September 14, 2020 3 min read
This is less a review and more of a love story. I got my first Western Mountaineering sleeping bag sometime in the early 1980’s. Western had been manufacturing bags since the seventies, but at the time they also had a pair of retail mountaineering/outdoor stores, one in Santa Cruz, right down there on the Mall, and the other on South First Street, in San Jose. In between climbing trips to the Sierra I worked at the Santa Cruz store, as a clerk and buyer. This was after my on again, off again college career had entered another off again phase, but that’s another story. I didn’t have much money then, and even with my employee discount my bag was a splurge I needed, but could ill afford. Then, as now, I appreciated that more money spent upfront for a high quality item would pay me back in the long run.
Anyway, my bag was some version of the Ultralight – deep purple on the outside, and I think a shade of red on the interior. It was amazingly light, with a new-fangled ripstop nylon outer, and a similar material on the interior, amazingly compact, and amazingly warm. I loved that thing like an old friend. Nights where I wasn’t out in the backcountry, which were most nights back then, I’d dream of past and future climbing trips where I got to use my sleeping bag
My bag had a special feel, soft yet light, not at all synthetic feeling like nylon can be, and a lightness of heft that is hard to describe – I could grab a clump of the bag, wad it up in my hand, and it would smush down to nothing. I always enjoyed the process of stuffing it into its impossibly small stuff bag, and taking it out again, with its offer of comfort and warmth.
As my outdoor career took off I used my sleeping bag more and more frequently. Eventually, after over ten years of 180 days a year use, the bag met its end when I pushed a foot through the worn out inner fabric and into the bowels of the down filling. I recall a messy repair job with duck tape and lots of feathers – this was really my first introduction to what down actually looks and behaves like when unconstrained by fabric. Light weight fabrics back then were quite fragile! I remember that trip well, it was for Crossroads School, backpacking in Little Yosemite Valley, just after the Rodney King riots had happened in LA.
Nearly forty years on, and likely at the tail end of a lengthy career as a mountain guide, I have a quiver of Western Mountaineering sleeping bags. The Astralite for warm fastpacking trips, and SAR missions where I really hope I won’t spend the night out, but don’t really know. This bag would fit in a 1liter water bottle with room for your rain gear left over. I have a Summerlite that was my main summer bag for many years of guiding in the Sierra. But if it’s forecast to be cold, or it’s the shoulder season, I want something warmer. Something like the 20º rated Alpinlite. If you wanted just one bag, this would likely be the one. Unless it’s the miraculously warm Antelope microfiber bag, rated at 5º. This is my spring ski tour bag, and gets me by on most winter Sierra trips.
The only problem with having a quiver of sleeping bags is deciding which one to take. Will this bag be too much? When in doubt I always error on the warmer side.
There’s something about sleeping bags in the way that there’s something about an appealing but unread good book, or a map. All these offer promises of adventures to be had, comfort when it’s uncomfortable. They are both a bridge to the future, a proposition of things that might be. When I'm in my gear storage room I like to remember all the places I've been with my sleeping bag, and all those places yet to come.
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