Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork Trekking Poles Initial Analysis

This morning, I received a set of Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork Trekking Poles. At £88 from Ultralight Outdoor Gear, delivered, they are a bargain. They were ordered Sunday. Good job, Mark. I have already posted on Trekking Poles and my analysis of them generally, and now I'm going to set down my initial thoughts of these, my new winter poles.

My only other experience of trekking poles are the Leki Makalu Carbonlite trekking poles used by a friend on the Tour du Mont Blanc. They, inter alia, got me considering poles in the first instance.

At 492g for the pair, with small trekking baskets on, they are not the lightest poles available - Gossamer Gear manufacture the LT4 which is less than half that weight and Titanium Goat have the AGPs. There are others. I know Phil Turner uses AGPs, so he's the man to contact for advice about them. However, the characteristic that sets the Black Diamond poles apart is the fliplock system which are far less likely to fail in wintry, freezing conditions. Therefore, the extra weight may well be justified. Perhaps, if I get on with poles, I'll have a 3-season set - time will tell.

Black Diamond have a well deserved reputation for manufacturing high-quality, durable gear and specialise in climbing and mountaineering, as well as ski touring, kit. Handling these poles leads me to the inexorable conclusions that, firstly, the Leki Carbonlite were demonstrably lighter but, secondly, these BD poles are very well constructed indeed. The carbon fibre feels strong, stiff and extremely reassuring. They are 63cm (25") when collapsed and 129cm (50.5") fully extended. My 'level-terrain' setting for them is 120cm and I am 6' tall with a 21" torso. They come with a small clip to keep them together and two snow baskets. They also have a set of instructions.

The cork handles and wrist guards feel very comfortable. The wrist grip is a wicking mesh on the fabric coming into contact with the hand, with a small buffer where the wrist guard is attached to the handle. The other side, embossed with the BD logo, is a smooth velvet material. Durability of cork should be interesting but the talk is that they are better for sweaty palms. They grip well enough and feel nice against the skin but I'll not know until I've used them for 8hrs. Just below the grip is a hard, foam secondary grip for easy ascending over a short, steep distance where adjusting the poles may be unnecessary given the short distance. It's a nice feature in a pole clearly designed for winter ascents. The bottom of the cork grip, which would be the top of this foam grip is even angled so that, when reaching up with the poles, they feel comfortable. It's intelligent.

That said, the fliplock system is simplicity itself to adjust, even with gloves on - I tried. It can be adjusted via a phillips-head screw which I would suggest turning quarter turns and trying for tightness. The fliplock itself is quick and easy to use, which means a user is far more likely to make adjustments during ascent and descent, gaining maximum benefit from the poles themselves.

The baskets are easy to remove and fit via a threaded screw-on system - although the dirt baskets are quite small. I may not even have them on at all as the benefit of them seems limited. In snow, the snow baskets seem as if they will be fine, if flimsy. The ends are capped with a concave metal tip.

On Trekking Poles

I have never used trekking poles. I have never seen the need. Whether that is a stoic retention of my current walking technique or the fact that years of football has meant that my legs are strong enough to canter a descent without assistance, I know not. Either way, I have not hitherto given them much consideration.

Two things have combined recently to alter that philosophy. Firstly, the use of a trekking pole (or poles) to set up an ultralight tarp shelter is something that I have seen done repeatedly. It is the very epitome of the UL philosophy - adapting shelter construction to put to use an item in a way it was not initially designed for. Clearly, I was never going to start using poles just to engage in tarp camping - to alter my walking technique for that reason alone would be ludicrous - but it sewed a seed of doubt in my mind. Secondly, during the TMB, one of my friends became injured and bought some poles largely to take the pressure of his ankle. They worked so well that I experimented with them for a while and was intrigued by them. As winter rolls in, trekking poles will become even more useful and are advised by almost every winter mountaineering leader I have spoken to. So what the pros and cons of trekking poles, in summer and winter, and in different environments?

To understand that, I needed to understand exactly what trekking poles sought to achieve. 

The Pros
In essence, trekking poles will spread the pressure of walking across more joints in the body - notably, they will reduce the pressure on the knee joints by permitting the arms to ease some of the bodyweight from the knees and through the arms onto the poles themselves - the
BMC suggests as much as 20% of the stress is moved to the arms from the knees. 

"When stepping down the physiology of the knee causes the articular cartilage of the knee joint to be squeezed dry of its lubricating and nourishing synovial fluid. This is why your knees will feel sore after a day of long descents. If the cartilage is repeatedly squeezed in this way, day upon day, it runs dry. The resulting friction will cause inflammation, pain and ultimately leads to a thinning and wearing away of the cartilage. Then bone rubs against bone and the result is osteo-arthritis." It cannot be stated any more clearly than that.

Poles also aid balance by lengthening the effective reach of the arms to permit the placement of poles onto terrain which grants the stability of 3 or 4 points of contact rather than 2. Through this increased stability, the pressure on muscles and joints in the legs is decreased as greater stability means less energy used maintaining balance.

Trekking poles also assist in ascending, even when in fact there is less pressure on the knees in comparison to descending, by reducing the weight on the knees by as much as 8kg per step. So, when considering the advantages descending, which seem obvious, the advantages when ascending are significant too. Additionally, the placement of the arms is equally important - having the arms moving in rhythm using a nordic walking style, raised above the waist as they are, improves blood circulation through the body, assisting breathing and therefore stamina. There are countless accounts of trekkers, trail runners and hillwalkers who have felt their stamina increased by the use of trekking poles. Poles also encourage improved posture, leading to a diminishing risk of back pain.

Studies published in
Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise in December 2000 (CA Knight and GE Caldwell) and January 2001 (Wilson, Torry, Decker, Kernozek and Steadman) examined hikers wearing loaded backpacks and found that when the test subjects had trekking poles their walking mimicked that of an unloaded person - they had less joint stress and a lower heart rate. In addition, the poles created a better weight distribution for the subjects, which also contributed to the increased power they were able to achieve while using the trekking poles: to quote the abstracts - "By redistributing some of the backpack effort, pole use alleviated some stress from the lower extremities and allowed a partial reversal of typical load-bearing strategies" and "The use of walking poles enabled subjects to walk at a faster speed with reduced vertical ground reaction forces, vertical knee joint reaction forces, and reduction in the knee extensor angular impulse and support moment, depending on the poling condition used."

In a study by Northumbria University published
this year in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 37 men and women, regularly physically active, were split into two groups of equal fitness who then climbed Snowdon. One group was issued with and, most importantly, trained in the use of, trekking poles while the other group made the climb without. Food consumption, pack weight and rest were identical during both the ascent and descent. The participants' heart rates and exertion levels were recorded during the hike. Then, at the end of the hike, and at 24-, 48- and 72-hour intervals afterwards, muscle damage and function were assessed. 

Unsurprisingly, results demonstrated significantly less muscle soreness in the group using trekking poles. This group also demonstrated a reduced loss of strength and a faster recovery immediately after the trek compared to the control group. Self-rated soreness peaked at 24-hours in both groups but was significantly lower in the group using trekking-poles, both at this point and at the 48-hour point. In addition, levels of the enzyme
creatine kinase (which serves as an indicator of muscle damage) were much higher at the 24-hour point in the non-pole group, while the trekking-pole group's levels were close to the pre-trekking levels. 

The Cons
The cons are reasonably obvious. There is an initial financial outlay which can be significant - poles tend not to be cheap. Even Alpkit carbon poles are £60. They weigh around 250-500g per pair depending on the type and materials. Further, they increase total energy expenditure as arms are used as much as legs. The effect of this will vary from individual to individual but newcomers to poles will need to recognise this fact and get used to them and the potentially increased calorie requirements.

Additionally, poles need to be put away when not in use - there is a temptation to use them on technical sections when really, hands are the appropriate tool. They should be stowed and the lazy among us might be tempted to let them flap on the wrist loops.
Poles must not be used in situations where an ice-axe is required. The number of accidents, some fatal, in Scotland, where poles have been retained when an ice-axe should have been deployed has increased in recent years.

Using Poles
The correct rhythm for poles is the natural swing momentum of the arms. As in normal walking, when one leg moves forward the opposite arm does so. The same should be true of trekking poles. As legs shift weight, the aim then should be to push down on the pole, consequently reducing some of the weight usually transferred to the knees. Rhythm is crucial for the proper use of trekking poles and securing the full benefit.

On descents, poles should be cast further ahead so that they take weight. For long descents it is beneficial to adjust the height as mentioned above.

Similarly, on ascents the poles should be case slightly ahead, less so than on descent, and pushed on to help upwards movement. This pushing movement should be continued as the body moves past the poles. For extra upwards power on very steep areas, move the hand onto the top of the handle and thrust hard as the pole is behind the body. On very steep sections, both poles can be placed down ahead of the body and both arms worked at the same time to enhance the upwards power.

Poles that have lower grip extensions allow you to shift your hands down to these to quickly make poles effectively shorter.

Carbon Fibre vs Aluminium 
One of the advantages of carbon fibre is that it absorbs more shock than aluminum. It is also, obviously, significantly lighter. That said, although extremely strong, it is not as strong as aluminum. UL principles would dictate a carbon fibre pole but it would certainly need to be a tested, reliable pole before I considered carbon fibre as a material. Black Diamond, Leki and Mountain King all have great, durable carbon fibre poles in their range. Also, it seems to me, Anti-shock is an unnecessary feature that simply adds weight and a complexity that can only go wrong, or seize up in winter. Why would I want my poles to be dampened in any way, reducing the feel they give me through my hands and arms...?

Setting Pole Height and Wrists Straps
If it assists, here is the correct way to set the height of trekking poles:

  1. On level ground, stand holding the handle with the pole straight vertically.
  2. Adjust the pole's height so that your forearm is roughly horizontal (90° to your body).
  3. During long descents and ascents the ground slope changes, however still adjust so that your forearm is horizontal. On descents your pole will be longer and on ascents it will be shorter to help you on each type of terrain.

When using wrists straps, remember:
  1. Insert your hand up through the wrist strap from below, far enough that the wrist strap goes around the wrist.
  2. Move your hand down around the handle, twisting slightly, so that the wrist strap now goes under the palm.
  3. Adjust the size to give a comfortable but firm fit - it should vary tightness depending on the conditions and the likely need to stow the poles or to release them quickly. When putting weight onto the pole, the strap should be taking the strain.

Pole Locking Mechanisms 
The best way to deal with this simply, it seems to me, is to compare Leki and Black Diamond. Leki have a telescopic twist-lock system which is lightweight but prone to slipping in winter and I find it a pain to use in gloves. Whilst on the TMB I had a look at it and felt like throwing the poles off the mountainside. I'm sure you get used to it, but there you have it. The Black Diamond flip-lock system is heavier but
more reliable in winter and very easy to use. Consequently, it’s more likely a pole user will gain the most significant benefit of altering pole length regularly with this system, as compared with the Leki system, because it is so simple and quick. That said, Leki have just released a flip lock system called Speedlock. I have looked at this on You Tube and it looks so very complicated that I can hardly see the point. Also, it’s untested as yet and I would rather accept the weight penalty of the Black Diamond system. 

Remember to store the poles with the locking mechanism loosened to prevent freezing.

The next post from me is initial thoughts on the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork poles...

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Tour du Mont Blanc, day 11: La Flégère to Les Houches

Day Eleven: La Flégère (1893m) to Les Houches (1032m) 
Sleeping: Hotel in Les Houches
Distance: 18km
Ascent/Descent: 1100m/1970m
Highest Point: Le Brévènt (2535m) 

The final day was a poignant day of contrasts. As we trekked along the valley wall, the Aiguilles Rouge to the north and the north face of the Mont Blanc massif to the south across the Chamonix valley, the panorama surrounding us was deeply stirring but the path winds through the intense scars created by the skiing industry. It was a stark and salutary reminder that this is a heavily industrial trek as the area in the Chamonix valley, whilst beautiful, has been conclusively exploited for winter and summer sports. How can I complain? That’s why we’re here - to take part in one of those activities. It seems somewhat hypocritical to muse over the impact of tourism on this amazing area when I am one of those tourist. Even so, it's somewhat saddening to see, but there are still many wild places left in the world - none of this detracts from the majesty of the Mont Blanc massif. 

We trekked through forest initially in the cool, fresh morning air, the blue sky again suffusing the milieu. After a swift egress from the distinctive and archetypal alpine arboreal surrounds, we found ourselves winding through the craggy hillside again, picking an ascent through deep, imposing rocky buttresses. Mont Blanc again stands proud and resplendent across the valley. It is to be a long day with an interminable, draining, technical descent to Les Houches and the conclusion of the TMB. The ascent up to the Le Brévènt itself is not to be underestimated either. A fitting final day of exertion and elevation. 

After some hours of climbing, we find ourselves at around 2368m at the Col du Brévènt and spy an opportunity for some impromptu scrambling. It’s playful stuff - the only danger provided by loose rocks and tourists who have taken a wrong turn and who begin to panic. I see them down, wondering what they thought they were doing beginning a climb like this anyway - it's so obviously not the path - but we all make mistakes so I am patient and diplomatic - I wouldn’t want to start an international incident. It’s nice to get my hands dirty and Yotam and I find ourselves atop a small arête, picking our way along for 100m or so under the watchful stare of the Queen of the Alps. It is diverting as we wait for the rest of the team, but before long, we make our way down and continue along the TMB.

The ascent up to Le Brévènt is not an arduous one, so this aspect of the TMB is not a lonely trail. We are besieged by day-hikers, some with guides and some without. We wait patiently as there are more ladders to ascend, but when we see the reason for the delay, my blood boils. Despite the fact that there are dedicated MTB tracks, and the fact that one of us still limps from a collision with a moronic biker, three British MTB riders are hauling their bikes down the ladders grumbling about the facilities and the hikers ahead of them. It is all I can do to keep my mouth shut but eventually we pass them, and the day hikers, and make our way up a stony, expertly maintained (read: might as well be asphalt) path to Le Brévènt. The view is, of course, amazing and in the shadow of the cable-car terminus, we have delightful hot onion soup and a coke. It’s a pleasant moment, as the sun beams down on us and the steam drifts from the meniscus of our soup into the cool mountain air. We tarry for some time, mindful of the descent to come, and muse over the fact that our trek is nearly over. It is a sentimental moment as we realise that the time will come when we bid farewell to our friend across the valley - it's odd, we felt as if we'd never need to leave...

Across the valley, thrill-seekers - paragliders - soar, catching thermals and rising every bit as gracefully as they fall. It is a popular sport in the Chamonix valley - the next day, in fact, when we took the bus into Chamonix having finished the TMB, we would see many of them on the bus with huge rucksacks carrying their kit. I watched for what seemed like eons, entranced, tracking the progress of these courageous characters, savouring their fluid elegance. Set against Mont Blanc, they seemed as close to that sonorous queen as anyone could be, without ascending its summit. 

The descent from Le Brévènt, at 2525m, was a protracted, debilitating siege against the lower body. It is as comprehensive an argument in favour of trekking poles as there could possibly be. The ground, in places, is steep and technical; careful threading of a route is required - considered foot placement is essential. On occasion, hands would be required. That said, the views across to the rocky, green alpine landscape to east is breathtaking and accompanies us for much of the descent. We passed the final hut, a beautiful place set within a diminutive depression in the mountainside, and stopped for some refreshment before continuing on to through more alpine forest into Les Houches. By now, all that occupies my mind is the thought of a burger and chips - gloriously sumptuous trash food - at Le Delice, the British-owned café we came to the day before we started the TMB. The end of a wonderful trip is impending and, albeit still sad,  I look forward to some good food and a long shower.

As we pulled down the final stretch and into the environs of Les Houches, I am suddenly taken by what we've done - a classic, majestic, arduous and life-affirming trek through some of the most amazing scenery I have seen for a long time. Hugs are exchanged for it has been an emotional time - the savouring not only of views, but of friendship and camaraderie. I know that, in reality, it was not as challenging a trek as it might have been, and we might well have completed it in 9 days rather than 11 without a great deal more avidity or stamina but there was never any rush. It has been a genesis for me - the beginning of a movement towards something different and exciting. The affirmation of what I have loved for years and the impetus to progress.

Before long, I will detail some lessons I learned for the future, for the undertaking, as I see it, of a trek like this with particular reference to the Tour du Mont Blanc. Things I would have liked to have known before I left.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Winter and Alpine Hillwalking and Mountaineering Kit

It’s October. The weather is already starting to turn. After the superb winter of 2009/2010, this winter is set to be just as engaging. Dreams of cool, fresh blue sky crisply framing chalky white vistas arouse in me fervent anticipation. As I have already said in a recent post, the Alpine walking of the summer has sparked a desire to do more of the same - to go further and higher - and a Scottish winter is the perfect training for that, as well as splendid and dramatic in its own right. In August, we will take on the Classic Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt, ascending the Tête Blanche (3421m) by the Col Superior du Tour (3289m), the Pigne d'Arolla (3796m) and the Tête Blanche (3724m) via the Mont Mine Glacier and then descending by the heavily crevassed Stockji Glacier, as well as various Cols above 3000m.

Plainly, my gear cupboard has been keyed into UL principles for some time. My 3-season wild-camping and hill-walking base weight (that is to say, my pack and everything in it except water and food) is 4.8kg in settled, dry weather and 5.1kg in wet weather. The TMB base pack weight, an 11 day trek staying in refuges, was 6.1kg. Yet, winter requires a contrastive mind-set. That is not to say UL principles suddenly don’t apply in winter, but the hazards posed by the weather and the terrain are far more serious; more care is required in kit selection - more thought perhaps, or maybe just a different set of priorities. It is a truism to say that warmer clothes are the starting point but, furthermore, winter hill-walking and trekking requires movement across snow and ice. Alpine trekking will inevitably require glacial travel. Push the boundaries to include mountaineering and ‘winter kit’ becomes relevant the whole year round. The principles cross over like a very simple, yet crucial, Venn diagram. 

I'm not going to deal with wild camping in winter in this post - I'll be looking at that nearer the time as I have some more research to do for my perfect 4-season shelter, cook and sleep system. I suspect, however, the WM Summerlite will remain my bag of choice, supplemented by down-clothing. Anyway, another post to come on that. Right now, I am preparing for my winter mountaineering course in the Cairngorms in early February 2011.

My current clothing selection has enough layering options in it to undertake a decent, fair weather winter outing but it would be unlikely to keep me comfortable in a torrid Scottish hillwalk with snow, sleet and wind pummeling me ceaselessly. Nor do my boots permit the attachment of crampons. My clothing is certainly not going to keep me comfortable in a high altitude, or very-high altitude, Alpine trek above 3,000m. There is a significant weather difference between the Alps and Scotland and lighter is better in the Alps. As soon as the sun comes up there, it can be very warm indeed. Venting, breathability and thermoregulation in the Alps is crucial.

I settled quite quickly on the premise that, in a snow-laden environment, I’d appreciate braces on trousers. A slip followed by the need to self-arrest would be better resolved by trousers supported by braces than those without, for example. I prefer the stability of braces and have always done so, even when skiing. I initially looked at softshell trousers - Haglöfs have a few that attracted me - the Suta and the Omni II. Yet softshell does nothing for me - it is heavy and not particularly warm in and of itself, nor does the windstopper fabric shrug off prolonged rain effectively and is leaden when wet. I would consequently need waterproof overtrousers as well, adding more to the weight. Whilst considering this, a mountaineering friend gave me some advice. Look at Páramo. Whilst booking a course covering winter mountaineering skills in the Cairngorms in February 2011, the course leader told me the same thing. So I did.


Now, to me, Páramo products do not seem to fit well with UL principles. They tend to be rather heavy when compared to their competitors. I did not rightly understand, either, how the Páramo systems worked. So I did some research. While not new to the outdoors world, Páramo’s fabric technology is worth a brief précis.

According to Páramo, the Nikwax Analogy® Pump Liner purportedly “...mimics the action of animal fur – pushing liquid water outwards to protect you from rain, condensation and perspiration, while protecting your insulation. This is combined with a Directional microfibre outer to deflect wind and rain.” The key benefits according to Páramo are: 

  • The Two layer construction traps still air giving superior insulation to keep you warm. 
  • The Outer layer provides Directional water-repellency while the Pump Liner actively pushes liquid moisture away from the body keeping you dry from precipitation, perspiration and condensation. 
  • It continues to work just as effectively even in high humidity or very cold conditions. 
  • Water-repellency can be easily renewed for the lifetime of the garment with Nikwax Aftercare. 
  • The fabric is soft, strong, silent and durable - it continues to function even when punctured. 

Ok, it’s marketing spiel of course but it all sounds rather intriguing, I reluctantly admit. I dropped by the Páramo shop in Covent Garden for a reconnaissance mission. They’re very helpful, the staff in there, and all wear (and abuse) the kit they sell. Moreover, Páramo send them on training exercises, even going so far as to throw them into lakes to ensure the staff can adequately explain the quick-drying and wicking properties of the kit - fact which they’ll gleefully demonstrate with swatches and a spray-gun.

Páramo Aspira Smock and Salopettes

The Aspira series was explicitly commended to me by various aficionados so I procured assorted Aspira garments and commenced my scrutiny. I preferred the fit and features of the
Aspira Smock rather than the jacket so settled fairly swiftly on that: the Smock can be vented through two zips either side at the front of the smock which also allow access to inner layers - very useful to access the pockets in the salopettes, for example. There is a large pocket around the lower chest area, between these zips, sufficient to take a map and more. Inside the smock is another large pocket within which cold hands could be placed and this last is lined with a smooth, fleece material. The hood is considerable and can comfortably accommodate a helmet. It is adjusted by cords at the front and back to adjust both the circumferential tightness of the hood and the volume. The arms benefit from an articulated, active cut which can be vented, and a blended velcro/press-stud wrist adjustment. Removable foam inserts precipitate moisture evaporation by keeping the garment from being compressed completely by a backpack. 

The smock felt gratifying and reassuring to wear as well as very comfortable. At 868g, it is not lightweight but consider it this way: my Haglöfs LIM Ozone jacket is 345g. A Polartec 100 fleece would weigh around 275g and a lightweight insulation layer (Patagonia Nano Puff or Montane Fireball Smock) around the same (266g for the Nano Puff). I would estimate the Aspira Smock to be similar, at least, to a membrane shell jacket and a fleece or insulation layer. Thus, at 600g for the two, the Aspira does not look like such a leviathan. Taking the analysis a stage further, most fully-featured winter membrane jackets are more likely to be in the region of 600-650g themselves (ME Kongur, Haglöfs Arete or Cirque), rather than the 345g of my LIM Ozone.

 Sizing is peculiar, eccentric even, and I found that a small Smock fit me better than a medium, which was too loose. I am a 38-39” chest and a 33-34” waist. I normally take a medium in almost all clothes. Each of the other Páramo items was a different size, however. This is certainly something to be aware of when looking at Páramo products.

Winter legwear is where Páramo seems to really excel. I tried both the
Aspira Salopettes and the Trousers. As I said, sizing is bizarre. I was a Medium Long in the Salopettes and Large in the trousers. Frankly, the salopettes felt far more comfortable than the trousers and, apart from the extra chest insulation, had the advantage of pockets around the chest area as well. The snug, articulated fit (with a diamond gusset) was far more suitable to winter mountaineering than the trousers which felt a little baggy. 

Other features include full leg venting with a zip beginning right at the top of the salopettes, tape loops for under-boot elasticated attachment, slim removable foam inserts for the knees to prevent conductive heat loss, reinforced fabric on the seat, knee and ankle areas and, perhaps inevitably, the ability pull them on and off without removing boots or crampons. 

At 904g, again, they are hefty but, here, they gain over other fabrics. They are warm and waterproof. Thus, a pair of softshell salopettes (at around 850g) and a pair of over trousers (at around 350g) would be required to achieve the same effect although I doubt they’d be as warm. Nevertheless, that pairing is something like 300g heavier than the Aspira Salopettes. So, it seems to me, it is unfair to label Páramo as portly in these circumstances.

If the Aspira Smock and Salopettes breathe as well as is suggested by those evangelical disciples preaching the Páramo way, then I am looking forward to winter. Whether it is in the Alps, Scotland or even the Lakes and Snowdonia, dry warmth in chill, relentless precipitation is heaven and I experienced those sorts of conditions in all four this year.

Páramo Mountain Pull-On

The Parmenta-S Reversible fabric Mountain Pull-on is a midweight base layer designed to be worn next to the skin but it’s heavy enough to resemble something approaching a midlayer. It is a slightly less fitted cut than I would have wanted, but I still liked it. The Parmenta fabric wicks moisture away from the skin and the skin-side dries startlingly quickly. The quarter zip allows substantial venting and the neck roll is high, articulated and comfortable. Furthermore, for once I am not wincing as I pull the zip up, not needing to contort my neck to avoid being nipped. I tried the Venting Mountain Pull-on but the arm zips annoyed me the moment I put it on, let alone after a day with rucksack straps tearing at them. It seems to me that the Mountain Pull-On is all I need, especially when moving, under the Aspira Smock. At rest, a Nano Puff or other insulating layer might be necessary. If the Nano Puff is not sufficient, I will look at a PHD Ultra pullover - 900g of down fill at 230g. It may be that Mountain Pull-on is the weakest part of the set-up, and something by Montane or X-Bionics would be better, but that remains to be seen.

 I received not only a 10% discount as a consequence of membership of the BMC, but also a free
Torres Gilet. I doubt I’ll use it hill-walking or mountaineering but I still rather like it. Made from Analogy Insulator fabric with 100g synthetic fill, and weighing 370g, it’s really not bad at all. It packs down into its own pocket and will go on over the top of the Aspira Smock as well as underneath. As it is water repellent, when at rest, it might be a better option than putting on the Nano-Puff (as it can go over the top of the smock, so I would not need to remove it) and is certainly likely to be warmer. It gives me another option.

The greatest concern I have with Páramo is that it appears to me to be a little on the warm side. When moving, I tend to be minimalist in terms of layers because I move hot, but this is not something likely to continue into winter. However, it all seems so insulated and warm that I wonder how hot I’ll be ascending and dealing with serious gradients. Páramo and its supporters extol the breathability of the garments but I am currently unconvinced. Don’t misunderstand - I am excited about using this kit in the winter but I remain sceptical about thermoregulation. I’ll report back at the end of the winter, next year.

X-Bionic Trekking Pants - Short

My old Helly Hansen Lifa boxers are falling apart. It's sad but we must part company. Over the years, I've come to realise I'd prefer, except on very warm days, a longer length base layer for my legs as much to avoid riding up and chafing as anything else. I liked the look of Skins and Accapi but the latter are just ridiculously expensive and I am not a professional athlete (I know - hard to believe). X Bionic bridge a gap between technical sports base layers and hillwalking base layers in a reasonably effective way. The Trekking series (130g each for the shorts) offers a cornucopia of features that suit hillwalking better than any other range. The SweatTraps fabric purportedly does exactly that while the SoreStopper and ISO-Pad fabrics (around the genitals and hips respectively) regulate warmth. The Hipholder fabric keeps the pants in place and they are mid-compression. Finally, the 3D Bionic-Sphere system located at the coccyx conducts sweat from the lower back for evaporation. All of this, on the face of it, suits hillwalkers carrying backpacks but, to be frank, I have never experienced such marketing bluster in all my life. Outdoor manufacturers are quick to push advanced new systems with Sci-Fi monikers but X Bionics are masters of it. That said, I like these shorts. They fit snugly without being too tight. The microfibre fabric feels pleasant against the skin. They seem like they will breathe well and wick sweat away. They will dry quickly. The fabric, 93% polyamide (74% of which is their proprietary SkinNODOR fabric), 6% elastane and 1% polypropylene, assists in odour regulation as well as regulation of bacterial growth. Hopefully, this means I will not smell as badly as I would do wearing a normal, synthetic base layer. I look forward to using them. I just wish the copious packaging was not emblazoned with marketing rubbish...

Level Skiing Gloves

I have, for years, owned a very good pair of Level Skiing gloves bought in Ischgl, Austria in 2006. They have a separate, Polartec inner, and a breathable, water resistant main glove with leather palms and elasticated, adjustable wrist guards that reach about 10cm up my forearm from my wrist. They have always suited me rather well for skiing and, aside from being a touch large for me (they are a 9.5 and I am probably a 9), they will allow me to put my ME Windstopper grip gloves underneath in really cold weather. They will do for now.

Scarpa Manta B2 Boots 

I need winter boots and crampons. Therefore, I need B2 rated boots - that is to say boots that will take a C2 crampon. The Scarpa Manta has, year on year, been universally acclaimed and they felt comfortable, supportive and solid, when I wandered around Cotswolds in Covent Garden, jumping up and down on various inclines and declines, kicking walls, climbing and generally testing them out (read: abusing them). The soles are inflexible (winter boots, of course) but, as with all boots, they will relax a little over time and with wear. Proper mountain boots require some breaking-in as part of the fitting process. The solid leather upper is not something I am used to as my 3-season boots are Gore-Tex lined (Scarpa ZG-40 GTX) nubuck but I have always got on rather well with Scarpa so I am optimistic. Of course they are heavier than, say, the Charmoz, but they felt good and I'm a believer in using boots that feel good right off. I will add to my Smartwool medium crew socks a Bridgedale coolmax liner rather than buy a heavier sock, particularly as the leather may need more assistance in wicking away sweat from my feet than my Gore-Tex boots. 

Grivel G12 New-Matic Crampons 

The G12 Newmatic’s are 12 point crampons which are sufficiently technical, all-mountain crampons, to allow me to progress over time and lightweight enough to carry for long periods (868g for the pair). The Newmatic refers to the binding system: an evolution of the Cramp-O-Matic system which utilises the C-O-M rear bale and lever. The plastic harness system is hinged from two front posts which retain the boot securely even if it has a shallow, worn front welt or overboots are being used. It is a simple and efficient binding. Made in dual-component plastic: the black part is stronger, bearing the strain whilst the yellow part is softer, increasing adherence to the boot. The harness is made from Zytel DuPont, a strong and durable plastic which was developed for the manufacture of alpine ski bindings. They are easy to strap to the Manta boot and simple to adjust. When attached to the boot, they are solid and tight - there is no play at all. Anti-balling plates are a must these days and, all in all, they are the sort of crampons recommended by winter mountain leaders so they are good enough for me at this stage. Note that they will not fit a size 48 boot without an extension plate which is additional. Also, they are sharp right out of the box so a crampon bag is a sensible storage option. 

I do enjoy the Whittaker Mountaineering videos.

Black Diamond Raven Pro Ice Axe  - 55cm

There was much oscillation between the Raven Pro and the Grivel Airtech Evo. I weighed both in my hands, staring at them intently and with deep concentration on my face. I may even have looked slightly constipated. I had an idea what to look for in each but, in the end, the feel in the my hand, both on the shaft and at the headset, holding the axe in the belaying position, was all I really could gain from touch alone. The aluminum shaft Raven Pro is significantly lighter at 362g, but is only B-rated (so not as strong as a T-rated technical axe). That said, it felt far better in the belaying position. It also has a straight shaft, which is likely to be better for pushing into snow. It has no rubber grip but the shaft feels so assured that I am not certain this is bad thing.
 All in all, it felt like the right axe. Time will tell.

Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork poles 

It's my intention to post on poles imminently so I won’t repeat that here.

Black Diamond Couloir Harness 

I need a harness. I am not going to be rock-climbing so a basic lightweight alpine harness is sufficient. Something that fits my legs and waist easily, is adjustable at both leg-points and waist, and has enough loops to attach karabiners and other bits to without fuss is essential. The Couloir is light (280g), adjustable and easy to use. Made of a fast-drying nylon webbing, it has quick release leg loops so I can slip the harness on and off whilst wearing crampons. As a basic harness, it will give me a reasonable start until I know enough to buy one safe in the knowledge of exactly what I want. I may even end up sticking with it.

Osprey Mutant 38 and Rain Cover 

I need a pack which is durable enough to take a lot of punishment on the mountainside, being pulled around mercilessly and with reckless abandon and dragged against rocks and ice, but which can also take an ice-axe and crampons without the risk of mesh pockets being torn. I am not comfortable with the Gorilla for those reasons and require a new pack. I love Osprey and the Mutant 38 seemed immediately to be a great choice. At 1.3kg, there are probably lighter packs (Crux AK47 immediately springs to mind and I thought long and hard about the Crux) but Osprey packs carry beautifully for me. I take a large (21" torso) which is, in fact, 41 litres. Further, the Mutant can be stripped down to 950g by removing the lid, the bivy pad and the frame. I'll probably just remove the bivy pad (c.150g) making the Mutant much closer to the Crux in terms of weight. 

Made of 410D Armourlite and 900D Armourguard, it immediately has strength and resilience the 210D Gorilla does not have. With two ice-axe loops and gorilla-guard where the picks rest against the pack, Osprey have kept a keen eye to protecting the pack. The hipbelt, reversible to permit use with a mountaineering harness, also has a number of hypalon gear loops for karabiners and climbing equipment. As I have said, the Mutant 38 also has a removable foam HDPE framesheet/tri-fold bivy pad. Finally, rapid, easy and removable load compression/adjustment is achieved through the Z-compression system also permitting simple stowing of of sleeping-mats, poles and/or skis. Once adjusted, as with most packs, excess webbing can be stowed in the Mutant's wand pockets. After the problems with the Sea to Summit cover I’ve experienced, I settled on a cover designed for the pack.

Julbo Revolution Zebra Goggles 

Goggles, with photo-chromatic lenses, are essential for winter mountain walking and mountaineering. The Julbo Revolution Zebra goggles have a number of features which suited my requirements. An ergonomic frame with small incisions around the contour adapt to any shape of face, even mine. Dual Soft Foam - 2 layers of multi-density foam for comfort and shock absorption with soft touch material on the contact zones. Extended Outrigger - 15 mm extension on each side of the goggles to adapt to all helmets & for a consistent hold. Ad Strap - Additional buckle on back of strap, with an easy clip, for improved easy goggle placement. Zebra Photochromic Lens - Photochromic lens that changes from protection levels C2 to C4 in around 25 seconds built with a simple lens for a widened vision, and an effective anti-fog capability. All in all, they mean I can see, whatever the weather. They’re worth the extra money.

I am also keen to source a helmet but I'll probably do that after the Cairngorms course once I know whether I need something like a Grivel Salamander or a lighter helmet like the Black Diamond Tracer. Much of that will depend on experience in an environment I have yet to spend much time in.