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Black Diamond Xenos: A Strange Fit


The author “dry-fooling” on Camp Bird Road, Ouray, Colorado. [Photo] Andrew Councell

MSRP: $129.95

The word xenos is Greek in origin, and most scholars and linguists roughly translate it to mean “stranger” or “alien.” That makes sense because we climbers are strangers, passing through an alien environment as we ascend mountain walls. It’s not our desire to climb that’s strange or alien but, rather, our place in the environment itself. We climb, we summit, we descend and disappear, but the landscape remains unmoved and unimpressed by our tiny impact. The Black Diamond Xenos mixed/ice climbing harness is aptly named since it enables you to visit some of the most unique and uninhabitable places known to humankind, places where we truly are the aliens.

On the other hand, the name “Xenos” may also refer to the body of the user inhabiting the harness. I found the fit strange, but maybe that’s just me. Maybe it’s my muffin top, gangly body and weirdly layered clothing. And yet, I’ve talked to other climbers who find the otherwise-excellent Xenos to fit a little strange too. Not bad, of course, but the fit is just not quite right. Mostly it has to do with the location of the six laser-cut “Ice Clipper” slots. These three slots on each side of the swami belt allow the climber to equip the harness with plastic “carabiners” used for racking ice tools, screws and other gear. Black Diamond designed the harness to be symmetrical in relation to the slots, but the belt buckle, on the left side of the harness, has different ideas. The buckles themselves–one on the belt and one for each leg loop–are easy to operate, yet small enough that I needed to use only the thinnest gloves to adjust them. While this may be a slight inconvenience, their low-profile design keeps the buckles from snagging during my frequent grovelling.

The Xenos racks well for ice, mixed and rock.

[Photo] Andrew Councell

Black Diamond should design either an asymmetrical series of Ice Clipper slots or another way of further customizing their location, like an inset track where you could slide the Clippers fore or aft depending on your preference. Or perhaps two waist buckles would allow the Xenos to retain its symmetrical design concept.

The Xenos holds up well to abuse with a hydrophobic shell material that keeps it from freezing stiff on wet-and-wild climbs. During a series of freezing, wet-ice days, I forgot to unpack and dry my gear one night. The next day the Xenos was one of the only items not frozen into uselessness by the time we hiked to the day’s first pitch. The harness is also foldable and light, while retaining structure–all features I appreciate. While there are drawbacks to the design, I’ve often used the Xenos over the years for both guiding and personal use.

I’m not a small guy, ranking with the world’s tallest midgets at 6’1″ and 160 lbs. I have a size 30″ waist but continue to find BD’s “medium” harnesses swimming on me. I just can’t get the buckle tight enough, even while wearing two shirts and three thin jackets (Xeno size medium is 30-33″ and small is 27-30″). In an attempt to alleviate my waist-size issue, I opted for a size small this season. The big problem is that I can’t reach the Ice Clipper slots and gear loops, which are on the left side.

Given the harness’s symmetrical design, you would think that placing an Ice Clipper in the same slot on each side of the harness would be easy. Yet I find the contrary–the right-middle slot works perfectly, if it was any more forward my screws would stab me in the thigh as I thrutch upwards, but the left-middle slot disappears behind my back, so I use the left-front slot instead. Doing this, however, blocks easy access to the front gear loop, requiring me to do twists that would make Bikram Choudhury proud. The Xenos has four gear loops–two on each side–with an extra-large fifth one on the back. Despite these criticisms, the harness is brilliant. I’ve climbed pillars, curtains, mixed and dry-tool routes; I’ve dangled, sent and hung at belays until my legs go numb; I’ve groveled up slag heaps, wedged up chimneys and then basked in alpine glory in my Xenos harness.

Pros: Durable, packable, hydrophobic, makes ice climbing and leading ice easier and, thus, safer…something we all appreciate. Can be used year-round as a quiver-of-one harness.

Cons: Weird sizing/design puts the Ice Clipper slots in places that don’t work well for me. Would like to see new ideas to address this issue. Buckles can be difficult to manipulate with gloves on.