Saturday, 23 March 2019

On Sgor Gaoith: snowshoes and clouds

Snowfields leading to Sgor Gaoith

Last week's heavy snowfall has been followed by rapid warming and a big thaw as this erratic winter continues. All the low level snow has gone and the hills are streaked with brown. I decided to see just how much snow was left with a walk up Sgor Gaoith from Glen Feshie.
 
At the car park beside the Allt Ruadh I was surprised and disappinted to see a sign from the Forestry Commission saying 'No Overnight Parking'. I've left my car here many times when wild camping high in the hills. I'll continue to do so.

View over the forests to cloud-enshrouded Creag Meagaidh

The first part of the walk through the fine old pines of the Inshriach Nature Reserve is lovely. As the path climbs through the magnificent forest there are glimpses of the rushing waters of the Allt Ruadh far below. Gradually the trees start to thin and the views open out. Ahead the hills were brown with little sign of snow except for patches near the tops. Looking back over Glen Feshie and Strathspey I could see the Monadh Liath and Creag Meagaidh hills, splashed with white. There was still snow up there.

I'd brought snowshoes, suspecting that any remaining snow would be soft and unsupportive and make walking difficult. I was beginning to wonder if I'd be carrying them all day when I met the only other person I saw all day coming down. We chatted briefly and she told me she hadn't been all the way to the summit because the snow was knee deep and walking just too arduous. "You'll need those", she said, indicating my snowshoes. I felt reassured though plodding up the muddy path I still wasn't really sure I'd need them.

Cornices on the eastern edge of Sgor Gaoith

Only when I reached the broad summit ridge that runs above the deep trench of Gleann Einich did I encounter extensive snowfields. A few steps showed me that the snowshoes would indeed be valuable. The snow was horrible to walk on, or rather in. It was thick and wet and very slippery. My feet either skidded off or sank in deeply. I donned the snowshoes and I could walk easily. They really are a boon in conditions like this and I'm surprised that more walkers don't use them. They're on my feet more often than crampons. I do prefer skis but only when there's enough snow that I'm going to be using them most of the time as they're awkward to carry and the boots aren't comfortable to walk in.

View to the Moine Mhor

The snow reached almost to the summit of Sgor Gaoith. Leaving the snowshoes I walked the last few steps to the top and gazed at the always impressive view. Usually though it's the great bulk of Braeriach rising above the dark waters of Loch Einich that dominates the scene. Today that wasn't so. The flanks of Braeriach were mostly snow-free and the mountain seemed strangely subdued and reclusive. Instead my eye was drawn to the corniced edge of the Sgor Gaoith ridge leading out to the snowy expanse of the Moine Mhor. I'd certainly have wanted snowshoes or skis if crossing that vast plateau. But today I was turning away and descending.

Loch Einich


Not wanting to leave the heights very quickly I made a slow descent along the Meall Buidhe - Geal Charn ridge before dropping down rough, boggy slopes to join the Allt Ruadh path just as it reached the first trees. Mostly the ridge was bare of snow but there was one large expanse where I used the snowshoes again.


The day had been cloudy - interesting clouds in different shapes but covering the whole sky. Then on Meall Buidhe the sun, close to setting, shone hazily under the clouds over Loch Morlich to Meall a'Bhuachaille. The illuminated hills were purple, the shaded ones brown and black, a series of ridges all the way to the horizon. There were only tiny touches of snow on these hills.

The River Spey flood plain.

The sunshine didn't last and grey skies soon dominated again. But as I neared the first trees there was just enough brightness to light the River Spey surrounded by flooded meadows. Then it was down through the dark forest and the walk was over. It's one I've done many times before but it's never the same. There is always something new to see. Light, snow, clouds, water, rocks, nature. Ever-changing. Ever-fascinating.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

On the 100th aniversary of the death of Sir Hugh Munro

Braeriach & Ben Macdui

One hundred years ago on the 19th March 1919 Sir Hugh Munro died. His name lives on in the Scottish mountains over 3,000 feet high. Back in 1891 he compiled a list of these for the Scottish Mountaineering Club, a list ever since known as Munro's Tables. Despite the introduction of decimal measurements many decades ago - even the Tables now give the hills in metres - the romance of Sir Hugh's list has carried forward with hundreds of hillwalkers setting out to complete all 282 Munros (something Munro himself never achieved - he had two left when he died).


The Munro Society has an exhibition called The Munro Legacy at the AK Bell Library in Perth until May 18, after which it will be touring round Scotland. I went to see this last week and it's excellent (disclaimer, I may be biased as I do have a small mention in it!).

The exhibition tells ' the story of Sir Hugh’s life, the birth of the Tables, the growth of completers, the pioneers, the working class movement, the post war years, recent times and, of course, the Munro Society. Other subjects included are developments impacting on our hills, youth on our hills and Munros and wild land.'

On display are many historic items including Sir Hugh’s aneroid barometer, the ice axe used by the first Munroist, the Rev A. E. Robertson, and a copy of the original Munro’s Tables.










In honour of Sir Hugh many hillwalkers have been posting their favourite Munros. I've been asked a few times and always say Ben Macdui. Actually though it's impossible to really say, there are so many magnificent ones. Here are a dozen of my favourites.
 
Buachaille Etive Mor

Liathach

Ladhar Bheinn

Ben Nevis
Sgurr a'Mhaim

An Teallach

Bidein nam Bian

Braeriach
Ben Macdui

The Inaccessible Pinnacle

Sgurr nan Gillean

Cairn Toul

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Ten Lightweight Packs for Long-Distance Walking

The ULA Catalyst on the Yosemite Valley to Death Valley walk

With the long-distance walking season approaching I’ve gathered together reviews of the best ten lightweight packs I’ve used in recent years. These reviews first appeared in The Great Outdoors. I’ve edited them for this post.

I’ve set 1.5kg as the maximum weight, regardless of capacity, plus a minimum volume to weight ratio of 20. The latter is the volume in litres per 500 grams of weight. The bigger the number the lighter the pack for the capacity.

I’m happy to recommend all these packs. Which is best depends on how well they fit, the weight and bulk you’ll be carrying, and the features you like.


Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60               935 grams                              £280



Capacity                             60 litres, including pockets             
Materials                            100 & 200D Robic nylon        
Closures                              fold-over lid    
Compartments                    1        
Back                                  wire frame, removable foam pad
Sizes                                  3
Hipbelt                               padded, stiffened   
Pockets                             stretch mesh front, 3 side, zipped top, 2 zipped hipbelt, inner
                                         hydration sleeve
Features                            ice axe trekking pole loops, multiple attachment points
Volume to weight ratio         32
Max. recommended load     16kg

With a big capacity and a supportive harness  the Mariposa is suitable for loads up to 16kg.  For trips where many days food has to be carried or you have extra gear for severe weather or other reason (camera stuff in my case) the extra space and comfort is welcome. 

The support comes from a U-shaped wire frame that locks into the wide, stiffened, and well-padded hipbelt.  This provides excellent weight transfer to the belt. There’s also a thick foam backpad with an eggbox shape to reduce condensation. This pad fits into two stretch mesh sleeves and is easy to remove and replace when the pack is full making it an excellent sitmat. The shoulder straps are quite wide and firm too. 

The Mariposa has an unusual combined roll-top and buckled lid. It took me a little while to get used to this but once it was familiar I really liked it. The zipped pocket on the lid holds a surprising amount. The other pockets hold everything you might need during the day. I like having a long pocket on one side – it’s big enough for a tarp or light solo tent - and two smaller ones on the other. There are plenty of attachment points for other gear including loops for compression cords and D rings on the harness for clipping on items like sunglasses. 

The pack is made from two different weights of Robic nylon and should last well.

With loads of 10-15kg I’ve found the Mariposa comfortable and stable.  I used it on the GR5 Trail Through the Alps and it was fine even with a few more kilos than this.


Six Moons Design Fusion 50        1.2kg     £200  


Capacity                                   50 litres
Materials                                  420/210 nylon Robic
Closures                                   rollover top with two buckles
Compartments                          one
Back                                        adjustable, framesheet with single stay
Sizes                                       2 shoulder yoke, 3 hipbelt
Hipbelt                                     padded, stiffened, detachable
Pockets                                   stretch front, 2 stretch side, 2 hipbelt
Features                                  side straps, lower straps, ice axe loops
Volume to weight ratio               27      

Unlike most lightweight packs no limit is given for the maximum weight the Fusion 50 can handle. Instead Six Moon Designs says it will ‘comfortably carry whatever the pack will hold’, a bold claim. To this end the Fusion 50 has a back system with a tapered framesheet with a central metal strut. This transfers the weight well to the hipbelt, which I think is key to the carrying comfort. This hipbelt is stiff and wide and very supportive, being more like those found on bigger, heavier packs than most lightweight ones. On a TGO Challenge crossing of the Scottish Highlands I carried 15-18kg and the Fusion 50 handled it well, my hips and shoulders never feeling sore. The pack proved very stable on rough ground too. 

The Fusion 50 is made from  Robic, which is said to be even tougher than Dyneema. The pack design is good for organising gear as it has six pockets. It’s wider at the top than the base too, making it easier to find stuff and keeping the weight higher in the pack, which is better for comfort and stability. On the TGO Challenge I just managed to get all my gear inside plus five days food.  (Then it was called the Fusion 65. Now that names is given to a bigger version). 

As it is the Fusion 50 is one of the best lightweight packs around, especially if you sometimes carry more than 15kg.
    

Mountain Laurel Designs Exodus 55L    $235  


Capacity                                55 litres
Materials                               Dyneema
Closures                                rollover top with three buckles & stud fastening
Compartments                       one
Back                                     plain
Sizes                                     3
Hipbelt                                  padded
Pockets                                mesh front, two mesh side
Features                               side straps, ice axe loops, base volume adjusters, front shockcord
Volume to weight ratio            35        

The Exodus really is an ultralight pack, at 510 grams for the basic model (there are optional add-ons), as it has no frame or back padding. I used it for filming Terry Abraham’s Backpacking In The Lake District With Chris Townsend DVD and it was fine with loads up to 11kg, the maximum recommended by Mountain Laurel Designs.  The pack has roomy pockets, a roll-top that fastens with studs and buckles, and plenty of attachment points for the provided shockcord. Optional hipbelt pockets and a lid are available – these are well worth having.

The pack is only available direct from Mountain Laurel Designs in the USA. If you want a comfortable ultralight pack for loads up to around 12kg it’s an excellent choice.

          

Lightwave Ultrahike 60      1.23kg      £179   


Capacity                            60 litres
Materials                           420d Dynatech nylon/300d micro-ripstop polyester               
Closures                            lid with 2 buckles                
Compartments                   one              
Back                                 pre-curved 7001-T6 aluminium frame/moulded foam                
Sizes                                 2                 
Hipbelt                              padded, stiffened                
Pockets                            1 lid, 2 side stretch mesh                
Features                            taped/welded seams, side shockcord compression, two ice 
                                         axe/trekking pole loops         
Volume to weight ratio         24                 

The Ultrahike has a more traditional look than many lightweight packs due to the standard style lid, the lack of a front pocket and the material, which doesn’t have the grid look of Dyneema or Robic. Lightwave says it’s suitable for loads of 12-15kg, with 30kg as a maximum. I’ve found it handles a little over 20kg quite well. I used it on my Scottish Watershed walk when I sometimes carried over a week’s supplies and it was always comfortable. The stiffened hipbelt is wide and quite thick. The curved frame is rigid vertically but allows sideways twisting, making for good stability.

The Watershed walk showed that the pack is tough with little wear visible at the finish. As parts of that walk were very wet I found the sealed seams very useful. Very little rain ever got in the pack even though the seams between the body and the back panel aren’t sealed. With just small mesh side pockets and a lid pocket the design is fairly minimalist with most of your gear going in the roomy main compartment. The volume was more than adequate for the summer Watershed walk and I can fit everything inside for a two-night winter trip. As 60 litre packs go this is one of the bigger ones!



Osprey Exos 58      1.2kg   £150  


Capacity                        58 litres
Materials                        high-tenacity nylon       
Closures                        detachable lid with two buckles         
Compartments               one         
Back                             curved aluminium hoop, tensioned-mesh panel         
Sizes                            three         
Hipbelt                          mesh, padded          
Pockets                        external & internal lid, 2 stretch mesh side, 1 stretch mesh front, 2
                                    hipbelt, internal hydration          
Features                        top flap for use without lid, trekking pole attachment, side straps, base
                                    strap, ice axe loop          
Volume to weight ratio     24           


The Exos 58 is unusual for a lightweight pack in having an airspace behind the frame and a mesh backband against your back. This makes for excellent ventilation of course and Osprey has enhanced this with open mesh over perforated foam for the shoulder straps and hipbelt. If you hate getting sweaty this pack will keep you drier than most others. The rigid frame transfers the weight to the hipbelt well. The latter is quite thick but not stiffened and the foam is quite soft. It supports loads up to 15kg okay though, which is fine for a pack this size.

I’ve found the Exos 58 comfortable to carry but not quite as stable as a close-fitting pack. I prefer a body-hugging pack but for most backpacking this design shouldn’t be a problem. Only if you’re going scrambling or mountaineering might it be significant.

The Exos 58 is a pack for those who like multiple features but don’t want the weight that usually goes with them. Eight pockets and numerous attachment points make the pack very versatile. The lid can be removed if not needed. There’s a flap with buckles underneath to cover the load. Base straps can be used for a foam pad. Osprey call them sleeping bag straps but that’s not somewhere I’d want to carry my bag. The fabric  seems quite tough though probably not as durable as Dyneema or Robic.




ULA Catalyst                  1.4kg             £320   




Capacity                           75 litres inc. pockets
Materials                           210 Robic/Cordura/210 Ripstop 
Closures                           rolltop with three buckles       
Compartments                   one       
Back                                 framesheet with twin alloy bars, foam pad  
Sizes                                four back length, five hipbelt   
Hipbelt                              padded  
Pockets                            2 side pockets, 1 front mesh pocket, 2 hipbelt pockets, internal
                                        hydration, internal zipped 
Features                           front shock cord, side straps, 2 ice axe/trekking pole loops, water
                                        bottle holders, handloops
Volume to weight ratio       27                       

I’ve had a Catalyst for over 15 years. I used the original model on quite a few long walks including the GR20 in Corsica (a good test for stability) and the TGO Challenge and always found it very comfortable. I used the current version on my Yosemite Valley to Death Valley walk. The pack is made from Robic, which feels a little stiffer and more solid than the Dyneema of the earlier version. The mesh on the pockets feels tougher too and should resist abrasion and tearing better (there are several holes in the mesh on my original Catalyst).

The key to the comfortable carry of the Catalyst lies in the fairly stiff back and the wide, well-padded hipbelt. Together they are very supportive and easily handle 18kg loads (the maximum recommended by ULA). The pack is very stable too, as I found in Corsica.

ULA says the volume is 75 litres. This includes all the pockets and the extension collar however. The main compartment is more like 50 litres (ULA says 42 but I think that’s an underestimate). The pockets are very roomy though and I found the Catalyst suitable for a winter trip in the Cairngorms with fairly bulky gear.

The Catalyst is quite expensive compared to alternatives but it is one of the toughest packs tested and should last well.



Nigor Zero G          1.1kg                  £195 



Capacity                          53 litres
Materials                         Dyneema/nylon ripstop      
Closures                          lid with two buckles       
Compartments                 one      
Back                               padded, wire frame     
Sizes                               2      
Hipbelt                            padded      
Pockets                          external & internal lid, 1 zipped front, 2 stretch mesh side, 2 hipbelt,
                                      internal hydration
Features                         lid & base volume reduction clips, side compression straps, 2 ice axe
                                      loops     
Volume to weight ratio      24                         


The Zero G has a stiff frame and a thick padded hipbelt. The stiff frame transfers the weight to the hipbelt and I’ve found the pack fine with 15kg. It’s close-fitting but not too sweaty as there’s a thick mesh covering the foam back pad that allows some airflow. Stability is excellent.

Rather than a mesh pocket the Zero G has a huge zipped pocket on the rear. This pocket does have drain holes but wet items won’t dry as well as in a mesh pocket. Against that they are better protected. As with any rear pocket I wouldn’t put heavy gear in it as this could pull the pack away from the body making it less comfortable and less stable. I suspect there’s more temptation to put heavier gear in an enclosed zipped pocket than in a mesh one as it looks stronger and more secure. The angled side mesh pockets are roomy enough for litre size water bottles and can be accessed when wearing the pack. The hipbelt pockets are roomy two and have two compartments.

When I tested the original Zero G I had one small complaint, which was that the lid flopped down if the pack wasn’t full and the strap buckles were set so high on the pack that tightening them was impossible. This has been remedied on the current model and the buckles are much lower down.

The capacity is said to be 53 litres for the Large size I tested. I reckon that’s just the main compartment with the pockets adding at least another 5. This is quite a roomy pack.



Berghaus Lite Hike 45             925 grams                                            £95


 
Capacity                               45 litres              
Materials                              Robic nylon        
Closures                               roll top       
Compartments                      1        
Back                                    alloy frame, mesh/foam backpad
Sizes                                   1
Hipbelt                                 mesh/foam  
Pockets                               1 stretch mesh front, 4 stretch mesh side, 1 stretch hipbelt, 1
                                           zipped hipbelt, 2 stretch mesh shoulder strap, 1 zipped inner
Features                              twin ice axe/trekking pole loops, twin front/side straps, daisy chain
                                           loops
Volume to weight ratio           24  


Berghaus’s first ultralight backpacking pack is functional and comfortable and the price is surprisingly low. It has a wire frame that runs across the top and down the sides of the back and helps transfer weight to the hipbelt. The latter is quite wide though the padding isn’t very thick. There’s a thick back pad in a sleeve with space behind it for a hydration bladder. This foam pad can be removed but it’s not that easy to replace it, especially when the pack is full, so it’s not something to do regularly. The shoulder straps are wider than usual to help spread the load. The back, hipbelt and shoulder straps are covered with an open mesh to minimise condensation build-up. There’s only one back length, 51.5cms, which is a little short for me.

The pack design is excellent. There’s no lid, just a roll top with clip buckles. Inside the main compartment there’s a detachable zipped pocket for valuables and small items. Other than that, it’s just one big compartment. Outside there are enough pockets to hold everything you might need between camps so there’s no need to open the pack during the day. The stretch pockets are all roomy – a wet tent can be carried in the front one. Berghaus gives the capacity of 45 litres. With all the pockets I’d say it was closer to 55-60 litres. There are plenty of attachment points for more gear too, including compression straps that run right round the sides and front , daisy chain loops, and loops for ice axes and trekking poles.

Berghaus doesn’t give a suggested weight limit for the Lite Hike. I found that with 10kg in the suspension system started to sag and the pack didn’t feel as comfortable, so I reckon that’s the absolute maximum. With 8kg it feels fine.


ULA CDT                                   735 grams                                              £170



Capacity                             54 litres              
Materials                             210 Robic nylon        
Closures                              drawcord sleeve    
Compartments                     1        
Back                                   removable foam pad    
Sizes                                  4
Hipbelt                                padded    
Pockets                              front stretch mesh, 2 adjustable side, 2 zipped hipbelt, inner zipped stash,
                                          hydration sleeve
Features                             side compression straps, ice axe/trekking pole loops, hand loops, 
                                          water bottle holsters
Volume to weight ratio          37
Max. recommended load      8.2kg

The CDT is astonishingly light even for an ultralight pack. Partly that’s because it doesn’t have a frame, just a padded back, partly it’s the simple design, and partly it’s because it’s not quite as big as it might seem. The main pack has a capacity of 34 litres. The 54 litres is when you add on all the pockets. Overall, I’d say it’s a little smaller than the Berghaus Fast Hike. For the loads it’s designed to carry, up to 8kg, the size is fine. It’s made from a tough thick Robic nylon that should prove really durable.

The removable foam back pad is inside the pack and so not one to remove while the pack is loaded. In camp it can be taken out and used as a sitmat as it’s easy to replace. Whilst it helps stop hard objects poking you in the back gear needs to be packed with care or uncomfortable lumps can form. I found using my sleeping pad as extra back cushioning makes packing easier. The pack shouldn’t be jammed tight either or it can form an uncomfortable barrel shape. The hipbelt and shoulder straps aren’t very thick, but they are quite firm and support the load well. They’re covered with mesh for sweat control but the back of the pack is nylon, so a damp back is unavoidable on warm days.

Closure is via a simple drawcord sleeve with a strap over it.  It’s wise to fold the sleeve over a little when it’s wet or rain can enter. The pockets are roomy and can carry all you need during the day. The side ones don’t stretch but have drawcords so they can be pulled in tight around the contents. The huge front pocket easily holds a tent.

Carefully packed, the CDT handles 8kg fine.


Osprey Levity 45         760 grams                     £220   



Capacity                               45 litres          
Materials                              NanoFly UHMWPE Ripstop x 100D HT Nylon, 30D Siliconised 
                                            Nylon       
Closures                               lid with twin buckles     
Compartments                      1         
Back                                    wire frame, tensioned mesh backband
Sizes                                   3
Hipbelt                                 mesh/foam    
Pockets                               1 outer lid, 1 bellows front, 2 side, inner hydration          
Features                              side compression cords, daisychain loops
Volume to weight ratio           29.5

  
The Levity 45 is in many ways an astonishing design. Ultralight packs at this weight and less have been around for a while but they usually have fairly simple back systems, often with no frame or padding. However the Levity has a curved frame and a tensioned mesh backband, not something I’ve seen in a pack anywhere near this light before.  The frame is quite stiff and supportive too. The shoulder straps are well-padded but the hipbelt is quite thin and the wide sections don’t come far round the hips. I found the pack comfortable with loads up to 10kg. Above that and the weight started to press uncomfortably on my hips. 

The weight of the pack is kept down by the fabrics and the components. The main part of the pack is made from silicone nylon that’s so thin that it’s translucent. This is protected by the pockets and the lid which are made from thicker fabric and which wrap around much of the pack. These pockets are quite roomy but they don’t stretch. The lid has a roomy pocket too. It’s fixed in place and only just covers the pack when it’s really full.

For ultralight backpacking the Levity is a good pack.