park, and the glades. You don’t need to worry about anything other than the glades, which when visited offered a decent pitch and thigh-deep snow. Technically, I think they were closed, but in true Echo fashion, a patroller told us on the lift, “Sure, I think it’s closed but go in there. It’s good. If anyone asks you, just say someone from patrol told you to pack it down.” We obliged.

So for the next four hours, we lapped an empty chair and empty glades. Maybe a dozen other folks took turns through the trees that day, maybe. How was this even possible? 45 minutes from Denver we were experiencing some of the deepest powder we’d ever seen, sometimes so deep we couldn’t get the speed to ski it. After tracking out one area, we traversed and cut a new path, leading to more pristine snow and more perfectly-spaced trees. Except at Silverton, could another 30-something acres be so empty, or so fun?

Probably not. And that’s also why you’re not likely to start any traditions at Echo either, which is sorta too bad since it’s likable enough. We experienced near perfection, in the middle of a season that has been seriously unkind to the state’s major resorts, and it’s for that reason alone that we stopped by Echo. The novelty of night skiing can’t possibly add much. The terrain park pales in comparison to the nationally-ranked competition at Keystone and Breck. Weirdly, the mountain requires folks to sign a waiver just to buy a lift ticket. In the Midwest, all that might make Echo the envy of the region, but here, it’s overshadowed by nearly every other resort in the state.

That’s not to say we didn’t have fun this weekend—it was a blast–but if you’re thinking about Echo, sure, go for the 55″. Just don’t stick around for the traditions.



Ski Review: Icelantic Keeper and Icelantic Nomad 29 November 2011

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Hope you folks had a happy Turkey Day, enjoyed the tradition of watching Detroit lose and managed to get some skiing in on either side of it. There’s been precious little snow out here in Colorado, relative to last year at least, but with all the new terrain opening anyway and the ski movies on tour, it’s hard to stay gloomy for more than a moment, especially when you’ve got new skis to demo.

Icelantic brought its entire line-up to Copper a couple weekends ago. If you’re unfamiliar with the company and live in the area, they’re worth checking out in person. Icelantic runs a First Friday event in conjunction with the rest of the galleries on Santa Fe that features boards and beer at their Battery 621 headquarters (6th and Kalamath). Take a look at the topsheet graphics and you’ll understand why this company feels okay showcasing products alongside area artists. And although Icelantic creates those graphics and designs the skis themselves, Never Summer, another Colorado company, does the construction, so you can be fairly certain the things will withstand a beating.

I’m reviewing Icelantic’s Keeper and the Nomad this time around, but you can also check out last year’s review of the Shaman. Conditions were the early season norm of hardpack, crust and some crusty lumps on their way to becoming moguls. Nothing special.

Icelantic Keeper 

As tested dimensions: 178 cm. 150/119/138. 16m radius.

I’m not even sure I should be reviewing these since powder is their purpose, but if I get them again on a Powder day, I’ll come back and add some thoughts. Anyway, the Keeper name, I think, is supposed to indicate that this is a ski you’ll always have around, but having it around doesn’t mean that it’s the ski you ought to select for an early season day. That said, for being this huge, these boards rip. For featuring an early rise tip, these boards rip. Come to think of it, they just rip, period.  You won’t be running gates with the ski teams at Copper, but you’ll definitely enjoy blah conditions on the Keepers more than you ever would with a pintail like the Pontoons.

Icelantic has been slow to get into the rocker game, and now that they have, they’ve stayed true to the idea that a ski ought to be fun—not just usable—anywhere on the mountain. So, yes, you can get these up on edge, though it takes a bit of work to get the tips to engage.  They’ll slide just where you want them through bumps. And they’re flexible enough that lazy skiing will still get you down the mountain. Just don’t expect expect a ski that will offer much feedback through any of that. But if you find yourself looking for a little more enjoyment as you take the groomers home from Vail’s back bowls, then the Keepers will do you right.

Icelantic Nomad

As tested dimensions: 178cm. 140/105/130. 20m radius.

Over the last couple years, I’ve gotten tired of all-mountain skis. Buy yourself a groomer-specific pair and something else for powder, and you’ll enjoy every day more, but if for whatever reason you have to buy just one ski, then I guess you’ve gotta do it right. Typically, my suggestion is the Volkl Mantra, but if you’re willing to give up some hard snow performance, you’d do well by the Nomads, too. In the all-mountain category, these are pretty playful skis, not really poppy enough to launch you out of turns but still happily willing to hang on to whatever radius you select. The Nomads had me feeling fairly comfortable at any speed and they’re damp enough that you won’t feel every change of surface condition. Your call on whether that’s a good thing. In many ways, these are the indie equivalent of the Dynastar Huge Troubles in my quiver, with a little extra sidecut thrown in for good measure.

Edge to edge, they’re considerably quicker than you’d expect for a ski that’s 105 under foot, something I recall enjoying on the even wider Shamans, but that’s the thing: given that the Shamans also appear in the Icelantic lineup, I’m not sure what to think of the Nomad. Maybe you can’t live without twin tips? Maybe you can’t stand the turtles on the Shamans’ top sheet? Maybe you’re all about backcountry jibbing? Near as I can tell, the Nomads are the closest thing Icelantic makes to a “normal” ski, and I just don’t think you can make the case for them in the face of the other options. Buy Icelantic, yes, but you’ll get more for your money by choosing the Shamans.

Places You Need to Visit: Mishawaka Amphitheatre 19 July 2011

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Something cool is always happening at the Mish. Not because “something” is necessarily cool, but because the Mish is so awesome it just kinda rubs off. It’s the rare venue that improves any show, but this is it. Tucked away a dozen miles up the Poudre (that’s “pooder,” remember) River Canyon outside Fort Collins, the Mishawaka Amphitheatre offers an appropriate bookend to the state’s other outdoor amphitheater, Red Rocks. Where the latter is a professionally-managed venue staging shows with big-time production values and $9 beers, the former is kind of a backwoods dump, a knotty pine stage backing up to a bar that seems a flood away from entombment under the Poudre. That’s been good enough for Bela Fleck, Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie, though.

And it’s good enough for me, you and anyone who enjoys music.

It’s the sort of place you’d imagine as the result of a Joni Mitchell song. And it may have been. Back in 1991, preservationist and music enthusiast Robin Jones bought the site  to save it from becoming a parking lot. Why anyone would need a parking lot on that particular bend in the Poudre, I’m not sure, but that’s the story. In his 20 years of ownership, Robin brought in star performers, turning the Mish into the backwoods hangout it is today. As for the physicals space, I doubt much has changed in those two decades. Maybe the beer on tap.

If that were the end of the Mish’s story, it’d be okay, but it’s slightly more fantastic than that—in just the way you’d expect. Robin no longer owns the place, mostly because his enthusiasm for music accompanied an enthusiasm for the drug trade. A burglarly led the Larimer County Sheriff’s office to a cabin on the property last fall, and in apprehending the suspect, the deputies also discovered 280 pounds of pot Jones had been cultivating there. No one was really that surprised. The feds followed, filing a civil suit against Jones seeking the forfeiture of the $22,000 he’d made selling the drug. When asked why Jones’s amphitheater hadn’t also been included in the suit, a spokesman from the US Attorney’s office said simply: there wasn’t enough equity in the property. I guess the Feds don’t like bluegrass.

Dani Grant, owner of the local Chipper’s bowling alleys, bought the property from Jones later that year, vowing to revitalize the place, if indeed it needs revitalization. I’m not sure it does. But at any rate, you can’t fault the owner of a couple bowling alleys for wanting to do something nice.

So that’s where we stand today, with the Mish humming along in spite of its history and repeated attempts at self-destruction. We visited for Trampled by Turtles, but found a treat in Muskeeter Gripweed whose lead singer Jason Downing could probably make a pretty penny with his harmonica playing alone. Folks were hula-hooping in the Poudre. We had a good time.

You will too.

Other things you need to know:

Don’t pay for the shuttle. Drive up the canyon, get a campground early, then park for free and walk to the theater.

Beer is cheap. This is essentially a dive bar with an expensive cover.

If the show’s sold out, you might still be able to get in by buying a roll of orange carnival tickets and presenting them at the gate. It’s what they’re handing out at will call anyone—not a fancy operation.

Taos: Reviewed, Sort Of 8 June 2011

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If you enjoy tourist tchotkes, turquoise jewelry, and jokes about whites’ conquest of the West, visit Taos. For a better experience, skip the city altogether and visit Taos Ski Valley, just up the road, or the surrounding countryside, a moonscape of sage and volcanic hills straight out of 3:10 to Yuma.

To east rises the southern extension of the Sangre de Christos, verdant against against the dusty plain. North of the Colorado border, they scrape above 14,000′, here topping out at 13,161′ on Wheeler Peak. And to the west, well, that’s the west you see in movies. It’s brush and scrub, so dry your eyes will water and your skin will crack. It’s a place that makes Denver feel humid.

The Bureau of Land Management, who runs these parts, will remind you that it was not always so. That landscape of sage once included grassy plains as well, but as humans and their cattle moved in, the grass disappeared into hungry mouths and the sage spread. We’re altering the landscape still with grazing, road-building and extractive industries; the result is what you’d imagine: wild dust storms which strip tons (literally) of newly-freed topsoil and deposit it on Colorado snow pack.

The city itself remains a more permanent fixture; by some accounts, it has persisted for more than a millennium, making it the oldest continuously-inhabited place in America. If you’re into superlatives anyway. The pueblo began as a settlement for the roving Anasazi peoples, who may have moved from the Four Corners region to the Rio Grande Valley in search a of more consistent source of water. Today, the Taos Pueblo roots the town itself and still holds out as a dwelling for a permanent population of 150.

White folks discovered the area in 1615, dispatching with most of the native population and naming the town Fernandez de Taos. Armed resistance from the Pueblo peoples continue until 1696, when the Spanish Reconquest (not to be confused with the Reconquista) put the kibosh on all that. The John Wayne-style stuff stuck around longer with folks running all over the place fighting Comanches, and the citizens even staged a revolt after learning they’d been taken over by America in 1847. The newly-appointed governor, Charles Bent, met his untimely demise on the streets of Taos during that revolt—well before he’d received the chance to do much actual governing.

Taos’s reputation as a haven for artists emerging at the beginning of the 20th century. You can read about that part here, then ignore all of it, except maybe RC Gorman, who might appear in bar trivia at some point, and visit the hot springs instead.

From the city, head north to the light at Highway 64, then hang a left. A couple miles away on your right is Tune Rd. Follow that to its dirt parking lot terminus and pull out your swimsuit, backpack and beverages. The hike down is short, only about 400′ of vertical. At the bottom of the gorge lie two pools, one bathtub temperature, the other offering something closer to real “hot” spring heat. You’ll also find the remains of structures designed to corral the water, which has since chosen its own path. Across the way, an old stage road descends precipitously from the canyon rim. If you see “Harvey” whose name appears in chalk everywhere around the springs, sucker punch him for me, please. Thanks.

If you’re of a less adventurous mindset and public nudity gives you the willies, you might prefer the Rio Grande Gorge bridge, which features more folks from the elderly and Indian set, all of whom will be carrying cameras. It’s not the Grand Canyon, Canyonlands or anything approaching that category of beauty, but why not? You’ve already spent too much time in Taos, so it’s worth the trip just for a change of scenery.

I’m told that if you return to Taos, you’ll find an old pueblo there, dating back some thousand years or so. The Best Western on the drive in advertises authentic Indian dances every night, too, and if you drive up some road a ways to somewhere, you’ll also find real Indians dancing. I suppose Taos’ allure dwells in these sorts of things, but I can’t help but feel that it’s all a bit too reminiscent of Wall Drug, South Dakota’s largest tourist trap after Crazy Horse. There, and in Taos, authenticity implies curation. Taos has been done already, cultivated into a destination, and while I’ll stop short of calling it “lost,” it’s certainly a place that makes it difficult to find much of anything. Taos lacks the joy of discovery.

So discover the countryside, take in the art if you’d like but don’t come to Taos to wander. There’s so much else to explore.

Review: Ski Cooper 18 March 2011

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Area Stats

Location: Leadville, CO

Bottom Elevation: 10,500′

Top Elevation: 11,700′

Area: 420-ish acres

Average Annual Snowfall: 260″

Terrain Breakdown: Beginner 30%, Intermediate 40%, Advanced 30%, Expert 0%

Adult Ticket Price: $42

Best-kept secret: Cat Skiing

Unless you have children under the age of ten, you probably won’t like Ski Cooper. And even then, it’s not much of a mountain. On a whim, C and I went anyway a couple weeks ago, taking the opportunity to explore Leadville and the ski hill it owns because of a free deal from Colorado Ski Country USA. (Check out their Gems Card next year, if you want to do the same and save on other mountains, too.)

To get a sense of the sort of person who skis here, let’s take a moment to reflect on this video.

I can’t decide which of his lines I like better: “Jub, jub BOOM!” or “HEEEEEEEEEEEEEE,” but in any event, that guy likes this place. On the other hand, if like most folks you came to Colorado for mountains like Crested Butte, Vail, and Telluride, you’ll be, shall we say, underwhelmed. There’s no gnarliness to be had, nor any cachet to make up for it. This is Midwest skiing here in Colorado. Granted, the scenery’s a little better.

The History

Located a little more than 10 miles north of Leadville (and about 100 miles from Denver), Ski Cooper began life as the training grounds for the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, whose primary objective back in the day was to kill Nazis and Italians abroad while supporting Leadville’s prostitutes back home. When the division packed up at left for Fort Riley, KS after the war, Ski Cooper remained, continuing life as one of Colorado’s first public ski hills.

In all likelihood, though, you’re more familiar with the 10th Mountain’s other contribution to the area: Peter Seibert, the division veteran who, along with local rancher Earl Eaton, founded Vail in 1962. Since then, the resorts’ paths have… diverged. The whole of Ski Cooper will fit into one of Vail’s back bowls with room to spare. But really, comparisons between the two aren’t relevant. Peter Seibert’s vision and the completion I-70 made Vail what it is today. To the best of my knowledge, Ski Cooper never held such ambitions.

The Mountain

Ski Cooper’s website suggests the resort has five lifts, or something like that. C and I could only find two, though there was evidence that a third was buried under snow and hadn’t moved in ages. These two operating lifts each serve a half of this divided mountain. Lest you jump too soon to visions of a “front side/back side” split, a la Vail, that’s not the case. The back side is more mirror image than doppelganger despite what run names “Nightmare” and “Kamikaze” may imply, and both sides offer what is probably the most consistent pitch I’ve ever skied. Without signs to distinguish beginner, intermediate and advance terrain, you likely couldn’t tell the difference.

If you’re here with kids, though, the can be kind of a blessing, I imagine. Let your kids wander off on their own and you can be sure they’ll never get in over their heads or end up at a lift where you can’t find them. Contrary to the Starbucks philosophy, in some cases, fewer options really are better.

For experts and advanced skiers, that lack of choice doesn’t leave much in the way of  prime runs, but a few merit consideration:

Mother Lode to Timber Basher: Starts out at a pitch that might qualify as a blue at other mountains, then drops you into a nice flat meadow whence you can admire the 12,500′ Chicago Ridge to your right. Drop off the meadow the right and into Timber Basher for some low-angle tree skiing.

Powder Keg: It’s the only mogul run on this mountain, and even those last just a few turns, but you can weave in and out of a the trees between this run and Kamikaze before the bumps show up. This will assuredly be the most difficult thing you’ll do all day.

Piney to Burnout: Head under the lift and duck into the trees on skiers’ left. They’re low-angle, but more enjoyable than the run itself. When they flatten out even more, head back under the lift and ski down to the steeper (again, this is all relative) section far skiers’ left. You can make five or six good turns on this pitch before heading  down into the main run again. You’re almost guaranteed fresh tracks here since everyone seems too afraid to ski it.

Slot: Good for two, maybe three, interesting turns back onto Piney.

The trees to skiers’ left off Last Chance: If you like fresh tracks, you won’t be disappointed. No one skis unmarked trees here, which is also something of a problem since a lot of small limbs still exist at eye level. Despite that, you can ski top to bottom in these relatively open trees without ever crossing someone else’s line. That’s cool, but then you’ll spend the next half hour waiting for the ancient double to haul back to the top of the mountain.

Overall Experience

Coloradans’ complaints about the I-70 resorts hold merit. But it only takes a day of skiing to explain why those resorts each draw more than one millions visitors a year while Ski Cooper struggles to attract the leftovers: the mega-resorts are simply better mountains. They offer more amenities, better terrain, and greater challenges. I see every reason for a place like Ski Cooper to succeed in Michigan or Pennsylvania or West Virginia. Just not here in Colorado.

A Coda

Now forget everything I just said. For $275, you can hop on board Ski Cooper’s Chicago Ridge Snowcat Skiing and explore 2460 untracked acres behind the lift-served mountain. It includes a gourmet lunch and 10-12 powder runs.  I haven’t done it, but I hear it’s a best-ski-day-of-my-life kinda thing, and it affords and opportunity to stay in Leadville—always a good decision. Check it out.

Review: Devil’s Thumb Ranch 11 February 2011

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Let’s about hotels for a minute or two—nice hotels—and Devil’s Thumb Ranch in particular. It wasn’t until recently (within the last year or so that), that I realized lodging wasn’t just about what was cheap and close to the highway or whatever/whomever you were visiting. Back when I was six or eight, we spent a couple nights at Tan-Tar-a, a Missouri resort, in the dead of winter. It was cheap in the off-season, I guess. My dad got food poisoning from some tacos. Then, when I was about the same age, we took a long spring weekend at the Greenbriar, where even little boys needed to wear dinner jackets and the activities guide listed “falconry”. These constituted my two stays in a “destination hotel.”

The Red Roof Inn was more our style.

Places like Devil’s Thumb Ranch just outside Tabernash, were not. Too bad, because you really can’t ask for much more than “5,000 acres of raw Colorado,” though admittedly, it’s a tagline that needs a little work. Devil’s Thumb is the sort of place you go if you think most outdoor adventures ought to begin and end within easy walking distance of a large, well-stocked bar. If that’s your style, then you’ll also appreciate the bajillion-square-foot spa, the miles of cross-country skiing trails, the stables and the general lack of cell-phone service. Don’t expect to check e-mail. These are the things Devil’s Thumb offers.

The decor is “raw” and “Coloradan” in as much as any four-star resort hotel can be either of those things. Wood abounds. Dark stains impart a closeness in an otherwise enormous building, and a central stone fireplace soars three stories. Cowboy hats hang from every vertical surface, but thankfully, no one has yet thought to include a bear carved out of a stump. For everyone’s sake, I hope it remains so.

Checking into your room, you may or may not find a TV, a fireplace, a bathtub or a chair that fits a normal-sized adult. This is also raw, in the sense that you, like the pioneers who first explored these parts, will never know quite what to expect from your environs. You can, however, count on a bedside document detailing just how “green” Devil’s Thumb has made your visit. I don’t remember the exact language of the card but it goes something like, “At Devil’s Thumb, the way we figger it, bein’ green ain’t just for kicks; it makes plain good sense.” So they cut a hole out of the center of your soap to prove that point. And they picked up a civil-war era barn from Virginia and trucked it out to Colorado so they wouldn’t have to build a new one. Your guess is as good as mine.

The effect of all this is as you’d expect: rustic and relaxing. Absent the go-go mentality of a ski resort, Devil’s Thumb offers something more along the lines of bucolic bliss. You can feed the horses if you want. You can snow snowshoe. And at even given time, you’ll rarely see more than a few other people. It’s that kind of place, set sometimes literally in the shadow of the Indian Peaks, where no matter what you’re doing, you feel you’ve arrived, and that you’re no longer obligated to do anything else. It’s about being there to be there—not about spending the night and moving on. I sense it”s this quality that makes the place something of a wedding factory through the year. Well, that and the two bars.

If you want to go elsewhere, though, Winter Park is a completely reasonable drive, and the town of Fraser offers a little more dining selection. But I imagine, though, that if you’ve picked Devil’s Thumb, you’re not about to leave until your stay is over. Why would you want to?

The Deets:

Devil’s Thumb Ranch

Location: Tabernash, CO

Cost: You’ll spend at least $300/night on a room in the lodge. There’s a “bunkhouse” down the road which sounds a lot like a hostel and goes for about $100 + tax.

Activities: Spa, cross country skiing including rentals and lessons, snowshoeing,  horseback riding, hiking, game rooming, marrying, drinking, cigar smoking

Eat and drink: Two restaurants, both pricey. Two bars with a decent selection of wine and beer. Reasonably-priced coffee shop.

Review: Mountain Hardwear Alchemy Jacket 31 October 2010

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What is the bomb? This jacket. This jacket is the bomb. I don’t even know what metaphor means, but this jacket is it. If you enjoy being outside at all, ever, in any chilly circumstance, you will enjoy the Mountain Hardwear Alchemy jacket. You will not enjoy lesser, more expensive products.
Here’s the deal: I spent an entire year as a ski bum wearing nothing but the Alchemy and the occasional onesie on the slopes and discovered that this jacket cannot be destroyed. After gloves, boots and pants all failed, it had refused to died. In fact, after  90 days of abuse the thing looks like it just came out of the packaging, save for the tiny (2mm) fray where I greeted a tree mostly with my side. Skis sharp enough to draw blood never left a mark on the Alchemy. No stitch has failed. Whatever this material is, it’s tougher than chain mail.It might even stop a bullet.

But you don’t buy the Alchemy to stop bullets. You buy it to stay warm. And when used to that end, it is worth every single cent. With the correct layering strategy (base, t-shirt, wool shirt, fleece pullover–for me) the Alchemy has proved comfortable when the wind chill drops below -20. Faces freeze at those temperatures, but the jacket keeps going strong. It is absolutely impervious to wind. If, in a gale, you feel the tiniest bit of cold leak through your zipper or a cuff, you are not wearing the Alchemy. The neck a waist cinches and the lined cuffs block any wayward air. On a bike, on the hill, or on the crag, the jacket will keep you warm.

But most of my experience has been on the hill, and there, the Alchemy performs better than even a hard shell. Its flexibility makes it feel like another shirt, important when you know exactly where you’d like to make your next pole plant. Its three external pockets provide easy access to keys/cell phone/chapstick, even when wearing a backpack. Mountain Hardwear, good folks that they are, thought of that. An internal pocket can holster an iPod. The material sheds snow and rain, too, and looks good doing it. If you think you need a hood, think for a minute about the last time you saw anyone–anyone at all–with his hood up on a hard shell. Then forget you were ever concerned.

In fact, only two things should give you pause: the lack of pit zips and the awkwardness of wearing the jacket around town. On the first point, the Alchemy’s breathable, but armpits get hot even when the core is comfortable. Zips would help. On the second, the Alchemy looks good when you’re out pursuing your “active lifestyle,” and that’s fine, but don’t expect to wear it around town much. Pockets accessible with a backpack on, force you to explain that, no, you’re not trying to grab your nipples, when you shove your hands into your pockets for warmth. So if you’re in town wear something else.

If you’re planning on doing anything outdoorsy, though, buy the Alchemy. It’s on sale now at Backcountry.com and it’s the bomb.