Wednesday 9 June 2010

Solomon's first trip

The weather was perfect, the auspices were good and so we decided to give it a shot.The next job was to pick a location. I grew up in Blaenavon, near to Abergavenny. My mum used to push me in my buggy up to Keepers pond and Foxhunter’s grave on the Blorenge so there was a nice symmetry in choosing this as a spot. There was a further reason in that there is a carpark and a pretty flat walk of about twenty minutes to get to the summit of the Blorenge and on the map, there was a large flat area on the other side of the mound that forms the summit. There would be views over to the Sugarloaf and everything would be good. My mum would come along with us carrying a frying pan and some sausages and then head off while we bunked down. The best laid plans of mice and men…
We didn’t get going until really late- Solomon’s tea is at five o’clock and I was still finishing packing the bags at four. It’s a twenty minute drive from Newport to Foxhunter’s but that didn’t take account of the terrible traffic around Pontypool. The weather was very hot and Solomon was getting ratty. By the time we arrived at the carpark it was nearly half five. Steph was slightly concerned that the car would get broken into. It was a reasonable concern- the carpark is close to Blaenavon, not exactly a hub of youth entertainment and a natural spot for night time youth drinking. My mum had a good idea- to check for broken glass around the carpark:
‘There’s only one piece and it’s not window glass’
I went over to check. She was right. There was one piece. It was fused to the ground in the centre of the black outline left by a burnt out car. It was twenty to six. I decided not to mention it.
The next problem occurred when we tried to get Solomon moving. Whether it was because he was hungry or whether he was a bit freaked out by the sheer size of the space we were in, never having been on a mountain before, he decided to refuse to move. He just stood still and repeated the word ‘car’ over and over again. He finally consented to nannie carrying him and I put nannie’s pack on my front. By the time we had taken the wrong path for about ten minutes and had to turn back a phrase of Withnail’s was on repeat in my mind- ‘This is a terrible, terrible mistake’.
There had been extensive burning on the Blorenge the previous year. Everywhere was blackened and the scent of charcoal was heavy on the air. Solomon was walking now but very, very slowly. I decided to run ahead to find a camping spot. As I crested the summit I could see that it was going to be a lot harder than I had anticipated. The burnt area stretched in every direction and I wasn’t willing to pit the Hog’s ultralight groundsheet against the heather stumps. I left my pack at the summit and ran ahead. Finally I found a small area out of sight of the summit and passing walkers which would just about go. I ran back and collected the rest of the family. Solomon had found the summit cairn which is pretty big and provided ample rocks for him to climb. He’s really into climbing at the moment and we only managed to persuade him to move by pointing out the big rocks nearer to our campsite.
Finally, at about seven we managed to settle.It had taken us over an hour to cover what would normally take about 15-20 minutes. I fired up the stove and began frying sausages. Although I never went camping with my parents, we occasionally had ‘cooking picnics’ on the mountains. The skylarks were singing, a real sound of my childhood. Finally, I began to relax. The tent went up really easily, a bonus in poor weather but equally welcome now. Solomon’s Readybed also went up quickly. Using the supplied foot pump it took about five minutes. I’d added an extra thin layer from a Poundland sleepmat to combat convection issues and Solomon’s sleeping bag went on top. One thing which I had forgotten about but I found really annoying was the sheer profusion of stuffsacks. It’s all very well organising things into stuffsacks, but how do you organise them when they have served their purpose? Suddenly it occurred to me that another bonus of ultralight is a reduction in the amount of things you have to keep track of. No sleepsocks, no spare clothes, no towels and so-on. I resorted to my old trick of bunging everything into one stuffsack. It might take a while to find things but at least you know where they are. By this point everything was ready. We had sausages, beans and smash and I popped open a Guinness. There was a fantastic view across the valley to the Sugarloaf, the weather was still really warm and Solomon was having a great time.
I cleared up while Steph got Solomon ready for bed. We’d brought a Hi-Gear folding bowl to wash him in but it was virtually useless. The amount of water needed to fill it was huge, and we ended up just washing him using the bottom half of the Brunton cookset. What was really good was the Trekmates micro towel. It dried well, felt nice against the skin and dried in next to no time. While Steph read him a story I walked my mum back to the car.
When I arrived back at the tent, Steph was just finishing up. Apparently, the only thing that had convinced Solomon into bed was the Thomas the tank engine picture- I was very glad to have carried that weight. We sat in silence outside the tent for a while, waiting for him to settle. It was a pretty big test for him, as he’s never slept in a bed before and this was an unfamiliar situation. After a bit of shifting about, he settled and we could relax. I got out my super ultralight playing cards and Steph got into my Minim ultra sleeping bag to keep warm. She was already wearing her Craghoppers down jacket and some merino long-johns but she runs very cold. The sun set was great, the lights of Abergavenny slowly flicked on and everything was right with the world.
I’d like to say we slept well but we didn’t. The pitch was pretty sloping and after trying to sleep with our feet facing down the slope we had to change. Luckily, we are small enough and the Hog big enough to make this possible. I took the bottom spot but that didn’t prevent Steph getting beaten around the head by Solomon flailing in his sleep. The sides of the Readybed aren’t high enough to prevent him flipping out and although it’s not high enough to hurt him, it would be enough to wake him. Steph swapped around and we settled down again. I never sleep too well on the first night of camping anyway, so I spent a lot of the night listening to podcasts and checking Solomon hadn’t fallen out. Still despite our fears and even though he spent half the night half out of his bag, he didn’t wake up and in fact slept extremely well. Steph was warm enough which was a bonus and said she probably would have slept a lot better on a flatter pitch.
We woke about seven. Solomon drank his milk from my swedish folding cup that he'd taken a liking to and then we all ate porridge from a bag.I took Solomon for a climb on the rocks and then we packed up. It took us an hour to walk back even with Solomon on my shoulders for a while. I took his first trig point photo (another reminder of my childhood!) and then we made it back to the car which was still there and untouched.
So was it worth it? Nothing is ever as perfect as it appears in my mind. As a gear shakedown, it worked extremely well and, more importantly, it showed it was possible. Solomon really enjoyed himself for most of it and with better time management, it would have been easy. It shows that with a child that young it pays to take what you think is possible (and in my mind, what I had planned was conservative!) and do a lot less. The ultralight simplicity is really worth it. Would I go again? Defininitely! It pays to take less, and next time, there is less that I would take next time. The bowl will be the first thing to go. Stuff sacks aren’t worth it either- I’ll use less and bigger sacks. Steph does need to see what is worth taking as well, but that is a product of experience. A lot of over-preparation is due to fear of the unknown and the more we do it, the better our routines will be. The Hog was fantastic-stable easy to pitch and absolutely massive. The only thing that needs attention is the zip, which you have to be a bit careful with to avid it catching on the storm flap. With regards to the rest of the equipment, a few things definitely need to change. The Jam was just about big enough and carried the weight, but next time I’ll take my old Karrimor sack to give me more flexibility. If we go a lot , it would be worth investing in a big but light sack. Steph could certainly do with it. The other thing that was useless was the Colemen F1. I’ve had a problem with the plastic components melting before. This time it locked up completely. I also rediscovered why I got so annoyed with gas stoves after it toppled over three times, losing all the water. I was kind of glad when it broke. I’m thinking of getting a remote canister stove, maybe the Edelrid Opilio. The weight’s pretty good and I can use it in really cold conditions when I need to.


baz carter said...

Massive learning curve but as you state you have to experience it to learn from it.

You'll be surprised how little you need once you get going.

I'm surprised you had problems with the F1 I've had mine for years as it works brilliantly. Might be something to do with the fry pan you used? Stability n pitches like this will always be an issue. Legs can be bought that fix that but a short length of dyneema and two tent pegs does the trick equally well. But for the three of you something like the Edlrid would be ideal.

minimalgear said...

It's the second F1 I've had where its happened. The plastic bit was already melted where the supprts rest. I think they'-ve overheated because of the windscreen more than anything

Unknown said...

I'm impressed. You faced down a scary situation with aplomb. Our first camping experience with small children was a nightmare. Put us off trying again for some time. Glad things went so well for you.

minimalgear said...

cheers! although I didn't feel very aplomb-y!

Unknown said...

We've had a handful of unbroken nights in three years. We don't breed sleepers aparently. Our first campoing trip was a complete disaster. No sleep what so ever. That Solomon slept, that the experience seems to have been basicaly fun for all concerned, that you walked out wanting to do it again seems aplomb-y from my frame of reference!

minimalgear said...

Solomon's reasonably good at sleeping but generally wakes us up at least once a night-he's got four canines coming through at the moment. I was pretty happy how it turned out- it definitely showed it was at least possible.

Unknown said...

Our Little Man is two months old as of yesterday. I am already dreaming of our first night on the hills together and, as he already laughs and smiles at almost everything, and is a good sleeper, my heart tells me it might not be too long! I absolutely love the picture of you and your son lying together. Nice post.