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. 


  1. Forgetting the matches eh? Who hasn't done that at least once :)

    I feel your DWR pain. I have yet to see any DWR from any manufacturer last more than a few trips. I've completely given up on DWR as a factor in keeping things dry. The tale is the same for all DWR coatings;

    (1) Buy the object, get in the rain, enjoy water beading up and rolling off.

    (2) Notice a month later that this effect is gone, wash and pamper the object and get a slight rejuvenation of the effect for another trip or two.

    (3) Either buy expensive spray-on/wash-in treatments, or accept the new level of waterproofing.

    So when I buy stuff these days I just ignore the DWR, if it's a 'water-resistant' material with DWR, it will soak up water. If it's a waterproof material with DWR, then it will maybe wet-out but will not let water through.

    The quality of the DWR has as much importance and lasts about as long as the quality of the packaging.

  2. Matches - erk! Such a pain. Anyway, we're off to the Cairngorms now and I can tell you that the matches are packed. I agree about DWR but I find it also depends on the manufacturer as to how effective/long-lasting the DWR is. I think Páramo is great for winter as DWR is not an issue. Nice comment though!

  3. Forgetting the matches. What's in your backup emergency kit? Tsk, tsk! A good reason to have Piezo ignition as well :)

    I would never trust the DWR on a sleeping bag. If condensation is going to be bad, a lightweight bivvy bag (e.g. Equinox) is useful.

    Unfortunately small tents like the Akto suffer condensation and there's not a lot you can do about it. The Scarp is the best I've tried of that type (high vents). You live and learn.

  4. Good to hear that the PHD Yukon served you well. I also wear mine in my sleeping bag when it is very cold. Keeps me lovely and toasty warm. Superb bit of kit.

    Matches do come in handy, either take some or make sure you have a smoker in your party. They never forget to take fire with them!

  5. Robin: live and learn! I am not giving up on the Akto but it'll need some work.

    James: Yukon was great and versatile. Wore it mountaineering in the Cairngorms this week too and it was superb.

  6. The x bionics are just great. They are expensive which hurts the pocket a bit but so so comfy. The best i have used. Although the M & S active range, Yes thats M & S, are very good for the money 3 pairs for £15. See blogpackinglight post.

    I always carry a tube of all weather matches. They have been in my kit for about 10 yrs now and i have never used them. I am also not going to take them out either. I bet when if i ever need them they will have perished. It might be a good idea to see if they still work.
    You know my view on the S2S liner. It is comfy to sleep in but i need more convincing as to its temperature value. I think i would add the weight of the liner to a better bag. Hispar 400 yes!

  7. I am fan of M&S and I did see Robin's post so did consider them but I'd already order the X-Bionics by then. As for the matches - lesson well learned!

    Hispar 400 - yes but OUCH!! So expensive...

  8. Forgetting the matches eh? Who hasn't done that at least once :)

    I feel your DWR pain. I have yet to see any DWR from any manufacturer last more than a few trips. I've completely given up on DWR as a factor in keeping things dry. The tale is the same for all DWR coatings;

    (1) Buy the object, get in the rain, enjoy water beading up and rolling off.

    (2) Notice a month later that this effect is gone, wash and pamper the object and get a slight rejuvenation of the effect for another trip or two.

    (3) Either buy expensive spray-on/wash-in treatments, or accept the new level of waterproofing.

    So when I buy stuff these days I just ignore the DWR, if it's a 'water-resistant' material with DWR, it will soak up water. If it's a waterproof material with DWR, then it will maybe wet-out but will not let water through.

    The quality of the DWR has as much importance and lasts about as long as the quality of the packaging.

  9. hi just manage to bag a second hand summerlite for summer ish use..rab do a light ish pertex bivi bag that might have helped or if your using one what about a larger exped bag and use it to cover the foot end of bag..nice blog/web page local to lakes so manage to get out a lot cant wait to try the bag may take daughter ouot tomorrow for a wild camp

  10. Living close the Fells would be a real joy! Lucky fellow and I cannot wait to get my own Little Man out camping with me. As for bivy bags - I have a Superlight bivy coming from MLD in the US as well as a Trailstar which I'll be using with my usual hillwalking chum - you can see him in the main picture at the top of this post in the Buffalo Special 6. Thanks for visiting!

  11. Apologies to jump in (negatively) but from my experience, the Cypher Jacket is an over-rated and over-priced piece of "kit". (I'm a working mountain guide/leader and probe member of the Wasdale MRT, so I have a vague idea...) 

    Bought a yellow one in August 2011 - on back of Best in Test in Trail etc. and was initially very impressed with the lightness, apparent toughness and definite waterproofness/breathability on the hill (although the fit does leave a bit to be desired if you have a remotely athletic/V-shaped chest and normal-length, humanoid arms...). Anyway, took it for a week of Munro-bagging in October half term. Bit cold and wet - but nothing crazy for Scots west coast. And the bloody thing came home black around key stress points and generally knackered in terms of the laminate. Took back to Planet Fear, Keswick. Sent to OMM. Replaced. Hmmm. (Perhaps this isn't as obvious with already black jackets...)

    New (yellow) one lasted a bit longer (I am out quite a bit - but no more than 2-3 times a week and obviously the jacket only comes out in the rain). Suffice to say the new one has suffered the same (if more slowly - but to be honest worse) problems. Laminate is fecked all over. I write this on a sunny April day, just before setting off for Planet Fear, where I shall be insisting on a cash refund, so that I can buy something that actually works... (Suggestions welcome but I'm thinking of "cheap" pertex shield instead of eVent... As are Montane and Rab by the looks of it...)

    Cypher Jacket/Smock (2 from 2 tested) is a pile of cack. Very thin/too thin eVent (the missus has a Rab Latok, slightly heavier eVent which seems OK so far). So, be warned. Do not buy (unless you're an "all the gear, no idea" type).

  12. Winst0n,

    Not sure why you felt the need to put the word "kit" in inverted commas or to suggest anyone buying the Cypher is an "all the gear, no idea" type - I don't see how those comments add weight to your arguments and could be misconstrued and somewhat superior and rude. I'll assume that's not how they were meant. 

    I've also placed your comment, and this response, in the body of the post of my Initial Analysis of the Cypher which you seem not to have read.  I'll quote a couple of parts: "When the Cypher arrived, I handled it with some delicacy. It's a diaphanous soul..." and "...this is a fast-mover's waterproof...". And for me personally - "[a]s, in all likelihood, I'd spend much of my time with my shell-layer in my pack, rather than clothed in it, I wanted it to be as light as absolutely possible, but still effective and breathable." This is an ultralight piece of "kit" where OMM have sought to keep it extremely lightweight and devoid of features. With ultralight "kit", especially a hooded, waterproof garment weighing 260g, I do not expect robustness to feature high on my list of priorities - it requires kid gloves but that is the trade-off for ultralightweight.

    Your review of the Cypher is extremely helpful as anyone thinking of purchasing the Cypher needs to know if it is likely to fall apart at the seams - I invite others with similar experiences to comment as it's essential to the review process that poor quality is exposed - but I am not sure that the Cypher was intended to be used 2-3 times a week in the way that you so obviously do use it. I doubt Pertex will shed water and breathe as well as eVent - I find the Tumalo to breathe more poorly but I also think that's just membrane shells all over. When you say it is "too thin", you may well find waterproof pertex even worse. The Tumalo, for example, is certainly thinner in feel than the Cypher. My brother in law is a professional sailor. He has ditched his waterproofs in favour of the Cypher and the conditions he gets wet in are far worse than those we do.

    Finally, I am sure Planet Fear in Keswick are grateful for the free advertising in respect of their customer services but, again, it is not relevant to your argument against the smock. Thanks again for your comment.

  13. Apologies again for appearing rude - I've explained that in the other post (initial analysis), which I had read but thought it was more appropriate to comment here, as this is the report after wearing the jacket.

    I bought the Cypher myself so wouldn't want to suggest that. I was just a little irritated that two jackets had failed so badly after very little use really.

    Realise the jacket is ultralight (that's why I wanted it) but I still insist that a £130/150 jacket should last more than one week or a few months of in the pack/on-off usage, even with a (light-ish) backpack - that's what mountain waterproofs are for?

    All that said I might revise my (yesterday's) post as follows: I might have had two bad examples of the jacket. Still, the two I have had have both de-laminated after little use. They seemed very waterproof and breathable. They were very light (290g, or thereabouts). If you want a "working" waterproof (something you can have in the - lightish - pack, put on/take off or leave on) that will last longer than, say, a few month's weekend use (which is equivalent to the average of my two failed jackets usage), on this evidence, I'd suggest thinking hard about the Cypher. If you want something that looks like you know what you're doing and won some best in tests but you'll use about twice, this is the £150 jacket for you! Fill your boots :o)
    (Which is not to suggest that anyone, including me, who *has* bought the Cypher is an all the gear, no idea type - just that, on my post purchase evidence, that's what you'd have to be if you wanted to spend £130/50 on a luminous yellow, light, breathable, waterproof-for about three months jacket.)

  14. Thanks again Winst0n. Anyone reading this should have a look at the Initial Analysis as well for more commentary before buying -

    Bear in mind - this post is not MY review of the smock but my brother in law's but I do agree with it having used the smock myself for a longer period of time than Winst0n.