In 2011 I took a different path in my outdoor pursuits as I went higher and harder than usual. It was a learning experience as much in respect of new types of gear as new skills and new environments. My Six of the Best reflect that.
The Rab Vapour-Rise Pull-On
No longer produced by Rab, there are several garments now which offer specialist subsets of what I have been using the Rab V-R Pull-On for. I think it's a shame that Rab no longer seem to be making the basic half-zip Pull-On, but with the V-R Stretch, V-R Lite, V-R Lite Tour and the V-R Jacket, you have the items covering the range within which the V-R Pull-On sits. I feel the V-R Pull-On has more versatility than these more specialised items. Only the Stretch comes in a half-zip, but if you are not looking to get a tight-fitting top, it seems like you must settle for a full-zip jacket instead but there are many versions to choose from - all of varying weights and roles.
I have analysed the V-R Pull-On already and waxed lyrical about it for much of this year, in particular when I took it into the Brecon Beacons and to the Alps. For a start, that will give you a sense of the versatility and comfort I attribute to this top. It can be used as a base layer, a mid-layer, or an outer layer. It is warm, wind-resistant, water resistant, well-made and cut for a multitude of activities. It is pleasant to wear both in terms of comfort and effectiveness - by which I mean it is durable, moves with me whatever I am doing, vents and breathes reasonably well, stays silent when I am moving, which other outer windshells do not, and is not overburdened with pointless features.
It dries reasonably quickly when wet, and remains effective, even when the pertex equilibrium outer shell is damp. It is heavy at around 550g but most layers which are meant to be outer layers as well as warm mid-layers are relatively heavy. If you're wearing it a lot, this doesn't matter quite so much, but if you're likely to be carrying it around (and consequently not using it that often), then you should really be looking for something lighter - a part-time layer should really be down or primaloft in any event rather than this as the V-R is meant to be used regularly in many different environment. Where it excels is adaptable, multi-activity use. It has been perhaps the single most effective and loved piece of kit of the last year.
2011 was my first experience of Grivel kit and I cannot really separate the Grivel G12 Airtech Newmatic crampons and the Grivel Airtech Evolution Ice Axe in terms of their usefulness to me. They fall into the category I have sardonically dubbed 'heavy metal' this last year and they come as a pair for me. I cannot envisage taking one without the other so I list them together. They are relatively lightweight for their role, albeit you will certainly find lighter, but when climbing in wintry Scotland, winter hillwalking in the Lakes or mountaineering in an alpine environment, they perform exactly as required and don't weigh the earth. The Evo is a particularly versatile piolet. You could climb Scottish Winter Grade I gullies with it, take in a winter ridge-line with it and engage in alpine mountaineering with it. You might have a single, separate axe for each of those activities, or you could take the Evo on all of them and be comfortable with an axe you know and love in your hand.That's why I like it.
I envisage more alpinism and mountaineering in 2012 and I cannot think of a single reason why I would depart from Grivel's pairing of G12's and the Evo.
OMM Cypher Smock
The outer shell layer is one of the more hotly discussed layers. It is the layer most likely to sit at the forefront of the mind when considering essential kit for any outdoor activity, particularly in the UK. Getting it right is not easy, particularly if you engage in a variety of activities throughout the year. The OMM Cypher is not the first shell layer I have used in the last few years - of course not - but it is by far and away the best for my pursuits. I am looking for an extremely lightweight smock, bereft of pointless features, with full 3-layer membrane fabric not some proprietary 2-layer derivative - preferably eVent - which keeps out weather and breathes well, that packs down small and will sit in the bottom of my rucksack until it's needed and then shrug on in seconds. It should cover whatever needs covering whilst still retaining an athletic-cut so it does not flap about when I am on a belay and trying to get my DSLR out, whilst wondering what the hell I am doing up this mountain, in this weather, for the umpteenth time that day. The Cypher is all of those things. At 260g, there is little chance of 3-layer eVent getting much lighter and I know that even in really crap weather, it does the job I want it to do. I don't know that I am carrying it and it's significantly lighter than my old Haglöfs LIM Ozone (c.120g) and packs down smaller. I like the thumb-loops which mean I can be assured sleeves won't ride up whilst I am scrambling, and over which I can put gloves to create a seal around my wrist. It's durable enough to take a rucksack, and to scramble over rock. All in all - I cannot see my using anything else after March and before December. In those months, something else takes centre stage...
Again, I am going to daub Páramo with a broad brush and include the two Páramo items I used this year as one - the Aspira Smock and the Aspira Salopettes. In winter, there is no chance I will use anything else. I place a single layer beneath the Smock - either the Patagonia R1 Hoody or the Rab Powerstretch, and that will keep me warm, particularly when moving, in a Scottish winter climb or hillwalk. Much has been said about Páramo and I wrote a guest post for Philip Werner's Section Hiker site earlier in the year, so I do not intend to review either here - that's not the purpose of this post. What I will say is that this system is warm, kept me dry, breathed well when I was undertaking really hard, physical exertion (and confronting fear), and is rather lovely to wear. It's heavy, mind-you, far more so than a membrane layer, but when climbing in winter, with wet rope rubbing against your shell layer, I don't think membrane is the layer to be wearing anyway. This is the one occasion where having a few pockets can be useful, although this smock has pockets I still don't know about and features you need to be a theoretical physicist to understand and use. I despair, but I still love it and, although it is not the quickest to dry, the interior is comfortable enough after a frozen night's wild camp to shrug on over a winter base/mid-layer or, if you prefer, a combination of the two. I like the fact it is more pleasant to wear than a membrane layer and the cut, again, suits a wide variety of activities. I have chosen to go with a size too small to make it more athletic a cut still but that's because I have only one base layer beneath it and any insulation layer I want will be shrugged on over the top of it (a Rab Generator vest or Páramo Torres gilet, most likely).
The salopettes might as well be made of steel - I have sat in snow bucket seats and remained warm, dragged them across sharp rock and they have been recalcitrant and walked through a deluge of wet and cold precipitation and only been damp at my calves because of Gore-Tex gaiters pressing against them, compressing the pump liner. Páramo gaiters don't prevent this either, so I am getting mid-level gaiters for the alps and winter climbing - the Rab Latok Mid, which will change that. The only criticism is the press-stud sides which easily come undone and venting is virtually impossible once a jacket or smock is on without undoing your smock. Forethought is needed to use these garments when synchronised and I feel that Páramo could address than by changing the zips to two zips and permitting venting around the thigh without having to unzip from the ribcage. Nevertheless, they are superb together.
Mountain Equipment Liskamm Pant
For vertical endeavours, a breathable, weather resistant, close-fitting, stretchy, fully articulated pant that is hardwearing on both the knee and seat is essential. Tall order, in reality, for a single garment to fulfil all of that and be reasonably priced. Well, the Liskamm does not deliver on every front - it's obscenely expensive at £160 or so. However, if you do shell out that sort of money, you get exactly what you need in an alpine pant. The ankle area has gaiters built-in to protect against crampon damage and the fit is sublime. For all sorts of climbing and scrambling moves, I have contorted my body into angles I would wince at but not once have I been restricted in my movement by the Liskamm pant. I wore them in very warm conditions, very cold conditions, wet conditions, windy conditions - they were comfortable in each and every one. This really is an excellent all-round mountain pant. I wore them in huts as my evening 'slobbing' pants as well - that's just how comfortable they are.
MacBook Air 11"
Ok, ok. This is not an outdoor piece of kit, I acknowledge that, but there are two good reasons for including it as my last piece of kit to be considered influential in my outdoor pursuits in 2011. I am a writer and, combining this with my current profession, in my down time, means I need to be able to carry a laptop around with me all the time. The MacBook Air 11" weighs 1.03kg. It fits snugly in my rucksack's padded laptop sleeve and I hardly realise it's there. It boots up in 21 seconds, and that includes the time it takes to tap in my password. It shuts down in 3 seconds. If you close the lid, it sleeps so efficiently, the battery power used is negligible. It is faster than a normal MacBook as a consequence of the flash memory. Everything I need is on it. This item facilitates my writing, and has done since I bought it, more than any other single item. And my writing facilitates me being outdoors as much as anything else. We spend time outdoors for all sorts of reasons but whatever mine are, and they are personal to me, writing about them afterwards, either professionally or for the simple amusement of others, enhances and entrenches those personal reasons. It also enables me to research and plan, whenever I want, the trips I am taking. Without it, my life would be harder and, for that reason alone, it deserves its place here.
So there you have it, a 2011 which forced me to learn a lot about myself, what I want to do with my life, and my outdoor pursuits, and the kit I need to facilitate those aspirations. Quite a bit failed this year, or simply met expectations rather than exceeding them. I used trail runners for the first time and enjoyed it, but I cannot say that it was a revelation. My OMM Villain, so long a constant companion, simply was not comfortable enough in the Alps in the 8-10kg bracket (my kit plus rope). The Hilleberg Akto was an astounding failure - too heavy, too much condensation, and too low. I used it for two nights and off it went.
All in all, a good year for kit, but I suspect 2012 will be a year of consolidation. Attitudes are changing and I am no exception. There are other things I will be focusing on and new kit is not one of them. I have what I need now and, unless I am asked to test kit as I have been for 18 months now, I am unlikely to be buying much new.
A Brave New World, then.