Saturday, 16 April 2011

Climate Change, Survival and the Human Condition

It is impossible not to be deeply saddened by the human suffering in Japan. We watch harrowing images daily with what is, in truth, a detached lack of true understanding. We are safe in our homes, warm and dry, with our families and possessions cuddled close and utility at the flick of a switch or turn of a tap. We discuss, we admonish and we utter overt and well-meaning pledges of support whilst deep down we inwardly whisper - there but for grace of God go we. But for how much longer will we be immune to the planet's idiosyncrasies?

I know that some will argue there is a scientific link between what we refer to wholesale now as 'climate change' and the earthquakes and ensuing tsunami in Japan. Many will respond, equally vociferously, that Japan has suffered earthquakes and been at the mercy of the sea for centuries and, on which, climate change has not had any demonstrable impact. The vagaries of both empirical academic study and global geopolitical gamesmanship, although each are different beasts entirely, have both produced a terrifying uncertainty about the future of our planet and the nature of humanity's response to the most serious threat to our existence since time immemorial. Although not a complete failure, throwing climate change into stark relief as it did, the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen did not achieve anywhere near enough. No commentator could possibly disagree.

On Sunday 3rd April 2011 in Thailand the international community began further formal United Nations talks on climate change and global warming. For more than two decades, the UN has been chipping away at this issue, but so little has been achieved. Expectations within the international community are low - they have probably never been as low. The 2009 conference in Copenhagen that was intended to secure a new treaty to replace the expiring Kyoto protocol. That ended in deadlock. Last year's talks in Cancún ended without agreement on most of the important new issues. This is hardly surprising. The principle cause of the man-made shifts in our climate is the burning of fossil fuels with no legitimate or effective regulation of emissions. Observe, for example, emissions trading - the trading of emissions allowances on the stock market - 'I haven't used my allowance - do you want to buy it from me?' Not quite the point, I would suggest. I will deal with international geopolitical obstinacy in another post.

On any view, reducing our reliance on carbon will take decades and a budget measured in the trillions. There is no incentive for many nations to even consider such a course, citing as they do the fact that the developed nations contributed the most to this issue and now seek, having reached a satisfactory level of development, to impose restrictions on those nations still developing. Economic crises across the globe have inflicted even greater poverty and the poorer nations look inwardly and with a short-term view, as they necessarily must to safeguard to survival of their own people.

The UN, as many have recently observed, is unlikely to secure co-operation giving a voice as it does to each nation on the planet. Discussions will always have the potential to be stymied by even one small nation whose self-interest does not match that of the larger players or the rest of the planet. So what does this mean for the global population as a whole? Whether the tsunami in Japan was caused by a geological or meteorological reaction to climate change or not, it highlights the trauma that natural disasters, which will inevitably grow in number as the climate of our planet changes, can cause. How we as individuals, as communities and as nations respond to that is just as crucial as the global geopolitical response to climate change and emissions reduction. The wholesale destruction of whole communities in Japan engenders debate as to the modus operandi of the emergency services in each and every nation and how well equipped they are to deal with natural disasters. 

And once the worst has abated, the clear-up must begin. In many coastal towns, where families have lived for generations, Japanese citizens refuse to move and start again in a safer location. They opt instead to stay and rebuild, but are they permitting sentiment to trump safety? If the climate is going to make disasters on the scale seen in Japan more frequent then surely governments must start to look at emergency and disaster management in a more constructive way? And this is still an 'if' - consensus is divided on issue of the true effect of climate, which is the principal problem caused by the lack of agreement on climate change issues among the international community. Relocation of entire communities is, within decades, likely to be an issue facing nations across the globe and the UK is not immune. Earthquakes in Kent are not unheard of - in 2007 and 2009 - and a flood of the Thames would have a near fatal impact on London and, consequently, the UK (and European) economies. In 2006, when New Orleans was destroyed by flooding, the BBC examined the Thames and its potential for flooding up to 2100. That was before a major economic crisis hit the planet. Even at that stage, the Thames Estuary 2100 project was moving just about quick enough to meet its targets for enhancing the Thames Barrier (and other flood defences). As of November 2010, the project had just submitted its Final Plan. Four years on, and little substantive work has actually been done. How much did we learn from New Orleans? How much will we learn from Japan? When will it be too late?

Neither immature conspiracy theories nor unhelpful doomsaying can detract from the scientific and political reality that the world must change and it is not going about it quick enough. Many lament at the short-termism of modern politics and the lack of political will to ask the right people the right questions - scientists or academic experts whose opinion does not fit, experience a sometimes fatal restriction on freedom of speech. There can be no doubt that whatever your opinion of climate change, we are fast losing the margin of appreciation we need to exist as a species. Indeed, it may well fall to local communities, supported by governments who are unlikely to have been forward-thinking enough to prevent or ameliorate disaster and will be reactive rather than proactive, to survive. Will we move from our homes to seek new places to live? Will the current infrastructure of modern economic society permit us to do that? Land is owned across the UK - upping sticks and setting down elsewhere will have major consequences, if it were even possible. So little is achieved on so major an issue as climate change purely as a consequence of self-interest, even when small players are involved. It seems unlikely to me that the freedom of the Wild West to settle land that is 'safer' to live on than coastal land might well become will be offered to those at risk. Are the communities in Japan that obdurately refuse to move right to do so? Do they even have an opportunity given the development of Japan? Is there even space? Giving up generations of history is an emotional wrench that is hard to quantify but there comes a time when emotion must give way to reason. Perhaps that time is not yet, but it's closer than we think. It's time governments began thinking about our children and where they will be safe. If we cannot secure agreement on an international scale, we should certainly secure it domestically.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

OMM Cypher Smock Initial Analysis

When my brother-in-law needed a new waterproof, I directed him without much hesitation to the Rab Demand Pull-On and the OMM Cypher Smock. He didn't need a full-length zip, nor did he require reams of features. He wanted a lightweight and functional waterproof. He wanted something he could stow away until the last minute and shrug on in seconds. He wanted easy. He liked the look of both, but ultimately, availability determined his selection and I reviewed the OMM Cypher, on the basis of his comments about it here once we got back from the Lakes this winter. Sneak preview for the idle amongst you - it was good. Damned good.

Without Mrs M's knowledge, and therefore acquiescence, I was gradually seduced into retiring my Haglöfs LIM Ozone (375g) to everyday use, substituting instead an OMM Cypher Smock of my own (at 258g for a large). I have no need of a full-zip and prefer smocks and pull-ons to what I feel are cumbersome jackets. Additionally, I take the view that Gore-Tex Pro-Shell (or indeed any other membrane shell layer) does not breathe as effectively as eVent and a 3-layer eVent waterproof shell was perfect for my purposes. As, 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. In the Alps, with all the heavy metal I'd have to carry, shedding weight elsewhere is essential.

When the Cypher arrived, I handled it with some delicacy. It's a diaphanous soul but akin to silky sheen titanium, far more uncompromising and subtly resilient than first impressions would have you believe. Closer examination reveals the way in which OMM have cleverly shed weight from the 3-layer eVent shell. Lycra wrists that have no adjustment potential - not likely to find favour with some, I accept, but these along with thumb-loops, suit me and seem to speak more of the Cypher's Original Mountain Marathon origins - this is a fast-mover's waterproof. The orange on charcoal grey and black is like dark chocolate - sophisticated, enigmatic and bitter sweet. It speaks of dark intentions and fearlessness, of a willingness to risk and run. It feels like the waterproof James Bond would wear.

The hood is simple, yet effective. Adjustment is done in the same way as the Ozone with a tug of a cord and locking toggle but far more simply. It's not going to accommodate a helmet, but this is not a climber's waterproof. There are no side pockets, only the ubiquitous (and pointless) Napoleon pocket. Stop, please. Does anyone use it? It vents, I imagine, but I am unimpressed by this addition. The cut is unashamedly athletic. I'm normally a medium and I've gone for a large here. Bear this in mind when selecting your own - how much will you have underneath? When will you use it? How tight a fit do you want or need? Thumb looped elastic cuffs finish off the perfectly articulated arms although I wonder about how easy they'll be over gloves. 

The hem, with a deep skirt at the back, unabashed by another OMM logo, is adjustable through the usual one-handed toggle. Minimalist is the name of the game here too. It rolls up into a neat package to be stowed in the outer mesh pocket of the Gorilla. There are lighter waterproofs - the Golite Tumalo for one, and of course, I have yet to use the Cypher, but it's a 3-layer eVent waterproof that fits me nicely, has all the features I'd want and weighs 258g. It's a great start.

Addendum: this comment was posted on another part of my blog. Anyone looking at the Cypher should read this comment, and my response to it, so that they purchase the Cypher with open eyes.

"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)." Winst0n.

And my response:


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."

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Rab Vapour-Rise Pull-On Initial Analysis

In 1981, Rab Carrington started a small company in Sheffield. He drew on his own mountaineering experience to manufacture lightweight down clothing and sleeping bags. From the outset, he committed himself to high quality products and an ethos which was to design garments for the "new breed of lightweight alpinist" and which were designed "for the most extreme conditions in the world". Since then, Rab has become one of the most highly regarded outdoor clothing manufacturers in the United Kingdom, with a steadily growing presence in Europe and the US. I have always been a fan of Rab, but my clothing selection is predicated on particular needs rather than brand loyalty. I do not, in fact, have much Rab clothing at all but I was looking forward to the incoming parcel.

The Rab Vapour-Rise series was recommended to me. The V-R Pull-On is my newest purchase and, at 548g for a size large, it sits well with ultralight principles in that it is an item versatile enough to be used in a variety of theatres. The Vapour Rise  series was developed through Rab's collaboration with Pertex to provide a 2 layer (single garment) system that offered windproof, breathable, high wicking and quick drying performance clothing. It has a Pertex Equilibrium shell with a DWR treatment and wicking micro-fleece inner. In this sense, it is designed to be worn next to the skin, as well as above a wicking base layer. The Pertex Equilibrium shell is not a membrane fabric so it more breathable than Gore-Tex or eVent. The DWR treatment is not waterproof, of course, but it is water resistant and I will come to that in due course. That it is not waterproof sits with what the V-R series seeks to achieve - an athletic garment that performs across a multitude of environments and activities.

When I pulled the V-R from its plastic packing sheath, I will admit to some excitement. It comes with a reputation. It is my intention, primarily, to use this as my principal garment for the CHR. I'll explain how, later. It will, however, be taken on early-to-mid spring and mid-to-late autumn trips in the UK, either next to the skin, or with a base-layer, depending on the weather. I've used it on a few walks wearing nothing but a Montane Bionic SS crew in temperatures down to 6C and in strong wind on the North Downs and the Surrey Hills. So far, it has proved to be more than adequate. It's comfortable and pleasant to wear. It breathes so effectively for active movement that I have yet to experience a bead of sweat whilst wearing it. It will require a more forceful reckoning but I am quietly confident that it will achieve a level of performance that most Pertex garments do.

The dappled Pertex equilibrium is soft to the touch - unlike the hard crispness of Microlight and silky sheen of Quantum. It has a durability that is unlike Microlight or Quantum too. I ran a tap directly onto the fabric for 30 seconds - all the water rolled off like a river over wet rock. The fabric remained totally dry with no evidence of wetting out. For a 'water resistant' fabric, this was startling. I don't see this being a cause for shedding a waterproof shell layer but the circumstances in which the deployment of a shell layer would become necessary are diminishing. Something that I confess to having a good deal of pleasure in.

The addition of features is sparing but considered. Small, thin wrist velcro adjusters; a voluminous, adjustable hood, with a malleable visor, in the same fabric marriage as the rest of the pull-on meaning warmth and weather resistance in the hood as well as elsewhere; deep, dual zip on the chest to permit venting; venting too through the two well-placed pockets (they do not, for example, restrict access with a rucksack on); one-handed hem adjustment toggles and a Napoleon pocket. This latter is big enough for smaller items but I am not one for these pockets anyway so I paid it little attention.

The inner lining has the feel of a thin microfleece and is soft and smooth to the touch. It is not laminated to the Pertex outer, meaning a degree of movement which makes the garment easier to wear.

This is a top to be used as a base layer, mid-layer, both or either. Wear one, and then another on top if you so desire. Breathability is still excellent. It's lovely against the skin too - far more so than, say, the Montane Prism 2.0 jacket. It's warm too, even on its own. With the Bionic only underneath, at 6C with considerable wind, I was only just about feeling the chill - more a kind of vague sense of it, rather than a direct assault on my warmth. I'm impressed with this versatile top and I can see it being a utility top for me - not quite perfect in any one environment but damn near in many. On the Classic Haute Route, I will use it alone in cooler weather; then as the altitude gets higher and the atmosphere colder, I will add short sleeved base layer to the mix. I can then replace that short-sleeved base layer with the Patagonia R1 Hoody above 3,000m and in really cold weather, as we might expect getting on for 4,000m, both will fit beneath the V-R. That's what makes this top so versatile.