I first got a quick taste of Patagonia’s Ascensionist 35L pack back in the fall when I used a loaner for a week or so. I was impressed with the comfort and carrying capacity, but torn about the top lid/collar closure system and downright skeptical about the pack’s durability, as upon first impression the fabrics appeared rather fragile. (You can read the First Look report here.) About six weeks ago I received a review sample from Patagonia and have been abusing it around the Rockies since.
First, what I love about the pack as it really is a wonderfully put together piece of kit. Comfort wise, it’s hard to beat for a 35L: the shoulder straps are nicely contoured and well padded, while the removable hip belt ‘pods’ significantly enhance comfort with a minimum weight penatly. Like with all of my 35L-ish packs, I removed the ‘framesheet,’ which is basically an aluminum ‘frame’ with a lightweight mesh stretched in between. The framesheet weighs 143 grams, which isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, but I don’t feel it provides enough of a benefit to use it: I’ve had the pack fully loaded with a mixed rack, a day’s food and water plus a half-rope strapped on top, and it still carried comfortably.
Capacity wise, it feels in-line with other 35L packs. ‘Comfortably overstuffed’ (more on this in a bit), I’d say it’s maybe a 40 but ‘uncomfortably’ overstuffed I’d give it a 45. So there is room to maneuver, but I do feel the pack performs best when you’re not pushing its capacity. Should you overflow the main packbag, there are two compression straps on each side and a micro-daisy on the front for attaching extra stuff.
The top lid/spindrift-collar thingy — Patagonia calls this an asymmetrical spindrift collar, which I guess makes sense, as it’s not really a lid, and not really a ‘traditional’ spindrift collar — has a one-handed pull-to-open and pull-to-close design that once you’ve used is hard to give up. Getting into the pack takes a second, and closing it back up is just as quick. Where this system starts to annoy me is when you overstuff the bag.
Overstuffed by a bit (‘comfortably overstuffed’), the spindrift collar still closes well and snugs nicely into place, except when the top pocket, located in the spindrift collar, is totally crammed with stuff. This is how I’ve mostly been packing the bag: stuffed to the brim, with my helmet crammed in on top and turned in such a way that the empty space of the helmet fills in with the volume of the filled top pocket.
But, sometimes, you just have too much stuff, and even with the helmet strapped to the outside, the bag will be ‘uncomfortably overstuffed.’ To prevent stuff from falling out all over the trail, there is an additional spindrift collar sewn inside the main packbag that can be unfurled over the contents and cinched down. In this scenario, however, the top pocket, no matter how lightly filled, starts to bulge out beyond the pack’s frame, right into the space the back of your head is trying to occupy. If you leave that pocket empty, no issue, but it also means you don’t have a pocket for those at-hand items.
In this image, I added a helmet inside the pack, causing the asymmetrical spindrift collar to bulge towards the back a bit. Any more gear inside the pack, and the top pocket would be unusable as it would bulge into the back of your head and neck.
Other than this asymmetrical spindrift collar thingy, my only other gripe with the pack concerns the ice tool attachments. There is a pick-sleeve with a hammer-head-strap at the bottom, and this works well enough. It does work better with tools that have a pronounced hammer or adze, but I haven’t had any hammer-less tools fall out either. What bugs me is the upper tool attachment, which by design is the upper compression strap. It works fine with straight-shafted mountaineering axes, but any technical tool is somewhat awkward to secure, given that it first has to be passed underneath the strap, then the head slotted into the pick-sleeve. I’ve solved this with a couple of small bungee straps cannibalized from another pack that secure the handle: these add little weight, haven’t ripped off yet and make attaching all shapes of tools much easier.
A close-up of the upper tool attachment. The Patagonia under-the-compression-strap method on the left, my modded bungee-cord version on the right. Passing the handle under the compression strap is a pain in the ass.
Durability wise, I have to say I’ve been impressed. There’s not a single scratch on my pack, and I’ve seen a few guides rockin’ various-sized Ascensionists that look to be in just as good a shape. The fabric is significantly tougher than it first appears, and I think it’ll hold up quite well to a few years of regular use.
The 35L is just the right size for day excursions, and I think will handle multi-day outings just as easily. Though there are a couple of niggles — the top pocket and the tool handle attachment — this is a solid pack for the money ($179 Cdn MSRP). It is very comfortable, carries well and is easy to get into: I can live with the top pocket, and an extra dollar or two will you buy two velcro tool holders. With a bit of customization, the Ascensionist 35L becomes an awesome alpine pack, and one I find myself reaching for on a regular basis.
Pros: comfortable, durable, unique spindrift collar closure system
Cons: unique spindrift collar closure system, annoying tool holders
Overall: A great 35L pack, that with one small mod, becomes an awesome 35L pack.
NOTE: Patagonia, Inc. provided The Alpine Start with a sample of the pack for review, however this in no way influences our opinion of a product.