Friday, 30 December 2011

Has UL become stagnant, or have we become too complicated?

Hendrik Morkel put me onto an article written by Ryan Jordan and, on which, there were a great many comments - some quite vociferous. One comment, which I reproduce in full below as I do not want to quote it out of context, was from Miguel D Arboleda in Japan. For those of us who don't visit forums that much anymore, I think it bears some considering:

"Lots of thoughts on the article and all the comments, especially after having been a very active member here since the beginning and involved with UL for more than 14 years. Wanted some time to contemplate before I said anything. In many ways this is a painful discussion, almost as if we are having to look back upon our decade-long obsession and question the legitimacy of spending so much time going bonkers over all those things.

In reading all the comments I felt a great inner conflict between the philosophy that Ryan is advocating (and that he has been deeply reflecting on for quite a few years now, especially in his blog) of keeping life simple and non-wasteful and non-damaging, and the philosophy of being involved with an activity in which gear is a big part of enjoying that activity, thereby spending too much time thinking about gear, and yet the focus of that activity is to get away from the trappings of modernity and its "things". A paradox that is very, very difficult to resolve. How do you love simplicity and frugality and efficiency while at the same time loving gear, too?

I don't agree with Ryan's premise that Cottage Manufacturers are stagnant, but I thought his essay and people's responses were great.

May I suggest a different approach to the problem that seems to be afflicting the entire UL movement, including a great number of UL cottage manufacturers and BPL itself? Perhaps it is the very UL philosophy that is stagnant, and not simply the technicians implementing it?

I think we have reached the same crossroads that manufacturers like The North Face, Sierra Designs, Patagonia, and Marmot encountered when their early designs were no longer the revolutionary game changers they were at the beginning. So, like them, has UL run out of steam? 

My guess is that the crux of the problem is the conflict between UL as a way of life and philosophy versus economic and reputation interests. When UL is practiced purely as an approach to backpacking without regard for protecting self-interests other than safety, ability to move, and enjoy your particular activity then it grows innovative simply out practical necessity… you simply use what works and toss aside that which doesn't. It never accumulates. At its very purest your belongings would consist of no more than a single pack (or two at most, when considering winter) with one set of essentials and no more. As some said earlier, you would just grab your pack and head out the door without endless hours calculating weights, materials, design, etc. 

What do you do, though, when you also simply love gear for gear's sake? It doesn't fit into the UL philosophy… anything that is extraneous or duplicated immediately makes the philosophy conflictual. Ryan is one of the most guilty in the UL community in this regard… constantly promoting simplifying and discarding what is not necessary, and yet over the years has probably used more different kinds of gear than most of us will ever see (not meant in a disparaging way… I am sure a lot of us here would love to try out all the different gear he's tried if we had the chance). In this article for instance he promotes the MLD Trailstar, but that was definitely not the first time he nominated a certain product as the bees knees. Over the years I recall him saying the MLD Duomid, the Black Diamond One Shot, the BPL Nanotarp, the ID SilShelter, the GG SpinnTarp, and others as "the best". We all have done this, so I'm not trying to paint Ryan as worse than any of the rest of us, but it does call into question our reasons for going UL besides just to lighten up. 

One of the things that impressed me immensely about Glen Van Peski (I met him last year and we've been in touch for over 10 years) was that he does almost all his hiking with one pack and one pack alone… his trusty Murmur. That's it. Everything else he deals with as contingents along the way, adapting what he has to the situation and making do. I've tried reaching this way of thinking, but my gear obsession (which I've lately been doing my best to completely rein in) and also my, as Andrew Skurka wrote in an email reply to me, "packed fears", keep me heading to the outdoor stores and loving so much of what I see. Admittedly, like Doug, I don't get out as much as I'd like to. Having been first ambushed by a major earthquake earlier in the year, a completely disrupted life, then getting big healthy problems has made it hard to get out as much as I would have liked. Heading to the outdoor shop in the real world or online is a kind of candy; it relaxes me and allows me the closest I can get to the natural world that I love so much that is possible when getting out there is an infrequent option.

So the question is, what should the UL philosophy reflect beyond backpacking? Ryan has often written about carrying UL over into everyday life, and here I point specifically to the amount of stuff we haul around in our daily lives. Having tried myself to get rid of what I don't need I can say that it is far more difficult to do than any hiking trip is. 

What happens though when we begin to live our lives according to this life of simplicity? It means we no longer support cottage manufacturers as much and buy less. Cottage manufacturers are far more sensitive to supply and demand than the big companies are. They can't take the same risks, especially in the bad recession we are in right now. Remember they have to support their families, too. Witness the Brooks Range Rocket tent… major problems began cropping up with the cuban material they used, so the company had to pull the product. Since their reputation depended on that particular product and the material it used, the problem with the material basically ruined their reputation, especially for a product that was as expensive as the Rocket was. What, too, happened to Wanderlust Gear? Dancing Light Gear? Or even the aborted preparations for Colin Ibbotson's new cottage gear company "TrampLite"? A lot of them must have financial and personal reasons for not making it and deciding to discontinue. Lack of innovation is not the only reason these manufacturers disappear.

The funny thing about having gone UL is that when I was a "mainstream" backpacker I owned one bomber pack, one pair of Italian heavy leather boots, one tent, one stove, one sleeping bag, and a few assortment of clothes. It is only after going UL that my closet has overrun with stuff. I began buying obsessively from cottage gear manufacturers, entranced, as everyone else, by this new "magic" gear. But the spell is wearing off and I'm coming to my senses. I miss maintaining my single pair of boots for ten years running, miss the attachment I felt for my 10-year-old Lowe Alpine Contour 60, miss the wide variety of conditions my The Northface Tadpole was able to handle without my ever having had to regret taking it. My gear WAS simple. The only thing that UL opened my eyes to were weight and all the possibilities opened up in trying to bring the weight down. I have felt guilty and frustrated with the "weight" of things in my home. It's decidedly not simple anymore."

I think there is some sense in what he says.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

2011 - A Year of Building Foundations

Warning: Self-indulgent post. You may want to go and read another blog instead...

Two Thousand and Eleven. A year of building for me. There was not as much ultralight as I would like, mostly ultra new and ultra hard. It was a year of stretching boundaries and of learning new skills. I wrote a guest post for Martin Rye a little while ago called Pushing the Envelope and in that post I discussed my thoughts on pushing your own perceived limits and learning new skills - something I personally consider rewarding and, in fact, essential. That said, pushing your  limits is a vaguely terrifying thing but as Eleanor Roosevelt was once famously quoted as saying "do one thing every day that scares you". In the last 365 days, I can't say I've been scared for more than a small percentage of those days, but when I have been, it's been pretty intense.

In February, I undertook my first ever Scottish Winter Grade 1 climb as part of a five day Winter Mountaineering course in the Cairngorms. That course now features in the December issue of Trek and Mountain Magazine. Although Jacob's Ladder is not really a difficult climb by most standards (one need only take a look at Climb magazine to see what some of those lunatics are able to achieve), for me, with limited experience in winter mountaineering, it was a steep learning curve. I can carve a notch in my 'fear post' for that one.

It also served as the start point for a program of skill building to enhance my alpine and mountaineering skills. But it would be wrong to say I was focusing only on alpinism. Each and every moment spent in the Alps, or in Scotland, entrenches mental survival skills and the ability to deal with fear. This is an essential expertise in our lockers, especially when outdoors. I have sometimes felt paralysed by fear and found it difficult to think clearly - perhaps this is what Roosevelt was saying: learn how to deal with fear, accept it as a part of your existence, an essential survival mechanism, and learn how to control it. I suspect I'll only ever be able to do that as a function of age and experience, but each day I spend in the hills where I am stretching myself beyond what I perceive to be my limits, I come closer to being able to recognise the onset of fear, calm myself and learn to think clearly.

In March, I took an old friend into the Brecon Beacons for his first wild camp. After an overnight monsoon, we had to break camp at 3am and hike out. The fact he still talks about the trip with passion and badgers me to go again must mean we had a good time - the torrential rain, waist-level river fording, floating tents, freeze-dried food and a 'broken compass' (yes, Lee, that is an admission) did nothing to dampen (sorry) his enthusiasm. It won't go down as my best overnighter this year but it was another powerful learning experience for me.

In August, we traveled to the Alps again. From Argentiére, we walked the high-level route to Zermatt. That trek was, perhaps understandably, one of the high-points of the year. A chance to embed the skills I was learning, to further learn to control my fear and to get one step closer to autonomy in alpinism and in harsh outdoor environments generally. We got to know our guide, Nigel Shepherd very well and became good friends. This led to some more vertical endeavours...

In December we headed to North Wales to stay with Nigel and spend a few days learning rope skills climbing various Grade 2 and 3 scrambling routes in the Glyderau. No post yet on that as it will appear in the January issue of an outdoor magazine. Once it is out, I'll do a post on that trip but, suffice to say, this was yet another opportunity to learn the value of controlling fear and thinking clearly. All this with a view to undertaking PD routes in the alps next year and a 5 or 6 day traverse, wild camping, in one of the harsher national parks in Europe - Sarek in Swedish Lapland.

Throughout the year, I have been building a freelance career as a writer and photographer. At some point in the not to distant future, it is my intention to leave my profession (I am barrister) and experience a little bit more fear as I plunge the depths of being self-employed for a second time. I am not stupid enough to think this will happen overnight and I am working towards it one piece at a time. With four magazine commissions under my belt, two with Trek and Mountain and two with TGO, and more to come, I am more than happy with the progress so far. This is, in large part, to several bloggers who have taken the time to assist me with critique of my writing and getting my on the right road when it comes to taking my photography to a more advanced level.

So, some heartfelt thanks in particular to Martin Rye, Robin Evans, Hendrik Morkel, David Lintern, Alan Rayner and Fraser McAlister. You've all helped set me on the right path and for that I will be eternally grateful.

And so to 2012 - more alpine, more ultralight, more writing and more photography. Hope you have enjoyed my journeys this year and will come back for more next year.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Harken 45 Litre Roll Top Wet/Dry Bag

My brother-in-law is a professional sailor and sailmaker for North Sails in Denmark. I have raced a few times with him and spent many hours cruising with him around Denmark. He also comes along with me hillwalking so we share similar interests. He advised my mother-in-law on what she could get me for Christmas and this was it. Having joked about how the boot of my car, or indeed my usual hillwalking companion's car, were often ruined by wet kit having come off the hill, this is what I received. It's a rather nice piece of kit and a good idea.

This is a quick post as we all know what dry bags do. I just thought this one would be a break from the normal purveyors of dry bags as it is made by a company that needs its kit to be functional in a completely wet and rugged environment. And Harken are highly regarded in the sailing community. A chance to try something different. This stitch-free waterproof bag features an expandable mesh drying compartment to separate wet from dry gear. Each compartment expands to a full-length waterproof bag, breathable mesh bag, or a combination. This is what makes this bag rather nice and versatile.

Measuring 79 by 38 by 18cm, its capacity is 45 litres and it weighs 476g (not that this really matters as it will be sitting in your boot at the time). Made of 210 denier TPU impregnated waterproof and UV resistant nylon, it features:

Roll-top closure at the top for a watertight seal.
Two roll-top fastening points to accommodate large or small loads.
Exterior mesh compartment with bonded zipper opening at bottom separates/dries wet gear.
Reinforced bottom panel.
Welded seams and components.
Air-purge valve.
Adjustable/removable carry straps also function as backpack straps.
Lightweight material and compressible design.

The air valve serves two purposes - compressing the bag and also allowing wet kit some room to breathe without letting it drench your boot. The carry straps offer an additional carrying option to normal dry bags, and are good enough to carry heavy kit a short distance - say, to the washing machine from your car - but little more. They'll cut through your shoulders like excalibur after more distance than that. In short, it's a well thought out and useful dry bag to store your wet kit until you get home without ruining your car. I like it. Sometimes, it pays to think outside the box (or have someone else do it for you).

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Merry Christmas to One and All...

Here's wishing everyone who reads any blog, mine or the many others on offer who make the outdoors blogosphere such a welcoming and useful place to surf, a very Merry Christmas. Remember - this is a time for indulgence, happiness, patience and understanding. It is a time for forgiveness and for mending or even building bridges. It is a time for giving and for joy. It is a time where we all learn that the child within us is more important than the adult, permanently superglued to the rat-race. We are fortunate - remember that and use it.

Seasons Greetings everyone!

Monday, 19 December 2011

Alexandre Buisse

I met Alexandre Buisse on Twitter and became enthralled by his mountain photography. He's a young and phenomenally talented photographer making his mark on, and carving a path through, the world of landscape and outdoor photography. I urge you to support him and I was fortunate enough to get his book for Christmas from my parents. It is a wonderful read, legs curled under you, steaming tea in hand, in front of a roaring fire - replete with amazing images and sage advice delivered in a self-effacing, jovial tone. Excellent stuff. As an aspiring professional photographer, slowly befriending my DLSR, it has been inspirational.

Alexandre Buisse, Remote Exposure: A Guide to Hiking and Climbing Photography, Rocky Nook Inc. 2011.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Rab Powerstretch Review

Base layers are the fulcrum of our clothing selection yet so little is written about them in comparison, for example, to shell layers and insulation layers. This is strange, in reality, as the base layer is far more important than any other layer. Get the base layer right and you have a stable base from which to build a clothing system. Remember what clothing is about - regulating body temperature and hydration, whilst remaining comfortable. There really is, modesty aside, no other point to clothing. So if you cannot get sweat away from your body whilst maintaining core, and surface, body temperature, you'll get cold (and uncomfortable). Base layers are designed to do that, if you make your selection carefully. Yet the process of evaporation - for that is what 'wicking' is, or at least moving towards - is thermodynamically designed to reduce body heat in summer and to maintain it in winter. Wet clothing, which does not evaporate the moisture contained within it, sticks to our skin and, through the processes of conduction (ambient cold air touching the fabric) and convection (cold air being forced onto the fabric by wind, for example), the fabric cools down, as does the moisture and we become cold. If that moisture evaporates, we are kept warm.

Different base layers work most efficiently in different activities and temperatures. Also, I firmly believe that the fewer layers you have on, the easier the process of evaporation is going to be. In winter, I have a maximum of two layers when moving and the top layer is usually Páramo. Sometimes I may only have one layer - Buffalo. My winter base layer thus far as been the classic Patagonia R1 Regulator Hoody and I have not been disappointed.

So, when Go Outdoors asked me to test some kit for them, I selected a rucksack and the 300g Rab Powerstretch or, to those 'in the know' the "PS Zip". I'm all for being hip and down with the kids, so I'll call it that. This latter was intended to compete with the R1 Hoody for situations when I did not want a hood - more specifically, alpine.

Powerstretch® fabric is a 4 way stretch, high wicking fabric designed for active sports. The PS Zip Top is a close fitting, quick drying, wind and abrasion resistant pull-on designed for active users. The PS Zip Top is an ideal mid layer or can be used as a base layer next to the skin in cooler conditions. This from the Rab website.

Polartec® Powerstretch® fabrics feature body-hugging 4-way stretch and are very breathable. They keep you dry when you sweat and provide warmth without weight. These are the most versatile outdoor and fitness clothing fabrics available today. Many of the fabrics feature a proprietary construction with two unique surfaces: the durable, smooth outer layer is wind and abrasion resistant; the soft inner layer pulls moisture away from your skin keeping you dry, warm and comfortable. This from Polartec's website.

So, it's a 4-way stretch, figure-hugging piece. This is true. I ordered a medium and it is very tight and perhaps just as a touch too small. Thus, if you would normally be a medium in most things, you might want to consider ordering a medium and a large and seeing which is better.

The outer layer is a nothing new - Polartec's proprietary wind and abrasion resistant material that feels smooth to the touch. The inner is rather like micro fibre fleece. It feels pleasant enough against the skin. 

It's a base layer. So, really, features on show are minimal but it's the smaller, not seen bits that make it special. The flat seams are smooth against the skin to ensure no chaffing and redness after scrambling or climbing (or an other high-octane activity). I like thumb loops when I am wearing gloves - it means my sleeves do not ride up and expose my wrists. I like a complete, compact, secure unit around my hands and arms - I don't, on an exposed grade 3 scramble, want to be worried about getting cold because by wrists/forearms are exposed.

The deep half zip is great for swift venting. Unzip and the perspiration virtually steams from your chest in cold weather, after activity. The tight fit is a good one, in reality. No loose clothing is exactly what you want in the activities this base layer is designed for. The collar is a good one - high enough to cover your neck, angled in a concave fashion to permit additional neck insulation layering (i.e. a scarf) and the zip has a small, fleecy housing for comfort. There is the ubiquitous napoleon pocket which I am boring myself to make use of in some way as my Cypher has one, the Rab V-R has one and the R1 has one. So outdoorsmen everywhere must love them and I cannot be a professional outdoorsman without making use of it, it seems to me. So I put stuff in there to look like I know what I am doing. Good stuff, useful stuff. Honest. Usually, a compass. Bear in mind that anything you put in there will get very damp indeed.

The Review
I took this into North Wales with me for two days when I did a recent Grade 2 and 3 scrambling weekend with our alpine guide and friend, Nigel Shepherd. The weather, and temperatures, was somewhat bipolar - rain, wind, sun, cold and mild. The whole gamut. Each day, I was in the PS Zip for around 7 hours and, after day one, I left it to dry in my room for use the next day. So, sure, this is a very short-term test. Take from that what you will. Some may say little can be discerned from such a short test. I agree, but you may still benefit from my observations.

It kept me warm. I felt comfortable. My skin was not particularly clammy although I certainly could not say I was dry after hours of wind, rain and hard (terrifying) work. But no base layer would achieve that. The range of movement was great. In fact, the best thing I can say about it was I did not notice I had it on. It dried overnight. It felt fine the next morning when I put it on. It did not smell much. I think after a second day it would have been pretty odorous to wear another day.

My layering system was PS Zip, Rab Vapour-Rise Smock and OMM Cypher. I only put the Cypher on when the rain came. Wind was kept at bay pretty well but I genuinely query how good the V-R is at keeping 50mph+ at bay - a shell is far better for that.

So what do I think? It fits a niche in my wardrobe. It is as good as any winter base layer I have used (thus comparing it to 200g merino, R1 Hoody and Páramo Mountain Pull On). I like it and I will use it. I did not, for example, like the Páramo Mountain Pull On - so I ditched it. This is far superior and I look forward to some Scottish winter mountaineering in it.

My thanks to Go Outdoors for the PS Zip and the following links may assist in finding the PS Zip and other thermal layers art reasonable prices.

Base Layers
Rab Products

Friday, 11 November 2011

A word of thanks

Last night this journal of mine received its 100,000th visit. With 91 followers and nearly 200 subscribers, it has exceeded my expectations. Friendships and fellowship has resulted from it and I wanted to say to those regular visitors, thank you. I hope you have enjoyed your time here and continue to do so.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Alpine Kit 2011-2012

Twelve months ago I wrote a post entitled Winter and Alpine Hillwalking and Mountaineering Kit. It proved to be one of the most popular posts on this journal of mine with in excess of 1600 views. I look back now at my choices then, largely informed by research rather than actual time on the ground, and conclude I was not far off when it comes to winter - for example, a Scottish Winter climb will involve much of the kit I analysed back then. Páramo remains my staple, and everything else is built around that. Yet, this is simply not the right selection for alpinism. The Classic Haute Route and, to a lesser extent, the Tour du Mont Blanc, taught me that. So I had to rethink early this year and, whilst in Zermatt, I sat poring over my kit selections in a bar nursing a cold beer, and considered carefully what kit had been effective and what had not. This post is the culmination of that process.

Normally, I write a Gear Debrief at the end of a trip. Not this time. Instead, I am going to approach it from a different angle. There has been quite a lot of debate about kit in outdoor blogs this year. Whether it affects our credibility and impartiality to accept freebies or jollies from companies like Gore and how kit reports/reviews/analysis should be drafted. I am not going to change my views on freebies (see my comments on Hendrik Morkel's Hiking in Finland on this post) nor am I going to change my analysis. If you like my online journal that's wonderful and it genuinely pleases me. Thank you for coming. If you don't there are some quality blogs out there that might be more to your taste - start with Hiking in Finland, Blogpackinglight and Summit and Valley and then move on from there. Check out my Resources links to the right.

So, after that, I would like to move onto the analysis of my Alpine Kit. The purpose of this post is to detail what I have settled on, and why, for anyone planning similar trips who feel they would benefit from my insights. It also invites those with their own experience to comment on selections. I like people commenting on my selections - it helps me refine my own choices.

Rucksack - Crux AK-37 and Osprey Mutant 38
In October last year, I was looking at the Osprey Mutant 38 but discounted it as a consequence of weight, opting instead for my OMM Villain MSC. At 1kg, the Villain seemed superficially attractive and I had always previously found it comfortable. Yet on this trek, I carried much more weight than I would normally when wild camping in the UK. Firstly, this was a 12 day traverse. That in itself requires more kit. Secondly, it was a traverse across high, glaciated alpine terrain. These two factors taken together meant my pack weight was, on approaches where my cold weather kit was stowed, around 7.3kg without food and water. In cold weather, it was that much lighter at 6.6kg. With crampons and ice-axe out, that would drop again to around 5kg. Of course, this is all illusory as I was either wearing or carrying that kit in my hands rather than in my pack so my body still needed to haul the weight. Additionally, the problem was that I did not account for the fact that I'd also be carrying, frequently, 2kg of rope. I'd also need to add, on occasion, around 1kg of water as we were not always able to find water en route. Usually, food would consist of chocolate bars as we'd normally be at huts for lunch so I'll add a few hundreds grams there at most. All this means, at worst, I was approaching 9kg on ascents. This was not something the OMM Villain carried well as the shoulder straps have padding which is too thin in the stitched area. It bit into my clavicle far too much and my bones became bruised early on. Also, the Villain's MSC compressor annoys me in the Alps. I want simple, as few straps as possible, and light. So, when Go Outdoors asked me to test some kit for them, we settled on the Mutant. Adam agreed and I await its arrival. I also liked the Crux AK-47 but the second thing I realised on the CHR is that 40+ litres is far too much. 37 is fine. Hence the Crux AK-37 arrived a few weeks back and I am very impressed. At 960g, it's the lightest alpine rucksack I could find. It is brutally simple and a favourite of the UK Climbing forum. It needs a rope strap at the top of the pack like the others in the range but I may well sew one of my own in. It seems a very comfortable carry but the back comes in one length and it is right on the cusp of being too small. This, again, is something Crux could easily look at for a 37 litre alpinist's pack. Two lengths would be better.

Technical Gear
Crampon choice has not altered and my crampons remain the Grivel G12 New-matic and, for alpinism, the Grivel Evo is my favoured ice-axe. The reason for that particular ice axe choice is covered in another post and my views on this remain unchanged. The Evo is robust, stable and efficient enough for alpine use and the rubber grip is, in my view, essential as I do not use a leash. The G12 crampons are great all rounders - solid, great points, not too heavy, easy to fit and tough.

Of course, my technical gear comprises more than just a piolet and crampons. My harness is the Black Diamond Couloir which I have found to be perfect for me. Unlike a proper climbing harness, it is not padded and would be very uncomfortable after a day of falls or climbing out of crevasses. Of course, I think I have made it plain that I don't intend falling frequently so comfort after a fall is not a primary consideration. Lightweight, strong and with enough loops for minimal gear, it packs down small and is easy to get on and off. I can wear it at the end of a day without feeling it. Those are primary considerations.

The Alpine Club recommend a number of items of technical gear for F and PD routes which, for 2011-2012, is my intended stage. So I'll carry two prusik loops, both 140cm from 6mm Beal Accessory cord. I also have two slings - a short and long one - both DMM dyneema. In addition, an 86g DMM Aero HMS crab, and two c.50g lightweight smaller crabs - the Black Diamond Vaporlock and the DMM Shadow. I also carry a 43g DMM Shadow Quick-draw. Everyone moving on glacial terrain should have an ice-screw and I carry a 16cm 145g Black Diamond Express screw. All of this is stored in an Alpkit stuff sack. Simple.

Shell Layer - OMM Cypher Smock and Golite Tumalo Storm Pants
I didn't use either of these on the CHR but at 455g for a complete, extremely breathable, very packable, comfortable and performance waterproof shell system, I am content with both. I have analysed each already in previous posts but the highlights are, in addition to the above, the ease of use - the Tumalo in particular are very easy to pull on over anything and can be worn comfortably on their own and breathe well enough when working hard. The Cypher is a great smock and I cannot see a much lighter, 3-layer eVent waterproof coming along. It breathes well, the thumb loops are great for wearing gloves over and the athletic fit is excellent. Both are easy choices at the present time.

Approach Layers - Icebreaker GT150 Velocity SS Crew and Arc'teryx Palisade Cropper
Whilst I like the Montane Bionic, I keep gravitating back to 100% merino wool. It's a comfort thing. Icebreaker's GT150 range is ultra lightweight, sleek merino, with lycra interwoven which keeps the fit athletic and makes drying swifter. I wash my base layer frequently in the alps, so quick-drying is essential. I also find that a full-length trouser simply does not permit airflow as much as a pair of shorts. That said, I don't really like shorts. Nigel Shepherd, the guide we used on the CHR and with whom we'll be climbing again in November and perhaps even in the alps next year, works with Salomon and Arc'teryx, and sported a nifty 3/4 length number on the CHR. I liked them and so got a pair. The Palisade Cropper arrived recently from Germany - the only place I could find them - and I have high hopes. Very light (256g), they are quick drying, light and stretchy TerraTex fabric (a blend of nylon and spandex). I like Arc'teryx - they are so often the founders of superb and innovative kit concepts and copied relentlessly - the only problem is they are, like Norrøna, eye-wateringly expensive. These cost €100. The proprietary TerraTex feels great - like stretchy crépe paper - with a fleece lining around the waist and wind-proof zips with vents. They come just below the knee and feel very good indeed - in a hot, balmy alpine ascent, they will be very nice to wear whilst keeping the sun off my legs, knees in particular, as much as possible. There was nothing at all wrong with the Terra pants which these will replace, although I confess to finding the waist uncomfortable - the Palisade series is far superior in that regard - I just don't need a full pant for approaches and valleys.

Altitude/Glacial Layers - Mountain Equipment Liskamm pants & Rab Vapour-Rise Smock
As soon as you set foot on a glacier, it feels like opening the door of a freezer. The temperature drops palpably and falling on a glacial is like falling on sharp, rugged glass. Long sleeves are essential, not least because the glacier reflects the sun as well so protection from UV is also desirable. In the Mountain Equipment Liskamm pants, I found a supremely comfortable, stretchy, durable, breathable and exceptional pant. Perhaps too many zips for my liking, but they vent well as a result so I am not complaining. I wore them high up, with nothing but X-Bionics boxers underneath and felt no cold at all, and I wore them low down as well when the heat did not cause me to sweat uncontrollably. They were excellent. I cannot speak as to the gaiters in-built because I always wore gaiters with them anyway.

The Rab Vapour-Rise has proved to be something of a gem. If I sweated profusely as a consequence of the effort of climbing in snow, the next day it was dry even if hung up in a damp room. I wore it against the skin alone, or on top of the Patagonia R1 hoody and it was excellent. Wind simply bleeds off it. The hood is good - functional and easy to adjust (it won't take a helmet though) and the water-resistant DWR finish means that snow is repelled sufficiently. This is not a waterproof, nor does it claim to be, but it does just about everything else. It's also very pleasant to wear. The deep zip is a two-way so I found I would often vent my manly chest to the elements on ascents. The pockets (three of them) are also vents.

Insulation and Hut wear - Patagonia R1 Hoody and Rab Generator Vest
The Patagonia R1 has been a favourite of mine this year - a classic, redesigned and re-released, it is excellent for wearing under a harness. I also use it as my primary top in huts. It dries quickly inside, especially after a sweaty day like the one we had on the Pigne and pretty quickly outside too. It is comfortable and the only gripe are the thumb loops which mean that the wrist area gets wet - either from wear or from snow - if you do not have gloves on. It's not a major issue for me. However, I also found that an express Primaloft One insulation layer would have been useful had the weather been worse. I do not need a full jacket, and I needed something big enough to go over the top of anything I was wearing - on a belay or when sitting on a summit or outside a hut. A vest/gilet was therefore the obvious option and down was clearly not going to work if the vest was to be outside everything else. The Rab Generator has been getting rave reviews for years, is lightweight and I find Rab kit to be exceptional quality - sam Haraldson once accused me of being a Rab Poster Child. He may be right but Rab seem to be in halcyon days right now, producing reams of top quality new kit. And 100g of Primaloft One beats the 60g in my Patagonia Nano Puff and it weighs almost the same at 260g.

Underwear - X-Bionics Trekking Shorts and M&S Cotton Boxers
I cannot fault the X-Bionics Trekking Shorts with one notable exception - they have a hole in them. Given the nature of the fabric, stitching is unlikely and so a patch will be necessary unless I just leave and see what happens. I am surprised and disappointed but they are so comfortable, easy to wash and dry overnight and so effective that I can live with this minor issue. Still - I wonder whether X-Bionics would say this is a one-off or whether others have had this problem. M&S Cotton boxers? Really? I sleep in them and frankly, sleeping in comfort is essential. So yes. Really. I haven't weighed them yet, though.

Gloves - Ninja ICE HPT gloves and Buffalo Mitts
Ron Walker put me onto the Ninja ICE HPT gloves which come from Canada and I looked at them in detail when looking at my CHR kit prior to the trek. They allow me significant freedom of movement and real world warmth in Scottish Winter cold, let alone alpine cold. They're very good. Buffalo mitts are stashed in a lid pocket for when we hit cols or summits and I need to get my hands warm but I am not using technical equipment so the Ninja gloves are stashed away. They're so light (50g) and versatile - warm when wet, quick drying and easy to pull on.

Boots and Gaiters - Scarpa Manta and Rab Latok Mid
The Manta was perfect. Sure, lots of people in the Alps have La Sportiva Nepal boots which are B3 boots, and the consummate choice for the mountaineer. And they look great - kinda sexy if you can say that about a mountaineering boot. But the Manta is just that little bit more flexible. Just that little bit more comfortable. And no one else wears them on the continent so I don't look like another guided mountain groupie. They were great on the CHR - comfortable, great on rock, solid in crampons, breathable, waterproof and frankly, exactly what I want. No questions, no answers. Just good.

I don't need a full length gaiter. They're heavy, stop my legs breathing sufficiently well and are unnecessary even in deep snow especially with the Schoeller fabric in the Liskamm pants. A mid gaiter is fine. So the Rab Latok Mid is on order and I'll post on them some other time. Essential points are adjustability, easy fitting in the morning and lightweight at 144g.

Other Equipment
Fraser put me onto the Petzl XP2 head torch - at 88g with batteries it is light but very powerful. It also has a red light function which does not ruin your night vision in a hut at night, nor does it disturb people if you absolutely have to get up to go to the loo - in the Bertol Hut, this is a genuine experience but you've already heard about that. I did not take my Suunto Vector, choosing instead to rely on the Garmin Foretrex 401. I think, in fact, from now on I'll take both as the Vector is more than simply useful on the hill - getting to and from the alps really does require a watch! The Foretrex is a pleasant thing to have and so much of it crosses over with the Vector that I should perhaps ditch it but it's light, the batteries are the same as the XP2 and knowing what the statistics are at the end of each day is something I enjoy. So it stays.

I also took my Amazon Kindle on the CHR and found that I did indeed use it a lot. I adore reading, and I wasn't sure I'd take to a Kindle but I have and in a big way. I carry more than 50 books and PDF files (manuals for various pieces of equipment as well as trip notes and so on) on it so it's a fantastically versatile item. At 240g, it's worth its weight. Literally. I don't take a cover - it is protected in my clothing dry bag.

I also take some McNett Tenacious Tape, and it stays in a Podsacs 2 litre dry bag with my passport, tickets and other paperwork. Two other Alpkit Airlok 13 litre dry bags keep my spare clothes and pretty much everything else I need, dry.

Personal Administration
I take a bottle of camp wash which will wash both me and my clothes. 100ml is more than enough between two of us for a week or for one of us for two weeks. A Lifeventure Microfibre Pack Towel (Large, 110 x 62, 138g) is a preference to the Sea to Summit Pack Towel which I find gets wet almost immediately and does not dry me at all. The slightly heavier towel is just more comfortable and more effective. Toothbrush and toothpaste completes the picture. Riemann Suncream is expensive but very effective in the mountains. Having used it for a month in total, I can say this - put it on and do nothing for 15 minutes (nothing sweaty anyway) and then off you go. It is waterproof, sweat-resistant and works ALL DAY without re-application. 100ml lasts two people two weeks. It is an oil rather than a cream so you do not get that white mess I associate with suncream. It's really very good indeed. I also carry a First Aid Kit which I have detailed in another post.

Sunglasses - Oakley Flak Jackets
Oakley Flak Jackets are great. I love the way they look and they work well. They mist up sometimes so I may well try a pair of glacier glasses (like the Julbo Explorer Chameleon) but for now, I am happy with them. I take the case they come in too, to protect them.

Camera Equipment - Lumix TZ10
I adore the Panasonic Lumix TZ10. I reviewed it some time ago and it has not disappointed me. I am moving towards extending the boundaries of my photography and I have just bought a Canon EOS 60D SLR with a Tamon 17-50mm SP wide angle lens. I won't take the SLR mountaineering, but as I learn to play with exposure and filters, the TZ10 will permit me some flexibility too. It takes superb pictures and I carry a spare battery in the Lowe Pro Apex AW20. I also carry a Joby Gorillapod which, apart form being so versatile, is the lightest tripod I could find. It all works together. I even dropped the camera into a river whilst it was in the Apex on the TMB - not a scratch or a drop entered the pouch. Great stuff.

So that's my alpine kit for the coming 12 months. Perhaps it will change after that, perhaps not. A lot will depend on what freebies I get...

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Twitter - dragging me into 2011

Martin Rye once asked if Twitter was relevant. That was some time ago. I had no opinion either way except to say that I have always liked the concept of bringing people together - "man is a social animal" said both Aristotle and Spinoza, in different times and different ways. The outdoor blogging community is a strong one and populated largely by people of integrity and kindness. Their capacity for generosity and desire to help others knows few boundaries.

Following the advice of someone I trust, I jumped in. Should you care to, the Follow Me link can be found on the right.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Classic Haute Route, Days 10-11: Cabane des Vignettes to the Schönbielhütte

The Dix Hut, the Vignettes Hut and the Schönbielhütte all have one thing in common - they are part of the Monte Rosa Section of the Club Alpin Suisse. Next year my intention is to summit some of the 4000m peaks in the Monte Rosa massif and so I will be within spitting distance of these huts again. I am beginning to feel a connection with the alps that is growing with each day I spend there. I love alpine huts too. It has crossed my mind to camp but it simply does not fit what I am trying to achieve: I enjoy the atmosphere of the hut in the afternoon after an early alpine start. I appreciate being among other alpinists recounting their own tales and being able to reflect on my own morning's climbing with a cool beer and the promise of a comfortable bed. Alpine huts are steeped in as much history as is alpine guiding. With the older ones, and even those that have been rebuilt on the sites of much older huts, there is something else in the atmosphere - the spirits of alpinists past who made these places their home. Simply being a small part of that is special.

Day Ten: The Vignettes Hut to the Bertol Hut
Ascent: 1,071m
Descent: 942m
Highest Point: Col de l'Eveque (3,382m)
Distance: 16km
Time: 8hr 13mins

It is to be yet another long day. We must leave the Vignettes Hut under cover of darkness, along with a horde of others, and head across the Glacier du Mont Collon towards the Col de l'Eveque. From there we descend the ugly, bitty Haute Glacier d'Arolla to a glacial runoff leading to the Plans de Bertol and then the almost 1,000m ascent to the Bertol Hut which spans a mere 2km. That is to say the ascent is pretty much straight up. And today, it's going to be warm. Perfect. I hope they have cold beer up there.

I descend the metal steps of the hut in the very early morning darkness, dodging a number of fellow alpinists also getting themselves ready for the day. Within seconds I am at the top of the snowy slope leading down to Arollla and I search out a place to put on my crampons. It leaves me smiling as I write this in the comfort of my home that even a delicate slip then would have left me careering down the mountainside with nothing to stop me but telekinesis, but I felt completely comfortable. Such is the melange of early morning sleepiness and the confidence of 9 days of alpine trekking. My crampons on, I tie onto the end of the rope whilst the others get themselves organised. It is something of a melee this morning - not quite the horror of the Albert 1er Hut, but busy nonetheless. Eventually, we are all ready and begin to move off. A short hop along the snow trench and then onto rocky moraine is followed by the tiny glacier of the previous day. Of course this time I am acutely aware of the precipitous drop and have to force myself into a relaxed frame of mind - otherwise, I doubt I'd have let my crampons remain in the Villain. As we stroll, think Sunday afternoon after a roast dinner, I gaze back at the Vignettes, watching as the rising sun casts a gentle halo around it. The sky begins to redden at the horizon, segueing into purple and then deep blue until the stars occupy a velvet sheet of black. Soon we are back on moraine and by the time we reach the Glacier du Mont Collon, there is enough light to stow head-torches. This time we split into two rope teams as we cross the flat and utterly straightforward Mont Collon glacier. In fact, the only engaging thing about this is the can of food from around 1940s that I stoop down to examine. We pass in the footsteps of Mont Collon itself and then begin the long, draining ascent to the Col de l'Eveque. In fact, it's around 160m of ascent but it feels like 1,600m. It's the snow that does it. By the time we have reached the col, my thighs are burning as if some kind soul has injected arsenic into my bloodstream. Yet the sun has painted the sky a bright, endless blue and frankly, it is impossible to feel anything other than joyous. We stop on the col to savour the views and ready ourselves for the descent onto the Haute Glacier d'Arolla.

Initially, the descent seems straightforward, but soon it becomes bitty and uncomfortable. The ice is impenetrable and unyielding, strafed with bulbous tiny nodules which make walking even with crampons tricky. Again, we find ourselves in territory requiring assiduous concentration. The only blessing is that the views down into the valley are sublime. I lean backwards, ensuring every crampon point digs into the ice - slamming my foot down when necessary, driving points in, willing them in. 

When I think that at the top of the Pigne I could see our route today, it seems so long that I find it hard to believe sometimes how much distance and ascent/descent we cover each day almost nonchalantly now. Yet I make sure that I stop often enough to enjoy the surroundings - after all, it is why I am here. We move quickly, of course, we always do in the alps but ignoring the vista is sacrilegious behaviour. I cannot do it. We have a break awaiting us at the Plans de Bertol and I look forward to our packed lunch from the Vignettes Hut - we paid enough for it (£13). It should include some Harrods caviar at that price.

Yet before we can eat, we need to ford the glacial runoff that runs, or should I say rages, through the valley. This should be simple but in fact it takes far longer than it should to find a part of the torrent that we can actually ford. There are comic photos I could share but not everyone would thank me. Discretion is the better part of valour. We reach our lunch spot - at the base of our stunningly sheer ascent - and settle down to the Vignettes' speciality. Sadly, their best amounts to dry, stale bread (which, I should mention, is a staple of Swiss alpine hut breakfasts), a hunk of fairly mundane cheese, some salami and an apple that has the firmness of an overripe peach. I eat what I can but in truth, it is profoundly unpalatable. I turn to snickers.

I could write myriad paragraphs on the ascent to the Bertol hut - not because it would be interesting to read - quite the reverse. As you wade through the seemingly endless morass of words, desperately hoping for the end to come and wondering why you were here at all, you would gain a sense, far more eloquently and directly, of the feelings I was experiencing as I clambered, staggered and stumbled to the base of the crags and the ladders leading to the hut. As the alpine heat seared the top layers of my skin from my head and upper body, and sweat poured onto the mountainside, I was fatalistic. The hut, perched atop a crag like the House of Usher, seemed to come no closer despite the toil and misery of the ascent. Each passing moment seemed to bring us no closer to our goal. It was tragic. In fact, in the photo above, it can be seen on the right hand side of the central, triangular peak.

The one saving grace is the view of the Pigne behind us. I admit to some satisfaction when I gaze over my shoulder at that majestic sentinel.

Eventually, we reach the bottom of the ladders and what seemed, from a distance, to be an easy stage suddenly becomes via ferrata territory. We clip in to steel cord running alongside the ladders, stage by stage, and begin to climb. It's not tough really, but at the end of a hard day in the intense heat of the high alps, legs are weary. Marvellous.

But the climb up the ladders is nothing to fret about. It requires some fancy footwork to get from one to another but in reality although they are exposed, they are stable. We clip in, climb, unclip and move to the next one, and repeat until we get to the top of the rock. Turning a corner, we reach a snow slope - it's a small, pink stretch of slushy stuff with pygmy steps carved in by previous ascents. No one puts on crampons because we are, of course, blasé by now. I steal a glance back and the drop makes me wonder if perhaps that is dangerous over-confidence. Short, ostensibly easy sections like this are what trip up alpinists - the harder parts we prepare assiduously for, but these tiny fragments disappear into the cracks between the crux sections. Complacency has no place in alpinism. I dig the fronts of my boots in hard, kicking the steps deeper. I move with rhythm and don't stop. Momentum is everything. Soon we reach the final ladder to the Bertol and ditch our kit and boots in favour of the ubiquitous CAS crocs.

The Bertol is a wonderful hut, if only for its location. At 3,311m, it's the highest hut on the CHR and getting supplies in is not easy. Hence a litre bottle of water costs £8. I jest not. We are too late for food and so must wait for dinner. We stroll around the place, drinking coke (no diet coke - that's the point, they say, you need the sugar) and enjoying the atmosphere. 

Day Eleven: The Bertol Hut to the Schönbielhütte
Ascent: 801m
Descent: 1,344m
Highest Point: Tête Blanche (3,707m)
Distance: 12km
Time: 7hr 23mins

"A change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world and ourselves."
--Marcel Proust

Weather. We'd had it our way throughout the trek but we'd known that a weather front was coming for us and this morning it arrived. Overnight, we'd known that we might have to spend a second day at the Bertol Hut if the weather was too bad to leave but three other guides had travelled up to the hut which gave us confidence. At around 4am, I experience the impossible to ignore urge to relieve myself. I make my way outside - the toilets are located along a metal grill shelf next to the hut, exposed and perhaps a hundred metres above the ground below - and within seconds, I am experiencing inclement alpine weather again. Snow dots my Vapour-Rise, shrugged on as I knew where it was hanging up, and my cotton boxers. The light from my head torch casts an eerie glimmer across the hut as I walk along the grating towards the 'toilet block'. Behind them are the urinals. Outside. In the snow. Bless. As I head back, I take a moment to pop across to the other side of the walkway to take a look at the Pigne. The weather over there is not quite as treacherous as here and I delight in the view of my favourite place on earth.

Within what feels like moments of getting back into bed, I hear our alarm going off. The other residents of our dortoir, an Austro-Germanic group also doing the Haute Route, but a a shortened version, are also getting up at the same time as us. Their guide Benedict is in discussion with Nigel and the other guides. The result involves getting back into bed until the weather clears - we hope for a break within an hour. We lie chatting, wondering what will happen. I pull out my Kindle and begin to read. Around 7am, Nigel pokes his head through the door and we are given the green light. We are practised now - getting our kit ready and getting out to the veranda to get roped up takes minutes. The descent from the hut involves yet more ladders, slick with wet snow, and then a narrow path which hugs the mountainside - chains are essential this time and the path just about takes a boot. We descend roped and have to work together seamlessly to reach the glacier. On go crampons and we begin. The Austro-German group is some way ahead, but they acknowledge we have been moving more quickly and that we will soon catch them up. It doesn't matter, the only thing we want to stay ahead of is the weather.

As we cut diagonally across the top of the Glacier du Mont Miné, the terrain is level and easy. The snow is thick and supports us, permitting crampons to bite in comfortably. It is pleasant walking. In the distance, however, we see the remnants of the overnight storm ahead of us in the form of misty, silken clouds. Yet behind us, deep into the Val d'Anniviers and towards the Lac de Moiry and the Cabane de Moiry, places I had been before, the inky pall is far more insidious - a malignant, coal-black nightmare and a reminder of what alpine weather is capable of. At the Albert 1er Hut on the first night, we had seen a storm across the valley towards Chamonix. That had stolen our breath in an icy vice. Now, exposed on the glacier, the storm seemingly only a few kilometres away, I am ever so slightly cautious.

I can see the Tête Blanche in the distance. That is the problem with high alpine routes - the summits can be so easily seen but the snow and glacial terrain puts them so much further in the distance than they are in reality because the landscape is such an energy-sapping endeavour. Yet, I focus on it and continue forward. Benedict and his group can be seen in the distance now, perhaps 500m ahead of us and we are slowly gaining on them with each passing moment. They stop for a break and we pass them - nods and schoolboy German greeted by the same and much better English. That's the thing about Europeans, they all seem to speak our language better than the vast majority of us speak any of theirs. We should be embarrassed.

The ascent of the Tête Blanche is nothing to waste words on except to say this - a snow plod may sound like a simple matter of one foot in front of the other, but do not under-estimate the sheer force of will required to keep going in deep snow. In addition to that, I am hauling the man behind me who is losing fitness fast. As I bleed energy into the snow, through gritted teeth dragging my own body and his, my own pack and his (overweight) 60 litre monster, I am at once frustrated and having murderous thoughts. I grumble in order to let out some of the frustration. Know who you're roped to, I said previously - let this be a lesson to you. We reach the summit and, for a period of perhaps fifteen minutes that we are there, it is swathed in cloud and we see nothing at all but the summit cairn and cross themselves. Eventually, Benedict's group arrive and we exchange congratulatory words. We then depart and, as we do so, taking altimeter readings for navigation, we drop out of the cloud. The view is, without a doubt, one of the most striking and vivid I have witnessed for a very long time. The Matterhorn, at once malevolent ogre and yet somehow regal, sits waiting for us overlooking the valley leading to Zermatt. The Stockji glacier, and the Stockji itself are on show, goading us to take them on. All framed by the same coal-black purgatory veiling the Val d'Anniviers. There is no escape it seems.

We press on, moved by this drama. The descent is classic deep snowdrift - all sinking and stumbling as we lean back to maintain balance when our boots and gaiters vanish into the snow. I look back at the Tête Blanche and, of course, it is bathed in sunshine. In fact, we feel the gentle warmth of the sun ourselves as the clouds part towards the bottom of the valley - a far cry from the feeling of less than half an hour before.

Soon we are on the Stockji Glacier, heavily crevassed with yawning, chasmic scars in the icy terrain - vast caverns within which ancient trolls and dragons might be found. The crevasses are not simply slits in the ice, but are more like huge caves, making us feel small and insignificant. It is a hugely technical endeavour as we carve a complicated, switchback route across the glacier, keeping the rope tight between us and varying pace to allow each of us to jump across the lesions on the ice.

There is a path of sorts, movement of others before us, and we follow it for a while, but it is difficult to see at times and we must make our own choices. After a while, we stop, having reached the edge of the glacier where it meets the Stockji itself - a moraine monster that we must climb and circumnavigate. We have to abseil down the edge of the glacier and onto rock. We sit by a pool and eat before what we know is going to be a difficult final stage to the day. We must head into the valley and traverse the broken landscape and ascend to the hut. Sounds simple but we are about to see the fractured alps at their most wrecked and ruptured.

The Stockji itself is a scrambling paradise and we are hands on almost all the way. We even have to use a rope (in-place already) to descend a 20m chimney. It is something of an impromptu playground and when we reach the end, we are disappointed by a ridge leading down simply but treacherously, on shifting ground, to a mass of boulders stretching for what seems like an interminable distance. It is fitting, in a vaguely depressing sense, that the final shinny should be across the decaying mountainside. I refuse to write about it except to say this - it took far longer than it should have done and extracted from me, literally, blood sweat and tears. The rest I consign to the dusty annals of my subconscious.

When we finally reach the Schönbielhütte, catching sight of it as we crest a final ridge, there is a sense of genuine achievement. This is not the end, Zermatt is three easy hours away, but the hard stuff is done. The worst I can do is stub my toe on a mushroom tomorrow. When we manage to haul arse onto the veranda of the Schönbielhütte, there is a genuine moment of emotional celebration - a handshake here, a hug there. We know we haven't quite finished but we feel like we should mark this moment nonetheless. It is going to come as little surprise that it is indeed marked - by several cold beers and a plate of rösti.