Friday, 30 December 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think there is some sense in what he says.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

2011 - A Year of Building Foundations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Harken 45 Litre Roll Top Wet/Dry Bag

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Merry Christmas to One and All...

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

Seasons Greetings everyone!

Monday, 19 December 2011

Alexandre Buisse

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

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

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Rab Powerstretch Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Base Layers
Rab Products