Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Montane and Brynje: Cycling and Running

I recently decided that the 11km from my home to work was wasted on a train. I could either run it or cycle it. Time played its part and cycling won. Not to be put off running, I made some time for that at night with an off-road 10km route. A Cycle to Work scheme was imminent so I'd get the bike paid for before I paid tax (saving me around 30%) and if I went for 'last season' colours, it would be even cheaper. A friend of mine recently retired and got a job as a mechanic at Sigma Sport in Kingston. I seemed all set.

Problem is, I know next to nothing about road bikes - give me mountain bikes and I can wax lyrical with the best of them, but road bikes are an arcane mystery to me. So, I sketched out what I wanted - a fast bike which would last on the appalling roads between my home and work and which came in around a price tag I could afford. After a complete fitting, and some looking around, I was pointed to a Trek 2.3 C H2 2012 in a rather fetching red and white. With Shimano 105 all round, carbon forks, bontrager rims and tyres and a frame which fit me perfectly, it seemed the logical choice. They serviced it for me, getting everything precision honed and dialled in to my body, before I took it home. Breaking News - it's been superb. Yet this post is not about the bike - there's a pic below because I like it - this post is about how you can take your outdoor kit and turn it to another use. I am not one for lycra - sorry - and I have a pair of Endura MTB shorts which I use to cycle in. What I really wanted was something that would keep the wind off (I'd be going at a heady 20-25mph you know), keep me warm on cool mornings but also breathe well and wick sweat away on the two major climbs I'd need to deal with. I chose a Brynje Super Micro T-Shirt and a Montane Litespeed.

One thing to note about Brynje is the eccentric and random sizing. With base layers, Brynje tends to comes up small. I am a medium/large and I find even a large is very snug. But with other layers, Brynje comes up large (fleeces, the Skald jacket etc) - if you're like me, in anything other than a base layer, you should get a medium if you are normally a medium, but even that might be a little loose. Nordic Life, who recently sponsored In the Footsteps of Legends, an expedition involving wounded soldiers following in Scott's Antarctic footsteps, are the people to speak to about Brynje. Rhodri Lewis is the UK distributor and he will assist you if asked in choosing the right size. Call him - he's tried all of it and, having spent a week with him in wintry Norway testing Brynje (and Bergans, among other things), he knows the kit inside out.

The Brynje Super Micro is a 100% polypropylene fine mesh. They come in white and do not lose shape at all. Unlike normal synthetic base layers, the mesh breathes so well that there is virtually no odour at all after days of hard use. When cycling, I use it for 30mins, twice a day, 5 days a week and wash it at the end of the week. It does not smell, even on Friday. It is dry within moments of my taking it off, and bone dry within a very short time thereafter. I find it very comfortable indeed against the skin. Even in the harsh cold mornings at the moment, with that and the Litespeed, as I walk my son to nursery before getting on my bike, I am not particularly cold at all (we're talking 4-6˚C here with a mesh t-shirt and a pertex Microlight shirt - I'd expect to be really cold). It's surprising. I'm not saying you can climb Everest in this set-up, but it is reassuringly efficient at insulating. I've had a few people on social networks, who should know better, suggest the holes will mean it doesn't insulate at all. Here's the explanation - the point of the mesh is the holes: nothing breathes like air and nothing insulates like air. When you wear another layer on top of mesh, the air trapped in the mesh warms up with your body and retains that temperature. If you are warm and, therefore, sweaty the moist air leaves your body more quickly - sweat evaporates more slowly through dense fabrics. A mesh layer allows moisture to leave the body more swiftly because there is less fabric for it to move through. As a consequence, the mesh dries more quickly leaving you warmer. Additionally, less fabric means less weight - take one Brynje layer? Why not take two and give yourself more options for the same weight of merino layer? I'll talk more about deploying Brynje in a hiking context in another post with some observations from people who have used it, regularly, in Scottish, Norwegian and Arctic winters - people who are not bothered about looks but are more bothered about effectiveness.

Because it may look crazy, and we Brits are staunchly conservative, but those in the know who have to deal with extremely cold weather swear by mesh base layers - mostly it's the Scandinavians who spend their time in the colder north who have been telling me they like it. It seems to be only the Brits who cannot see themselves propping up the bar with it who turn up their noses. I can't disagree on that score but for wild outdoors stuff, where pubs aren't involved, it's worth considering. So I reasoned, why not extend that use to other arenas and see what happens? Cycling is my first chance to do that and running my second. I'm not the first - several of the most prestigious cycling brands, like Rapha, have done the same.

And at night, I used the same top, again with the Litespeed, to run in. Even in winter temperatures, running in this set up with shorts meant I was warm enough but not over-heating and not coming home drenched in sweat. Pertex breathes as well as any fabric out there which sheds wind as a shell but it gets overwhelmed eventually. A mesh layer beneath it, so long as it keeps you warm, helps that breathing process. I ran one night in 150g merino and pretty quickly found I was running hotter than in the Super Micro. The thing about the Super Micro is the fine mesh means a warmer layer than the mesh of say the Super Thermo and the Classic Wool Mesh - I've photographed them together below so you can see what you mean. Running in the mesh of the latter two, in the temperatures we're getting now, would be too cold.

What's this got to do with hillwalking and mountaineering, trekking and walking outdoors? Well, if I can use Brynje for high-intensity activities and still breathe well and stay warm (with only a wind shirt on top of it), with an additional layer on top for less intense activities (as we would do anyway - think fleece, stretchy polartec or a synthetic insulation layer), it is a good option for outdoor adventure too. I'll be looking at how Brynje mesh has performed in autumn and winter walking and cross-country skiing in another post shortly. So, to the naysayers - try something new. You might just like. Innovation is the mother of adventure.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Portable Luxury: Alpine Walks from a Motorhome or Campervan

Walking in the Alps is a singular and deeply memorable experience and, now more than ever, extremely accessible. There are legendary walks lasting hours, days or weeks and which bestow some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world. With a network of fine huts available, some of which border on the luxurious, it is tempting to simply walk from hut to hut over the course of days or weeks. This, on a classic walk like the Tour du Mont Blanc, or a more technical walk over glacial terrain, like the Classic Haute Route, is a perfect way to see a specific section of the Alps.

But what if you want something more varied? Or if you'd like the privacy of a place all to yourself? If you don't fancy paying eye-watering prices for wine and food? Or you are undertaking a multi-discplinary adventure - mountain-biking, climbing AND walking, all in one trip? Carrying your equipment, or food and drink, will be onerous if you have different priorities to those required on a hut-to-hut adventure. And if you want privacy, alpine huts are not the place for you. How about a campervan? Or motorhome?

Europe is geared towards helping motorhome owners. France has Aires de Service (Camping Car) and Germany has Stellplatze. The Italians calls them Aree di Sosta. They are all areas set aside purely for motorhomes to overnight. Often they are free. They usually contain a sanistation - a unit which looks a little like a petrol pump - to obtain water, electricity, dispose of grey waste (shower and washing up) and black waste (think toilet). And there are vast numbers of campsites too. In fact, if you head to the Alps, there are so many places to stay that in the summer season, you'll find yourself without a great deal of company in places like Grimentz (for the Val d'Anniviers) or Grindelwald (for the Eiger and beyond). There are campsites outside Zermatt or both Air and campsite in Breuill Cervinia (for the Matterhorn), or nearby Maconcagua in Italy. These are just a few. Check out Vicarious Books excellent "All the Aires Mountains" for a pretty comprehensive list. Whatever your taste, there are Aires and campsites to suit.

So what does this matter to you, the ardent trekker? Think of your summer this way: Either drive a van down to the Alps (2-3 days at most) or hire one down there and then head to, let's say, Grimentz. Have a nice dinner in the town, basking in the warmth of the setting sun, then retire to your van for a chilled glass of vino. Sleep well, for the next day you head off into the Val d'Anniviers. Spend a couple of days walking - stay in the Cabane de Moiry (2,825m) overnight and eat dinner in full view of the Moiry Glacier, the Pointes de Mourti and the Tsa de l'Ano (3,368m). Take a circuitous route back and get home to the 'van by nightfall. 

Take a warm shower. Dig out your maps, and plan another overnighter but this time near the Mont Blanc massif. Stay in Courmayeur, the impossibly chic Italian version of Chamonix where hiking boot meets high-heeled boot. Head up to the Bertone hut, have lunch, before heading along the Mont de la Saxe path, taking in the southern face of the Mont Blanc massif, the Aiguille de Peutery (and the Brenva Glacier) as well as the Grandes Jorasses. Stay overnight in one of the most salubrious alpine huts, the Refugio Bonatti, and stare at Mont Blanc herself. Head back down to Courmayeur the next day. Or if you fancy planning something a little different, have a look at Kev Reynolds' "Walking in the Alps" for a thorough rendition of the routes available across the Alps (published by Cicerone).

And go on like this, all summer. So, this year, try thinking slightly differently. Take in a massif (forgive me) amount of walking, all across the Alps, without struggling on trains and taking more with you than you thought possible. And a bike rack on the back of a motorhome is standard these days, not a luxury. For reliable motorhome insurance, check out The Caravan Club. Well worth a look (we were members) and they have some great places to stay which are in wild areas in the UK too (and where only 5 vans can stay at a time). It's worth joining a club for all the other benefits it gives later on. Insurance abroad is essential and a club will ensure you are covered for exactly what you need.