Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Bikepacking around the Peak District

Since moving to Sheffield nearly a year ago I’ve been getting out into the Peak District and beyond quite a lot, but this has been mainly focused on climbing. I’ve ridden a lot for commuting during the week, keeping my cycling legs ‘in’ that way, but have had few opportunities for riding for pleasure. So now having finished my course, and having some time, I decided to get out and explore the Peak by bike. I didn’t want to ride on roads but I sold my trusty old mountain bike as part of our massive ‘life-streamlining’ before we moved from Helsinki. Hence I was going to need to find a route that I could do on my cyclocross bike as besides my roadie, that was the tool to hand.

On the trail in the White Peak.

Cromford Mill - first sparks
 of the industrial revolution.
There is definite sweet spot for off-road riding on a cyclocross bike (CX). Too smooth and you might as well be road biking on a lighter, faster bike. Too rocky and technical and it just feels like your teeth are going to rattle out of your head and you just want a mountain bike with suspension. In England and Wales the law helps define that sweet spot though; bikes have no right of way on footpaths, you are only allowed to ride on bridleways. In many parts of the country, bridleways are often farm tracks – they can be rough or muddy but in rural areas they usually are drivable for a Landrover or a tractor and the determined CX rider. The route I took followed bridleways throughout, so I was fully 'legal', although much of it made use of more modern cycle routes using old, dismantled railways lines - thanks to the brilliant Sustrans organisation that is creating a network of long distance routes across the UK for non-motorised traffic.

I started south of Chesterfield in the town of Clay Cross - my wife had to go that way for work that morning so it got me quickly away from Sheffield and towards some unfamiliar terrain. After the first 15 kms or so on quiet country lanes I dropped down into the Derwent valley just south of Matlock. Crossing the river and the Cromford Canal at High Peak Junction you get onto the High Peak Trail, and old railway line and now a national cycle route. You generally think of railways as being flat or nearly so, which makes dismantled ones such great cycle routes, but this is not the case here! The 19th century engineers needed to include massive inclines to get the railway up out of the river valley. Static locomotives were used to help trains haul or lower their loads up or down these inclines. They are not so steep as to be impossible to ride, but they are quite unlike road climbs for the cyclist: arrow straight and of a completely consistent angle, there is really nowhere to hide and no brief easings of angle as you toil up them.

Above the inclines.
On to the Pennine Bridleway.
The inclines take you up above the Matlock valley where you can see numerous quarries, abandoned and still working, and factories and their chimneys - again both empty and still in use. It is a lovely, verdant valley but it set a theme that is ever present in the Peak District: although now a rural area of great beauty, there are signs of past industry everywhere. It's strange but as the economy has changed so much in the post-war period, large parts of Britain have in effect been "re-wilded", or at least "re-ruralfied". Places which were once alive with the industry of both workers and their capitalist bosses; places of production, social conflict and social progress have slipped back into being rural backwaters where once again agriculture is the main industry. It is now the turn of people in the Far East and the Global South to go through those huge social and economic changes that took place in the valleys of the Peak District 18th and 19th centuries.

Once out into the open countryside of the Southern Peak, the High Peak trail allows rapid smooth riding westwards through limestone country. Limestone is not my favourite rock for climbing on, but it does mean wonderful wild flowers. The cuttings and banks of the railway line were alive with yellows, blues, pinks, purples and more, and buzzing with insect life. Occasionally I could see beautiful Common Orchids growing. The wildlife might not be as exciting as you might see in Finland, but the odd deer, rabbit and voles came into view and hovering kestrels were ever present. The High Peak trail above the inclines also includes the starting point of the Pennine Bridleway - a newish long distance path that will take the mountain biker or horse rider all the way to Scotland if they wish, roughly paralleling its older and better known sibling, the Pennine Way. I would follow the Pennine Bridleway until lunch time on the second day, when I would swing back east towards Sheffield on the Trans-Pennine Trail.

When the High Peak Trail merges with the Tissington Trail at Parsley Hay station, it swings northwards. The station is now a bike hire place, National Park info office and cafe - the coffee and chocolate tiffin is to be recommended.

New and old industry
above Cheedale.
Perhaps 10 kms north of Parsley Hay the disused railway meets still used rails, so just before this the trail, now solely the Pennine Bridleway, leaves the cuttings and embankments of the ex-railway and follows quiet lanes and farm tracks before dropping dramatically (read: really quite exciting on CX) into the amazing limestone gorge of Cheedale. Cheedale is again a place of old industry now going backwards to rural backwater. That industry left another old railway route through tunnels and over bridges down the gorge, which now makes the lovely bike and walking route, the Monsal Trail. Modernity now comes to Cheedale in the form of some of the hardest sports climbs in the UK on the various limestone walls. But the my route just crossed the Monsal Trail and the river, going north straight up and out of the dale via a beautiful but very steep meadow - the first place I had needed to get off and push.

North of Cheedale was some of what felt like the least travelled parts of the route that I followed. For a few kms the trail felt more like a footpath than bridleway but, on the other hand, despite needing to crash through vegetation nearly choking the path in places (fortunately not too many nettles!) it gave some really good singletrack riding in places.

The limestone gorge of Cheedale.
There is a trail there somewhere!

First push, out of Cheedale.
Traversing Mount Famine.
The Peak District is made up of two quite distinct visible geologies - the White Peak, the limestone predominantly in the south, and the Dark Peak, the gritstone to the north. By now with the afternoon pressing on, the route followed quiet lanes and started to climb towards the dark bulk of the Kinder plateau. At some point a line is crossed and the drystone walls are now made of the brown grit and not the white and greys of limestone. Crossing the high road between Chapel-en-le-Frith and Castleton marks a sudden change in the feel of the trail; the next section that traverses the western flanks of Kinder at over 400 mtrs of height is really mountain-bike country.

I didn't have a mountain bike, although I like to think I impressed the the passing MTBers with my doggedness (they were probably laughing at... not with...!). The Pennine Bridleway is an impressive path at this point but it is tough technical riding in parts as you traverse towards the wonderfully named Mount Famine, a spur coming down from Kinder. I pushed more here than anywhere else on the ride, but I guess I still managed to ride 70 percent of this section. The descent down into the village of Hayfield was excellent fun, although I suspect would have been even more fun with wide bars, hydraulic brakes and 140 mms of suspension up front!
Into the Dark Peak, tough going on the flanks of Kinder.
Looking back to Hayfield and Mount Famine.
Hayfield is lovely, I had a pie and pint in the pub, stocked up on supplies from a shop and left the town following the trail very steeply up onto Lantern Pike. Once the local boisterously good-natured Scout troop that had hiked up there left, I was all alone at the top so it seemed as good a spot as any to quietly put up my tarp and camp for the night. The views of the sun setting over Manchester to the west and lighting up the slopes of Kinder to the east were exactly the type of thing that makes wild camping worth it, even in a country where it is not exactly legal.

Evening light on Kinder, with Kinder Downfall just visible.
Sunset over Manchester and the Irish Sea.
Breakfast in bed.
I woke up in wee small hours hearing rain on the tarp, but I stayed dry and warm under it and the morning dawned blue and cloudless. Following the Pennine Bridleway over some more hills and then plunging down towards Glossop was good riding. In Glossop, I finally left that route when it is crossed by the Trans-Pennine Trail (TPT). This long distance route goes from the Irish sea near Liverpool to North Sea at Hull, but I was about to follow it to its highest point as I crossed back from the west to the eastside of the Pennines. The route up Longdendale follows old railway track again so its very straight and smooth. The path leaves the old track where the rails used to go into the now closed Woodhead tunnel. The TPT instead crosses the busy A628 (it is busy with lots of big trucks - take care!) and goes steeply up a hillside (more pushing) before following a rough bridleway up to the top of pass. The Woodhead Pass is high and quite wild in a way, but definitely not "wilderness": a busy road goes over it, Longdendale has big pylons carrying electricity cables that then go under the pass using the old railway tunnel. There are also reservoirs and dams in the valley bottom. But looking up to the cloughs and crags on the northern edge of Bleaklow you can see the wild country.

Getting going on day 2. 
Rough tracks giving slower but fun riding.
Looking toward Manchester - I can see my old uni!
Across the Woodhead pass and back in Yorkshire, the TPT plunges down into the Upper Don Valley and picks up the old railway line where it emerges from the eastern end of the Woodhead Tunnels. It’s then old railway - flat, straight and fast -through Pennistone, Deepcar and taking you almost all the way back into Sheffield. Once back in city centre there just one more steep hill to slog up and I was home in time to go and pick the kids up from school.

Climbing out of Longdendale - the Woodhead tunnel is somewhere deep below my tyres.
Traffic jam on the Trans-Pennine Way.
Back into Yorkshire, all downhill now.
Overall I did 151 kms in two days, of which probably only 25 kms was on paved road, arriving home sweaty, dirty and (perhaps unusually for Northern England) dry but slightly sunburnt.

Snapshot from Strava showing the route and profile - day 1:

Snapshot from Strava showing the route and profile - day 2:


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.
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