Thursday, 28 January 2010

The hog has landed

And I can pick it up from the post office tonight now I've paid a fee to release it from captivity. Hopefully photos tommorow (lit by my 1million candle power torch!).

Monday, 25 January 2010

Snowdon video

Here’s the video from the trip. I’ve been thinking about why it meant so much to me to sleep on top of Snowdon. It’s not the wilderness experience I’ve had on a lot of my trips, there’s a dirty great café and it’s not like I got a decent view. It’s not even that it was the first big mountain I climbed when I got back into backpacking. I think it’s partly to do with the whole horseshoe- it’s the grandeur of the lakes with Snowdon at the head. It’s the shape of Snowdon and the reputation of the approaches like Crib Goch. It’s walking up it on a summer’s day and hearing families discussing previous trips and the possibility of returning when their children are older. It’s the sense of human history there-from the ruins on the Watkins route through to the train filled with lobster skinned tourists who won’t even make it up to the true summit from the station. It’s walking out of the rain and mist and steaming with a Guinness amongst the orange cagoule atmosphere of the old café and it’s the Overlook hotel feel of the new café in the snow. It’s a fine British institution, a cathedral of the natural world, a reminder of my childhood buying leather bookmarks and giant pencils on day trips. The people don’t distract from the sheer scale of this hill as long as I don’t let them and you only have to walk twenty minutes to be free of the hordes. There are plenty of hills to visit to be antisocial and this summer, when I bring my family on their first trip guess where I’ll bring them? Snowdon will blow Steph’s socks off- it’s deeply impressive, but it’s accessible too. It’s no good if the hardship outweighs the pleasure, and there is a lot of pleasure to be had here.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Solo on Snowdon

My solo trips always seem to follow a pattern. Night one is stupidly ambitious and I end up getting pounded by the wind for a night. Night two is way better and usually turns out to be something special. This trip was no exception except the lows were unusually low and the highs were in the order of things that only happen once or twice in your life.
I still hadn't decided where to go for the weekend by the time I'd finished work. The weather reports for Snowdonia were marginally better, but I wasn't sure how much snow there would be. I took the laser competition and put the tarp in the car in case the weather gods miled on me. There was a distinct feeling of having missed the boat-still, I set out and made good time, arriving at the foot of Tryfan at about 8.15. I always get a little nervous when I have to get everything together, but always manage it sooner rather than later. The weather is never as bad as it sounds when you get out of the car and I could see some extensive snow fields under a clear sky. The plan was to walk up to Llyn Bochlwyd where I would be protected from the winds by the bulk of the Glyders. I know the area, there's plenty of spots and it's an easy walk up. Famous last words. My first mistake was that I started up too far to the East. It was easy to see the footprints on the footpath in the light reflected from the snow so I turned off my photon but left it clipped to my cap just in case. The footpath led me into a boulder field but the light was still good so I kept on climbing. I'd figured out I was on Bochlwyd buttress so I began to drift towards the west, hoping to hit easier ground. Of course the hill didn't want to play ball. There were some hefty drops that I had to negotiate past-some of the hefty drops turned out to be nothing of the sort because of the way my depth perception was affected. This made route finding interesting to say the least. The weather was still good, in fact it was too warm for my new Trekmates Primaloft filled gloves. The actual 'walking' was quite good fun- I prefer scrambling as a way of gaining height rather than walking but I was keen to get onto easier ground. While I hadn't felt in danger to that point, I was concerned that I would end up on the top of a big drop with no way to negotiate round it. I finally hit a grass slope, and this was where the hard work began. I kept encountering deep snow fields. The snow would hold my weight for a few steps, then I would go in up to my waist. I avoided them where possible but sometimes I was forced to cross them. It had taken a lot longer getting to this point than I had anticipated and there was still no sign of the lake. I sat down for a rest, took off my hat and gloves and had a good drink and a Snickers. The weather was still good, it was warm and I had all my gear. It had turned out to be more of an adventure than I had expected but that was all good. It was at this point I raised up my head from where it had been resting on my hat. In an instant the hat was gone, bouncing down the mountain. I slipped off my pack and chased it for a bit but soon gave up- there was no way I was ever getting that hat back. I was furious. I'd got the hat a few years back. It was a standard Lowe Alpine mountain cap but instead of loops for a chin strap it had shock cord running through a seam all the way round the bottom. I'd never found anything like it for sealing around my ears and had dreaded the day when I lost it, but to lose it in such a stupid way... and of couse my Photon was still attached to it despite the fact that I'd thought a few times that I should put it in my pocket. And when I got back to my pack, one of my gloves had also gone. Looking back, this was the moment when my moral got seriously shot. I had gear to use for the night's camping-spare gloves and a down hood and the weather was warm enough so there were no safety issues but I was very pissed off.
Shouldering the sack, I proceeded upwards. I was becoming more aware of the wind the higher up I got. The climb seemed never ending. Finally I crested a ridge and Lyn Bochlwyd was spread out before me. I was East of the lake, and it seemed a good hundred feet below me down a sheer looking drop. The wind was now really strong and seemed to be blowing from sveral directions. I decided to camp on one of the snow patches. I was getting worried about getting the tent up. The slopes underneath the snow were too steep, the snow was too soft for pegs, I was worried about the rain washing the snow away and the tent collapsing, each spot I found seemed to be sheltered then there would be another gust of wind from a different direction. I was beginning to talk myself out of even attempting. I got the tent out a couple of times and began trying to put it up. I descended to different spots. I got angry with myself. I finally got down to the level of the lake. The wind was really gusting now. I knew that there was some shelter on the West side of the Lake and some flat spots. Except the outlet stream was a savage torrent under a thick layer of ice. That was it. I gave up. The plan was now to get back to the car. The decision made, I began to get nervous about the descent. I was on easier ground than the route up, but there was still a lot of snow to negotiate and thick ice under the grass. I descended carefully and holding my ice axe for moral support as much as anything. I think if I had been in a better frame of mind then I would have felt it was a reasonably straightforward descent. As it was I kept encountering slopes that looked too steep to get down and I backtracked several times. I stopped a couple of times to get my head together and to prevent myself from rushing. I got to a point and could finally see the road a good distance below me. I walked forwards a few steps and hit the boundary wall. Once again, the dark had confused my depth perception-I was back on the road. It was a ten minute walk to the car. I could see someone parked behind me with lights on-If someone was trying to break into my car I had my ice axe with me. If they had ice axes too, it was probably the case that they weren't trying to break in as they were walkers as well. And if the worst came to the worst I could always let them take everything except my poncho!
Turned out it was a camper van. I settled in for a deeply uncomfortable night's sleep on the back seat of the car. I was extremely grateful to be there though. I could hear the wind coming howling off the hill and pounding the car, shaking it on it's suspension. I'm not sure that a night like that was in the Laser competition's design remit!
I was driving by eight. I had figured out a plan- I drove to Betws-Y-Coed, picked up a coffee, dashed round the gear shops and then head towards Snowdon. I wanted to climb up via the PYG track- a route I'd never done. I was still slightly chastised by the previous night's events and felt like I wanted something reasonably well populated and easy going. With my wallet substantially lightened I parked up and began walking. I love Snowdonia and the Snowdon area in particular. It was the first real mountains I came to after I got into backpacking and it just blew me away. The evidence of tremendous natural forces are so evident and even driving down the Llanberis pass is just stunning. I walked up the road and then began tracking up the valley wall just below Dinas Mot. The snow got deeper and the rain poured down. There was no-one about and I was having a fantastic time. I popped up onto the path that leads up to Crib Goch and descended down to the PYG. The whole of the Snowdon horseshoe was spread before me. Despite the tourist hordes that descend onto the area, there is something about the combination of mountains and lakes that has a real resonance with me. Now, although there were plenty of footprints, the place was deserted. After a brief breakfast I headed up.
The going was nice and easy. The snow was soft enough to give, but firm enough to hold. The Light-trek 4s proved their worth. I don't tend to use them to propel me forward or even to take weight, but they are more like extensions for my arms, supporting me, probing the terrain ahead, allowing me to descend without putting my hand down. They had a new use too. I'd got hold of a gorrilla pod for the camera and I could now attach my camera to the end of one so that video was not just shot up my nose. I had a few goes and it worked quite well.
As I got higher, the snow got icier. Despite the fact that it was probably okay, I put on my crampons. I encountered a few people descending with ice axes and it wasn't long before I had my axe out too. What was quite worrying was the amount of people coming down from the top who seemed fairly ill prepared. I don't have any problems with 'budget' gear-I was wearing Peter Storm waterproof trousers, but it can be an indicator of your experience. There were quite a few people descending sharing a pair of 'hill-king' walking poles and wearing Crag-hoppers jackets. They were slipping and sliding all over the place and finding it hilarious- there was hundreds of feet of sheer slopes covered in snow and big pointy boulders below them. The bottom of the track was totally free of snow and this may have led them to believe that things were okay further up. It was proper winter conditions up there though. Interestingly, I was one of only two or three people I saw with crampons. The snow was soft enough to give some grip but there were icy stretches particularly up top. Plenty of people had ice axes though and it was probably soft enough to ensure that you wouldn't slide far. As far as I'm aware one without the other isn't particularly safe either way- the best thing to do is to prevent a slip so you don't need to self arrest.

There was the nice feeling of cameraderie up at the top that you get when you've all spent a few hours geeting to the top of something. I took the opportunity to sit and brew up a hot chocolate with a shot of whisky in it. It was at this point that I began to think of spending the night at the top of Snowdon. There was a sheltering wall to pitch behind, and the snow was frozen enough to accept my pegs. A bloke asked me if I was spending the night and that made up my mind. I cleared a bit of snow as the last walkers left and pitched the tent. I douple pegged the main guys for security and sat back to melt some snow. I was running short on meths as I had never expected to be camping away from a water source but I managed to brew up a litre of water which was enough to last me. I had my down sweater, minim ultra vest, my new down hood and was really toasty. I did fancy some of the PHD down trousers but that was merely a luxury that I didn't have. I sat outside the tent, read 'Trainspotting' and finished the Jura while my meal rehydrated.

I settled down fairly early as I was tired from the night before. The condensation was pretty severe in the tent. The wind had kicked up and I opened the top of the inner tent but nothing helped. I was comfortable though, in fact I was so warm I had to take the down sweater off. I had a fairly broken sleep, but not unreasonable. When I finally woke up, the wind had died down again. I made a cup of coffee with the last of my meths and packed up. There was amazing frost on the guys, stretching out a good centimetre. The snow outside was nice and crisp too. Despite my worriees, it was easy to extract all of the pegs and I was moving by 8. There was a lot of fog, and conditions going down were a little more dicey than going up. I was extremely glad I'd brought the crampons as I teetered along tiny ledges above precipitous drops. I was trying to get down pretty quickly as I wanted to get home to see Solomon and Steph but I still made sure to take it all in. Getting back to the car took a couple of hours and from there it was an easy drive home.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Back safe and sound

I've been back since Sunday actually. It was an interesting trip, resulting in one night slightly chastised in the car, the most expensive rest stop ever and one night on the summit of Snowdon.Trip report, photos and videos to follow.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010


I can't seem to get my own comments to cooperate. I'll answer y'all when I get it figured out.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Extra weight

I made the mistake of trying out the pack with the Mountain Laurel tarp and Titanium Goat Bivi in it instead of the Laser competition. Noticeable weight difference, which means I am inching towards taking those instead. There is always the possibility of creating a windbreak type shelter using snow and tarp combined- there certainly seems to be enough snow in the Lakes. And here is where another doubt creeps in. My walking buddy Martyn has a bad neck- it's debatable whether he'll be good to go for the weekend. I am up for a solo mission but conditions in the Lakes are looking edgy and more than that, very hard going. If the cold continues, there will still be a lot of loose unbonded snow, which is snowshoe weather really. There's also the risk of avalanches and my avalanche awareness is not as good as I'd like it to be. So I need to decide whether to see the Lakes in conditions not seen for many a year or to go the first weekend of February when conditions should have stabilised.

If you have a better offer..

On Friday, the bloke organising the Rab mini mountain marathon uttered those glorious words. They had enough teachers to cover the students who had signed up, so the game is on!
I did a test packing over the weekend. The Jam was the only pack big enough to carry the volume of gear but the real shocker was the weight- it's been a year since I carried a winter pack and during that time I've savaged the weight I'm carrying. Including food, fuel and water the pack weighed 8kg-Ouch! Since last year I've added a neoair which is about 200g more than the GG nightlight and a down hood which weighs 60g. I do want to carry those though. If I don't take the Laser competition I can lose 500g even taking into account my trekking poles which I would probably carry a lot of the time. The choice comes down to the Gatewood cape with polycro groundsheet and no inner or the cuben tarp.

Friday, 8 January 2010

My nan never said...

'look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves' but if she had, and if she had been an ultralight hiker she may have said 'look after the grams and the kilograms will look after themselves' . Which is a roundabout way of saying I have some new stuff but it's not big or exciting.

My medical kit is very basic and it's up to you what you put in yours-I'm in no way advising here just saying what I've got. In my opinion, the complex medical kits you can buy often have nothing very useful in them and realistically, in this country you are never very far away from help. If anything really major happens you're going to need mountain rescue and if it's serious but not life threatening, a bodge should see you through. So I have plasters, alcohol wipes, some ibruprofen and some duct tape. Since I was in the cubs I've assumed that you can improvise things like triangular bandages and a serious bleed is not going to be stopped by anything you can get in a normal medical kit but could be patched using a fleece hat and some duct tape for example. Over christmas, however, I cut my chin seriously enough to need five stitches. The first aider who was on the scene put on a few butterfly stitches and advised me to go to hospital. As it was Christmas and I had no wish to wait in casualty for ten hours I ignored him until the cut bled all over my pillow and I went to get it stitched. He mentioned that Americans without insurance often use super glue. I was aware of American hikers who use super glue to patch blisters but it turns out super glue has been used in medicine for a long time. When I saw these single use super glue tubes in B&Q I snapped them up. They weigh only 2g each and should be enough to patch a decent sized cut or blister if I get one (Which I usually don't). Heres a disclaimer: THIS IS NOT MEDICAL SUPER GLUE! It's got additives which may irritate skin or damage flesh if the wound is deep. I'd only use it in emergencies where I'm a significant walk away from help. It's a little bit of safety though.

If I'm adding in a bit of weight, it's nice to reduce some somewhere. The Bic mini lighter is only 11g as opposed 15g upwards for a regular, but better than that, it's much smaller. It helps if you remove the child safety strip, which is really easy to do. I use it for burning my toilet paper and as a secondary fire source.

My new primary fire source is the mini firesteel (9g). Eddie Meechan did a good write up on this inTGO, but instead of using a bit of hacksaw for a striker, I'm using my Swiss Army knife(22g). Iv'e struggled mentally with carrying the SAK for a while now-I did try using a razor blade instead of a knife for a while as I virtually never use a knife but I felt like the scissors may come in useful. It also carries tweezers and a toothpick (Useful for beef Jerky!). It really is a 'just in case' item which is rarely used. The use of it for a striker justifies it's existence in my pack a little more!

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Winter hiking

I've arranged a weekend to head up to the lakes to have some fun in the snow. Only problem is I'd already agreed to partner up with some of the students at my school for the RAB mini marathon in the peak district on the same weekend. The idea is that because you have to 18 to take part we partner teachers with student teams and they act as a chaperone. One of the other teachers is a keen fell runner and I'd expressed an interest. Before Christmas, however, no-one had signed up. When the snow came I contacted Martyn about going to the Lakes-he's free-job's a goodun. Except now three students have signed up and three are possibles. The event takes teams of two-if the three sign up by the end of the week they'll need me-if not, I'm free and while the mini-marathon will be fun, compared to wandering round with an ice axe and a flask of Jura it seems a poor exchange. My son Solomon is teething and it's unfair to leave my wife with him two weekends in a row. I'll just have to pray that this generation really is as apathetic as they say!
Anyhow down to gear choices for the weekend, which is what this blog is really all about. Pack choice is easy-It'll have to be my Golite Jam as it's the only bag with the capacity I want. I could use the murmur with my crampons strapped on, but that would be a pain-also, I would be pushing the carrying capacity of the murmur I suspect. It's strange to think that when I got my Jam I was going from a Karrimor Panther. At 600g, the Jam was about 1/4 of the 2.2kg weight of the Panther. My Z pack is less than 1/4 of the weight of the Jam! The only other alternative is my Golite Dawn at 400g- it might be a little snug though.
Last year I used Hedgehog Mids with my Kahtoolas. I've got some low-tops now and I might use them just for kicks and because I can! I've bought some Berghaus Glacier Gaiters which are a fantastic fit round the shoe and should keep out the snow.
The real quandry for me is shelter. Reason says I should take the laser competition. Martyn carries a Microzoid which is not big enough for two to play cards and drink in and the laser can cope with most of the weather that is thrown at it. I still haven't had a chance to use my cuben poncho and bivvy combination though. If the weather is anything except windy or heavy rain, I could easily be tempted. My winter bag combination (My minim Ultra inserted in a Vango Venom) fits inside it and if we get a clear night, it should be an amazing experience. I'll see how the weather goes.....

Monday, 4 January 2010

A sense of scale

Here's a confession- the one item that no dedicated ultralight hiker should be without has not featured in my gear closet. What is it? A set of digital scales. For anyone who is interested in cutting weight in terms of single figure grams, this is a "serious" omission. I owned a set of traditional scales but these only measure in 25 gram increments. To be pefectly honest, I saw no real need for the extra accuracy- I could use the published weights, gamble on my small size (published weights are often for a medium), get a ball park figure using the scales and when I weighed the whole pack it came in pretty much at where I expected it to be. Realistically, if you only buy the lightest possible items and get rid of anything that you don't need then your weight will be cut drastically wheteher published wheights are accurate or not. Unfortunately my calm acceptance of the status quo was thrown into disarray when my brother in law bought me a set of scales for christmas- cue a great deal of christmas period drunken weighing and lamenting over my spread sheets. It was similar to the angst caused by my realising that my equipment weights also needed to include stuff sacks. Hmmm. Actually it was quite good fun weighing my boxer shorts and getting an accurate reading.
So who are the winners and losers? Losers: Rab windshirt-published weight 70g, actual 80g, PHD minim ultra sleeping bag, published 345, actual 389- winners:PHD minim ultra vest, published 150g, actual 138g and that's pretty much it. Why? because the vast majority of my gear actually comes in at the published weight. My theory for this is that the cottage industries where I get most of my gear from make their name based on their sales to a group of weight obsessed fanatics who are very much in contact via the internet and therefore they have to make sure that the gear matches the weight. This may well be the reason that Thermarest, despite having a reputation for innaccurate weights came up with the goods for the neoair (mine is spot on the published weight) Overall winner, however has to be Joe from Zpacks. As far as I am aware (and I am available for correction) mine is one of the a very few packs of this size with these features isn't a standard option and yet it came up exactly on the weights published for the options on the site (125g if you're interested).