Stay Frosty

Out on the hill yesterday, it's getting cold out there.

This was a gear test for a few bits and bobs, and a dose of conditioning before a pre christmas bid for freedom in the Cairngorms next weekend.  Day trips are always worth doing of course, but especially at this time of year.  I'm always surprised at how much harder winter is, physically and mentally - its easy to forget just how tough it is on the body, how little light/time there is to do the trip.  It pays to be reminded.

We were in the borders, walking White Coombe and a few others around Loch Skeen.  The snow was soft enough to make it hard going, and thigh deep in places.  The wind was fierce.  We postholed nearly all the way round, weren't pacey enough and walked out in the dark. T was tired, slipped and got very wet crossing the fast running outflow from the Loch.  Not the best time of year to go for a dip.

Today, our bodies hurt, alot.  Winter hill walking is incredibly physical.  Coming up to White Coombe was all cylinders at full pelt, body knocked around in the gale, kicking through the hard crust, falling over a few times...

A few memory aids for me (and maybe for you):

  • Get out of the wind for lunch, or get worn out fast.  I now always carry waterproof over mitts and put these on to dig a basic snow burrow in soft snow.  Out of the wind it's quite comfy.
  • Keep eating and drinking - all day.  Don't be lazy about that, just because it's a hassle to get at the water or snacks.  You don't want to energy slump and start being dumb at 4pm, just when it counts.
  • Take an axe at least, even in marginal conditions.  You probably can't see the real tops from the base, so judging it on sight from the bottom is potentially risky.
  • Make sure everyone has a (fully charged) head torch.
  • Carry some spares - more gloves, another hat at least.  After T got soaked to the waist in the river crossing I persuaded her to put on her waterproof over trousers, which saved her leaching energy through exposure to windchill.  Suddenly they weren't dead weight any more.
  • I'm more convinced than ever that this recreational nonsense we get up to is at least 80% mental, and coming off steep ground in the gloaming is fine provided you stay calm.  Part of the reason I go out is I enjoy the learning curve, it's time to reflect and a good mirror for how I deal with the rest of life, but the winter hills are no place for unnecessary baggage. 

Be safe out there, look after yourselves.  It's a purple and orange wonderland at this time of year, but can be pretty uncomfortable or worse, if you're not prepared.

Gear Diary (1) - on the TGOC

This marks the start of a new occasional feature called gear diary.  Calling it a diary means it isn't written in stone - this info is of (at best) temporary usefulness.  Also, if I say it fast enough it sounds like I'm wearing false teeth.  Please bear both these things in mind at all times when reading what follows.

I won't pretend to offer the technical low-down, spreadsheet gymnastics or early-adopter shenanigans - there are many better places for that.  But whilst I don't have the patience to write about gear at length, I do have an opinion based on use.  In the past few months my work-life balance has shifted,  I'm out alot more, so I get a more of a chance to live with the things we use to get by and be comfortable outdoors.  They are tools - not more, and not less.  That means it's as much about us as it is about the object of desire itself - probably more.  I'm especially interested in simplicity, and reliability, which I think go hand in hand as complimentary features in a good outdoors product design.  Simplicity is how you make something lightweight that functions on task and lasts (i.e is reliable), as well as dovetailing with the nature experience many of us seek.  So, I hope this occasional series will be sporadic, sometimes flippant, have an opinion, not too long, shot from the hip-flask of experience and viewed through the rheumy eyes of doubt, context, time and date.  In short, subjective with a capital S.  If that's not your thing, look away now.

Right then, that's the 'excuse me' out of the way.  Oh, by the way, this is my new gear store - before this I just had plastic bags in the loft - how great is this!  I like it anyway, makes life alot easier - ergonomics, not features.

This post is about gear I used on the TGO Challenge, a 270km coast to coast crossing in high winds, lots of rain and sun, days of snow and temperatures from around -3 to +30 degrees C.  Quite mixed then.  I also used much of it in the months before the crossing, in order to work out if it was OK to take.  That makes this a review of shoulder season equipment, gear that might or might not fit in the awkward spring/autumn transitional seasons.  It's not a complete list, it's things that stood out one way or another.  The date is MAY 2012.

Warning: Before you write something like this for a high profile US blog, please make sure your shelter is recently seam sealed before embarking on a Scottish coast to coast trip.  Or else get caught with your trousers down.  I love the Trailstar and that's no secret, and it behaved impeccably as always in all conditions, but it did leak.  I had to re seam seal in an emergency - damp camp, something to be avoided unless you enjoy spending a whole afternoon peeling off strips of glue before doing the job properly again.   A surprise on this trip was how well the TS dealt with snow.  I had thought it would panic and fold, but it gently bowed and then shed the white stuff instead.  On the worst night I went out and cleared the lion's share off about 3am, but really - this shelter continues to excel in everything I can throw at it.

Ideally we would have used bivy bags under the Trailstar, since we had so much wet gear to store, but we were testing the 2Oookstar for Sean, and I think that's been useful for developing the product further.  It's off back to him for the mark ii redesign this week.  I'm not going to spill the beans about what we have planned, but I am excited now, its getting good.  Even as was, it was very comfortable and kept us quite alot warmer than just bivi's despite the mesh only sides, but occasionally blown/shaken water from the outer was a mild issue.  My ageing seam seal was at fault really.  The warmth thing was a surprise, I hadn't expected that at all, but useful.

By all means, get yourself a pair of these La Sportiva Raptor jobbies.  They look ridiculous unless you are 9 ft and compete in the high jump, but grip like nothing I've ever worn in all conditions on most surfaces, and are a little more sturdy than inov8's in the toe bump department.  Hey, I've kicked steps in these on the last two backpacks I've done, which tells you something about the rand and toe protection.  As a consequence they drain slower than inov8 trail shoes, and I'd suggest seam sealing the seams to increase the longevity, but mine have done around 400km now and are still going strong.  Well, I say strong, they don't look like the picture below anymore but they still work.  By now you all know to pack a needle and some dental floss for long trips so a touch of DiY is not out of the question should the need arise.

On the other limb, please avoid like the plague anything foot shaped made by Salomon.  My girlfriend has a pair of exit aero's which have proved unremittingly rubbish as soon as purchased last year.  No grip, not waterproof despite the goretex branding, but despite leaking like a sieve on the way in, didn't dry out at all.  Ever.  In some ways I have to admire just how bad they were on every front - at least Salomon did a thorough job on making these completely impractical torture instruments. That takes genuine 360 degree incompetence, not just an accidental oversight or two.  These shoes destroyed T's feet on the TGOC.  Achilles heel problems and blisters on blisters, these are not a few of her favourite things.  I think maybe they make nice trainers for around town, but not serious footwear, sorry.  I think she maybe ready for some nice comfy trail shoes, at last.  There goes that sponsorship deal, then.  Bye......

The above photo also shows a new pair of Keela Scuffer softshell trousers, which have done about the same mileage now.  Good for colder temperatures where they are the only trouser, and for day hikes for sure, but I am not 100% convinced for backpacking.  I possibly could have got away with Montane Terra converts as usual with merino leggings that I wore for bed to warm them up, plus waterproof trews.  They are bulky to pack if not in use, and the material can rub a little along the waist band when in contact with a rucksack, but to be fair I wore them on the nasty days on the Challenge and they performed well overall.  A good inexpensive option, but jury still out for thru-hiking.

Talking trews, Go Lite Tumalo.  Yea, lightweight is all well 'n good 'n that, except when it doesn't work, in which case its 200 and whatever grams of HEAVY and UNNECESSARY emperor's new clothes until I can find a bin to burn it in.  The thing with waterproof trousers, is they are supposed to keep your legs and kegs dry.  These would be really great and soooo stylish, except that the ultralight-ultracool-design-feature-leg-pocket-thingy lets in water.  Take away this silly thigh pocket, which is useless anyway (like I'm gonna put loose change in a pocket near my knee...) and you have something that might work.  That's what I mean about simplicity, and reliability.  At least Go Lite make gear I can recycle - but it would be better if they made trousers that functioned well enough that I didn't have to ditch them before the end of their natural...

Waterproof top was the Rab Momentum:  I loved this jacket, I wanted to tell you great things, really I did.  I bought a replacement when I left my first one on a train overhead storage last autumn.  But it has let itself down, let me down and let you down.  OK, beading is great, it keeps you dry - well as dry as any jacket I've ever had, or better.  Hood is the business and hoods matter outdoors.  But - durability is in question - after about 5 short trips, and then about a week of constant wear and tear under a rucksack on the Challenge, the left armpit is showing signs of rucksack strap burn.  The picture above clearly (I hope) shows fraying in the underarm area on the seam, and there is more off to the right (and more off camera too).  I will reproof it and hold onto it until it dies, but this is quite probably the beginning of the end.  At least its not on the top of the shoulder...yet.

I like Rab gear, as another review at the end of this post shows - its usually really well thought out, even if the fit is sometimes a little strange.  And, given that this is a 'lightweight' eVent garment, I don't expect it to last for decades.  But I do expect it to last for more than a total of about 12 days rain use with a lightweight backpacking rucksack.  Naturally, if Rab contact me about this, you'll hear it here first... over to you, Mr. Carrington.

I subscribe firmly to the look-after-your-hands-feet-and-head-and-the-rest-will-look-after-itself school of thought.  Since the forecast was not so fragrant for the Challenge, I took the variety pack...

Hats:  3 used - a £6 Gelert sun boonie, a thinsulate beanie (found on a rock in Spain) and my Lowe Alpine goretex mountain cap (pictured), all because the lady loves kick ass wet and cold.  Please excuse the silly picture...but rest assured, this old skool bonnet is the business for Scottish weather in winter, spring and autumn.  I own the large, which means even for my big head I can get the beanie underneath to add extra warmth at camp.  I'm the dosy one on the right, by the way, although both models pictured have excellent DWR.

This photo also features probably my most favourite-est bit of hill clobber ever - the Montane Horizon jacket.  Its sort of a technical fleece: elements of softshell performance (quite wind and vaguely water resistant, super breathable) with enough warmth for me to keep the chill away whilst not sweating too much if active.  I wear this almost every time I go out further than the supermarket, have done for 3 years, its still as good as new.  This time I spilt egg down it at Loch Callater Bothy, much to Croydon's amusement.  Of course, its discontinued...

Gloves:  Again, 3.  I've started using synthetic liner gloves and have 2 pairs - trek mates and seal skin - so far the seal skin ones are more robust and a fraction warmer, I took those on the Challenge.  For a tenner or less you have something which is extremely functional and means you can keep warm and light a stove/put up a tent/do your lippy etc.  The point here is a little coverage when anything chunkier would be too much.  Its also just good policy to have 2 pairs of hand warmers when the weather's iffy, as it's next to impossible to keep gloves dry unless you're down the pub instead of up the hill.  I also carry ME windstoppers and Tuff Mitts, both of which work great but make me run hot unless we are well below zero or its truly vile (see: 'Hurricane Sunday').  Photo shows trek mates and some fraying after only a few trips.

New this season!  Pacerpoles.  OK, I won't go on.  I got the aluminum ones in the end, purely because there seems to be a question mark over how recyclable carbon fibre is at the moment.  They function well on the flat and downhill, about the same as a conventional pole IMHO, but uphill these things are the bomb - you can really dig in and power yourself along.  They are bloody heavy though - You get a sea container's worth of LT4's for one pair of these!  The Challenge also saw my Carbon Fibre Mountain King Expedition's retired after 4 years - T has started using two poles and had taken these on, but the stress fractures had got so bad that they froze up several times this trip.  Not safe to take out now, replacing with BD Trail compacts, again aluminum.

Cooking with gas:
Yes, we did.  I don't usually, but the ETA Spider Express was great for this trip.  Wet, cold, long days - no fuss, plenty stable and no problem to light.  Fuel is plentiful in major towns.  We used 2.3 230gm canisters over 2 weeks for 2 people, averaging about 4 litres boil a day.  It was great to make a lunchtime brew to fend off the cold, something I might not bother with if using meths. I love the caldera system, but for the Challenge this time, gas was perfect.  My GF is more confident with it too, which meant I could pitch whilst she got the water on, saved alot of time. 

Food: I've read some fairly ill thought out comments about people shipping food for the Challenge, which seem to suggest that nobody is thinking about their impact on local economies.  I found this to be far from the truth.  People I met on the Challenge went out of their way to spend both generously and locally whenever they could, sharing information about local cafes, bars, outdoors shops - all non chain places.  In some small villages the Challenge is a major player in the local economy - food, drink, bed and board, and kit.  Truth is food is not always guaranteed in places where you need it.  The other truth is that the UK consumer sold out to supermarket chains years ago.  Maybe that's a generalisation, but for packaged food at least, it's often the reality in the Highlands.  Should we buy local, or buy independent?  Ideally both, but sometimes we can't.  We shipped two lots of food and with hindsight I would do one more drop, but to different places, packing less and smarter to fill the gaps the local/chain supermarkets can't offer.

Where there's a choice though, maybe the critics have a point - the Tesco breakfast in Montrose is a minimum wage disgrace and nobody with an ounce of nouse should be in there.  Fair trade, my arse.  I'll know for next time. 

Rab Boreas:
Concerned about the cold I bought this mid new a day before I left.  It has so far been fantastic.  It's a synthetic hoody, basically, a bit wind and rain resistant but not much, has a really good hood on it which is great for covering up and keeping warm under a hat or two, and gave my Horizon a boost on the really hanging days when it was cold.  The fit is loose-ish and the sleeves wide enough not to cut off the circulation to your arms - I think alot of climbers value it for all these reasons.

I didn't wear it next to the skin until the last day or two and it didn't seem to stink too much that I needed to wash it.  So it adds a bit of warmth and some wind resistance, mainly because the hood is so good and it's another layer.  However, where this really excels is in the heat.  Next to the skin in temperatures pushing into the low 30's (c), I remained cool, calm and collected, the hood came down low so as my ears and forehead didn't burn, with the neck undone for a good amount of venting.  It's a bit confusing putting a hood up in broiling sunshine, counter intuitive - but if you need sun protection, the Boreas will stop you cooking.  This may well become my go-to summer hiking top...  Here's another zoolander pose, just because I loved how practical this was - it's light, packs small, can be layered or worn solo, covers a whole range of seasons and uses, it's rare to get this much functionality in something well under £50:

What else?

Undies, socks and tops are all smartwool merino, no news there.  Merino boxers seem to get trashed quite fast, leading to rubbing in delicate places in hot weather.  I should have taken my beyond excellent (and orange!) Montane Sonic 2.0 running short, which solves that issue in a mesh.

I took my increasingly knackered Montane anti freeze jacket, which I grow to love more and more the more tired it becomes.  Mmm, the smell of stale mac n' cheese.  Down was probably not a great fit for this trip, and I wonder what I'll replace it with when the time comes.  PHD's always look good, but down jackets, in Scotland?  My GF took her still fairly new Haglof's Barrier which is turning out to be the best £100 spent for a long time.  Its purple, very warm and has a brilliant hood.  The odd bit of rain doesn't seem to bother it at all.  Maybe they do a mens version... 
MLD snow gaiters:
Great for snow repulsion so a good fit for this trip, but not so good at keeping the heather and grit out of trail shoes.  I have inov8 gaiters which do this well, but 'the one' gaiter to rule them all remains elusive.  I noticed a certain very stylish challenger was modelling OR puttees, which I may have to investigate further.

Sleeping mats:
Spare me.  We use Multimat 8mm, and a half Z lite in combination with our rucksacks for under the legs - one, other or both depending on the time of year.  They don't burst, leak, or develop bubbly tumors where your spine or hips go.  They are cheap and reliable.  Airbeds belong in the 1970's, or for weekend trips on a campsite a few times a year.  Please don't try to convince me otherwise, or I'll start shouting at you.

No, no and no.  Learn to read a map and use a compass with some degree of accuracy, or half learn and get away with it, like the rest of us.  DO NOT rely on tech that you don't know how to fix when the machines finally take over and EMP your ass.  I'm being half serious.  The other half thinks maybe I should get some UK maps on my viewranger account, just to be on the safe side.  It's nice to have that security in the bottom of the pack, but I don't like how we all learn to rely on tech and forget good skills.

I think that's mostly what was new or different covered.  I won't be doing these that often, so the half baked cod philosophy and photos will resume shortly I'm sure. 

Friends, Connects, Backcountrymen (and women)

...lend me your subscriptions.

As you may have seen already, the behemoth that is Google is stopping 'google friend connect' for non-blogger sites as of March 1st, 2011.

I've never really liked it to be honest, I stopped using it myself a while ago.  I'll remove it from this site in a few days.  Thankfully, most readers here are subscribed by other means, but if perchance 'Friend Connect' is your means of staying abreast of this tiny corner of the interweb, please consider following anew, by subscribing to Self Powered - HERE

Although the above link is the best way of getting new posts, you can also follow my occasional profound utterances on Twitter and/or Facebook, where new post alerts appear as well as other bits and bobs - mostly music, film, and politics related. 

Anyway, I'd be really sorry to see you go, so please, by all means (except G.F.C.) keep in touch.  I appreciate the comments and sharing of ideas - yes, even yours. 

We are the robots

I have finally got my head around a little mobile blogging - as usual I was making it all way too complicated. 
Here's the first image I sent from my iphone - Keswick co-op has obviously seen better days.

I'm not hugely interested in spending all my time outside staring at a tiny screen - I prefer to spend more time in what cyber geeks call 'meatspace'.  Aside from that, I don't have the battery for it...or do I?  However, a long trip coming up means it might be good to try some of the modern stuff like what the yoof are doing.  It'll save me trying to find an internet cafe, trying to convince the staff to let me plug in my phone to upload photos (I only shoot in raw on the grown up camera, so that ain't gonna happen till I get back), and that, plus this new fangled thing they call Social Hiking means my mum won't worry so much.

The new tab, above right, called 'Ou est le Dave?' may shortly contain a live map showing where I am, depending on my battery, reception and ability to stab like a demented geriatric at the phone digits in the right order.  I will test it this weekend on a mini backpack with a friend - if you don't hear anything, it means MI5 have finally caught up with me.

I have discovered that if you add text after the picture in an email on iphone, it doesn't spit out at the other end.  Only the text before the image does, and weirdly blogger places this after.  Its one picture per post via email as well, as far as I can make out.  Oh well, the posts are going to look kinda skanky, and the iphone camera is from the dark ages, but its better than nothing.