Tuesday, August 04, 2015

The Stanage VS Challenge - a two thirds-successful attempt.

Me, climbing sideways on "Rubber Band", route 9 of 24.
Yes, I know, technically speaking being two thirds successful is still a failure, but lets try to take an optimistic view on life eh? So here's what happens when myself and my mate Tony had a go at the Stanage VS Challenge.

I've spent a fair bit of time at Stanage over the last year; I was always a bit sniffy about gritstone previously. Not that there is anything particularly wrong with it, but there are lots of British (well, English) climbers who don't seem to see much past it. Grit climbing is great, but if you start your climbing in a non-gritty area of the UK, you can see there are lots of other types of British rock and British climbing. Yet, for Sheffield residents it IS just very convenient. 20, 25 minutes in the car and you have thousands of routes, at all grades, many with real historical resonance too. And so I've been going lots, and as a result getting lots of routes climbed. Of all the grit crags, Stanage is the most impressive. It is so popular and well known, it's almost a cliche; but when you stand on the top of cliffs at "Popular End" and watching the edge sweep away northwards - about 6 kms, not unbroken but pretty consistent cliffs along that stretch - it really is one of the most impressive sights in England. But it is not the Alps though, or the high mountains of the Norwegian Arctic. Few of Stanage's rock climbs reach 20 mtrs in height. If you want to have a BIG day out climbing, you are going to have to climb a LOT of routes. 

Stanage Popular End, on a nicer afternoon.
I'm not quite sure why Tony and I decided we should do something challenging in an endurance way like this. Tony's finger is recuperating, stopping him from hard sport climbing currently but he is still very 'climbing fit' as long as he doesn't have to crimp hard. I had read about the VS Challenge since moving to Sheffield and having done a number of the routes involved, fancied my chances. John Roberts, whose blog post seems to be the modern spark for this silly idea, has set the rules: all the routes on Stanage that get the grade VS (Very Severe) and have stars. Stars, normally *, ** or *** are given in guidebooks to denote quality of climbs, three being the best. The grade VS, despite sounding, well, very severe is actually very much a 'mid grade' these days. Most keen climbers will get to climb VS with experience and practice, even if they don't train at a climbing wall or have much natural ability. Many young climbers climb VS very quickly and progress well past it. Nevertheless it retains some historical cache, as "serious" grade for "serious" climbers and VS climbs on gritstone can often be quite brutal or physical, even if you don't need seriously strong finger strength to do them. One quirk of the challenge is it is based on the 1989 Stanage guidebook - there are probably more starred VSs in the newest guidebooks BUT there are a few "sandbags" (routes harder than their given grade) in the 1989 list, so you need to be willing to climb a bit harder than your normal VSs to do the challenge. The rules also state no soloing, all climbs are to be led or seconded by a team. This seems very sensible, soloing with tired arms is not a great idea.

Route 13, Mississippi Buttress Direct
We arrived at Stanage at 7 am, first car in the often full car park. We were climbing within 10 or 15 minutes. We decided to start at Popular End thinking we would do those routes early and avoid any queues. The first climb is Heather Wall, which is one of the first routes I did at Stanage sometime back in the 90s. Easy. Tony led the first five routes, then I did a block of five leads. I'm not sure if its true, but this is deemed to be quicker than alternate leads. The first routes where I seconded flew past, but we also cocked up - I had marked up the guidebook making easy to see on each page which route we needed to do, but in my haste I didn't look carefully enough at the topo-photo for Narrow Buttress and we shot up one climb only to realise we had done the wrong line. Tony quickly rectified this and blasted up the real Narrow Buttress, but it wasted probably 15 or 20 minutes. 

Route 14, Louisiana Rib
I took over the leading at Central Trinity, a route I've done before once or twice and really like. Solid hand jams, easy to place mid-sized cams. Bang - done. Bring Tony up. Hargreaves’s was next, a route I had led nearly 15 years ago on one of my last days in England before moving to Helsinki and starting that phase of life. It was a bit more delicate than I remembered, but perhaps I'm just more of a wuss now. Inverted V - another one I had done back in 1999, the year I started my PhD in Manchester - feeling like half a lifetime away. Ellis's Eliminate was my first onsight of the day (a route I hadn't climbed before). Not much for your feet on the traverse but solid if slightly odd horizontal hand-jamming. The next route is Rubber Band, again onsight for both of us and yet more weird horizontal jamming. Tony’s next block of leads included the first “mystery route” – Via Roof Route. It isn’t in my Rockfax guide and the description in the BMC guide is a bit confusing. The lower slab is very technical, Tony did a great job balancing up it on the lead with no gear in. It was spitting rain by the time Tony led Hell Crack (route 15) and then I took over to do the tricky Stepladder Crack (route 16). The next route was the Nose, which I found hard work and a bit scary – I’m glad to have done it, but didn’t enjoy the process. As we walked to the next route, The Punk, it started chucking it down. We pulled on waterproofs and hid under the big roof that the Punk traverses. Psyche was low for me at this point but it was a good excuse for a rest, food and coffee. The rain stopped, but more grey clouds were racing across from the Kinder Plateau. The strong winds did mean the rock dried very quickly though. After the pause, I led the Punk. Yet more bizarre sideways jamming and not much for you feet. I had to fight more than I would expect to on a VS and came worryingly close to falling at one point. 17 routes in, my shoulders and arms were starting to tire noticeably; I tried leading the next route – Cleft Wall Superdirect but thought the overhanging traverse with little for your feet felt desperate. I lowered off, my first failure of the day, and Tony blasted up it. But even seconding, I still think the moves are too hard to be VS. It’s sister route Cleft Wall was next. It is meant to be harder than its sister at 5b, but I think is actually the easier of the two.

Stanage on a nicer afternoon, a couple of weeks ago.
First rain, hiding under "the Punk"
Moving down to the Plantation area Tony put in a sterling effort on Wall Buttress (route 21), a bit of beast with some offwidth action in the middle. With more rain falling I then led Paradise Wall. In the rain and needing to places lots of runners in case I slipped off the sopping and polished holds, it didn’t feel much like paradise. The rain eased off for a bit as Tony seconded, so I carried on and sent Pegasus Wall and Valhalla, two VSs I haven’t done before. As we walked down from Valhalla the rain started again and soon it was bucketing down: water trickling down the cliff faces and soon the ground had streamlets running down it. We ran for one of the big trees below the cliff for some cover, but even under its canopy the rain was still dripping through. The edge itself disappeared into low cloud. We had our rain jackets on but we were both quickly soaked to the skins on our lower halves, water squelching out of my trainers as I walked! We waited half-heartedly for a bit, hoping it might clear, but looking across the Hope Valley there was no let up in the grey clouds racing towards us. The decision was made, soaking harness were taken off and packed with the rest of the soggy gear and we walked down to the road and back along to the car.

Tony, the offwidth master, taming Wall Buttress, Route 21.
Soggy climber bailing
Postmortem: quitting at 24 routes in at 17.30 suggested we would have been doing the last couple of climbs by head torch, but if it hadn’t rained earlier and we hadn’t done one route by mistake we might have been on schedule though to finish in the light. Tony wants to try again later in the summer, so an earlier start seems obvious. I was pretty tired after 24 routes. I’m not sure how I would have fared on another 12 but Tony was still going full gas. He does train though, so there is probably a lesson in there for me! I’ve climbed (and also hiked) far more metres in a day on alpine routes like Sydpillaren, but the climbing on routes like that is so much less sustained. If you really are a VS climber, i.e. VS is the best grade you can reliably onsight, then I think the Stanage VS Challenge might be too hard for you. That’s definitely how I felt. I’ve only onsighted one grade harder this year, a handful of HVSs and I have never led E1 on natural grit. So 24 routes just below my limit was a lot, I don’t think Tony ever felt he was likely to fall off, but I felt that a number of times towards the end. If we do it again he might need to lead a few more of the final ones!

Fancy giving it a go? The list of routes is here on UKClimbing.

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.