Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Gear Review: Black Diamond Axis 33 Updated

After pulling up to the top of the First Flatiron, three other climbers in tow I realized I'd been carrying everybody's shoes and water for the day without really noticing. Generally I carry a little 18L bullet pack and there's always a gaggle of shoes hanging off harnesses and people skimp on water so they don't have to carry it but here I'd found a pack where I could carry the groups equipment inside the pack, still tilt my head to look up, and was pretty comfortable doing so. Black Diamond's Axis 33 is a pretty nice pack. With a few tweaks it could be the ultimate climbers day pack.

Technical Details:
First a little about this pack. Black Diamond markets it as a "zip-top, guide style alpine pack." Hey what do you know, I'm a guide, I climb alpine routes!

Zip style packs differ from common top loading packs where you clip the top shut over the main compartment of the pack. Now some details, all for the medium size.

Weight: 3 lbs. 7 oz.
Volume: 33 L
Material: 400 d Velocity fabric and 420 d welded abrasion
Colors: Coal/Sulfur
Fancy Stuff: Includes BD's ergoACTIV and SwingArm shoulder straps, three point suspension for hauling, removeable crampon patch and helmet holder, and ice tool holders. These are included on all sizes.
MSRP: $159.95
Where to Get It: www.blackdiamondequipment.com

First Impressions:
After pulling this pack out of the box the first thing I noticed that it feels pretty rugged. For a 33 liter pack it also seemed about as heavy as my stripped down 50 liter Gregory Alpinisto. For the most part this is what I'm comparing it to because it's the pack I carried before it and am very used to. In most respects I think it is better, but in a few personal preference categories not as much. I purchased it in the Sulfur color which is basically a bright yellowish green. Unless you're trying to be some sort of ninja I'd suggest that over the coal which is basically black.

This pack carries nice. I've never had the ergoACTIV or SwingArm features on any of my packs so I wasn't sure how I'd like this and at first I wasn't even sure that it made a difference because the effect is subtle enough to not be noticeable unless you use different packs in back to back days. After a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park I noticed that while my Alpinisto felt uncomfortable on my shoulders while climbing and I felt off balance a lot with the Axis pack on the pack got out of my way so to speak when reaching above my head. Also because the hip belt rotates a little when you move the momentum of the backpack doesn't throw you around as much because of the slower transfer of momentum.

This does have a downside though. the mechanics of the the ergoACTIV system do seem to add some bulk on the hipbelt right around the spine. The hub of the hipbelt sticks out quite a bit and I've noticed that this can get a little uncomfortable with heavy loads for long distances which are not the homerun zone of this pack but nevertheless the comfort zone could be expanded with some re-tooling of this spot. I've noticed this in plenty of other packs and this pack has been pretty good in this regard given that it's marketed as a technical climbing pack.

The vented back panel does alright. This pack has the same problem as all internal frame backs in that it sits right on your skin so it's sweaty on your back. Because of this padding that manufacturers are adding to backpanels it makes me wonder why they still include frames. This is one thing I think that could improve the comfort of this pack is making the frame and framesheet removeable. This could just be me though. It seems like most people want these items despite the fact that this would make the pack probably a pound lighter.

Pros: Pack moves well with your body on technical terrain and when boulder hopping. Padding is thick but doesn't interfere or rub on skin.
Cons: Hipbelt hub sticks out too much and although the belt is removeable because this hub is integrated into the frame system those aren't removeable.

Score: Thumbs Up! Good comfort.

Carry and Capacity:
This pack is a bevvy of carrying options and despite it's limited capacity it makes up in additional carrying options. I was a little unsure of the zip top style pack because one benefit I like of top loading, flip top packs is the fact you can over stuff them. You cannot do that with this pack. If it doesn't zip shut you've either got to stuff it in harder or take something out. The capacity is fixed.

That said there are some nice options should you need to fit a little onto the outside of the pack. The hidden rope strap and side straps make carrying an extra rope a breeze as I found out on it's maiden voyage to the First Flatiron. There is also a stealthy little helmet carrier that slides out the back side of the clamshell top. Same for the crampon carrier which can be taken on and off as needed. The designer of this pack definately is a guide or spent a lot of time discussing the pack with one because these features make it extremely nice for guiding or for someone who may be carrying most of the equipment for family or friends.

Also because it's an alpine pack it has gear loops and ice clipper slots on the side. Things no alpine pack should be without in my opinion.

Because of this carrying capacity I think you could push this as an overnight pack for certain objectives. Because certain items can be split between the team and some things like sleeping pads and tents can be strapped to the outside it wouldn't be totally unreasonable to do this.

One thing I wasn't really psyched on was the ice tool holster. The bottom part I was familiar with (red straps) but the top part of the tool holder I had to fiddle with and I still like other systems better. The Alpinisto for example incorporates the side compression straps with a velcro closure which adds some redudancy should some part of the tool holster fail. If those thin nylon cords on the Axis cut though I could see losing a tool which would be pretty disastrous in the alpine.

I also wish the clamshell top was just a hair bigger. It's nice to have the mesh section underneath for paperwork but I feel like stuffing all the little odds and ends into that clamshell top is tough. Keys, sunglasses, sunscreen, lunch, don't all quite fit. That being said the interior of the pack feels bottomless for day trips. I can fit a rope, small rack, helmet, shoes, and chalkbag with little trouble.

Pros: Despite small stature you can carry a lot with this pack and all the little nooks hiding features are great.
Cons: Clamshell top needs to be a little bigger and the tool holder could be better.
Score: Two Thumbs Up! Awesome carrying capacity and thoughtful design.

Short Term Durability:
Like I said at the start the pack feels pretty rugged and heavy. The pack is made of a pretty burly feeling material. One thing I like is, although I don't see it in the marketing materials, there is some sort of coating on the inside of the pack. Not sure if it's waterproofing or not but I've had my fancy smartphone in my pack a few times during some heavy rains and it didn't get wet inside at all.

I think this pack will last a long time. Some spots I worry about though are where the frame ends in the corners. It's a high stress and wear point with some reinforcement but time will tell how that does. I've never used a pack with zippers either so we'll have to see how that goes. I'm worried about the loads of stress on that stiching and those teeth but in the months that I've had it they've done ok.

Pros: Thick, durable feeling material with some sort of coating inside that seems to be water resistant at least.
Cons: The frame system seems like it will be the first thing to poke through as things wear.
Score: Thumbs Up! Good materials and craftsmanship.

Long Term Durability:

After having this pack almost daily for well over a year, dragging it up chimneys and using it for rock, alpine, and ski mountaineering. Although it's still kicking the frame is starting to wear thru the outer panel, I've broken some of the buckles, and the zippers are starting to get sticky. So the areas I was worried about. Still though, that's really good and this pack can take a lot of abuse. The old Alpinisto I had needed to be sent back and have the bottom replaced in a shorter period of time. I have yet to contact BD to fix it up and will likely just go with the newer version which appears to me to have a better tool attachment.

This is my go to pack for almost everything. There are only a few things I can't use it for which are multiday objectives where camping equipment and a lot of climbing gear are needed. If it were a little bigger like the Epic 45 upon which it is based I would only need or use one pack.

I've had this pack for about four months with it's primary use for guiding but also for daytrips to go cragging and a few alpine climbing trips. I beat the crap out of packs.

This is a great pack for those who want a lot of features in a small package regardless of whether they need the features that go with an alpine pack (tool holster, crampon patch, etc). It's great for day trips and can take a rope and full rack. If you find yourself climbing with a pack often but can't seem to fit everything inside then this is the pack to get. It's bigger than a bullet pack but not so big as to interfere with movement.

Pros: Lots of carrying options and great to climb with.
Cons: A few little tweaks of the framing system and tool carrying system and I'd have next to nothing to whine about.

Overall Score: Thumbs Up! A good pack but a few teaks could make it a great pack.


  1. I just got this backpack at REI and it's got so many compartments I don't know what some are for. For example, what is the compartment on the bottom/back that has the 2 red straps attached?

  2. Hey, if they are the straps with the buckles on them that would be right behind your head with the pack on those are for holding a rope on the outside of the pack. The compartment itself is just a place to stuff those so they're out of the way. As I found out after breaking one of those buckles they aren't entirely necessary with the straps on the side.

  3. I think he's asking about the little pocket at the bottom front of the pack- it's for ice tools. the pick sits in the pocket and the red strap locks around the head.

  4. The frame , hip belt , and hub are completely removable by way of a single hex screw behind hip hub. This lightens the pack substantially and also makes a great light day pack.