Saturday, 26 February 2011

Winter Mountaineering in the Cairngorms - Part Three: Moving Together on Fiacaill Coire an t-Sneachda

After the euphoria of our first Scottish Winter Grade I climb the previous day, we were all mindful of the fact that our upcoming Alpine trips would benefit from some targeted learning. Alpine skills develop in a slightly different direction than those used in Scotland and we would require more than simply tying into a harness in order to flourish as alpinists. Glacial travel, for example, requires that the group moves together roped up - particularly on a 'wet' glacier (that is to say, one covered in snow). This requires some polishing as a skillset, not least sufficiently fathoming the taking in of coils, as well the diversity of situations entailing different rope lengths between those roped together. But I digress and I certainly don't want to begin this post in media res so I'll start at the beginning.

We congregated again at the Aviemore SYHA as the belligerent Scottish weather perpetrated its final coup de grace. Ignoring the elemental misery, we commenced our walk in and conversed cheerily about the previous day's exertions. We felt seasoned now, our winter virginity shattered, and each step in the new powder snow was taken with a more practiced poise. We were on our path now, our tao ritually engaged. As we approached the Fiacaill Coire an t-Sneachda, shrouded in a veil of thick mist, the frigid arctic wind swirled around us, menacingly chiding us of the folly of our intended bearing. Ignoring this exhortation, we continued on to a small patch of rocky ground in order to take on some calories, hydrate and prepare. The Fiacaill was an intimidating character, steep and covered in new snow which would ball up under our crampons. The going would be tough but again, it would be a serviceable introduction for us to Alpine techniques.

Donning our harnesses and tying in, Ron then began to demonstrate the process of taking in coils, securing them to convert a seat harness into a full body harness, as well as the principles of moving together. We should be able to do it in bad weather, he reasoned, so we concentrated and assimilated all he said as the heavens assaulted our position with inclemency. For some time we practised the skills we'd need, and asked questions related to our own particular alpine endeavours. Our next step would be to ascend up to Fiacaill Coire an t-Sneachda in order to consolidate some of the skills we used the day before, as well as to learn how to hold a slip when moving together. This, to me, seemed an essential competency as I considered the glaciers I had seen in the Alps in August last year and knowing we'd be crossing those come August this year.

For those willing to learn, the BMC DVD 'Alpine Essentials' is a good place to start and this video demonstrates the skills we learned.

Eventually the time came to rope up together in pairs and ascend. Initially, it is a slow, cumbersome and awkward affair - a close relationship to your partner is the essential nucleus of the methodology - but eventually, as you both get used to the new ground, it becomes easier. Swift but disciplined progress is necessarily the safest course in the Alps with avalanches, and changes in the constitution of the snow underfoot, becoming increasingly likely as the day wears on but slow, slow is the only way to begin with. We practised holding slips and slides in the deep, fresh snow until eventually Ron gave us the behest to begin climbing properly. We soon reached our first belay, and whilst the terrain was nowhere near as steep as Jacob's Ladder the day before, it had its own set of unique challenges. We climbed together, kicking into the snow with our crampons and driving our axes into the slope as far up the shaft as the terrain would permit. As we skirted round a bouldery outcrop, the first belay was identified perhaps 25m above us. My partner headed up and began to set himself up as I found myself a place to stop and waited. I let out the coils so he could belay me when I ascended. En route, he set up and runner to protect his, and my, ascent.

Fortunately, my wait was far shorter than yesterday and I soon began moving off - again continuing the metronomic driving of crampon front points, followed by the plunging of ice-axe shaft, into the snow. The spike would frequently bite into the icy layer below after perhaps only a half-foot or so but, again, momentum carried me forwards. Each movement was deliberate and assiduously calculated. When moving together, a slip is to be avoided at all costs as, especially if there are only two of you, there may be little your partner can do to halt your fall which inevitably results in you both hurtling towards a frigid, possibly terminal, oblivion. This is serious stuff. I gazed up at my partner, who was diligently belaying my ascent, protecting me from that potentially grave fall. Shoving such negative thoughts from my mind, I retrieved the runner and moved on. Climbing and mountaineering begets a kinship with your partner characterised by trust and reliance that is mirrored by few other disciplines - there is a joint and direct custodianship of each other's futures that necessarily kindles a level of comradeship to be genuinely savoured.

Passing my partner, I climbed quickly towards another rocky crag to where Ron stood, indicating the position of our next belay. Clove-hitching into the anchor he had already placed, I found a small spot to sit and removed my rucksack. Glancing across at my partner, we took in the rope as he made himself ready to climb. I tied his rope off as an Italian Hitch and belayed him over to us. Shunting across when he arrived, we cows-tailed a sling each into the anchor and removed our clove-hitches before fishing some roast beef and horseradish sandwiches from my pack. Cosy on our tiny ledge next to the moss-strewn boulders snuggling next to us, we ate and relished our last ascent of the course.

The views from our tiny ledge were mantled in a thick veil of cloud which the westerly wind would drift away from time to time, uncloaking the Loch Morlich, Glenmore Forest and Rothiemurchus valley below and the Fiacaill a' Choire Chas. Across from us, Steve and Mark - experienced climbers as they were, took in a little rock before clambering over the boulders separating them from us to join the party. They sat above us, cheerily munching on malt loaf and supping tea from flasks - I resisted the urge to mention Ultralightweight principles - they'd have laughed anyway and it'd have been really churlish of me - they're priorities are different to ours. Our next test would be an abseil from here down to a set of boulders some 50m below. We'd then abseil again to the middle of the slope where Mark and I would construct a snow bollard.

The abseil was interesting. We'd abseiled using both rope alone and using a belay device (a Black Diamond ATC) so we were confident. Keep your feet apart and always keep some tension on the live rope holding you - sound words of advice. Mark went first followed by my partner. I soon followed, with Steve after me. Without any knowledge of what was below me, I slowly edged over the rocks I was standing on, to get a better look - a sheer wall of granite followed the initial bouldery anarchy to be negotiated. Concentrating on foot placement, I picked a line through, letting out small lengths of rope with my right hand in chorus with my micronavigation of the descent. With my crampons biting simultaneously into snow and rock, I manoeuvred my way down and reached the first stop point. I clipped into the anchor, took a breath and watched the rope disappear up to Steve. I kicked a small ledge for myself and relaxed. When Steve finally joined us, Mark disappeared down to the middle of the slope where he carved a ledge and anchored himself using his second axe. It was a steep descent so we abseiled using the ATC again. When I joined Mark, I kicked a step for myself and, finding the snow relatively easy to carve, I kicked and carved a bigger ledge for everyone else. Then I got to work on the other half of the snow bollard. Gazing down at the drop below us, at least another 70-80m, I knew this had to be good. Digging the trench with vigour, I ensured it angled into the bollard so the rope would not ride up.

Once we were joined by our two remaining companions, Ron checked the bollard. Content with it, he gave us leave to head down. Mark went first - ever the leader, followed by me. It was an easy abseil, the slope being relatively shallow, and we did not used the ATC - we simply roped down - careful to keep the rope low so there was no chance of it lopping over the top of the bollard. When we got to the end of the rope - knotted to avoid us simply abseiling off -  we kicked our feet into the slope and drove our axes in to await the arrival of everyone else. We front pointed down until the slope was shallow enough to use hybrid technique. Eventually, we reached the flat, central nucleus of the Coire and began the walk back. As if to applaud our achievement, the sun drifted through the cloud to bestow on us Scotland's final radiant benevolence.

Again, I felt a surge of exhilaration - this had by no means been as tough a proposition as the previous day's escapade but it had been marked by its own examinations. We had finished the course too - perhaps enkindling a feeling of sadness tinged what was otherwise genuine delight. After 5 days of intense tutelage, we had learned so much and come so far. Our embryonic skillset had finally been born into a tiny bundle of postulant raw competence to be nurtured and polished until we were adolescent mountaineers and ready for the Alps. We had much to be proud of as we gazed at the long road ahead of us.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Winter Mountaineering in the Cairngorms - Part Two: Jacob's Ladder, Coire an t-Sneachda

It was to be a crux day. Our inaugural winter climb and a thorough examination of our embryonic skillset. Jacob's Ladder in the Coire an t-Sneachda is a tangible Grade I gully requiring, for us, 4 pitches to reach the crest of the plateau. A sheer, attenuated fracture in the sable mountainside buttressed by immense slabs of vengeful rock, besieged by ice and névé, the gradient grows sharply more precipitous, to almost vertical, as the ridgeline approaches. There is a small cornice, this winter, at the top which is a troublesome and decidedly inconvenient last move. The majority of the gully ascent would require front pointing and two axes, as well as strength and determination. Fear was omnipresent. Even the rocks on the approach looked like tombstones. Yes, it was to be a crux day for us mountaineering neophytes.

The approach to Jacob's Ladder, into the cauldron of the Coire itself, is completely unsheltered, dragging wind and rain into its core, nurturing a rimy, icy blanket to be traversed with utmost care. We'd be carrying full climbing equipment, including 50m of rope, as well as our usual day kit and the walk-in would be well over an hour. The plan was, as Steve and Mark were experienced rock climbers (although everything else on the course was as new even to them as it was to us) they would construct their own pitches whilst supervised by Ron. We'd also do the first two pitches ourselves before Ron directed us for the last two. All in all, I'll confess to some nerves the preceding night and little sleep. Even a Grade I gully is a serious undertaking and, for a first climb, this was a genuine assessment of whether we had the nerve and proficiency to continue into the dominion of the mountaineer and alpinist. A fall, with poorly constructed belays, would prove serious, if not fatal. This is not a playground - people die here.

Thankfully, although windy, with some wind-born snow, the weather chose not to throw much else at us. Yet, that was enough. As we approached the base of Jacob's Ladder, the ice was so bad we had to cut steps to get to a rock escarpment where we could eat, add another layer and secure crampons. Already we'd seen one couple leaving the Coire having suffered injury. We cut a block in the snow to do an avalanche test to find windslab a foot thick at least - avalanche risk in the area was high.

We laboriously ascended a steep patch of icy ground, hybrid technique this time to save our muscles, plunging axes in as far as they'd go for support. When we reached the site of our first pitch, I decided to dig a bucket seat and dead rope box. I drove one axe into the icy snow and put my rucksack haul loop on it to prevent it descending the 150m to the kernel of the Coire. With my other axe, I began digging. It was tortuous cutting through the icy snow but eventually I had a comfortable and secure belay. Ron constructed an anchor above me using a sling around a solid rock and I set myself up to belay my partner to the next pitch. There is serenity to settling into a well crafted bucket seat on a steep mountainside, some 1000m up, with an uninstructed view of the world around. Protected from the frigid cold by the arcane genius of Páramo, I revelled in the peace of those moments juxtaposed with the tension of waiting to start my part of the climb. Yet that peace was brutally shattered as I heard, as clear as crystal, a fall above me. Mark, hurtling down the slope, snapped sharply when the runner he had placed, securely as it transpired, halted his fall like a gunshot - Steve, reacting in a heartbeat, took the weight through his own belay and Mark hung around for a moment before composing himself, voicing his thanks to Steve and continuing his ascent. His mistake - an infinitesimal downhill edging of his crampon - was enough to rob him of his footing and send him barrelling earthwards. It was a salutary lesson for all four of us.

Courtesy of Ron Walker, Talisman Mountaineering

Eventually, I heard the call from my partner and he began taking in the rope until I shouted "that's me" and got myself ready to climb. Tipping back my head and gazing up the gully, my heart started to pound as blood coursed through my veins like a raging torrent. I took in a breath and pulled on my rucksack. Swinging each ice axe into the névé, before moving a crampon-laden boot and driving the front points into the crusty white carapace, I moved at first like a newborn giraffe - ungainly and deeply unsure of my footing. Eventually, my progress became something approaching rhythmic symbiosis and I gained in both speed and confidence. I retrieved the runner en route and moved past my partner's belay and further up the gully. My calves were on fire such was the effort required to drive the crampons in for a secure foothold. This was a long stretch but necessary - it set the stall for the rest of the climb. Frequently, I would be struck by falling ice from climbers above and I took a line to one side. However, I'd have to traverse the gully as our next pitch was across to the other side. When I arrived, the first, there was little in the way of a stable base to rest my aching legs - no serene bucket seat here. As I reached a bouldery outcrop where Ron had set up a sling anchor, I clipped in and tried to cut myself a step with my crampons - not much luck and the angle was too tight to use my axe. I kicked in as hard as I could, repeatedly and determinedly, trying to secure a comfortable foothold. It was a long wait for my partner to reach me at the belay and my muscles grew steadily more tired over the course of what seemed like hours. I tried to ignore the tortured protests of the conflagration in my muscles and instead, through gritted teeth, savoured the view. The wind howled around me, stinging my skin with spindrift, but in reality, it could have been worse. Here I was, half way up my first winter gully and my progression from hillwalker to mountaineer had really begun.

Courtesy of Ron Walker, Talisman Mountaineering

At long last, my partner arrived, followed shortly thereafter by Steve and Mark. It was a crowded anchor and moving off was a complicated procedure involving an unhealthy degree of intimacy and intricate footwork. Nevertheless, move off we did, and this time, Ron led us up the final, far more steeply inclined pitch. My partner and I were roped together and moved as one, by now used to the coalition of ice-axe and crampon placement. The névé grew harder to penetrate and the front points of the crampons began to go in less firmly and it was sheer momentum that kept us from slipping, rather than the rapid, deep kicks we tried to place into the gully wall. By now, muscles we had not been aware of began to scream in agony but we had no choice but to push on. Mercifully, in far shorter a time than I had anticipated, we reached the heavily corniced overhand that marked the end of the gully and the plateau. A tricky but eminently possible few moves and that was it.

As I hauled myself in an ungainly, exhausted fashion across it, I was overcome with elation. I moved swiftly away from the edge, crampons satisfyingly surefooted now, and sat, enervated and emotional, amid some rocks whilst munching on a snickers and guzzling the last of my water. My first Grade I climb and I cannot put into words the feeling of euphoria that cascaded over me. As others crested the plateau from other routes, I gazed, stupefied, and determined that this was one of the very best days.

The views from the 1171m plateau were breathtaking - we could do little but wander round, the wind whistling in our heads, and simply let our eyes dance across the vista, caressing each undulating mountainous apex with unbridled joy and rapture. We chatted happily with others, who had just completed climbs of their own, and felt like we'd really arrived. It was the start of something special - something truly exotic and unfamiliar - and we loved it. I confess to some relief that the walk down past 1141 and along Fiacaill a' Choire Chas was a straightforward, if rather lengthy one, in deep snow, but it passed in an icy whirlwind so smitten was I with the day's events. As we trudged through the deep snow to the Ski Area car park, my legs began to feel the energy sapping effects of my exertions coupled with the repeated sinking into yawning whiteness, but I could not have cared less. As night drew in, I simply smiled.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Winter Mountaineering in the Cairngorms - Part One

Ron Walker MIC, of Talisman Mountaineering, is exactly what I'd hoped for when I sought someone to guide my ever-present hillwalking companion and I into the penumbra of the shadowy domain of the mountaineer. A diminutively wiry, unassailably indomitable character possessed of infinite calm and patience, he exudes practiced self-assurance which, by a process of osmosis, set us amateurs at ease - a fact which is of no small behoof to those of us venturing into the arctic tundra of the Scottish mountains in winter for the first time. When we arrived at Cairngorm Mountain Cafe in Aviemore, very early Saturday morning, to meet Ron and our other fellow students, we did not really know what to expect despite copious research and familiarity with the BMC 'Winter Essentials' DVD and various official texts on the topic of developing winter hillwalking and mountaineering skills. Learning new skills has always filled me with an odd marriage of passion and anxiety - the fear of failure is to me perhaps greatest fear of all. Also, as an experienced hillwalker but utterly without any sort of rock climbing experience, I felt a little under examination. That morning, the weather was generous to us, perhaps suspecting it was our first day and benevolently bestowing a gentler introduction than it might have done. We parked at the Cairngorm Ski Area and started our walk-in once Ron had given us some extra bits of kit - carabiners, slings and rope, and he had satisfied himself of our own choices.

The first day - as much to assess our skills as to teach the basics, was to cover movement on snow and ice, use of an ice-axe during walking and for self-arrest, and to begin using crampons. The sun cast a subtle gleam across the snow and ice, the hillside punctuated by tussocks and rocks amid the chalky veil. It was a truly lovely day. As we ascended Coire na Ciste, Ron demonstrated correct foot placement and the kicking of steps in various movements to enable clean and stable progression across difficult snowy and icy terrain, all the while discussing with us clothing choices and navigation. He is an easy, instantly likeable fellow, vastly experienced but keen to pass that knowledge on in a way that is without arrogance. A note here: correct boot choice is essential for walking on snow and ice with or without crampons - kicking steps is far easier in a B2 or B3 boot which will take crampons as well. It is a personal choice, of course. From time to time, he would stop and ensure we understood the nature of the snow around us, keen to pummel into us the importance of constant avalanche assessment. He explained the way the wind would carry snow and how we could use the prevailing wind to assess how stable the ground would be underfoot, at the same time having regard to recent snowfall and weather reports, and to the evidence around us - sastrugi, for example and raised footprints would tell us in which direction wind had been blowing and where windslab snow might have been deposited. We listened, diligently, and tried to assimilate all he was telling us. Homework, he chided, would be to ensure we understood all of this. We nodded conscientiously.

After about 300m of ascent across varied ground, without crampons, we stopped for lunch. I sat, gazing across the valley dominated by Loch Morlich and its forested cloak, and munched happily, warmed by PHD's finest down. At 800m, the vista that had unfolded before us was majestic and inspiring. I was, without a doubt, thrilled to be here. Soon after, we moved off to look for a suitable location for ice-axe self arrest training. I can see that selecting a spot is a skill in itself as ice-axe self-arrest is something that should be practised every season. We chose a spot free of rock, where we would stop of our own accord should the self-arrest fail. We chose different terrain - soft, deep snow and hard, icy stuff - to practice in different environments and to ascertain and feel the differences. Getting back up again was as much as test of our earlier-learned boot skills as it was of self-arrest techniques. For hours we did this - with and without ice-axe - until we felt comfortable. We learned how to use our axes to cut steps as we slowly, meticulously moved up icy-slopes. It was protracted, ponderous industry - clearly to be avoided if possible and to be practised in order to achieve almost metronomic efficiency. Only later would I realise how useful it could be. Once we had mastered the basics of the ice-axe discipline, we moved up the mountain to around 900m and to find another exacting spot for the use of crampons and to start some basic ropework and belay construction. 

I had no experience hitherto of rock climbing, or scrambling beyond Grade I, so little knowledge of knots and belaying principles - coming from this background meant a steeper learning curve but not an unduly onerous one thanks, in large part, to Ron's patience. We moved up and down sheer, icy slopes, with and without packs, to become attuned to our crampons and appreciate their correct use. We walked and ran up and down these slopes, front pointing, flat-footing, and using hybrid technique, until we were one with our heavy metal. It is crucial to learn that edging with boots is essential in winter, edging with crampons is forbidden - crampons should have as many points driven into the snow as possible at any one time and the direction of your foot placement should be such as to not cause the crampon points to prematurely exit the snow or ice. We moved then to a small, snowy crag and began to climb up, and belay abseils down, it. We kept doing this until it was clear that we'd need to leave in order to get back to our vehicles before nightfall. Know the time and be aware of your limitations, Ron would instruct us. Safety first at all times. The first day was by no means a gentle introduction and our limbs ached in that exuberant way they do at the end of a 'good day', which this most certainly was.

Courtesy of Ron Walker, Talisman Mountaineering

Day two began even earlier. No Ron today - Fi Chappell IML was our instructor for the day's tuition. Again we travelled to the Cairngorm Ski Area, this time to begin our walk into Coire an t-Sneachda - our base of operations for the next 8 hours. The weather was moody and sullen, and foreboding of something rather darker and more intimidating than the previous day. It was cold and the conditions underfoot were icily treacherous. Still, we avoided crampons as long as possible and we were well into the Coire before we donned our spikes. The more skill possessed walking with boots alone, the better, as crampons can easily become relied on too frequently - resulting in deskilling in walking without them - a broken crampon is not unheard of. The wind, blustery and bitter, swirled around us - reminding us that yesterday was a boon. There were many others, of varying skills levels, making their way up the disparate routes to the ridgeline of the coire - Aladin's Couloir and Jacob's Ladder being the most popular with a few specks dotted on the route up the Fiancaill Ridge. Our aim for the day was far less ambitious - digging emergency shelters as well as working more with crampons.

From time to time I would remind myself that, although this was a day for skills, the views across the Cairngorms and the mountains of Scotland were awe-inspiring. Whilst it was cold, Páramo Aspira, coupled with a Patagonia R1 Hoody, was all I needed to stay warm, particularly as the work we were doing was hard. Excavating an emergency shelter in the snow is energy sapping toil and consequently very much a last resort. If the snow is hard icy old snow below the soft newer stuff, then it can be arduous indeed. Cutting lintels to form a buttress across the roof of a shelter is particularly tricky and challenging labour in hard ice and snow but there is warmth to be found within an emergency shelter - from your own body heat and as shelter from the weather outside.

Upon completion of lunch within the shelters and around our rucksacks at the bottom of the slope on which we'd constructed our masterpieces, we climbed to the stop of the small ridge and began to learn the art of digging snow bollards. This is a fundamental skill and mastery of it involves an understanding of the strength of the snow being used compared with the size of the bollard needed. It was crucial that we got this right as we'd be abseiling off the ridge using our own bollards. A snow bollard is a horseshoe-shaped trench in the snow around which your rope will go - the 'live' ends of the rope come out of the ends of the 'horseshoe'. As such, the bottom of the bollard trench is angled into the bollard slightly to prevent the rope sliding over the top of the bollard and it is vital that you keep your body and the rope low to avoid this too. How deep, and the diameter of the bollard, will depend on the quality of the snow you are using - hard, icy snow will require a smaller bollard and vice versa. As Andy Kirkpatrick points out, "...The snow bollard should be treated as a suspect anchor, with shock and load being kept to the minimum. The anchor can be backed up by having a person below it sitting in a bucket seat and ready to hold the ropes if they start to pull through. Once the leader is down it can be assumed that the bollard is up to the job."

We learned three abseil techniques (with rope alone and no belay device) - classic, South African and a quick, easy technique for less steep slopes which require swift movement rather than a slow, deliberate abseil. I prefer the South African, which creates a semi-harness under the seat and which is far more stable and comfortable than the classic technique. The South African is achieved by standing, facing the bollard (back to the descent), between the rope at both exits of the bollard, crossing the strands behind your back at waist level, and back round to the front, then pulling both strands together between your legs towards your back and then holding (in my case) in your right hand, slightly away from your body and to the right. A twist around the wrist will create more friction if necessary. As you move down the slope, you slowly let out the rope. Bear in mind that you are in complete control of your descent and therefore responsible for your own destiny. I advise proper training, therefore, rather than a quick read of a blog! Get this wrong and nothing else will stop your fall into the abyss below...

The night brought yet more homework as we practised ropework with ropes Ron had loaned us. It's a deeply amusing spectacle for the uninitiated to watch to grown men playing with ropes in a living room.

Day Three began with some classroom stuff in the Aviemore SYH as the weather was poor but due to improve towards the afternoon. With harnesses, crabs, belay devices and lengths of rope we practised getting into the harness, tying various knots, tying into the harness and using a belay device - all with gloves on and off. We did this until we could do it blindfolded. As we did so, Ron talked us through the application of what we were practising, both in the Scottish mountains and for Alpine use. The next day would be a day of using these skills in an ascent of Jacob's Ladder in Coire an t-Sneachda, followed by some Alpine techniques the day after. This is one of the strengths of Ron's tutelage - he is able to tailor the course to the specific requirements of his students. We had a need to learn some Alpine techniques such as moving together, and roping up for glacier travel, so he could do that for us as well.

As the weather improved slightly, we made our move into the still blizzard conditions within the Cairngorms again. Visibility was poor but we found a sheltered valley and moved inwards. We located, a short walk in, a reasonable slope thick with new snow to learn the gentle arts of the bucket seat (and dead rope box), the ice-axe belay and to dig more snow bollards. We then, having dug one of each, put them to use ascending, and abseiling down, the slope.

Courtesy of Ron Walker, Talisman Mountaineering

The first three days were intended to give us sufficient grounding to put into practice, over the final two crux days of the course, everything we'd learned so far. It was to be a stressful, tiring period marked with tremendous emotion and euphoria as we saw, for the first time, how everything we'd learned came together.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

On Winter Sleeping Mats (An Unexpected Newcomer)

I had intended this to be a comparison of the Big Agnes Insulated Air Core and the Pacific Outdoor Equipment Peak Elite AC. For reasons which will become clear in due course, this post is now more an analysis of both those mats in comparison with (without wishing to give the game away) the SI mat which I view as better than both in winter conditions - the Pacific Outdoor Equipment Peak Oyl Mtn.

We slept on Yewbarrow at around 450m. Temperatures hovered around the 0C mark and heavy rain and persistent, strong wind made for an uncomfortable night. In truth, it was not cold enough to warrant a 4-season mat, but I tend to sleep cold and even at 3-4C, I have found the short Neo Air I normally use to be a little chilly. As a consequence of the failure of my bag to deal with the condensation in the Akto, we sadly only had one night in the fells, spending the other in Keswick. I did not get a chance to test the Peak Elite AC as I used the Big Agnes IAC that night. However my companion used the Peak Elite and reported on it the next day whilst we sat in a Keswick taproom, imbibing - in fact, we discussed all our mats that day because my brother in law had arrived with his brand new POE Peak Oyl Mtn. The Peak Elite AC was considered to be very comfortable, easy to inflate and use, and more than warm enough for the conditions. Nothing more could be asked of any mat and my Initial Analysis of POE Peak Elite AC can be found here. It performed as expected and was not too delicate (at 33 denier) to cause concern to him about puncture. I'll do a more thorough review after some more time in the hills with it.

The Big Agnes IAC also performed sufficiently well to justify its existence. It was warm enough, comfortable and did the job I needed it to do. On balance, I would probably have preferred it to be longer and it's here that the Peak Elite AC beats it. In winter, I would probably choose the Peak Elite AC over the Big Agnes IAC but this is a feature of the length/weight balance rather than warmth.

Peak Oyl Mtn
However, as POE have revitalised their range for 2011, the newcomer SI mat is the Peak Oyl Mtn (not the older Peak Oyl Aero Mtn, which is heavier by some distance). Vital Statistics, according to POE, are as follows:

  • Bio-mapped stuffed diamonds increase warmth to provide a good night sleep in cold conditions;
  • 40% Bio-based foam lessens the environmental impact by using a rapidly renewable source;
  • Durable, abrasion resistant 50 Denier DRS Recycled P.E.T nylon fabric;
  • Diamond die cutting reduces weight and pack size;
  • Insulated bermed side rails keeps you in the saddle to prevent waking up half on half off;
  • 550g for the regular version (we weighed it without its stuffsack and it was not the marketed 690g at all, but this is explained below); and
  • A thermal R-rating of 3.5 on the legs and 5.0 on the Torso. 

For reasons that arise as a consequence of the manufacturing process, and the variable composition and density of the foam used, our example of the Peak Oyl Mtn weighed less than advertised but with the same insulating and supportive properties. The weight quoted, I am told by POE, is the maximum weight the Peak Oyl Mtn will be.

My conclusion is that the sure winner of the three, most effectively balancing weight with effectiveness, must be the Peak Oyl Mtn. It's warmth is better than the 4.4 of the Peak Elite AC. It is extremely durable but, if it punctures, you'll still have some insulation regardless - perhaps enough to keep you safe if not comfortable. It packs down to a much smaller size than billed by POE too - it is not far off the Peak Elite AC and Big Agnes IAC. It is very comfortable indeed, according to my brother in law, and very warm. Sure, the Peak Elite AC is lighter, but the Peak Oyl Mtn is a true 4-season mat. For winter, it is simply the better choice in my view.

There are a number of new mats hitting the market for Winter 2011 - a new Neo Air, a new Exped Synmat as well as forays into the mat world for companies that hitherto have not made mats. It'll be interesting, but at the moment, the Peak Oyl Mtn balances weight with functionality in a very intriguing way.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

On Buffalo

Buffalo. I'd heard of it, sure. Was it something that interested me - not at all. It just didn't sit with what I had traditionally considered the optimum way to clothe oneself in an outdoor setting - the timeless layering system. The same chap that recommended Páramo to me, equally vociferously extolled the virtues of Buffalo and it was then Dave Hanlon who unwittingly led me onto it. As he reviewed his Montane Extreme mitts, he mentioned Buffalo mitts in passing. Recognising the name, and wanting something even warmer than my Mountain Equipment Windchill Grip gloves for really cold nights, I took a look at Buffalo mitts. They seemed perfect - legendary, lightweight and warm even when wet. Then I had a little trek around the website and happened upon the Special 6. I can already hear Mrs M's sharp intake of breath followed by a demonstrable shake of the head. Nevertheless, the Special 6 is part of the DP system. This is what Buffalo say about it:

"Depending upon the usage, two types of Pertex are used as stated: Pertex 5 which is windproof to 35-40mph (56-64kph) and resists rainfall to the rate of 1/2 inch per hour (12.7mm per hour). Pertex 6 is windproof to 45-50mph (72-80kph) and resists rainfall to the same rate of 1/2 inch per hour (12.7 mm per hour). Apart from windproof performance, Pertex 6 is more abrasion resistant and is therefore used in clothing for activities where resistance to abrasion is a major concern, such as climbing. All Pertex fabrics are highly breathable, independent tests prove Pertex to be more highly breathable than any other similar fabric available.

None of the Buffalo products are intended to be waterproof, they are proofed to repel water as stated above, but they will all keep the wearer warm even when the garment is wet, as long as the wearer keeps active or if stationary just exercise every 10 minutes to keep their body temperature from dropping. All the lined overhead garments work most efficiently when worn next to the skin. In this way the pile fabric wicks moisture away from the skin more rapidly, where it is then dispersed by the Pertex to the external surface to evaporate and keep the body dry and free from chilling.

This is the fundamental principal of the Pertex/Pile system: to keep moisture away from the skin, because in cold conditions if perspiration is not allowed to escape it is retained and rapidly cools causing chilling.

Although the Mountain Shirt and other Pertex/Pile overhead garments are intended as a base layer to replace various other layers of clothing, it is recognised that in certain circumstances an under layer is sometimes needed, but if this is the case then that layer must be of a material that is able to disperse moisture away from the skin, it is extremely dangerous to wear an under layer of cotton as cotton retains moisture and very rapidly chills the body in even moderately cool temperatures, causing hypothermia.

In terms of all Buffalo overhead garments intended to be worn next to the skin, the side zips are an essential feature, not only allowing access, but to adjust for ventilation, enabling the user to regulate their body temperature. Active usage may require the zips to be lowered to ventilate and keep the body cool, but once at rest the zips should be closed to retain the body heat and keep the wearer warm whilst inactive.

The DP System is so effective at transmitting moisture that the best way of drying it is to wear it."

Hold on a moment. Wear one layer? And nothing else? In winter?! That seems crazy and totally against everything we've been taught. Yet this is clothing developed by and for the British Armed Forces. That's some pedigree. I am a lover of all things Pertex so the fact that the outer shell was Pertex got me thinking - it'll be damned breathable at least. Add some judicious venting and, as it's next to the skin, you won't overheat. Pile traps warm air almost as effectively as down (albeit in a different way) so the inner lining also seem logical. I resolved to manhandle an example in Cotswolds when I went to pick up a pair of mitts. I did more than manhandle and I walked out with mitts and a Special 6, not quite sure how this latter would fit in with the rest of my kit.

But Buffalo is tremendously durable and the security of knowing its strengths are not obviated by wet/frozen weather is something to be aware of. The British Antarctic Survey teams often use it because it can withstand frozen weather as a fabric without degrading and because it is so warm, durable and versatile. AMI instructors love it because it can be a base layer, mid layer or even go over the top of Páramo for a cold walk out of the mountains. It has a place in winter and I am very impressed by it.

The Special 6
The Special 6 is a smock. The outer is Pertex 6 (see above) and the inner lining the thick pile synonymous with Buffalo. The fit is snug, and the smock is pulled on once both zips either side of the torso are fully unzipped. Adjustments can be made via several velcro straps across these zips. A kangaroo pocket covers the midriff with a thick pile insulating front and a robust, honeycomb weave across the torso. There is a further adjustment strap within this pocket to tighten the fit of the smock across the torso. 

The cuffs are adjustable as is the neck, which is also vented by a 1/3rd zip. The smock has a long, deep hem which is not adjustable and have curved edges rather like a shirt. There is a single, chest pocket across the width of the front of the smock. The Pertex 6 is reasonably water resistant but will wet out, as most pertex does, eventually. On the basis of the suggestion that Buffalo clothing remains warm even when wet, and dries best when being worn next to the skin, this should matter little. I had the opporutnity to test this theory with the mitts which, during our ascent of Haystacks, were soaked time and time again to the point where I would literally wring them out. Not once were my fingers cold. It was very odd. I'll invest in some Extremities Tuff Bags to reduce the amount of wringing required and that, as they say, is that.

I put the Special 6 on below my Aspira Salopettes - this would be an extremely warm set-up and conditions would have to be right for it, but it does work. Alternatively, with a merino base layer, it could go atop the Salopettes. One of my companions used it all weekend, only donning an eVent shell once the precipitation became a deluge. He fell in love with it - he slept in it, ascended and descended in it and refused to take it off. In the Cairngorms, he ascended Jacob's Ladder in it, vented at the sides, and then sat atop the ridge with nothing else. When belaying, he needed no extra layer. When it rained, he reluctantly put on a shell. It is his winter layer and I mean that - he will doubtless use nothing else.

Good stuff, Buffalo. It has a place for me - I'm just not sure what its limitations are yet.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Fells in Winter: Gear Debrief

As I said in my post about our time in the Fells this winter, no lesson worth learning is ever easy. I had decided to experiment this trip - to take some of my kit to its envisaged limits. In some respects, it was a useful exercise largely because it crystallised for me what works and what does not, as well as how I can amend my own practices to get the best out of my kit. In others, it was a disappointing trip as the defeat of one item in particular led to a wasted day and a re-think of the entire trip. Lessons learned.

On the evidence of a single trip, I echo the myriad positive, effusive endorsements of Páramo. My Aspira Smock and Aspira Salopettes were excellent. Wearing only a Patagonia R1 Regulator Hoody and X-Bionics trekking shorts, I remained warm and dry throughout some particularly gruesome weather, although on the initial ascent to Yewbarrow, I was sweating considerably as I got used to the venting available to me. This was as much a function of the fairly mild temperatures coupled with a steep initial ascent right out of the car, as anything else but venting Páramo is a skill that requires some proficiency through experimentation. One issue with the salopettes, for example, is that venting requires more forethought (the zips being located around the ribs) when wearing a smock. Yet, it was the smock, in fact, that required the most forward planning - it can be heavy and warm which, in cold, wet weather is absolutely wonderful. In warmer, milder temperatures, unexpected as they were during the initial ascent of Yewbarrow, venting is inevitable. That said, once I got used to it all, I began to feel far more comfortable. As the rain began, the Aspira partnership proved to be very effective. I had initial concerns about the weight and thickness of the salopettes particularly, but I need not have worried. They were supremely comfortable and on tricky descents where some real abuse could have resulted in damage they were both adamantine and articulated sufficiently for full range of movement. The morning after, having been left in the porch of the Akto, and consequently still a little damp on the outside, both the smock and the salopettes were warm and dry enough on the inside to wear perfectly comfortably. As explained to me in the Covent Garden Páramo store, they dried as I wore them. In really vile and onerous weather, two facets to the partnership struck me as particularly well-considered - having a few essential items close to hand in the chest pocket of the smock was very useful and being able to place cold hands in the soft-lined pockets of the salopettes was a boon - sometimes not wearing gloves for a while is necessary.

Both of my companions used Velez Adventure pants. Several things to note about those - they are constructed with the same Analogy waterproof system as the Aspira salopettes but the material for the shell layer is far less robust. They are consequently much lighter (c.414g on average, which is less than HALF the weight of the salopettes), and have a far more athletic cut than the heavier Cascada trousers. They are also, with a pair of merino leggings, perfectly adequate for the conditions we found ourselves in - very cold and very wet. They cut across the theatre of operations for the salopettes and extend their own theatre well into 3-season use. I'd recommend them highly, as do my companions.

Patagonia R1 Hoody
It got wet - both through my sweat and through the exposure of the wrist-warming Capilene 4 thumb loops, on occasion, to rain. When I took it off, somewhat sodden, and put it in a dry bag overnight, I envisaged a deeply unpleasant 'following morning' experience. Oddly, whilst the outside of the hoody was still cold and wet (as expected), the interior high/low grid Polartec Powerdry fleece was relatively warm and dry - a completely bizarre phenomenon. Donning the hoody was a touch on the chilly side but entirely acceptable within seconds, and perfectly comfortable not long thereafter (after a cold, wet night where it had no opportunity to dry). It's just great. The virtually full, balaclava hood can be a little annoying as it has a tendency to dip into my eyes, but all in all, as a base layer-or-mid layer, it is excellent. The offset, deep-venting front zip is good too, avoiding the chin and mouth as it does. I liked the thumb loops as they obviated any tendency to ride up, despite a susceptibility to get wet in the rain, and the extra long hem with the tighter cut and stretchy 8% spandex polyester is a legendary innovation. Overall, for 326g of versatility, I'm a fan.

Western Mountaineering Summerlite
Temperatures hovered around 0C so we were within the comfort range of the Summerlite in any event - hardly the sternest test. Where it foundered was its ability to deal with the signficant and persistent patina of condensation lining the inner of the Akto. Each time the Summerlite brushed against it, which it did frequently in the windy conditions, dampness permeated the down and the loft decreased even more. By morning, it was sufficiently flaccid to be virtually useless. It's a touch unfair, perhaps, but WM do say this of their bags: "All shell fabrics used by Western Mountaineering are treated with a surface Durable Water Repellent finish (DWR) with an 80/20 rating. This is more than sufficient to shrug off dew and condensation." I'm not convinced by that, to be honest, as the DWR cannot have degraded in the relatively limited number of times I've used the bag, but it was a pretty tough situation for the Summerlite. Condensation is always a danger in winter. Clearly, the primary lesson is that an effective, water-resistant shell is essential for a winter bag for that reason alone. The Drishell coating on my PHD Yukon was not in any way breached and a PHD Hispar 400 is on my list for winter 2011. The Summerlite's shell is just not good enough for winter on this evidence (it is not claimed to be, I should note) - it remains a great 3-season bag.

I should also note that the Sea to Summit Reactor liner was very comfortable to sleep in and, given the failure of the Summerlite, I feel sure it added something to my warmth overnight. Not an easy test to conduct but I am convinced, on this evidence, and the anecdotal evidence of others, that it does add something. Perhaps not 8C, but perhaps as much as 4-5C at least.

OMM Cypher Smock
My brother in law bought this on my recommendation so I was keen to see how it faired. At 240g, for full 3-layer eVent, it is feather light yet surprisingly resilient. Only the Rab Demand uses 3-layer eVent and achieves a weight anywhere near it. We found the smock design to perfectly functional and serviceable (as opposed to the convenience of a jacket, with a full zip) and just as ventable because the zip is a two-way and very deep. The hood, whilst perhaps not as good as that of the Rab Demand, is still very effective. With hail, sleet, spindrift and all manner of windy violence to contend with, my brother in law felt comfortable and content. The wrist is an elasticated thumb-loop design which he also liked as he pulled waterproof gloves beyond this enclosure and the hem is an elasticated, drawcord closure. I am not convinced, again, by the need for a pocket but there you go. He did not use it, preferring the hip-belt pockets on the Villain. This may well be on my list for 3-season use, being 110g lighter than my Haglöfs LIM Ozone, but Mrs M may take a different view...

Scarpa Manta boots
I wore these right out of the box - no breaking-in at all (I had no time - I have a 3 month old son, remember?) They are pre-treated so need no waterproofing before use and only Nikwax Nubuck and Suede after a good clean (according to Scarpa themselves) after use. After hours of hard walking in them, I experienced not one iota of discomfort, let alone blisters. Like all boots, the sole required some wearing-in to attain its optimum grip level but once I'd had them on for a day, they were gripping rock well. Attaching crampons to them was easy and they crunched through frozen snow well enough on their own too. A size larger than I normally go for, they took some getting used to - they are rigid-soled brutes after all. I used Bridgedale coolmax liners with Smartwool Medium Hiking Crew socks (as well as the copy version from Kirkland Signature) and remain utterly content with that partnership. After a few hours of use, despite the unnatural size and rigidity, I was totally at ease and secure in them. My feet remained warm and dry throughout, so I cannot fault them on the evidence garnered from this weekend. They'll be put through a sterner test in the Cairngorms in February so I'll consider them again after that.

X-Bionics Trekking Shorts
These reach to a point just above my knee. They sit comfortably around my waist without riding up, sneaking down, or moving in any way. They did not grip my waste too tightly but remained solidly snug. They dried quickly overnight and breathed excellently. They were supremely comfortable and I really do mean that. I cannot fault them - they are my go-to base layer for my nether region. Worth the £35 or so I spent on them (per pair - I have two). I cannot speak as to muscle recovery or heat management but suffice to say, they're superior to anything I have used previously - there may be finer (and more expensive) examples on the market but until I am a professional athlete (or sent some to test alongside the X-Bionics) those will remain an enigma.

I used the Buffalo Special 6 as a top for travelling in and mooching around Keswick - one of my companions used it as his only layer throughout the trip, with a waterproof on top in the really serious rain and snow deluges. I also used Buffalo mitts. As I intend to post separately on Buffalo, I will deal with them in that post. Suffice to say - I'm deeply impressed.

Grivel G12 Crampons
Easy to put on, supremely effective, durable, essential in winter but heavy. 'Nuff said. Note - a crampon bag is essential as they are very sharp and, even then, they tend to pierce the crampons bag. Be aware of this fact when packing your crampons.

Black Diamond Raven Pro Ice-Axe
Difficult to objectively and comprehensively review this rather photogenic piolet. Lightweight and comfortable to grip when used as a walking aid, it seems perfect for my current purposes. The shaft drives into the snow easily, and the spike does not slip off wet, icy rock when used for balance. The curved crown of the head sits snug in the palm as your fingers curl round the underside of the pick and the adze when walking and using the axe as a balance aid. We did not use it for belays - the Raven Pro has a B-rated shaft so this is not recommended - but for everything else I wanted, it performed well. I also purchased a tip protector in Keswick as I had to take the Gorilla on this trip, which I attached with a prussik loop. I was impressed by the whole set-up. I did not miss the fact it had no grip, but others may. I will test it for self-arrest and step cutting when in the Cairngorms in February and report back.

Hilleberg Akto
Condensation is the sole failing of this otherwise great shelter. I did not vent it at either end - the wind was changing direction so frequently I was concerned about a draughty night - but in any event, I have plans afoot to reduce the condensation issue. Despite the condensation, when we awoke in the morning, it was clearly the tent out of the three that had suffered least in the gale force conditions and continuous, heavy rain - remaining solid and retaining its shape. In the cavernous porch, my kit had remained dry (as dry as it was when I put it there, at least) and protected. I still like it, but hope that my plans reduce the condensation issue. Those, coupled with a water resistant shell on my winter bag to come, should meet my concerns, otherwise, I'll be looking for something else. I ought to say that the Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1 did a great job and, although it took some punishment, was surprisingly effective.

Sleeping Mats
I intend to post separately on these in due course.

PHD Yukon Pullover
I am impressed. Having analysed the Yukon at length already, I only need say a few words about its performance in the Lakes. The primary test, apart from warmth, was the Drishell outer and how it deal with the condensation inside the Akto - Drishell certainly seems very water resistant coating as there was no degradation of the down within the Yukon in any way. I wore it throughout the night as the down in the Summerlite slowly depressed to the point of suicide and it kept me more than warm enough. I donned it in the morning, with merino leggings and boots and little else as I stared at Great Gable and Kirk Fell knowing they were no longer feasible. It performed exactly as needed and I love it.

There were other items that I took which I don't intend to review as they would be superfluous comments to existing reviews. The iPhone continues to be a dramatic favourite, as does the Gossamer Gear Gorilla. We did not get a chance to use the Primus Express Spider as a consequence of a truly comic, and deeply embarrassing "what do you mean you didn't bring the matches?" moment (proving that even experience cannot cater for idiocy) but I'll report back on it soon.