Thursday, 13 November 2014

One Day There Will Be Silence



Over Ullswater to Blencathra this October

I have never been one for a macho approach to hill walking. By ‘macho approach’, which might be the wrong terminology, I’m thinking of a very long day's walk, over difficult terrain, striving for many summits, possibly in poor weather. That being said, I have done many tough hikes and these have often been memorable.  But I am also very happy doing shorter days, when I probably appreciate my surroundings more, without the pressure to move on, or to hit a target, or to complete a pre-determined route. For many years I have been fortunate enough to live within an easy distance of the hills, both in Cumbria and Wales. Thus, I can be more choosy about my walking than those who have to make a special effort and travel long distances to get their fix. And shorter days suit me as I get older. I’ve ticked my lists, and still do so, but I am also more than happy to return over and over again to old favourites for short days in the hills.


Looking to Helvellyn from the path to Arthur's Pike, October 2014


Coming down the Old Corpse Road to Haweswater, June 2014


A water survey post between Branstree and Selside Pike, June 2014
The joys of being able to seek out the less spectacular and easier hills have been evident in a few walks recently. I have followed broad grassy ridges, often alone for most of the day, save Hyperdog Moss, no other walkers in sight. Relatively easy walking, lovely views, that invigorating feeling of the wind on your face, and the silence. Not the silence as defined by the dictionary, but the silence of the hills –  the wind, the occasional call of a bird or a sheep, the sound of my breathing as I labour uphill. For me this is the silence of peace, the silence that allows you to empty your mind of thoughts and by default allow the senses to roll in and out of your mind. Sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. The views, the birds, the bracken, the water from a stream, the contrast between rock and grass under your trail shoe or boot.

I do not know if there is an afterlife, but if there is I hope I spend mine walking a grassy fell, watching the summer sun above me competing with transient white clouds. And below me will be a lake such as Ullswater, with the Raven and the Lady of the Lake making their way along the water, carrying unseen crowds of smiling, relaxed holidaymakers.  The gentle breeze will make my face glow, and my two boys and my lovely wife will wander with me until the end of time. And then I will no longer have to dream or try to forget. At last I truly will be a free man on the hills.




Looking to Moel Sych and Cadair Berwyn, November 2014

My hillwalking mate in the Berwyns, November 2014

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Talking Crap



I have noticed that American bloggers are far less reticent when it comes to talking crap in posts about wild camping. But with the growth in understanding about the importance of the ‘leave no trace’ philosophy I thought I would pose a question about a subject that would be guaranteed to start any decent school boy sniggering.


Now we all know that bears shit in the woods. And backpackers shit on the hill. So what is the appropriate way to deal with the doings? Many years ago I was taught to dig a hole, the deeper the better, commit the deed, produce a lighter and burn the paper, refill the hole, making sure you didn’t set fire to the peat or surrounding vegetation.  And that’s what I have done until this day. However, I am worried that this might not be adequate, but hope it is!  Many US bloggers now appear to be discussing the best sorts of methods of carrying out the used paper in a hygienic manner. Here's an example, with (discreet) photos included.  And now I read that in some places eg in Yosemite (I think) it is a requirement to carry out the whole caboodle, doggy poo bag style. I have to say I don’t fancy that. Even worse, it might lead to the backpacking equivalent of those dog owners who seem to think it is ok to scoop then hang the bag on the nearest branch or chuck it over a garden wall.


So it’s not a very delicate subject but what is the appropriate way to deal with this in the hills in this day and age?

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Friends Old and New: An overnight trip in the Shropshire Hills

The hills of South Shropshire are where, over half a life time ago, I first broke in my walking boots.  Living in Shrewsbury as a teenager, with my best friend in Church Stretton, I spent many, many weekends walking these hills, both day and night, for we not infrequently walked from before it was light until after dark, and on a number of occasions walked all through the night.  In one twenty hour walk, in October 1974 I think it was, I covered fifty miles across these hills, and this remains my record to this day.

Looking up Carding Mill Valley
The other day I was very keen to get out in what was forecast to be the last of our 'Indian Summer', but nervous of a still tender back after a fortnight of some discomfort. The prospect of a trip with good weather, and the chance to try out a new shelter overcame the wise voice in my head telling me to rest up a few days longer.  The compromise was adjusting my original plan of a high camp at a nice spot I have in mind on the top of one of the Berwyns in favour of a favourite short walk, followed by a camp near a village with a pub.  This would save me from twelve hours lying in a dark tent on a Neoair, not the best treatment for lower back pain.

Thus, I headed in the early afternoon to Church Stretton with a pretty light overnight pack by my standards, and set off up the Long Mynd.  For those of you who have never visited, this is delightful, but easy, hill walking country. The Mynd itself is a long heather covered moorland plateau running north to south.  Its east side, facing the Stretton Valley, is disected by several deep, parallel valleys, of the classic geography text book V shape.  Locally, these are often known as a batch or a hollow. Between the valleys are very broad ridges.  Thus, it is easy to combine circular routes to the top of the Long Mynd, Pole Bank, via a couple of valleys or ridges or one of each.  The top is at a modest 516 metres, but on a clear day it has glorious views as far as Cadair Idris and the Rhinogs to the west, and the Urals to the east. Yes the Urals. Honest! See my earlier blog post.

Looking back down from near top of Carding Mill Valley to Church Stretton
Thus, I headed along a cunning path that runs well above the parked cars in the lowest reaches of the honey pot which is Carding Mill Valley, then up that valley itself, passing the school fieldwork parties that always come here, each struggling after such a dry spell to undertake a stream study. The path is a lovely gradient, steep enough for you to get a sweat on and increase the pace of your breathing, but just when you feel you might want to stop for five you emerge on the plateau of the Mynd where you can stretch your legs and stride out for miles in this super walking country.
The Portway - a pre-historic track across the top of the Long Mynd
From the site of the old corrugated iron shooting box, which must have been gone for twenty or more years now, there were impressive views westwards on this lovely clear day. A couple of miles to the west is the lovely Stiperstones ridge, with its tors that make the Devil's Chair, and its unmissable sky line, and its ankle breaking quartz rock hidden in the heather that runs the length of its ridge. Further to the south and west is the easily recognised profile of Corndon Hill, still in Shropshire, but right up to the Welsh Border with old Montgomeryshire, killed off in 1974, resurrecting the Powys of old, but without its princes. And on the far horizon, the distinctive shape of Cader Idris, which must be forty miles as the crow flies, and the high mountains of southern Snowdonia.

Pole Bank - the top of the Long Mynd, looking towards the Stiperstones

Selfie at Pole Bank

From Pole Bank I back tracked a couple of hundred yards and then headed off down towards a spring called Boiling Well and the lovely little path down Ashes Hollow, winding through the autumnal bracken, following the stream around its perfectly interlocking spurs.  

Heading down Ashes Hollow

In Ashes Hollow
Right at the end of the hollow is a small but perfectly formed little camp site on the edge of the village of Little Stretton. I last camped here with my little brother when I was sixteen, in my first ever tent, a Litchfield Mistral 1. This served me well in my early forays in the hills, until its groundsheet lost all its waterproof coating four years later resulting in a damp night in an Alpine meadow. That was the day after Elvis Presley died. My memory is a strange and mysterious thing.
Wonderful location at Little Stretton, but rather over priced
It was somewhat fitting that I was back at the site where I tested out my first tent, as I could now try out my latest, my Z Packs Hexamid DuplexAlan Sloman has decreed that all tents should have a name, and that tents are female, so the Duplex is now Daphne.  At just 835 grams, with added linelocks, pegs, and in the 'heavier' grade cuben fibre option, she is ultra lightweight for a two person shelter, and she has some pretty radical design features. But I need to know how she will handle bad weather.  Rain should be no problem, but what about a good British hoolie?  She  certainly wouldn't have managed well tonight, though. I tried out a new set of Vargo titanium pegs, and four of the six bent badly and so she was not anchored down that effectively. What titanium is doing bending so easily I do not know, but I shall bring the Clam Cleat Tornadoes next time.


I'm getting my money back. Vargo Titanium V pegs after their first use. The four failures all occurred at the same point on the peg
Before bed, though, I wanted to indulge in some fine dining.  Sainsbury's packet tomato soup is really rather good. Mountain House dehydrated meals aren't.  I am still using up a stock from an ill advised purchase.  Perhaps the walk had been too short to make it edible, but it was in the bin after a couple of spoonfulls, the perfect excuse to walk a few hundred yards to the Ragleth Inn and a very good bar snack. Tempura prawns in chilli sauce, Steak Dianne, sticky toffee pudding and a couple of pints of 'Shropshire Lass' if you want to know, and an hour with the Kindle, before heading back to the tent.

I wasn't to find out this night how well Daphne copes with weather.  For much of the time it was still, and only in the early hours did the slightest breeze materialise.  I bedded down with the doors open on one side, admiring the stars and the moonlight.  For a single skin shelter I was impressed at how little condensation formed.  It was a calm, clear night and I was next to a stream. There was some, but she is super spacious and it was easy to stay away from the walls. There is none of that head in the sides nonsense of many other lightweight shelters, either when lying down or sitting up.
Z Packs Groupie: The Hexamid Duplex, aka 'Daphne' and the Arc Blast aka 'Billy'

Daphne can take two men at once. She is a palace for one

I had to get back home earlyish in the morning, so after my breakfast special of porridge made in a plastic bag I had a back jarring couple of miles by road to Church Stretton and the car home.  A fine little outing for me and the new girl.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Z Packs Hexamid Duplex


Side view showing the non-zip overlapping doors. A clever idea. Will they be flappy in wind? They appear to be pretty taught when fastened properly. Two vestibules and two entrances, which is a highly desirable design feature.

Yet again this is not a gear review. But yet again I have had a number of queries from people about my latest purchase with requests for photographs.  And for the third yet again I know I've gone mad buying lots of new gear.  But there you go, and I did sell a load of stuff including the Akto, a Rab down sleeping bag and two backpacks to help pay for this stuff. And I am hoping to get a longish foreign trip in next summer, so want to spread the cost of any new gear needed.  Actually, I seem to have bought everything all at once.

First thing to say is I don't usually do radical. I am pretty small 'c' conservative which is why I end up normally only buying gear that is well established and, preferably, that I have seen in use and have first hand recommendations.  However, I am fed up with carrying too heavy a pack - I am just getting to an age where it is unsustainable, as I recently explained .  Also, I am fed up with gear that is not quite right for me, especially backpacks which have too short a back, tents with insufficent length and headroom and so on, all of which make for a less comfortable trip.

Having sold the Akto I needed (well wanted) a replacement shelter as my stock was getting dangerously low ie down to two, a Trail Star and a Tarptent Scarp 1. I love the latter but it is about 1550gr and would be a real squeeze for me and the dog. I wanted 'roomy' to fit my overlong body and to give me the possibility of fitting hyperdog in with me.  And I wanted as light as possible which likely meant Cuben Fibre. Ideally it would also be bomb proof but that wasn't the prime consideration, given my other options still available if the weather was looking iffy before a trip.  I considered things like the Mountain Laurel Duomid and its nest, but the former was just too narrow, and it's an expensive combination. I considered the Six Moons Designs Haven Tarp plus nest but that is also a hefty price and the space in the nest is pretty restricted. So after much agonising, I settled on the Z Packs Hexamid Duplex . I went for this rather than the one person version for the reasons of space as mentioned earlier. So I could have gone lighter. This is not, incidentally, one of their tents with a mesh floor, a design which seems to raise strong feelings. To me it seemed a great combination of weight (the best weight of all actually, bar other tents from the same manufacturer), space and headroom.  It is also a fully enclosed tent, so although it is spendy there was no need to get a nest as well. To put price into perspective it is way cheaper than a new Akto (£490 now folks!), not that I wanted an Akto again,  and a fair bit cheaper than a Cuben Duomid and nest combo.

I had a few non-standard modifications which put the weight and price up marginally.  Firstly, I had the guylines fitted for me and linelocks added at the same time.  Joe charged a tiny amount for that service. Secondly, I had it made up in the heavier 0.74 oz cuben fibre. Joe Valesko believes this isn't necessary, but I suspect it is quite a popular option.  It was $15 and an extra 62 gr for this peace of mind (and a nicer colour!).  The weight now, with all the mods, is 685 gr.  I need to stress that no bug nest is needed and this is a shelter that is big enough for two, so it is pretty much one of the lightest tents out there for the spec.  On top of that it needs 8 pegs. I am using 6 Vargo titanium V pegs and 2 Clam Cleat Tornadoes. With a couple of those tiny orange ended titanium skewer thingies as spares the pegs weigh in at 130 gr. Oh, and it doesn't need seam sealing.  It is all taped or bonded or something technical.

Right that's almost your lot, in that I am not going to comment on the merits of something I haven't tested. I will, however, give some thoughts, or pose questions, about some of the features. There are various reviews out there if you want to look on the Internet. I hope to get mine on a hill very shortly.

So for the rest of the photographs. It is worth saying they were taken on the very first time I put it up. Having practiced a bit since I know I can get it looking better than shown in these.   There is a Youtube video on the Z Packs website where Joe demonstrates how it should really be put up.


The cunning but slightly fiddly door fastening arrangement. The gap between door and ground is higher than in other shelters I own. Good to minimise condensation; how will it be in wind?  @CleverHiker tells me it is good.



Side view, doors rolled and fastened open. Yes, the trekking pole is supposed to be at an angle and not vertical, although it is also a bit off centre here! Two vestibules, two doors, and the two trekking pole set up mean the good headroom is right across the width of the tent. The trekking pole is set to 48 inches (about 120cm).



Very deep cuben fibre bathtub floor and mesh inner doors. Full mesh doors mean draughtier - but less condensation.


More cunningness.  The mesh thingy at the end of the bathtub (1) Obviously there are mesh doors to keep the bugs out. In addition, there is a piece of bug netting attached to the full width of the bathtub and then to  the tent wall to mean that you are entirely enclosed by mesh so it should keep the midges and mozzies at bay.


Designer Joe Valesko is certainly more cunning than Blackadder.  Here is the bathtub 'holder upper', a piece of shock cord and a mitten hook. The gap between bathtub and wall is so that condensation on the walls would run out of the mesh rather than into the bathtub.

Hyperdog Moss cowers at the thought of having to spend a night in the tent with me, whilst at the same time trying to swallow a whole tennis ball. He insisted on me throwing this to play chase througout my attempts to put the tent up, hence some of the wonkiness.



View from inside, again showing the generous bathtub. Should help slightly with draughts?

You can have any combination of the four door sections closed or open depending on the weather

Hey Carl (@Locomountaineer) !  As will be clear from the text of the above I paid for this with my own hard earned pension and I have no relationship with Z Packs other than being a customer.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Shiny New Stuff From Z packs

This post is not a gear review. You can not sensibly review products until you have tested the life out of them, by which time they are often off the market!  However, I have had a number of queries and comments via Twitter about some recent purchases, with some requests for photographs.  Thus, I will call what follows a "first look".  In any case I can't get my head around doing gear reviews. I normally end up being  facetious as in my Pimp my Rucksack blog post.  I'll try to be serious here. The products which I write about are both made by Z Packs in the USA.  As ever, and especially to irritate @Locomountaineer, there must be  a disclaimer.  I bought all this stuff with my own hard earned pension. I have no relationship with the company other than as a customer.

Firstly, about Z Packs. To be frank I had never heard of them until this May. Their founder, Joe Valesko, was on the TGO Challenge, and I heard a few people mention this. On my last day on the Challenge I was on top of the cliffs at St Cyrus and heard Joe shrieking as he waded semi-clothed into the cold North Sea with his two colleagues.  I also shared a bus with these guys to Montrose and was amazed at how small their packs were.  It made me think.  So I checked out their website, and thus began my purchases, funded partly through some active recent selling of a number of pieces of surplus gear on Outdoor Magic and E Bay.

There are four things I want to mention about this company.  Firstly, they make some incredibly lightweight gear, seem to specialise in cuben fibre, and the prices seem to compare well with other firms working in this same expensive material.  Secondly, much of their stuff is customisable, which is really useful if you are very tall/short/fat/thin/blue eyed or whatever. Thirdly, they appear to have an extremely good reputation with US backpackers.  I do a lot of googling before buying and it was hard to find anything negative about them or their products.  Finally, they are very customer focused, with great service and you can easily talk with (well e-mail) Joe himself in advance of your purchases to make sure you get the right product for your needs. I stress I have no personal incentive to be be so positive but they deserve this praise.  I want good companies to prosper so compliments should be given when they are earned.  This company knows how to deal with people, and they know their backpacking.

The Arc Blast Pack

I ordered a 60 litre pack with the following additions: two hip pockets, one shoulder strap pocket, walking pole and ice axe loops, and extra lumbar support.  It is made of cuben fibre but has an outer covering of polyester to add durability (several colours available).  With these additions, and the longer back (see below) mine weighs in at just 590 grams. That weight is pretty incredible.

The pack has a clever frame which you must put under tension before use by pulling tight the cord on 4 linelocks (see third photo below). This creates some air flow between your back and the pack.  When ordering I wanted a longer back than any of the advertised lengths. This was no problem, and was at no extra cost.  For me this was one of the most important reasons I chose this pack. The hip belt  sits properly on my hips.

The Z Packs Arc Blast, 60 litres - the pack closes very neatly and securely - I hadn't fastened it properly when I took this photo. Nor is the pack properly filled - I had just bunged a sleeping bag in it to fill it up a bit.


Rear view showing the added extras of additional lumbar padding, two hip pockets and one shoulder strap pocket

Close up of frame - the idea is you tighten the four line locks. The tension then curves the frame, creating a gap between frame and mesh to allow some airflow to your back

I have only used the pack for a few days, carrying a load of about 10.5kg including food and fuel. It was a very comfortable carry.  I found the system to tension the frame difficult until I realised that this is straightforward if you do it when the pack is empty. When full it is was problematic, needing a lot of effort, and the thin cord cut into my hands. Lesson learnt.  Clearly, I can not comment on durability but reviews from US hikers and comments from long distance backpacker Keith Foskett have not raised any concerns. The mesh outer does not appear that robust to me, but I haven't tested it. I think it will need to be treated with care. The hip pockets are of a good size, as is the shoulder strap pocket.  The two lower open side pockets are reasonable, but I'm not certain I could use these for my shelter - they may be a little narrow.  I would like one to have been wider and deeper. I wonder if that would have been possible if I had asked before purchase? I like the roll top closure.  It's similar to that system on other packs I've had (eg a Golite Pinnacle and ULA Catalyst) but also has a full length velcro fastening which seems to make it easier to close effectively and securely.  As I wrote above, I bought the 60 litres size (they also do a 45 litre and a 52 litre) and it doesn't feel a generous 60 litres, so if you are buying, and in doubt about the volume to choose,  I would size up. The additional weight for the larger size is miniscule.  On a very superficial note I love my choice of colour and the fact that the various add on pockets are also in this rather nice shade of green.

The thing I will come back to again and again, though, is the incredibly light weight for a 60 litre pack with a frame.

The Challenger Jacket

All I had originally intended to purchase from Z packs was a lightweight jacket, promised me by my wife as a birthday present.  Again, I couldn't quite get my head around the advertised weight of the Challenger Jacket which is 180 gr in the XL size.  That's about 350 gr lighter than my Goretex Berghaus Paclite jacket which is the lightest waterproof I had previously owned. You pick this thing up and it almost seems to float off into the heavens.  I quite bored my long suffering wife by handing it to her and saying "here, hold this, isn't it light?"  I had the additional pit zips to improve breathability.

The jacket is made of a hybrid E Vent / cuben fibre material with a thin outer layer of nylon which, the company says, makes it more durable and allows it to be given a solid black colour.  As you would expect from the weight it is minimalist in design.  It has one chest pocket - which is not big enough to take an OS map.  I really like the simple wrist and hem closures which seem very easy and effective to use. There is no storm flap on the zip, which is supposed to be waterproof. The hood is very comfortable, just the right size for me, and it has a slightly stiffened peak.  It can be rolled and fastened away. The whole jacket packs very small.  To my intense annoyance (!!!) it has hardly rained since the jacket has  arrived, so any comments about whether it is fit for its main purpose can not be given now. I have high hopes of it, and if it does breathe as well as claimed it will eliminate the need to carry a separate wind shirt, meaning an even greater weight saving.

The Z packs Challenger Rain Jacket - it is not as shiny as this photo makes it seem

The Challenger Jacket - showing the rather dapper mottled white inner

As one blogger has questioned the hood this photo is to show that it is more than adequate
Finally, one tip if you do order anything from Z Packs.  They sell a whole series of useful accessories, not easily available in the UK eg cuben fibre repair tape and patches, stick on mitten hooks, tiny linelocks etc. These are very cheap and so I got various bits and pieces added to my order as the costs of buying them separately would have been high given the minimum shippng costs.

Afternote (28/09/14): one reader in the comments asked for photos of where the hood volume adjuster is attached. Those that follow are for those who want this sort of detail!


Hood volume adjuster (1)


Hood volume adjuster (2)

Inside fastner for rolling up hood (the strap on the rear fastens into this)

The hood rolled and fastened up - you can roll so it is bunched the other way with the outer black fabric uppermost. Not certain which way is best. Simple, functional and more than adequate if you want to stow the hood away. I rarely bother doing this on my jackets.



Light(e)ning Strikes



 

I want to lighten the load I carry when I am backpacking.  I don’t actually need to. My pack weight is not normally exceptionally high – I guess, for example, that what I carried on the TGO Challenge would be about the average.  However,  I decided some time ago that it might be possible and would increase my enjoyment, and the reasons for doing so were strengthened by a recent trip that I had to cut short due to the  recurrence of a back problem.  Carrying any pack cannot be good for the spine – disc compression and all that, so a lighter load would be sensible.

One of my problems is that I am both risk and hardship averse!  I have a tendency to put stuff in my pack “just in case”.  Some of this is used and enjoyed eg the camp shoes, the spare shirt, the deodorant  and so on.  So I do not subscribe to the philosophy of going through your kit after a trip and cutting out anything that wasn’t used.  But mostly this extra stuff in there it isn’t actually necessary.


Anyway, there are three things you can do to reduce the weight you carry and so lessen the stresses and strain on your shoulders, back and knees.   Of these, one is free and easy; one is free and difficult; and one is generally pretty expensive and its ease depends upon the size of your bank balance.

So let’s go through these in turn:


1.      Free and easy.  TAKE LESS STUFF.  This doesn’t need much explaining.  There will always be a balance and a judgement between  risk and safety.  A spare bit of clothing so you do not smell bad can be omitted.  Spare clothing in winter conditions should not be.  But I am not convinced by the advice you read such as “always have a spare pair of gloves with you in case you lose a pair”.  Of course it can happen, but in 40 years in the hills I never have lost a pair  – so perhaps it might be best to think that if it were to happen you could in emergency use your spare socks on your hands until you were off the hill. As I wrote, balance and judgement.  One interesting example of such judgement can be seen in American Joe Valesko's kit list. To me this seems amazingly minimalist, not least because this list was for a 120 day trek in New Zealand, where the climate can provide extremes. There is no way I could manage with so little stuff, so each to his own.



2.      Free and difficult.  LOSE SOME BODY WEIGHT.  Again doesn’t need much explaining.  In practice, I do not think that losing a kilogram of fat off your tummy will equate to removing the same weight from your pack, as you are used to lugging your tummy around with you.  However, I am certain that for most it will make you healthier and fitter, and thus is a sensible goal.  Easier said than done, though, for this requires will power that is sometimes beyond many (including myself).  My most successful and most enjoyable weight loss programmes of recent years have involved eating lots of food and drinking lots of Guinness, but only whilst on a longish backpack such as the TGO Challenge where you are burning far more calories than you consume.



3.      Expensive.  CHANGE TO LIGHTER GEAR.  This is what most of the literature talks about and you can see why.  But it can be extremely expensive.  I know of more than one backpacker who has calculated that in the UK it seems to cost about £1 for every gram saved eg spend £20 on lighter dry bags and you will slice about 20 grams off your base weight. 


The logic of the above is that unless money is no object you would do well to focus on one and two before three.  But these two tactics are not much fun! So like very many people, I have tried to adopt them but I also often succumb to my addiction for exciting new stuff, not least over recent weeks.  So in one of my next posts I shall write about some of  my latest shiny purchases…..