Minimal design has it all
High Level Review: This bag is amazing. Patagonia lives up to all expectations by creating a bomb proof backpack that I have used for freeriding the trees in Japan as well as the big lines in the alps, splitboard touring with a heavy kit, and a bit of winter mountaineering. I love this bag because it is comfortable, secure, bombproof, and swallows everything you can throw in it and more. The top loading backpack also has a separate pouch for your avalanche kit, which is now a must for me. The top pouch stores frequently used items and snacks. The shoulder straps have a daisy chain feature for the chest strap, which I also use to attach the personal anchor from my harness when on glaciers. The bag can carry your splitboard A in the A frame style (there is also a diagonal carry strap for skies, but slightly too small for my split), and you can also attach the split board to the back of the bag (vertically for longer carries). This high level review is already detailed enough, go buy this bag if you need a new winter pack.
How I tested: I have about 50 days during the 2018/2019 season using this bag. I used it skiing the trees in Japan, freeriding in resorts in Switzerland, splitboard touring in Switzerland, France, and Austria, and a bit of mountaineering. I always ride with a pack at resorts, sometimes I brought it with me to cruise groomers too (probably 5 to 8 times). I am hard on my gear, so this pack had its work cut out for it.
Notes on me: I am using the S/M bag. I am 5'9"ish and weigh 160lbs (solid muscle, obviously).
In depth Review: I was skeptical at first, as I haven't really used any Patagonia ski/board items, but I loved it from the first ride! I used this bag about 50x in the 2018/2019 Ski season for free riding, splitboarding, and a bit of mountaineering. The bag is lightweight, yet it supports a large load. It is a large 40L and I can pack everything I need and more in it. I love the 2 ways to close the bag, one way when you are carrying a lot of stuff, and another way (stuff the lid inside the top loading pack) when you are looking to smash down the size a bit. Even when I packed the bag full with 2L of water, crampons for my feet, crampons for splitboard, food, avalanche kit, extra layers, first aid kit, etc, the pack still felt supported.
The pack: The pack is no frills and minimalist, but built to last. All stitching and webbing is reinforced, and is definitely not coming loose. The 40L is on the high end of a 40L size chart, and I am convinced it is more like a 43 or 45L pack. Sometimes this is a problem, I like to travel light, and with so much room I loose the dedication and throw in everything and the kitchen sink. On other packs (I am thinking the Mammut Airride 3.0), this would be an issue, too much weight and the support system breaks down. With the Patagonia Descensionist, the pack provided the support needed to carry my oversized loads.
The pack itself is a top loader, but there is a side zipper, so you can reach in and grab stuff from the bottom of the pack without dumping everything on the side of the mountain. This is a very important feature, as it makes life sooooo much easier, and is a must have feature on any pack I buy. There are no mesh pockets, which is a good thing on a winter bag, so the side zipper also comes in handy to retrieve your water bottle.. There is also a separate avalanche pocket, where I also throw my splitboard crampons.
The pack compresses great when you carry less stuff due to two compression straps on each side, and a clever lid that can stash within the cinch of the top loader. The buckle to close the lid can be moved to accommodate either method, but practice in advance, as it is a bit complicated to do out in the wild for the first time. The pack is also water system compatible, so you can throw in a bladder, with no issue. There are two daisy chains running down the back of the pack, so attaching things is possible. I only keep an ice axe and/or poles on the outside of my pack. The ice axe carrier is quite good and can be removed if not in use. The ice axe loop is large (also removable), but there is a secure pocket to put the pick, so it doesn't jiggle while you walk. There is also a velcro loop up top to secure the handle, which is infinitely better than the elastic cord some companies give you.
I splitboard, so cannot comment on carrying skis, but if it carries skies half as well as the splitboard, then it is doing its job well. I love to carry my skies in the A Frame style when I need to boot pack long distances. I have tried to use the diagonal method a few times, but on the splitboard the tail/nose was just too wide to fit it within the loop provided. I might try to make some mods, as this would be so convenient. Setting up the A Frame does take a bit longer.
The hip belt is comfortable without being bulky. The pocket can fit my pixel 2, but I generally just put in a energy bar, chapstick, and some candy. One side has a gear loop, which I don’t really use, but some people seem to think its great.
As mentioned above, I’ve given this thing as thorough of a testing as I could in one season. It has excelled in every condition. I am sold on this pack and have persuaded a few friends to get it. They are just as stoked as I am. I love the pack for touring and mountaineering the best. I try to use an airbag while freeriding, but sometimes the terrain just doesn’t make since to have an airbag, or I don’t want to that day, so I’ll take this guy with me.
Suggestions to improve the pack: Without adding too much weight, a helmet carrier could be included in the price. Also, I would like to see Patagonia partner with an airbag manufacturer and make this airbag compatible (the new ultra lightweight Jet Force technology would be ideal). Also, if I am splitting hairs, I would like a microfiber lined google pocket.
Final words: If you are looking for a winter specific bag, this is amazing. It can also work as a 40L mountaineering bag too, but I tend to like 30L for mountaineering. The bag is built to last and is super useful for any winter playing. I love Patagonia for the environmental ethics, so I echo their sentiment, if you have a bag already, don’t buy this bag. If your bag is destroyed, try fixing it, and if you can’t, then this is the bag I would suggest, hands down, as your next winter bag.