Saturday, 30 June 2012

Arc'teryx Atom LT Hoody Initial Analysis

There is no doubt that down has the optimum warmth to weight ratio. When properly lofted, a down jacket or sleeping bag will be warmer per gram than any synthetic warmth provider whether that be Primaloft, Coreloft or a fleece derivative. Yet down has that one near fatal flaw which means it requires sensitive handling and protection - it is utterly useless when wet. It can also degrade each and every time it is wet and then subsequently dries. Therefore, it has always been my practice, for an active insulation layer which I can throw on and not worry about, to choose synthetic fill insulation. I reserve down for wild camping in winter when my base and mid-layers are generally warm enough on the hill when moving but which I remove when in camp. For that role, my PHD Yukon has proved almost infallible.

So when Arc'teryx sent me an Atom LT Hoody, I was keen to see how it stacked up against the Patagonia Nano Puff and the Montane Prism 2.0 I had previously been using. I took it to Jotunheimen in Norway as my sole insulation against the harsh Norwegian weather.

I have a Rab Generator gilet for scrambling and climbing which is a size larger than I need normally as it goes over the top of everything - it is a summit and belay piece so unfair to compare it to the Atom which fulfils an entirely different role.

The Perfect Insulation Layer
What am I looking for from an insulation layer? For a 3-season 'summer' layer, that is to say everything outside of winter, I have several quite simple criteria. Firstly, apart from keeping out the wind and keeping me warm (its core mission), it should be lightweight but reasonably hardwearing. It is likely that, on shorter trips as well as long treks, it will be an active warm layer as well as a camp layer, so my rucksack will be on it and I'll be moving in it. For a hooded insulation layer, with 60g weight insulation, I think that 400g is the maximum weight a garment should be. It should pack down into a relatively small bundle easily and, equally easily (and swiftly), be available for use again. The arms should be articulated to allow full range of movement as I might be climbing or scrambling in my insulation layer. The back and waistline in general should not ride up and the hood should be simple, easy to deploy and manage and not have oodles of ridiculous and cumbersome toggles to adjust it. hand pockets are a good thing as I don't always want to get gloves out for only a short period. Cuffs should shut out the wind and be comfortable without restricting movement. The neckline should be sufficient to protect my neck from the wind but not annoy me whilst moving. I don't need interior pockets - I never use them nor do I need the ubiquitous Napoleon pocket seemingly attached to every garment ever made by an outdoor manufacturer.

So, onto the Atom LT Hoody. At 368g for a size large (my weighing), it packs down into its own sleeve. See the video here for how to pack it down but let's be real about this - this is not a design feature, it's something (I suspect) developed by a rather clever Arc'teryx sponsored athlete and adopted by Arc'teryx rather than the Prism and Nano-Puff which are designed to pack into their own pockets. Still, it works well enough and it's one less feature to worry about. Also, it does indeed deploy simply by shaking the sleeve. I rather like that. I am a 39-40" chest, 34" waist and my torso is 21". A large is the perfect fit for me.

The Atom LT Hoody has the following features:

  • A lightweight, breathable, wind-resistant, moisture resistant (DWR-treated) outer fabric (Polartec Powerstretch Hardface);
  • Stretch side panels (under the armpits and down to the hem) which allow articulated movement but keep the garment reasonably figure-hugging;
  • Insulation which has good warmth for 3-season use and which behoves a packable, compressible garment;
  • An insulated, sculpted, scuba hood which will fit under a helmet;
  • A full front zip with a wind flap;
  • Stretch knit cuffs;
  • Embroidered 'Arc'teryx' hangloop;
  • Dropback, laminated drawcord-adjusted hem; and
  • Two hand pockets with an internal chest pocket.

Fabric Magic
The Atom LT series is made from Polartec Powerstretch fibres with Hardface Technology. Hardface was developed by Polartec for its own fabrics and it is designed to enhance the DWR coating of their fabrics, increase their durability particularly when it comes to snag/abrasion resistance and create a smooth surface to make layering easier. This is innovative and targeted thinking from Polartec and the evidence in the form of the Atom LT series is cogent. The surfaces of the Atom are smooth enough that it's easy to get on and off as well as put other layers on top of it. This is crucial as cold fingers make hard work of shrugging on an insulation layer which may need to be done with some alacrity. I have yet to snag the Atom despite some rough treatment and the fabric shuts out wind well and breathes sufficiently too, probably assisted by the fleecy, stretch side panels. Water beads off it well enough but this is a new top, with a good, new DWR - I would expect water from a frisky shower to bead off it at this point. How it performs after months of use is another thing but frankly, no fabric on a lightweight insulation layer is designed to keep out anything more than a quick shower and certainly not after months of use - no DWR "water resistant" coating is that good. This is not a waterproof shell layer - let's be realistic about what fabrics can achieve.

Rather than using Primaloft, the most well known insulation filling around, Arc'teryx use Coreloft. As to why, they say this:  "Coreloft is a fabric that we have made for us. It's similar to Primaloft, but we have tweaked a few things to try to get better performance. Core Loft is constructed of a double strand of continuous polyester filaments. The finer yarns (1 denier) are "crimped" to help trap air molecules which in turn help trap body heat while the larger yarns (3.5 Denier) provide loft and resilience from compression. The fibers are siliconized to help add resistance to moisture and decrease drying time." I've read several reviews suggesting Coreloft breathes better than Primaloft but, really, I can't say either way. I haven't used the Atom long enough to say, and it is so utterly subjective and incapable of controlled analysis that I doubt the difference is significant. There is a typically detailed discussion on BPL here which delves into that US-style minutiae which has become so popular. What I can say is that the Atom breathes perfectly well and kept me every bit as warm as the Prism 2.0. The insulation itself also spreads to the front of the hand packets meaning that there are two layers of insulation for cold hands. This, to me, is essential thinking. It also spreads to the hood - again, essential thinking.

Other Features
The Atom LT Hoody has a number of useful features outlined above so let's have a closer look at them. The armpit/side stretch panel material (shown in the photo above, next to the hand pockets) keeps the shape of the Atom consistent and athletic. The hand pockets have wind-break zips and a fleecy lining. The simple hood has an elasticated rim which sits comfortably around the face without protruding into the eyeline. There are no adjustments to it which, on a lightweight insulation layer like this, is a good thing. The stretch cuffs are neat - no adjustment potential, just a comfortable, smooth fabric which sits snugly hugging the wrist without being uncomfortable. I'd be concerned about durability of the stretch over time, but we'll see. Weight saved through lack of adjustment tabs which is fine by me. I don't much like them anyway.

The zips all run smoothly and washing is easy. The interior lining of the stretch material under the arms is a thin fleece and the rest of the hoody's interior is ripstop without Hardface.

The dropback, adjustable hem is good and the drawcord is encased in protective ripstop nylon. Pull your arms upwards and the small of your back is not exposed. Simple and effective. Adjustment is relatively easy but of course, with gloved hands, the toggles are a little fiddly. Zip pulls are not, however, with good sized tabs on a decent length cord. I cannot see the point in the internal chest pocket but some people may find it useful. It's big enough for a snickers or a compass, if you like that sort of thing. Also, in the photograph below you can see the ripstop inner lining to the Atom.

I found the Atom LT Hoody to be an effective insulation layer. It kept out the wind, kept me warm even in pretty chilly weather and even kept out a short shower. It packs down around the same size as the Prism although into a sausage rather than a neat package. I can live with that and I like the sleeve-shake deployment. I cannot speak as to durability of the fabric yet - I'll do that when I update this IA with a Review after a few months of solid use. The attraction is the weight - for a good face fabric, 368g is a good weight for a 60g/m2 insulated hoody. There's nothing to complain about so far as the Atom LT Hoody is concerned and when you compare weight to functionality, it's better than the Prism 2.0 and the latter uses 40g/m2 Primaloft ECO but still weighs in at 418g for a size large. The Nano-Puff may be lighter but it does not have a hood and its certainly not as warm in my experience. The Atom will be in my pack for a long time to come.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Gear Thoughts for Summer 2012

Outdoor blogs are fluid creatures. Good ones adapt to changes in attitudes. Reviews of kit have always been useful to new purchasers - that much is clear from the traffic to my own journal. Discussions on kit and changes to technology, as well as what works and what doesn't (and why or when), are also useful to those taking part in the discussions as well as those observing them from afar. We learn from others' mistakes (or successes) rather than making our own. It saves us time and money, as well as frustration. Personally, I enjoy trying kit that others have disliked - perhaps it is the curmudgeon in me but I prefer to make my own observations. Sometimes I agree, often I don't. I like making mistakes, I learn more that way. I have no problem with bloggers getting free kit in return for testing/reviews - I don't think it necessarily compromises their independence - only you the reader can ascertain that from reading their blogs. The more kit I am asked to test, the better the chance people following me have of learning, as I do, from my mistakes (and, of course, successes).

I am testing kit this year, and next, on behalf of Arc'teryx. This is something of a coup for me as I have long admired their innovation and attention to detail. Their kit is uniformly superbly manufactured and they have long been front-runners in creating new approaches to old ideas as well as using fabrics others do not. So I am thrilled to be working with them. They sent me a number of items to test over the course of this year, on the most important of which - the Atom LT Hoody, an insulation layer, and the Venta pant, a soft-shell alpine trouser - I'll do a short Initial Analysis and Review which I'll update later in the year after more use. Later this year, I'll be testing some more kit for them, including a new lightweight pack.

I am also changing my approach to shelters. Despite the protestations of Martin Rye, I have a cuben Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid on order and Sean Clayton, of Oookworks, has created for me a bespoke Oooknest for it. Robin Evans loaned me his Silnylon Duomid for Jotunheimen and the Oooknest had a quick run out during that trip. I'll detail my reasons for this change, beyond sheer devilment, when I post on the Duomid and Oooknest once my cuben version arrives in a month or so.

I have also been sent an Icebreaker Quantum 260 Hoody from The Nature Shop in New Zealand which I have been using as my cold weather base layer for a few trips now. There'll be a post on that shortly, but I like it a lot. I am a fan of merino, not particularly bothered about the sourcing of it as long as it is ethical, and I find it very effective. I know others have different opinions but so far I have yet to find anything that is as comfortable, adaptable and which does not smell after days of hard use on the trail. Perhaps in that post, there'll be some discussion about base layers and the sourcing of merino wool, two somewhat inflammatory topics.

For winter and cold conditions, I am enjoying my new Rab Infinity 500 bag. Brand new from Rab, taking the Pertex Quantum technology from the Infinity Jacket and making a bag from it, I took it to Jotunheimen recently. Stop Press! It was good. Down to -9C and only 848g without it's stuff sack (I put it directly into a 13L dry bag which compresses it better too), it's big but warm. It fills a wintry void which the Summerlite cannot.

Finally, as a consequence of a (slow and plodding) move towards professional photography as an essential cog in a new career path, I now take a DSLR into the hills with me. I want to talk a little about why I do that, how I carry it and what kit I take with it. I also want to talk a little about what I have found about shooting in RAW and using Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4 and Elements 10 to process my RAW exposures. Thanks to Terrybnd for the photo above and my brother-in-law Sofus (with me in Jotunheimen) for the one below. I think you'll agree both are very different but equally superb exposures in their own way. Mood and emotion conveyed completely differently.

So, there'll be some new posts coming up dealing not only with specific items of kit, but also the essence of their function in the outdoors. I'll be interviewing a few people too - publicising some good commercial companies and (well known) charitable organisations that deserve some great PR. Early 2012 has been a little slow on the Journeyman Traveller. The second half will see some great new content. And my burgeoning feature writing career means that there'll be some posts on a variety of outdoor subjects rather than just kit reviews and trip reports. That said, there'll be more international trip reports as I am working on two guidebooks at the moment, and I may well have another one or two in the pipeline as well.

As always, thanks for reading and please keep commenting. Also, feel free to follow me on Twitter - @JourneymanTrav or stop by my 500px page to see some of my better photography work as I experiment and grow.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Jotunheimen - Into the Heart of the Land of Giants

"Have you everchanced to see the Gendin-Edge?
Nigh on four miles long it stretches
sharp before you like a scythe.
Down o'er glaciers, landslips, scaurs,
down the toppling grey moraines,
you can see, both right and left,
straight into the tarns that slumber,
black and sluggish, more than seven
hundred fathoms deep below you.
Right along the Edge we two
clove our passage through the air.
Never rode I such a colt!
Straight before us as we rushed
'twas as though there glittered suns.
Brown-backed eagles that were sailing
in the wide and dizzy void
half-way 'twixt us and the tarns,
dropped behind, like motes in air.
Ice-floes on the shores broke crashing,
but no murmur reached my ears.
Only sprites of dizziness sprang,
dancing, round;-they sang, they swung,
circle-wise, past sight and hearing!"

             Ibsen, Peer Gynt, Act 1 Scene 1

Oslo Gardermoen airport is like a ghost town - I have the otherworldly sense of being behind the wizard's curtain, like I am not supposed to be here and at some point, someone with a badge and a gun will remove me and my fellow travellers from the halls in which we now stand. It is approaching midnight and all is silent around me. No one has the energy to speak - we just want our bags and to be on our way. I am fortunate that my cavernous kit bag rolls onto the carousel third in line - perhaps they subconsciously know we have a long drive - and I head off to meet with my trip partner. The roads are quiet but it is still twilight outside - picture a full moon, bright and sharp and you have the image. We cruise for over three hours on empty Norwegian roads, the majestic scenery plainly visible in the half-light. For much of the trip we are accompanied by huge lakes of sublime beauty, framed by forested, sylvan hills. We decide to push on rather than wild camp by the roadside. Eventually, as morning breaks, we arrive at Gjendesheim and the edge of Lake Gjende. We have not packed crampons or ice-axes - taking a risk that the Besseggen Ridge will be passable without them. Yet, as we traverse the high road into Jotunheimen, the Home of Giants, the snow stands 20ft high either side of us and seems to extend forever. The weather, swirling wind encircling us and plainly felt even in the relative safety of our car, does not fill us with confidence. We are suddenly acutely aware of the risk we have taken and wonder if we have miscalculated.

Upon reaching Gjendesheim, and the edge of the Gjende, the huge lake alongside with Besseggen runs, we park and slip into our sleeping bags for a few hours blessed rest. The DNT flagship hut here is closed and does not open until next weekend. They have advised us that the ridge may not be walkable but we'll need to see that for ourselves as the weather has been far better than expected up to now and we expect most of the snow to have melted away. In fact, there is snow on the ridge, but far less than the glaciated mountains we have driven through to get here. We resolve to get as high as we can and take bearings from there. We don't have to commit and to leave without trying would be such a waste.

It is a fitful night's sleep. We wake around eight o'clock and pull ourselves out of our bags. The shop next to the Gjende, a largish affair by the small ferry dock, has a handwritten sign in the window indicating half an hour until it opens. That seems unlikely to me but we dress and get our kit ready - we'll soon be on the move anyway. A car pulls up, and another, followed by another. Over the course of the next half an hour, around thirty people arrive - all hikers getting ready for the day's exertions. They have more confidence than we do in the conditions it would appear. The shop does indeed open at half past the hour and we get ourselves some chocolate for the trip and warm buns for breakfast. Everyone else leaves on the ferry at half past nine. It's a day-walk for them - we intend the opposite route and a camp en route before coming back along the lakeshore trail. We'll end up meeting them half way but at least that interruption to our solace will be short-lived. Clouds gather above us - the weather forecast has been uncertain throughout the weeks leading up to today - the promised sunshine seems a long way from the looming darkness above us. We start to walk.

The trail is marked by the small DNT symbols, all in the figure of a 'T', painted in red on rocks. There are cairns, too, to guide us. Initially, the trail up to the ridge is straightforward but steep. The path is good and clearly manufactured. We can see patches of snow, and we know we'll have to see what greets us when we get up there, but we're possessed of a strong desire to see Besseggen for ourselves. The initial climb is a slavish grind but as the vista opens up in front of us, and the sleek, shark's fin monsters rising up out of Lake Gjende show themselves to us, we begin to realise the allure of this hallowed place. The wind, for once, is minimal although it is still cold. From time to time we encounter snow, usually only a hundred metres or so at a time, and usually relatively flat and easy to traverse or avoid. But as we ascend, it becomes more frequent, steeper and harder to circumvent. Each step is studied concentration and we are keen to stay on rock where we can. From time to time, we must ascend through a chimney, using hands, feet and knees to make progress on the greasy, wet rock.

Eventually, the ridge begins to flatten out and the rocky barren plateau of the first part of Besseggen stretches out before us into the mist ahead. Navigation is becoming more difficult as the pall thickens. There are cornices of snow hanging over the edge of the ridge leading to sheer drop of hundreds of metres into Gjende below. We steer away from the snow here, remaining on rock where we can. We cannot be sure any of the snow to our left is stable. It is the cairns now which guide us - the ubiquitous DNT blood red marks are almost invisible in the mist unless they are scant metres away. Tiny droplets of moisture bead on our shells and faces as we ascend further along the vaguely inclined plateau. It gets steeper in places, and we cross yet more snow, but in truth the ascent is tiring but reasonable. 

The colours, probably as a consequence of the diffused light from the clouds and the more direct white light from the sun just peeking through the inky pall in the distance, are vibrant and powerful greens and yellows. The moss on the rock seems almost fluorescent to my eyes. Eventually, the final summit cairn of the ridge - a leviathan pyramid at Veslfjellnet (1743m) - can be seen. To reach it we must ascend ascending a steep incline of 200m of snow and we do so with some circumspection, kicking steps. A slip would be more than simply embarrassing. We stop at the cairn, taking time to capture the panorama.

Jotunheimen has a true wilderness feel that simply does not exist in the UK outside of the highlands of Scotland and I am drawn inexorably to the conclusion that I'll be back here frequently. There are buildings for time to time, near the road that passes through the park, but beyond that there is no evidence of human habitation, nor are there farming animals of any type that we saw whilst there. There are small collections of buildings in the park, usually clustered around a DNT hut, but very little else. Our destination is Memurubu, a small area on an inlet in the bottom of a valley between mountains on the shores of the Gjende - there is a privately owned hut which we know will be closed, but also a place to camp next to the beautiful lake. The Russvatnet and Bessvatnet, even huge expanses of water that they are, are both frozen and the ground next to them completely covered in snow. Traversing their shores will be a long, tedious process and we simply do not have the time tomorrow. We will, instead, keep the Gjende close to our hearts and traverse her shores. It is a shame that we will miss the difference in colour between Gjende and Bessvatnet which, in summer, can be seen from Besseggen. The light green of the Gjende, 400m lower than Bessvatnet, is as a consequence of suspended particles from glacial run off.

As we descend from the summit cairn towards Bandet, a diminutive ridge at the foot of Besshø, and the shores of Bessvatnet, we begin to see why Besseggen is graded as a 'difficult' walk. The descent on the knife-edge ridge is genuine scrambling. It is here that we begin to see the ferry-borne day-trippers making their way towards us. As we make our descent, they ascend, picking their way slowly, arduously over the rocks, some hugging the mountainside like frightened rabbits and others dancing across the craggy ridge like gazelles. The sun breaks through the cloud for some time, bathing the ridge and its surrounds in welcome, fresh warmth.

Eventually, we reach Bandet and stop for a moment to consider something we have seen from the top of the ridge. There is a trail carved into the snow, but the drop down to Bessvatnet is steep and long. A foot misplaced would be disastrous. Yet, as we get closer, the trail carved by dozens of walkers before us is a good one. Careful foot placement is all that's needed and we make short work of what looked to be a tricky proposition. We keep to rock as much as possible, even if it takes us out of our way - no sense is upsetting fate.

From Bandet, we ascend again, albeit this time our ascents are short ups and downs. We pass through the shadow of Besshø, which blesses us with its own weather system and, following the enjoyable sunshine of a few hours before, we don shells and push through the showers and wind. Eventually, we begin the final descent into Memurubu and within moments, we turn into the apex of the valley and the hut, and it's surrounding buildings, come into view. It's a long way we down, we observe, and a steep descent, but our legs are tired and we are keen to get on. The Besseggen walk is 6-8hrs according to the DNT and that's a solid estimate. We break regularly for photography and to eat, and we take 7 hours.

The path down to Memurubu is a good one - dusty in places which requires careful foot placement - but reasonable. We pass the junction for the trail to Glitterheim and secretly wish we had more time and could circumnavigate the northern shores of the Russvatnet as we had planned. Next time maybe.

As we pull into Memurubu, dreams of an open hut and real food play on our minds but, deep down, we know it will be empty. Although the hut itself is shut, there are small winter huts available - mountain bothy type structures built into the mountainside although a key is available for DNT huts in winter, we don't know if the same applies to Memurubu.

Memurubu has an odd feel to it. There is not a soul around and all the buildings, with the exception of the four bed bothy and a store room, are locked. There are various farming vehicles dotted around, along with sleds to carry equipment over snow. There is even an outdoor toilet - a tiny cubicle which whilst not particularly inviting is certainly not the worst I have seen. We pick a spot next to Gjende and pitch. Once our bags are lofting, mats inflating and legs resting, we munch happily on chocolate as water boils for our freeze dried food. I opt for gas rather than meths, purely to give the Primus Express Spider a run out and it performs admirably. The weather stays cool but there is little in way of wind and no rain. After we have eaten our fill, we head off to experiment with shutter speed and the rushing water of the River Muru next to us. I take the chance to explore the site and the Hut buildings around us. I have always been enthused by alpine huts as much as I have wild camping and the DNT/private huts in Norway, be they bothy or small hotel in style, fill me with the same feeling of excitement.

Yet, we are tired and it is not long before we are tucked away in our down bags and slumbering. I wake several times during the night and, for one such occasion, I crawl out of my bag and spend a few moments enjoying the twilight catching the ripples on Gjende, and the deep shadows of the mountains towering above me. Life has been a rat-race, especially lately, and being here in the company of ancient leviathans, grass beneath my toes and fresh air in my lungs fills me at once with a sense of peace, something approaching joy and, simultaneously, a deep despair. This is not enough, I admonish myself. I need to be out here more than I am but perhaps that is soon to be the way of things. Life takes many turns and sometimes, you need to choose the turn it takes. I have choices to make.

The next morning, we eat porridge and locate, after some searching, the unmarked trail along the shores of Gjende. It is not an easy path, winding up and down the mountainside - poorly kept in places and exposed in others, it looks on the map for all the world to be an easy 3-4 hour stroll - be warned, it requires effort and concentration but the views from here across the Gjende are outstanding. We caress the surface of Gjende and from here, we are gifted a different perspective of Jotunheimen than from the ridge of Besseggen. Now, we are ants, darting in between these monsters rather than eagles soaring above them. We come across two pebble beaches, right against the Gjende, with more than enough room to camp and pitch a tarp or the fly of a stand-alone shelter like the Fly Creek. Had we known, these may have been alternatives for the night, but a tougher mat than the lightweight Peak Elite AC would be required.

The weather oscillates between cool, cloudy darkness and a warm, balmy glimmer. Layering becomes an art form as well segue from warm, humid forest to the cool, exposed slopes of Besseggen, but this time only 100m above Gjende rather than over 800m at the top  of the ridge. Eventually, Lady Luck capitulates and the rain comes but by now we are well within sight of Gjendesheim. Half an hour later, we are in our car by which time, of course, the sun has returned. Such is life. We head down to a small town called Fagernes and grab and a burger and a beer. Every time I'm midway through a walk, I have something in mind to look forward to and this time, beer and a burger occupied that small sport in my subconscious thoughts.

When I look back, the ridge fresh in my mind, I am thrilled to have been there. The Land of Giants, home to trolls and monsters ages old, has a milieu all of its own. The landscape is neither alpine, nor does it resemble Scotland or anything else in the UK. It is beautifully unique and an experience I'll treasure. The drive to Gjendesheim is around four hours, in the middle of the night when traffic is virtually non-existent. Flights to Oslo are not so very expensive, but hiring a car is - everything in Norway is eye-wateringly expensive, which is no exaggeration at all. Remember not to take camping gas with you but source it en route. Gas cannot be taken even into the hold of an aircraft. There is public transport up to Jotunheimen (and the Rondane, for that matter) in form of the train to Otta on the Dovre line, and several buses into the park. If you want to email the Gjendesheim Hut, the contact details including email address is here and they are an excellent source of information. The timetable for the Gjendesheim-Memurubu-Gjendebu ferry is a study in obfuscation but email them too.