Sunday, January 18, 2015

Pinnacle Ridge, St Sunday Crag.

4 am, somewhere in South Yorkshire - yes that's what getting up after 3.5 hours sleep feels like.
Moving from Finland back to the UK after many years was a surprisingly un-traumatic, if rather expensive, experience but I knew that I really would miss the ice climbing. Of course, there are other things I miss too but for this post we'll stick with the ice climbing. On the other side of the scales to lack of ice climbing was the opportunity to do more winter mountaineering, in Scotland or at least in Wales or the Lake District. Unfortunately work and family commitments have made this more difficult than I hoped; besides anything it's three hours driving to get the Lakes or Snowdonia and the Highlands are considerably more. Hence, since winter has at least fleetingly visited the more southern hills of the British Isles, I had only managed one visit to the Lake District this winter; a good day out in the hills with good company, but disappointing from a climbing point of view as even on one of the highest crags in the region the turf wasn't frozen* under the snow and we 'scrambled' the route with boots and gloves; no need for ice tools or crampons.

Phone snaps: a better topo in from an old guide/a snowy Lake District/a happy climber
Over the last week the forecasts had suggested that winter climbing conditions might be forming again south of Hadrian's Wall and I was really keen to get out. Friday was going to be the only day I could manage it, but even then I needed to be back not long after the kids got home from school in order to look after them. I figured I could drive to either the Lakes or Wales late night Thursday, sleep in the car for a bit and get an early start - but what would be in condition that I could comfortably solo? I kept checking the forecasts and conditions reports Thursday evening looking for info as to something being 'in', but it really wasn't clear. Eventually I decided I'd risk the Lake District, but sleep at home and leave very early. I packed my kit, made lots of thermos flasks of hot drinks, sandwiches and put 'breakfast' in a bag by the front door. I'm not good at going to sleep early so it was about midnight when I did - early for me. I didn't even need the alarm, as I woke up at 0355. Having been organised with packing the night before, I just put on my clothes, cleaned my teeth, and was in the car driving at 0409.
Avalanche debris, some hundreds of metres belows the cliffs. Yes, you can big avalanches in England!
Sheffield was quiet, taxis moving not much else. The moors even quieter, up over Snake Pass - a careful eye on the car thermometer, conscious of not having winter tyres like in Finland, but the temperature never hit zero even on the top of the pass as the lights of Manchester spread out below. Down around Manc and up to the M6, there's more traffic - lots of trucks on early runs - but its smooth going through the dark. Into the Lakes, the GPS takes me on little road I've not driven before missing Windermere and coming out halfway up the Kirkstone Pass. It is snowing on the pass, but the road is still wet and not slippery. Down in Patterdale I park, gear up and walk up the road. It's not quite 0730 yet and still dark enough that I need my headtorch on to see the map. Heavy wet flakes being driven by the wind as I walk up the sodden track along Grisedale. It doesn't feel good for winter climbing but I can see lots of snow higher up. I've not climbed on St Sunday Crag before so need to check the guide to work out where I'm meant to head. It's quite impressive from below, there's 300 mtrs or so of ascent up a steep hillside to get to the lowest rocks then another couple hundred to the summit ridge. I slog up the hillside through a gather blizzard, listening to Melvyn Bragg's proud Cumbrian tones as I do via a podcast - fitting really. It's pathless and brutal, but I gain height quickly to where the steepness eases off a little before the cliffs begin. St Sunday is seamed with gullies and I can see the one to right of Pinnacle Ridge, my target, has spewed out a chunky, heavy avalanche - the debris coming several hundred metres down the hillside below the gully's mouth. I could see this was sometime ago, and the debris now provide a hard and fast route up to the start of the ridge once I clip my crampons on.

The ridge itself was a delight, never desperate, but plenty of opportunities to get my head back into British mixed; hooking, torquing, swinging tools into frozen turf. The crux is no pushover - and I chimney up carefully, double checking my hooks - well aware I'm alone and not on a rope. Having been soloing a lot easy grit routes recently, I even chuck in a gloved handjam on the crack, preferring that to a tenuous torque.

Looking back down the crux corner
The final pinnacle of Pinnacle Ridge, II. Grisedale is below.
The route is decent length too, meaning lots of enjoyable climbing. Hard snow above the ridge's terminus leads on to the summit plateau - the weather has improved and there are great views all around. Helvellyn's highest corries are still hidden in clouds, but the views down to Ullswater and over towards High Street are fantastic.

Looking down towards Ullswater.
It's only mid-morning, so although I know I can't stay all day, I still have time. The hard snow on the headwall suggests the gully to right of the ridge might be a quick was back down, and so it turns out to be. I quickly down climb it predominantly on hard, secure neve. I traverse along the base of the cliff to East Chockstone Gully, reputedly the best of the cliffs gullies. It's meant to be just I/II but there's a distinct ice pitch today in the bottom narrows.
A bit steeper than your normal grade I gully!
 I climb up to that and start climbing the maybe 8 metres of almost vertical ice. It looks impressive but ice is very soft. By bridging one foot across to rock on the other side of the narrows I climb most of it but its that 3D chess thing: continually spread your weight and never committing to just one foot hold or tool placement, I get both tools in the ice above the steep section, but its too soft for me commit to swinging all my weight over onto the ice. Waves of spindrift pour down the gully and over me to just to complete that full-on feeling. So not today and not soloing; I gingerly down climb back into the welcoming snow of the gully bed. I try forcing a way around the narrows on vegetated mixed ground to its side, but it is steep and the thick heather and reed grass is not properly frozen under the heavy snow. It seems silly, so I back down and out of the gully. Traversing further along, I come to the next clearly defined gully, Pillar Gully. This has firm neve in it and I can see no nasty surprises looking up, so I take it, trying to do my best Ueli Steck impression to the top. It's a pretty poor impression to be honest, with a few sneaky, panting rests, but the gully is very straight forward, I even catch myself looking down it and thinking "I could ski this with a bit more snow in it" but enough of such silly thoughts. With good hard snow the whole way, soon I'm back out again on the snow blasted summit.

I slog to St Sunday's highest point, put on a duvet to ward off the maelstrom, check the compass and map and head east and down. The walk along the ridge is lovely as soon as I'm down below the cloud. The heavy snow that has been blasting past me on the cliff has whitened everything below, right down to the lake.
Walking down and towards the sunshine
Back down on the valley floor, the new snow is melting into already sodden ground and water is streaming everywhere. I walk back down to Patterdale admiring the fast flowing Grisedale beck roaring down below the track. I'm back at the car, changed and driving south by 1330, with only the traffic around Manchester to worry about.

Red Screes gone white.

Looking down from the Kirstone Pass towards Windermere.

Back over the Snake Pass, not too far from home now.

*For non-British winter climbers, the ethics of winter climbing here can seem a bit arcane, but are actually deeply-rooted and come about both from sporting reasons (routes should be harder as winter ascents than in summer!) and increasingly environmental reasons (frozen turf is good to climb on and seems not bothered by being wacked by the ice tools of passing climbers. Unfrozen turf rips up and off the cliff, and the habitat of rare alpine plants can be destroyed).

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

The Jöttnar Alfar - a review

The Jöttnar Alfar is, in brief, a very warm hooded mid-layer of the type normally now called a hybrid. It is hybrid in the sense that it bonds two types of insulation, fleece (in this case Polartec Power Stretch) with and synthetic-‘puffy’-insulation (ThermoCool from German textile manufacturer Advansa) sandwiched between lightweight ripstop nylon. The Power Stretch is used for the arms and sides and the neck area of the jacket, whilst the ThermoCool insulation panels cover the front and back and over the top of the hood. What this provides is lots of insulation for your back and chest from the puffy sections along with loads of stretch and breathability from the stretch fleece areas.

The Alfar under Jöttnar's Bergelmir shell.
The clever mixing of materials means that Alfar gives a great fit, provides perfect mobility for climbing and layers under shells superbly. Power Stretch side panels and arms means that the Alfar will be a good fit for many - for me, medium is perfect; a slim ‘athletic’ fit but no problem with tightness across my chest and shoulders that I get with some midlayers in medium. The sleeves are long and allow the thumb loops to be used without increasing the pump; an unwanted side effect of thumb loops particularly when pulling on ice tools. The plentiful stretch also makes the Alfar suitable for any cool weather pursuits where you want no resistance when reaching. An early test for the Alfar was a cold October day when I was trying to learn the moves of a reachy granite 6c. A repoint attempt will have to wait for spring, but it wasn’t the Alfar holding me back - full stretch spans between little holds with no resistance from the jacket. Power Stretch has long been popular with climbers for this reason, but when slumped on a bolt trying to think about the next bit, the puffy insulation over my chest and back kept me much snugger than a solely Power Stretch top would have. The jacket’s great “layer-ability” comes from the slim smooth Power Stretch sleeves and slick nylon-shelled ThermoCool body, meaning a shell slips effortlessly over it.

The hood is pretty full-on; a strip of puffy insulation comes up the back and over the top meaning warmth but Power Stretch on the sides means you can still hear ok. The stretch also means that it fits fine over your helmet as well as under. I normally wear a hat under my helmet when ice climbing so am slightly sceptical about under-helmet hoods which is how Jöttnar describe this one. Nevertheless, I found the Alfar hood went up and down over various helmets with no bother and added instant warmth when I did pull it up. The hood doesn’t have drawcords, but does have a neat elasticated trimming around the face. This makes the hood snug and protective when on and fully zipped up, but it does have the downside of making the Alfar a bit restrictive around the chin/mouth if you try to zip it fully up with the hood down. I think if Jöttnar want to refine their design for future seasons, seeing if they could offset the top of the zip, as Patagonia and Mountain Equipment have done with the R1 Hoody and Eclipse respectively, might be one thing to try.

The hood goes over a helmet
Jöttnar are from the start aiming to build clothing of a quality on a par with best already available; and looking closely at the Alfar suggests they are getting there. Things like the care in the stitching and finishing is clear to see. Components such as zips are all top quality. The design is also very refined, particularly considering this is a brand new company. It is both little things like the successful “zip-garages” and the big things like seeing that the hand warmer pockets have clearly been designed to be used while you wear a climbing harness. With some of the design features you realise they’ve thought about it much more than you have. I actually emailed Jöttnar to ask if they had put the thumb holes in the wrong place - you have to have your thumbs forward - like you were standing to attention, hands at your sides - for the thumb loops not to put a slight twist in the bottom of the sleeves (Tommy and Steve, Jöttnar’s founders, are both former Royal Marines, so I did wonder if after military careers this becomes your default hand position when standing at rest!). There was only the merest hint of sigh in Tommy’s reply; the thumb holes were, of course, exactly where they wanted them to be. By introducing the slight twist to the end of the sleeve (which make no difference to comfort due to the stretchy fleece) it moves the seam of the sleeve out of the palm leaving no possible pressure point when you have a ski pole strap, ice tool (or perhaps even an SA80 rifle!?) in the palm of your hand all day. It’s nice to know that with Jöttnar there is a functional reason for everything.

My only question over the Alfar is could it be too warm for a mid-layer? On it’s own it is pretty breathable (the fleece side panels help a lot with this) so when not under a shell its warmth is mainly a positive, but layered under a shell you are really warm. I wore it recently on wintery traverse of the Snowdon horseshoe. It was way too warm to wear slogging up from the Cromlech boulders towards Grib Goch, but once I got onto Grib Goch’s verglassed and powder covered North Ridge it worked well on its own, the fleece panels letting most of my sweat out, the synth insulation sections keeping the keen wind off my torso. On the summit of Grib Goch the clouds rolled in and I pulled the Bergelmir shell over the Alfar, using it as a mid layer for the rest of day. In reasonably heavy snow conditions and cloud over Snowdon, then back down below the snowline over Lliwedd where, after some sunshine, thick clouds, sleet and, lower, rain made up the rest of the day, the Jöttnar gear kept me comfy - I didn’t feel the need to take the shell off while slogging up towards the summit of Lliwedd but I definitely got a bit sweaty in there as a result. The outer of Alfar was damp to the touch under shell towards the end of the day, but one way to look at that is that the ThermoCool insulated sections breath well enough for condensation to form there, not inside against the skin, but something with slightly less insulation might be better if you are on the move all day in those temperatures just a few degrees either side of freezing.

Jöttnar are clearly aiming at winter climbers as a big part of their target market, and here the Alfar perhaps makes most sense. It is possible to get too warm when pitched climbing but, when not wearing a belay jacket, it’s not easy! A very warm, climber-specific mid-layer like the Alfar is just the thing for cold days out on Scottish buttresses or Norwegian icefalls.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

A beginner guide to clothing systems for the British Winter Mountains

This is an article I wrote a few winter ago for UKclimbing but it was never used for some reason. Anyway, it might be of use to someone (and I may even add photos at some point!) so here it is.

Buying clothes to wear for the winter mountains is an investment, winter climbing is not a cheap sport. So let’s start with the good news: modern outdoor clothing is, relatively speaking, cheap. Compared to any normal clothes you buy, the mark-up in the outdoor trade is rather small, and if you find something on a clearance rack at half price, the shop is almost certainly making next to no money on that sale. I bought my first Goretex jacket nearly 20 years ago with my savings from working the school holiday picking fruit on farms. It was about £130 and despite 19 years of inflation you can still buy a Goretex jacket for the same amount and it will work better than my 1990-vintage Phoenix Topaz. Secondly, modern outdoor clothing is really good. If you have the money to buy top of the range from any of the famous brands it is really, really, really good. But a sensibly-designed, own-brand fleece from Millets or Decathlon is going to be as good as the top of the range Berghaus or North Face fleece of twenty years ago whilst being a third of the price not even taking into account inflation. I might not go as far as to say you can’t go wrong, but like having SatNav – it’s getting ever harder to go really wrong.

But good value is the result of competition and this comes from a huge choice. You can hardly moan about this, but of course this does making choosing exactly what you want difficult. This article aims to give some basic information for those who are new to the game, and perhaps a few alternatives thoughts to those who aren’t.

This article, being UK Climbing, is aimed primarily at winter climbers going to Scotland, Snowdonia or the Lakes. Climbers often need a little extra warmth than winter hill walkers due to pitched climbing necessitating standing still and belaying in foul weather, although otherwise the basic philosophy is the same.

Dry and still

Winter clothing keeps you warm by keeping you dry and from stopping the wind. You lose heat in two major ways – conduction and convection (forget radiation – there ain’t much that can be done about that). Conduction is heat energy moving (in this case away from your body) through solids and liquids. Convection is the same but through gas – the air, moving in the form of wind. Keeping dry is about reducing conductive heat loss. You can stand around naked in still air at -10 and if you are dry it is fine for a few minutes, but try getting into a lake where the water is 5 degrees and you’ll know all about it. We do both of these regularly in Finland, often together, so I say this from personal, and normally quite embarrassing, experience. Just to complicate matters, you can get wet in two ways – from the outside (snow, sleet, rain) or from the inside (sweat); your clothes have to stop moisture from either being near your skin. Keeping out the wind is about avoiding heat loss through convection. Anybody who has stood around belaying on a windy day without a windproof jacket will understand exactly how this works.

Inside out

The layering principle is the standard way to dress for the winter mountains. There are clothing systems that claim they aren’t based on the layering principle, but due to basic physics they are really – it’s just a different take on it: normally combining two layers into one. It is best to think of the layering principle from the inside out starting with the clothes against your skin. This is the base layer – although often referred to by your granny as thermal undies. Base layers suck the sweat away from your skin as quickly as possible transporting it outwards to the next layer. This is called “wicking” - probably because “sucking up sweat” is such a horrible image. The quicker your base layer wicks, the dryer you stay – and as we discussed above, the warmer you will be. Next comes the mid layer – normally this means fleece these days. The mid layer is insulation that traps air which insulates you from the colder air outside your clothes. Your insulation mid layer also needs to be able to transport sweat outwards without holding the moisture. This is why it is rare to use a down jacket as a mid-layer, feathers hold moisture so it would get clammy from sweat and stop working well. Finally there is the shell layer. When I started climbing everybody just called these “waterproofs” and were done with it, but this is where things get a bit complicated because you have in effect two types of shell – those designed just to keep the wind out – windproofs – and those that keep both the wind and rain out – waterproofs. If you want to be down with the kids you can call the former softshells and the latter hardshells, but for the moment this unnecessarily complicates matters – so I won’t. Next we will go on to discuss the basic options available for these layers, before heading out to the extremities – hands, feet and head.

Base layers

Until some New Zealand sheep farmers hit on a really great business idea a few years back, base layers meant synthetics – mainly different types of polypro. I have synthetic base layers made by Helly Hansen, Karrimor, Jack Wolfskin, Berghaus, Lowe Alpine and others that I don’t recall. All work – even my 18 year old smelly Helly that I still regularly wear whilst cycle commuting in winter. There is not so much to distinguish them in terms of wicking – get any polypro base layer from a decent manufacturer and you won’t go wrong. Making sure they don’t have seams that rub or labels that itch is probably the most important consideration. One feature they do all share in common though is that if I wear them for more than ten minutes, they stink under the arms (and round your nether regions with the long johns). Different firms have claimed to have solved this issue over the years but none I have tried have succeeded. It seems that most blokes at least will make synthetic base layers stink. This is where we get back to those enterprising antipodeans. I reckon Merino wool is a real revolution in thermal undies. It still wicks to my mind as well as synthetics (others disagree on this but they seem to be a minority) but it is really quite spookily smell resistant. I can wear a cotton t-shirt for a day without it getting whiffy, but after two days it's not so great. I wore my favourite merino baselayer for four days ice climbing last Easter in Norway – and no hint of smell. To me this is amazing and in my experience the only downside to merino is that it tends to cost more and the material is a bit delicate in comparison to synthetics.

Mid Layers

Fleeces are pretty simple things – fluffy polyester knits that trap warm air and thus insulates you – but they come in bewildering range of styles and types. The fluffier or thicker it is, the more insulation that garment will offer. For climbing, simple and fitted is best. As increasingly with modern clothing systems we add insulation to the outer layer – the belay jacket idea (see below) - micro fleeces are amongst the best mid layer garments. They offer a fair amount of warmth but aren’t bulky and as shell layers become ever better cut and fitted, this is important. Hi-loft fleece is the fluffy type that makes you look like a brightly coloured sheep but is superb in cold conditions. They are far, far lighter than old heavy weight fleeces and compress well. They also make ace pillows once you are in the tent at the end of day – but many might find them too warm under a shell if climbing hard or moving fast. If you are sure you are going to be wearing your mid-layer all day, as most people will for winter climbing, consider a pullover rather than a jacket version: lighter, no annoying zip lower down near your harness and, best of all, normally cheaper.

Mid-layer for your legs is more complex because legs generally need less insulation so many find that if their leg wear has some wind resistance to it, it will actually be their outer layer for much of the time. Softshell trousers made out of a stretchy, breathable and wind-resistant material have become the legwear of choice for many winter climbers in recent years, but summer trekking trousers over long johns can also work well. But even the expensive Schoeller materials are not completely windproof (unless they are the expensive and less breathable membrane type) and in cold temps or when static for long periods I’ve found them to be not warm enough. This when you might have add some sort of shell over them, or pick a more specialist pair of trousers that are insulated in some way.


Shell layers are designed to mainly to make your insulation layers below work, not to offer insulation themselves. This is why many windproof smocks now weigh next to nothing. Nevertheless the various windproofs I have are amongst my favourite bits of outdoor gear; used all year round for climbing, ski mountaineering, cross country skiing, cycling and orienteering. By keeping the wind out they make your insulation underneath work, but unlike waterproofs they are (or at least should be) ultra-breathable and hence sweat produced from activity can escape easily. Pertex is the classic material for windproofs and perfect for the job, but any close woven and unproofed nylon will work.


Making a waterproof jacket is easy – the trick is to make it waterproof in only one direction. As you do any exercise you sweat. If this sweat can’t escape through your waterproof layer, it will wet your mid and base layers just like rain or melted snow from outside would do. Conducted heat loss then begins and you get cold. This is why your waterproof jacket also need to be breathable. Breathable simply means that the jacket material in some way to do with it physical structure or chemical make-up allows moisture vapour (sweat) through from the inside to the outside, but does not let liquid water (rain) in from the outside to inside.

Materials are getting better – the Goretex of today breathes more readily than the Goretex of the jacket I bought in 1990 and there are now many competitor fabrics that seem to work adequately and particularly with eVent there is now a fabric that many believe is better than Goretex. But just as importantly is that designs have improved massively in the last decade. Designers are making jackets that are slimmer fitting, tailored to the needs of climbers or hikers, and use cleverer technologies like thin seam tape or bonding technologies that allow the material to breath better all over. In the early 90s I became a huge fan of Buffalo clothing because it meant I didn’t need my Goretex jacket for winter climbing and that meant getting less clammy and cold from sweat despite not being waterproof. I still won’t wear a Goretex for, say, skinning uphill whilst ski mountaineering, but my Arctryx paclite Goretex I can wear happily when ice climbing on drippy days, or hiking in sleety weather, without getting sweaty inside. It’s just a better designed coat made out of better material than the early 90s shells – and the fabrics of today are further improved than the six year old goretex of my Arctryx.

For the British mountains in winter, what you will want though is a shell jacket with a good hood - the best tend to have a wire in them to create a peak, and the hood needs to be big enough to go over a climbing helmet. Unsurprisingly, British companies (Berghaus, Mountain Equipment, Montane etc.) often have the best hoods for full on conditions – putting more emphasis on protection than peripheral vision. Some US firms have even made jackets designed specifically for the British market including bigger than normal hoods – showing the difference in design philosophy. More and more shells now use waterproof (water resistant some say) zips. These save weight, but some still prefer their winter jacket to have a storm flap that covers the zip for maximum protection.

Booster Layers

Booster layers – often called belay jackets – are insulated coats that you stick on over your shell (windproof or waterproof) when static or just really cold. Traditionally these were down filled, although down doesn’t mix with rain or wet snow well, so increasingly many climbers are going for modern synthetic fills such as primaloft. These keep their insulation value better if getting damp, but down is lighter, packs down smaller and last much longer if well looked after. See my earlier article on belay jackets for much more on this.

Alternative systems

For a long time the most famous ‘alternative systems’ in the UK to the layering principles outlined above were Buffalo and Paramo. You can read much more about both on their websites, but both avoided membrane waterproof fabrics like Goretex. What they lose in waterproofing they gain in breathability. The fans of both systems often have a slightly zealous air to them that come with having ‘seen the light’. I should know: in the mid-90s I was a hardcore Buffalo boy. I was living in Scotland and working in shop that stocked the system felt the urge to try and convert the Goretex clad infidels to the true and righteous (and slightly odd looking) path. I’ve never used Paramo, so their crusaders will have to speak up in its favour but back then Buffalo was without any doubt the best value for money mountain clothing system you could buy. Montane also make pertex and fibre pile products very similar to Buffalo. Pertex and fibre pile is not always perfect, but for serious winter climbing when on a budget it is still well worth looking at. Stephen Reed, owner of Needlesports has an excellent manifesto for the Buffalo system.

Feet, hands and heads

Keeping your extremities warm is one of the hardest parts of choosing your clothing system and my experience is that in particular finding the right glove system is an annoyingly expensive experience of trial and error. Hopefully some of


What boots you wear is dependent on what you are doing - winter hill walking, mountaineering and easy climbs, mid grade pitched climbing, or hard climbing. For hill walking and easier routes many will wear a B2 (link) rated boot - with a bit of flex to them and not too heavy. These can be super traditional leather walking boots, or more modern styles made with various synthetic materials. Boots for climbing in tend to be rigid - B3 rated for prolonged crampon use and built with warmth in mind. Boots for the hardest climbs are rigid but lighter, possibly sacrificing some warmth and support but anyone interested in those type of boots won't need this article. Opinions vary on what to wear inside. When I started climbing in Scotland in the early 1990s everyone wore plastic boots, and most people seemed to use inside a liner sock under a woolly sock. You didn't need to worry much about cold feet with that combo but it compromised climbing (and walking) performance. With better fitting leather boots wearing one pair of medium to thick socks inside seems to make more sense to make the most of the fit and climbing performance of your boots. Good mountain socks from manufacturers like Extremities, Thorlo, Smartwool, Bridgedale and the like are very nice but do seem horribly expensive for a pair of socks. I found that high wool content socks - normally sold as hiking socks - from even Tesco can do the job fine. My two pairs of Tesco hiking socks cost about seven quid but have kept my feet nice and warm inside my Nepal Extremes even when ice climbing in the bitter cold of the Norwegian arctic. The old Extremities mountain socks I have are a little warmer, but at something like eight times the price!

For UK mountains, I still think that gaiters are pretty vital. If you get water or mud over the top of your boots, you will get cold feet once above the snowline. The gaiters that come attached to many shell trousers might do a good job at keeping snow out of your boots, but not the boot sucking mud of many a British walk-in. Good gaiters are nice, but cheaper ones do the job well enough. Look for a pair with a front zip, these are much less hassle if you need to tighten your laces than the back zip models. Places like Decathlon do some very good value pairs with decent technical designs. Full foot gaiters like Yetis are great for keeping snow out of your boots on prolonged trips where you are camping in deep snow, but in my experience are a bit over-kill for day climbs. They do make boots slightly warmer by keeping snow off your boots and laces - but the majority of heat-loss from the feet is through the soles of your boots, so Yetis aren't the magic bullet to warmer feet that some people expect.


Glove and mitts are notoriously difficult to get right and, due to the complexity of the stitching and taping, expensive as well. Most winter climbers find a system that works for them after years of trial and error. Mitts are warm and often waterproof but most find them hard to do anything technical in. Softshell gloves are light and dexterous - picking the no. 3 wire of your racking krab is easy enough - but you quickly get cold fingers when belaying and water goes straight through them. Goretex or eVent mountain gloves are somewhere in between - a bit warmer and you can use your belay plate, but you might drop that wire. In my experience you need more dexterous gloves for Scottish climbing, particularly mixed routes where the majority of pro is rock gear. Softshell, or some other thinner types of gloves work well, with mitts for belays and the walk down. For pure icefalls, goretex (or similar) gloves work well - ice screws aren't too fiddly to use with them and they are warmer. Ice climbing in Scandinavia I have often just used my mountain gloves all day, for climbing, belaying and the descent, but for hiking up to Scottish climbs, takes something thin and stretchy for the approach; any old gloves will work fine including woolly ones, keep your main gloves dry and ready for the actual climbing. Finally, take some light, insulated mitts for belays, descents in horrible weather and for simply when your hands get really cold. Buffalo mitts remain a favourite, very light and pretty cheap, but if you think you might be wearing them to belay much get something with reinforcement on the palms. Dachstein mitts deserve a special mention as many and will go on at great (boring?) length about how they are the be all and end all of Scottish winter handwear. I'm unconvinced myself, finding them heavy, stiff and neither particularly grippy or warm - but a thousand happy punters can't be completely wrong so it may be worth trying them out.

Some specific recommendations: my current softshell gloves are by Ortovox - I got them mainly because I couldn't afford the Black Diamond Dry Tool gloves and they were the only other ones my local shop had, but they have turned out to be hard wearing, being three seasons old and surprisingly warm. If the price of softshell gloves puts you off, try Extremities Sticky Thickies over a pair of thinnies (or even cheaper no-brand 'magic' gloves) as a cheaper and surprisingly warm alternative. I used this system for a few seasons of regular Scottish routes and it worked great for me for more technical mixed routes where you are mainly placing nuts and cams. When it comes to a more general, waterproof, mountain glove; for about six years I used a pair of Goretex gauntlet gloves made by Mountain Hardware. These were absolutely superb: the palms and fingers were made with sticky and absolutely bomb-proof rubbery material that no number of abseils could wear out. They had minimal insulation, just a light brushed lining to protect the Goretex, but this meant they were very dextrerous and, for all but the most technical of routes, you could put them on and just keep them on all day. Of course they seem to have stopped making that model now, which all too often happens with a brilliant product! I replaced them last year with Rab Makalus - decent gloves but with some insulation making them less dexterous than the Mountain Hardware ones, and with a less good cuff arrangement. The eVent does seem very good though. If buying waterproof climbing gloves one really important thing is get them to fit your finger length; any floppy bits at the ends of the fingers seems to be magically attractive to the gates of any karabiner you are trying to handle - not what you want whilst desperately trying to get a quickdraw onto your ice screw. For mitts, bargain bins in climbing shops in the summer or somewhere like Decathlon have proven good bets for me in the past - any loose fitting nylon-covered and pile-lined mitts should be pretty warm. My current favourite belay mitts are Extremities and were bought in TKMaxx for about a tenner.


For ultimate warmth and protection you want a balaclava - I like light and stretchy ones because I tend to carry it much more than I wear it, plus with a black powerstretch balaclava you are also always ready to attend fancy dress parties as a ninja. Back out on the hill, wearing a hat and some sort of fleecy neck tube is far less likely to get you arrested as a bank robber and is more flexible an arrangement. And remember: bobble hats both look ridiculous and don't fit well under climbing helmets, so buy a good looking beanie and you can also use it for bouldering, as long as you remember to take your top of first.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Edelrid Beast Lite Crampon review update have just published a review I have written of the Edelrid Beast Lite crampons. This post is basically an addendum to that noting a problem that has since arisen with the crampons since I filed the review.

I got the crampons unfortunately near to the close of this year's rather truncated Finnish ice climbing season but I still managed to get out and use them on several hundred metres of steep ice divided over lots of pitches and a number of days. It wasn't a whole season of weekend usage, but I still felt pretty confident in my conclusions on the strong and weak points of this rather novel model of crampon. The most noticeable thing about the Beast Lites is (unsurprisingly, considering their name) their low weight, so when I was packing for a ski-mountaineering trip to Norway just before Easter I threw the Beasts into my bag because, despite being a technical climbing crampon by design, they weigh less than even a pair of 10-point walking crampons I own. It was actually on taking them out of my pack to use to scramble up on to the blocky summit of the Senja peak Kvænen where I noticed that plastic heal clip of one of the crampons had cracked through (see the pictures below).

I know that heel bail clips like these don't need to break and that plastic is a very suitable material to make these components from; my Grivel G12s are now well over a decade old and the heel bails are fine. and on my first pair of DMM Terminators it was the metal frame of the crampon that broke after 8 seasons of hard use not the bails. It seems very unlikely that this could be simply bad luck after, relatively speaking, so little use. So I suspect there is a problem either with the type of plastic that Edelrid have used here or the shape and design of the heel clip that led to the breakage. It maybe that in trying to make the crampons so light they simply used too thin plastic here.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Marmot Isotherm Hoody/Polartec Alpha Insulation - some thoughts.

The Marmot Isotherm Hoody being used as a mid-layer on a -20 day.
The Isotherm hoody is Marmot's first go at using Polartec's new Alpha insulation, an insulation originally developed by Polartec for US Special Forces. The military wanted a synthetic insulation that while warm was also breathable and could be kept on during periods of activity. With body armour, plus all the equipment carried by modern soldiers on their webbing, donning or taking off layers of clothing below all that is obviously difficult in anything beyond relaxed and safe situations hence the requirement for insulation that breathes well when you are active in it. The Alpha insulation is knitted onto a mesh, allowing 'sheets' of the insulation to made and sewn into garments. The knitted construction is very air-permeable meaning breathability, but also means the insulation is stable and drapes well. This allows for simple garment designs that don't require extensive channels through the construction, as would be necessary to hold a loose insulation like down. The Alpha insulation is though encased in an inner and outer shell. Again because of the stable, knitted structure of the insulation, manufacturers can use as an inner layer a very breathable and light mesh material (again a loose insulation like down would escape through such a material). With the Isotherm Hoody Marmot have used a mesh version of their own dri-clime material for most of the inner liner. 

Graphic from Polartec, click here for more info.
With Polartec Alpha's unique selling point being breathability I feel the choice of outer material to the insulation is vital. Insulation works by holding air still, creating a barrier of stable, warm air between the person inside the clothing and the colder, moving air in the environment beyond – so there needs to be a windproof layer over the insulation to allow for this to happen. This would seem to be where the central dilemma with Polartec Alpha lies – for the material to insulate to its maximum amount you need to use a windproof outer fabric but this may not be particularly breathable, but to get the most out of the insulation's structure which is what Polartec says makes Alpha more breathable than competitor synthetic insulations, you want an outer fabric that is highly breathable, which generally means less windproof. The new buzz-phrase in the industry for this is “air permeability”; for instance the new Goretex Pro is air-permeable as is Polartec NeoShell making both of these fabrics more breathable than other waterproof fabrics, but the other way of putting this is “not as windproof” and that might not sell as well in the 'performance outdoor clothing' market. For the outside of the Isotherm Hoody, Marmot have gone with Pertex Quantum, a light ripstop nylon. There are different types of Pertex and I'm not sure if certain forms are more windproof and less breathable than others – but Quantum is an ultra-fine and smooth weave so I would imagine that it isn't particularly air-permeable, although of course being windproof allows the Alpha insulation below to insulate all the better.
Some slightly freaky google auto-produced multilayer pic of me mountain-biking in the Isotherm.
So that's the physics theory section; but what about in use? Well, in truth it is a bit of a mixed bag. Let's start with the good stuff; the Thermo Hoody is very light (387 grams in medium, about 20 grams less than Marmot claim) and very compressible – it is very easy to stuff into a bag to take along 'just in case'. The hood (a simple under-helmet design) adds instant warmth when used although it isn't designed to zip up and protect your face. Considering how light the materials are too, it seems relatively tough – it survived a day of gritstone cragging when it was far too cold for me to worry much about not scuffing and scraping it. Marmot have used a stretchy light softshell material over the shoulders to make it a bit tougher for use with a rucksack. It's easy to care for too, particularly in comparison to lightweight down tops. If it gets grubby you just chuck it in the machine for a wash. For me the downsides are the fit and the design. I've been a big fan of Marmot for years as their quality seems top-notch and their size medium has always fitted me well, but with the Thermo Hoody the medium is too tight across the shoulders although it's not particularly trim around the waist so its seems a bit oddly proportioned. Perhaps related to this I've also found it doesn't work brilliantly with a harness with a tendency to pull out after some high reaches. A climbing harness covers the hand warmer pockets too, which considering Alpha is all about “active insulation” - so insulation to wear whilst doing stuff, like climbing! - seems a shame. Another minor design flaw is that the lining in the sleeves is too loose so when ever you pull the jacket on the inner fabric pulls out, protruding beyond the cuff. It goes back in easily enough if you hold the cuff and stretch the sleeves a bit, but it's enough of an annoyance to notice.

And finally to the big issue – is it breathable and how much warmth does it offer? Used as an outer layer for things like autumnal mountain biking I found the Isotherm snug, wind resistant and warm but perhaps a bit too warm. Despite not riding particularly hard or doing long climbs, in positive single digit temperatures the inside of the Isotherm was getting rather damp with sweat being worn over just a thin base layer. This would dissipate with time, but then I've found the same true of traditional synthetically insulated pieces like the Marmot Variant. Through the damp cool autumn Alpha didn't strike me as that different and I was left wondering – was it the Pertex Quantum material holding in the sweat or the Alpha insulation itself? For cool weather rock climbing, the jacket was more successful, not getting sweaty inside and keeping me reasonably comfortable while climbing on what was a ridiculously windy day at a rather exposed English gritstone edge. The day was so windy though, that although it wasn't particularly cold (about +5) I still needed to use a duvet over the Isotherm when not climbing – in those gales you notice the air permeability by getting cold! So good for less aerobic activities like rock climbing but I don't think the Isotherm is necessarily the best cragging top for the reasons mentioned earlier; it would need to be longer, have differently positioned pockets and perhaps a slightly heavier, tougher face fabric for that. I have used it as a mid-layer under a Marmot NeoShell jacket in cold and very cold conditions, and here it worked impeccably. This has included Nordic skating at -20 and alpine skiing at just below freezing. But in both these cases I suspect a hi-loft fleece would have also worked as well as a mid-layer.

Cragging at the Roaches in the Isotherm Hoody
I'm left wondering rather what “active insulation” pieces like the Isotherm are really best suited for? I think for me, at least, a microfleece (the grid-pattern ones wick and breath very well) and a windshirt will work as well; being more versatile, costing less and not weighing much more. Nevertheless we all experience the outdoor environments differently and for some people I'm sure the Isotherm will be the best midlayer they've ever tried. There is a lot of like about it, a certain silky luxurious snugness in particular! But still – for me – I'm not sure if it does a job better than pre-existing solutions. It will be interesting to see how Polartec Alpha is used in conjunction with different shell materials in the future, because I still don't quite see how to square the circle of having an insulation that is both air permeable itself and is encased in air-permeable fabrics that will still work well in anything other than windless conditions.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Physics you can sleep on; a design weakness in the Alpkit Numo sleeping mat.

Bikepack bivvying - my Alpkit Numo under my tarp
Warning: very geeky camping gear post follows; surf away now if you don't care and most well adjusted people probably don't.

A camping mat is pretty fundamental to getting a decent night's sleep when camping – whatever you pick is a compromise; the light ones might not be tough, the tough ones not light, the light, tough ones not cheap etc. In summer you can get away with more (well, actually less); find some softish, non-rocky ground and even the lightest closed cell foam mat can be great, but on hard uneven ground and as winter approaches the mat becomes more important.

Winter bivvy, in a laavu (Finnish lean-to log shelter)
I got an Alpkit Numo a few years back and have like it. It's one of the new generation of air mattresses - you blow into it and it fills up like a balloon - very light and compact. I had always thought that just getting you off the ground, so that heat can not move by conduction away from your body into the ground as you sleep, was central to how sleeping mats of all types worked but using the Numo demonstrates it's more complicated than that. Once inflated the Numo probably is about 10 cms thick – a lot more than most Thermarest style mats (a couple of cms) or closed cell foam mats (>1 cm). This makes it super comfy but also allows for some interesting physics – because the Numo is just air inside (thermarests hold air in a complex lattice of open cell foam that it inside the mat) you get convection currents in it. Because the air can move inside the mat as it cools it will move around - not working well as insulation. Alpkit obviously knew this as in the body section of the mat (about shoulder to bum) they put insulation, this was some sort of synthetic strands stuck to the two inside-sides of the mat. When you blow the mat up this stretches forming a lattice structure and stoping convection in that section of the mat. 

Late summer bivvy.
The difference this insulation made is very noticeable – I first sussed this on a wild autumn night in upper Glen Nevis, near Steall waterfall. It wasn't terribly cold, maybe around 5 degrees and I had a bag plenty warm enough. I slept fine but it was quite noticeable that whilst my body was warm my legs (where there is no insulation in the Numo) were getting cold from below – just like the feeling of trying to sleep on ice with a too thin mat. Hence despite being both really comfy and also light and the most packable of my mats, I decided it was best to use it for 3-season camping only. 

In the pictures above, on the left you can see the insulation still adhering to one side of the mat but on the right you can see where most of the insulation has come detached and collapsed back on itself. 

This is issue is compounded by the design problem with the mats – the insulation comes unstuck from one side of the mat and collapses back against the other side hence doing nothing. When I first noticed this with my first Numo, Alpkit in their normal very customer-first way said “no worries, we'll send you a new one”, but then the same thing happened with our second Numo (my wife had discovered how much comfier my Numo was than her old thermarest), and then more recently with the replacement to the original one. I've come to the conclusion that you can get about two weeks use out a Numo before the insulation peels away. I used one of them in that state on my recent bikepacking trip where it was just below freezing at night and even sleeping on the wooden floor of the laavu, I got cold enough from below to wake me up (the first night in my tent in the car park I had slept perfectly on my much thinner foam Z-rest). So the failure of the insulation really limits the Numos to summer use only.

Slightly grumpy bikepacker in the morning twilight after a long chilly December night on a not warm enough mat.
Alpkit admitted that the problem is that when you breath into the mat blowing it up – they aren't self inflating like Thermarests – the moisture in your breath gets trapped and the sogginess inside makes the glue holding the insulation in place fail. Alpkit have stopped making the Numos and aren't going to do any more – they told me they're redesigning their whole mat range for next summer – so of course that makes this whole post sort of pointless: if you don't have a Numo you can't buy one and if you do have one and it fails in the way mine did, Alpkit can't really do anything about it now. But at least I've proven to my own satisfaction that air alone isn't sufficient insulator for sleeping. I guess it has to be stable air that can't circulate, and the problem also shows how small a sealed space -inside an air mattress- is enough for convection currents to have a significant impact on the insulation quality of that mat.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

An early winter bikepack

It seems that a late November weekend scout camp is now part of my kids's annual schedule, so a couple of Fridays back I found myself back up in the Forssa area, about 100 kms northwest of Helsinki with 36 hours to kill. It was mid-evening, slightly below freezing and very very dark. Last year I had taken my mountain bike and tried bikepacking the hiking route, the Lynx Route/Ilvesreitti, with limited success. The 'trail' was marked by waymarks but not enough people had actually walked it to make much of trail on the ground. I did a lot of pushing and carrying the bike through forest brush. This year I decided to stick to roads and forest tracks, including riding sections of the long distance bike route the Häme OxRoad/Hämeen Härkätie, that goes from Turku to Hämeenlinna, so took my cyclocross bike. A lot of the roads and trails are unsurfaced so the CX was a great choice, I could nip along paved sections at a decent pace, but had plenty of grip on the gravel.

Last year it was grey and just above freezing for the whole trip, and in November in Finland the days are so short and the sun always so low that it brings a whole new drab meaning to “grey”. This year I lucked out and the sky cleared early on Saturday morning and stayed clear until after I was asleep that evening, the temperature never got above 1 degree and was often just below freezing according to the thermometer on my excellent newish bike computer.
Saari Folk Park
The Saari viewing tower
I camped in a carpark in LiesjärviNational Park on Friday night with the luxury of a tent and left the car (and tent) there on Saturday morning. That day I rode a bit over 90 kms; this included some hiking single track in the Saari Folk Park but mostly was on unsurfaced roads and forest tracks. A good day of gravel grinding. It didn't feel that big a day but I ran out of daylight and had to ride the last hour or so with lights on to get to the laavu (lean-to shelter) I had decided to use that night. This was actually the same one as I had camped in last year, but it was much nicer this time with all the stars out above and no wind.

I lit a fire in the fireplace with out much trouble, although it never really got to that pleasantly roaring stage. There was only the dregs of the woodpile left, I guess after a summer of visitors, and although the logs burnt they didn't seem to put out much heat. I made lots of hot drinks to rehydrate – it's easy to not drink enough riding in cold weather – and ate my dubious far-eastern pot noddle thingy for supper, but with an indifferent fire retired to my sleeping bag very early.

Sunday morning, I didn't have much time before needing to go and pick my son up from scout camp so got up early, made some hot drinks with breakfast and packed up. It was still only getting light as I left the laavu and the moon was shining brightly over the lake. I only needed to ride about 20 kms back to my car that morning. It had snowed over nigh; enough to make most of the world white but not enough to bother me in terms of riding. My new tyres seemed to grip through the snow perfectly well and reasonably soon I was back where I had started and putting the bike back on the car.

Overall, the Häme Lake Uplands area is nice region to ride and the available map designed for hikers andother outdoors user is a great resourse. The roads away from a couple of highways, that I only crossed, are almost deserted. I reckon only around a dozen cars went past me all day. At this time of year in particular though, it is rather lonely – even though there are national parks with the related infrastructure you might expect, everything was closed. I found one cafe in the post office in Porras open, where I had a lovely chat with the ladies picking up their parcels and having coffee (I suspect and Englishman on a bike speaking very bad Finnish might have been one of the more novel events of their day), but beyond that I went past no open shop, cafe or similar. Make sure you have enough food with you. There are also large numbers of abandoned and decaying buildings in the area, barns and old farm houses like this are quite normal in rural Finland, but the empty petrol station and shops (see photos above) had an unnerving feeling of looking a bit too much like a scene from "The Walking Dead".

Of course you can camp pretty much anywhere, but I pushed on to get to a laavu I used last year – knowing it was great spot and has a fireplace, wood and a compost loo. But because of the hiking, riding, canoeing and cycling routes around that area there are quite a few similar laavus around.

I had new tyres for the trip, SchwalbeMarathon Plus Tours. I was still using my original Marathon Pluses through this summer on that bike. They came on my last bike and have been absolutely superb. I must have done at least 10,000 kms over five years on them and have never had a puncture but they're showing their age with the sidewalls beginning to crack and the tread must be wearing somewhat even if it doesn't look like it. I've ridden a few cyclocross races this autumn and using my light CX tyres and have had a puncture in one race then a double puncture in the next – all pinch flats from hitting rocks and having the tyres blown up firm doesn't seem to help. Hence deciding to try the Marathon Plus Tours – the same hopefully bombproof construction as the normal Marathon Plus, but with a bit of tread that seemed more suited for gravel roads and forest tracks of Finland. On this trip they were great – the grip felt great, even on Sunday morning riding back on snow. The only downer is that with those very meat tyres plus mudguards on, the bike felt bloody heavy. I'm not sure if serious CXers would want to race on them, although for me if they didn't puncture it would offset any slowness caused by their weight. For touring like this though they seem perfect, hopefully I'll get 10,000 trouble free kilometres out of this pair.

For cold weather bikepacking you need a bit more gear just to keep warm. I used the same set up as in September with my new Alpkit bikepacking bags and lashed-on dry bags but also took a waist pack; just that bit more capacity than I needed in summer. One of those bigger things for winter is the excellent Jöttnar Fjörm down jacket that I'm reviewing for UKClimbing currently. It's very warm and a nice “insurance” layer to have, obviously designed as an belay jacket for ice climbing but works great for any cold weather camping. It was stuffed with my sleeping bag in the dry bag that goes under saddle. This is fine when riding, but I need a number of straps to hold it in place which makes getting things out of the bag a hassle if you're not stopping for long. The obvious if a bit expensive solution to this is to buy one of Alpkit'sKoala seat packs, meaning retrieving a jacket from the seat pack would be easy, but I'm not convinced the Koala packs would fit as much as my current arrangement despite supposedly being the same size as my current dry bag I use there. Nevertheless, I know from winter climbing that your belay jacket HAS to be easy to reach because otherwise there is the temptation not to use it with the inevitable downwards circle into shivering. I guess with cold weather bike touring the situation is not dissimilar so I need to work this one out.
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