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.