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Gregory Denali 100 Review
Cons: Cumbersome ice axe attachment, heavy for volume
Bottom line: This pack is optimized for alpine expeditions such as Denali’s West Buttress, as the name suggests, with high marks for comfort.
The Gregory Denali 100 is an excellent pack for Denali, as the name suggests. This model is optimized for big climbs in the Alaska Range: it has special loops for attaching a sled, and the tapered shape makes it climb much better on the technical terrain above 14,000 feet than most packs of this size. It is surprisingly comfortable as well, primarily due to the head-shaped semi-circular cutout in the top of the frame sheet, and the slight angle the frame takes away from your head. When you're trudging along for hours and hours, days and days, it becomes quite tedious to have a backpack restricting your head and neck movements—this pack allows much more freedom of movement than most contenders of this size and nature.
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Our Analysis and Hands-on Test Results
The Gregory Denali 100 is a great expedition backpack, specially tailored to the needs of climbers on Denali's popular West Buttress route.
The Denali edged out the competition for top expedition pack in this review narrowly, falling to the competition only in this category, durability, and features.
The weight to volume measure was closer to the Osprey Xenith 105, as these are the only two 100 liter packs in the review—but the Denali is nearly a pound heavier.
Given how close these two packs came out in this review, it is worth examining each metric and weighing each category for yourself. We think that weight-to-volume is important enough to factor in to 30% of our scoring weight, but when you're deciding between two packs that are already relatively heavy (the Xenith weighed in at 5.5 pounds on our scales, the Denali at 6.3 pounds), perhaps the next review categories will help you refine your decision.
The Denali came in leaps and bounds above the Xenith in comfort for one major reason: when we carried the Xenith with a lighter load, the frame sat rigid above our heads and greatly inhibited movement.
The Gregory pack carried comfortably in a broader range of situations, which is relevant to a climb of, say, Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley in Alaska, and a Seven Summit), where you will be hauling loads to a high camp, then carrying a relatively light and empty pack back down to your current camp. The frame above the shoulder straps curves gently away from your head, and there is a semi-circular cutout where your head typically rests, which made a world of difference when compared to the Xenith. We had drastically improved range of motion and comfort for our head and neck while carrying the Denali.
We hauled expedition sleds with both of these packs as well, and the Denali came out just ahead in comfort again. This is likely because Gregory designed specific pull loops which are perfectly oriented to haul a sled efficiently. It's not a big deal that the Xenith doesn't have these special haul loops sewn onto the pack; we've been rigging sleds onto backpacks without them for years, but those haul loops do make it ride just a little bit better, and they don't add any notable weight, bulk, or hassle. In fact, they make attaching a sled to the pack significantly easier, especially while wearing gloves.
The Denali has thick padding, still a mainstay feature of heavy packs (in lighter models, we much prefer thin, stiff padding), but it is relatively rigid and durable. We liked the stiffness more than the softer padding you find in some 70-liter (large) backpacking backpacks. The padding is more important than one might initially think; when you put on a big, well-padded model in the store, this soft padding feels comfy, like a cloud on your back.
However, in the long term, this softer padding will wear out quicker, and during a several day (or weeks long) trip (or expedition), this can result in a less precise and more wobbly fit. In fact, the softer padding is mildly less secure and stable than firmer padding. This is one reason we love stiffer padding on lightweight, technical climbing packs; it allows for a more precise fit for the times when you're busting some fancy climbing moves.
And when you're jugging lines on steep, blue ice, or fighting gusts of wind on Denali's West Buttress, you'll be psyched that the stiffer foam padding on the pack is there to help ensure your each and every move to counter the wind. It will also keep your balance transferred directly to that monster pack on your back.
There is no doubt that durability is an important feature on any expedition pack.
The Denali and Xenith are both very durable packs, and we noted no significant issues on expeditions with these models. They are both entirely on par for all we could throw at them in the Alaska Range, and on some shorter test trips in the Pacific Northwest.
The Xenith edged out the Denali by one point, but the Gregory pack still got a stellar 8 out of 10 in this category. This was mainly an objective decision based on the materials used: 420 denier high tenacity nylon for the Xenith, and 210 denier nylon for the Denali: the higher denier rating should be slightly more durable than the lower number. But it is not a huge difference.
In our field tests, we could not detect any notable difference in the quality of the fabrics themselves, and we suspect it may take ten years of testing to shake out any differences due to the denier of the materials used. In general, we have found that it is getting more and more challenging to judge packs based on the denier numbers alone due to other manufacturing processes, and most importantly, the overall design of the contender, such as where the stress points are.
Almost as a rule, an expedition pack is a terrible all-rounder.
To round out our testing, we took this pack out on smaller test trips, but it was not a backpack to take for a day of cragging at our favorite rock climbing areas. It was not a pack that would go off the ground with us for multi-pitch climbs, and it was also not a pack we would take backcountry skiing, ice climbing, or on mountaineering trips of less than one week. The Denali is an expedition pack. It is HUGE. As such, it carries best when it is full, or mostly full, and it is floppy, heavy, and awkward when it is empty.
That said, this pack was much less awkward to carry when empty, and climbed better through scrambly terrain than the Osprey Xenith 105, so it got one more point for versatility for a slightly below the average score of 4 out of 10.
Expedition packs are much more feature-heavy than the average climbing pack. We usually want our climbing and mountaineering packs to be simple, but extra features are often desirable on a week-long expedition.
Often you will be hauling a lot of food and gear to a high camp, so you don't need to access the contents of the pack, but you do want it to feel secure and stay well-packed during transit. This makes intelligent features, such as pockets, sleeves, and straps, a key component to a good expedition pack.
As such, the Osprey Xenith edged just ahead of the Denali in this category—but again, not by much. We found the features to be more intuitive and straightforward on the Xenith than on the Denali. One feature that felt awkward was the ice axe attachment system on the Denali. The angle didn't work for our slightly curved, alpine ice tools (which one might carry on an expedition), and the Velcro loop that secures the shaft of the ice axe serves two purposes. They secure the ice axe but also clip across the side of the pack and bind any items you've lashed to the outside.
We didn't like this feature because it meant you had to keep track of two items if you needed to grab the ice axe. For example, if you remove the ice axe in high winds, and you have something strapped to the side, you have two things to keep track of in the moment that you unclip the side strap to undo the Velcro and release the ice axe. This is picky, but when conditions get brutal in cold environments, these kinds of details add up. We prefer a more straightforward approach to features like this.
The other part of the ice axe attachment is a small metal bar threaded through the hole in the head of the ice axe. This is similar to other packs, such as the Osprey Mutant 38 and the Arc'teryx Alpha FL 45, both award winners. However, Gregory did not attach this metal bar to the pack with elastic cord, so it is quite challenging to wrangle the metal bar through the hole in the ice axe, especially with gloves on. This feature needs to be able to stretch to weave the bar through the head of the axe.
The Denali does have a sleeve to slide the picks of the ice axes into; a feature the Xenith did not have, which we preferred.
This is an expedition specific pack—even more, it is optimized for the climbing styles used on a route like the West Buttress of Denali, the packs' namesake peak. It drags sleds at just the right angle and has a tapered bottom which is much more comfortable and maneuverable when you're feeling the lack of oxygen on the fixed lines and the West Buttress itself. This pack also allows you to enjoy the view and move your head and neck with ease with the angled back frame above the shoulder straps and the head cutout.
This pack comes in just under $400 and is on par with a pack of its size and quality.
The Gregory Denali is a great pack for a snowy expedition. It is slightly more comfortable for steep snow and ice than the comparable Osprey Xenith 105 in this review. The features are a little wonky at times, and they could shave some weight by streamlining these features, but overall it is a solid pack that will keep you climbing happily in high places.
— Lyra Pierotti
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