Sunday, 15 July 2018

Classic Gear:Lowe Alpine Expedition Pack

The original 1967 Expedition Pack

Last year I wrote a series of pieces on classic outdoor gear for The Great Outdoors. Over the next few months I'll post them here. Thr first one is about a pack that changed how we carry big loads.

Fifty years ago a new company launched its first product - an innovative pack that would revolutionise load carrying. The company was LoweAlpine, the product was the first pack with an internal frame. It was called simply the Expedition Pack and it came about when American climber Greg Lowe wanted a pack that would carry heavy loads and be stable enough for technical climbing so that he and his uncle could undertake long walk-ins to remote areas of the Teton range, part of the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming, and do alpine-style ascents. Back then in 1967 packs were either external frame ones that were great for hiking with big loads but awkward and unstable for climbing or frameless rucksacks that were stable but too small and too uncomfortable for heavy loads. 

Original Parallux back system
To combine the load carrying properties of external frame packs with the stability of frameless rucksacks Greg Lowe came up with a frame that fitted into the back of the pack. This was stiff enough to transfer the weight to the hipbelt whilst still being flexible and body-hugging enough for stability when climbing. To further improve the stability he added side compression straps, hip and shoulder stabiliser straps, and a sternum strap – all new features that are now standard ones. This design is still the basis of most internal frame packs today.

The back system involved two parallel aluminium staves in sleeves on the back of the pack that could flex and move with the body. This was called the Parallux System. The original version wasn’t adjustable, that came in 1977 followed by the Advanced Parallux System (APS) in 1993.
In the late 1970s Lowe Alpine pioneered women’s fit packs with the ND series. Originally this stood for Nanda Devi, the highest mountain in the Indian Himalaya and a Hindu goddess. Now Lowe says it stands for Narrower Dimensions to reflect the difference in design – a functional rather than romantic name. I know which I prefer!

As it was aimed at mountaineers rather than walkers it was a while before the internal frame pack was accepted as ideal for backpacking as well as climbing. By the 1990s though it had become the dominant design, with many variations from other companies as well as further developments from Lowe Alpine, all based on Greg Lowe’s original design. I think it’s fair to say that it’s one of the most important and significant developments in the history of backpacking and outdoor gear. 

A later version of the Expedition
In the 1980s and 90s I used Lowe Alpine packs with the Parallax back system regularly, including on a two-week trip in the steep and rocky confines of the Grand Canyon where a pack that balanced well was essential. Lowe Alpine also branched out from mountaineering packs as it realised the versatility of the internal frame. I still have and regularly use a 1980s Kinnikinnick travel pack with the Parallax back system. It’s proved amazingly tough and looks like it’ll never wear out.

Lowe Alpine has for many years made a wide range of packs in all sizes. The backpacking and expedition models clearly show their descent from the Expedition Pack that started it all.  The company has had several owners since the Lowe family sold it in 1988 but the line back to the original pack has never been broken. Today Lowe Alpine is British-owned and part of the Equip Outdoor Technologies group.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

A Sad, Damaged Landscape

The heather moorland landscape I walked through on the walk described in my last post typified what is happening in much of the Eastern Highlands (and also the Southern Uplands). I hadn’t visited this area before, but I suspected it would be similar ones in terms of environmentally damaging developments and, sadly, it was.

Lower down there are positive developments with large fenced areas for forest renewal, achieved by a mix of regeneration and planting. The track through the trees was new and wide however and showed signs of heavy vehicle use. It continued above the forest, climbing into the hills all the way to the skyline. Soon I could see a big digger high above. Around me the boggy moor showed many signs of management for grouse shooting – burned areas, old shooting butts, drainage ditches, Fenn traps over every burn.

I passed the digger and reached a junction with a No Entry sign and an arrow and the letters SSE. I was to see several more of these during the day. I guess the signs are for the Tom nan Clach windfarm, which is under construction not far to the north, and is to keep heavy vehicles off the estate tracks. At one point the new and old tracks paralleled each other for quite a way. The old estate tracks have blended in a little. The news ones may do so but they are better constructed and drained and dug deeper into the peat, so I suspect they won’t. 

On reaching the broad ridge I came on a sand and gravel quarry, presumably providing material for the new tracks. 

I was in the mist now and the sound of machinery soon faded as I headed for the summit of Carn Glas-choire. For a short while I could imagine I was somewhere relatively unspoilt. Then I reached the top. Just beyond the trig point was a new fence, with construction materials littering the ground and the cairn. I’m not sure what this fence is for as it’s not high enough to keep out deer. The base is folded flat on the ground to stop creatures getting under it. I’ve seen this used to keep rabbits out down in the glens but up here?

On the descent I soon came on another mix of old and new tracks. Dropping down a big corrie I saw many more Fenn traps on logs over streams. These are legal if set properly (this is a good piece on these traps and their requirements). I don’t like traps of any sort that maim and kill any creatures though and seeing them is always dispiriting. That there are so many of these here shows the estate is really keen to protect grouse to the detriment of other wildlife. 

Over-managed grouse moors, traps for wildlife, bulldozed roads, wind farms – a typical estate in the Eastern Highlands. I won’t be back.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

The Rain Returns: A Wet And Misty Hill Walk

One of the few views of the hills 

Rain, soft and gentle, falling in a fine mist. The hills hidden in grey cloud. The dusty ground darkening, yellowing vegetation glistening with moisture, rich earthy smells emanating from the ground (the last has the wonderful name petrichor). An unusual start to the day after weeks of hot, dry weather.

Having just completed a batch of work I’d planned on a day in the hills regardless of the weather. I had thought of lower ones to avoid too much exhausting ascent in the heat. Seeing the low clouds, I now thought of lower ones in the hope of staying below the mist.

Despite having lived in this part of the Highlands for nearly thirty years there are still smaller hills I haven’t explored, ones always left for another day. This was to be that day for at least one of them. Carn Glas-choire (hill of the green corrie) is on the Dava Moor not far from Carrbridge. At 659 metres high it’s classified as a ‘Graham’  - a Scottish hill between 2000 feet (609.6 metres) and 2500 feet (762 metres). Whatever its place in a list it’s the highest hill for quite a distance in any direction and said to have extensive views of the coast and the Cairngorms. Whether I’d see anything on this day was another matter.

This is heather moorland country with grouse shooting as a major activity, along, these days, with wind farm construction. Much of the day I was on tracks built for one or other of these activities. I’ll put up another post about the effects on the hills. This one’s about the rain, the walking, and the wildlife.

A new forest emerges

Initially I walked through regenerating and recently planted forest, mostly Scots Pine, with some birches and rowan. This was heartening. There are deer fences, but trees are growing either side of them and the only deer I saw all day was inside a fenced area. For a while I looked down on an attractive winding valley with a rushing burn, little crags and scattered trees.

How did you get in there?

Above the trees and away from the tracks the ground was a mix of heather, deep peat hags, and stony ground with sparse vegetation. There were masses of cloudberries, more than I can remember seeing anywhere else, the fruit a bright red, along with the bright yellow spikes of bog asphodel in the wetter areas. I saw many mountain hares speeding across the ground, well-camouflaged in their darker summer coat. One that loomed up on the skyline in the mist looked deer size!


I put up several families of red grouse, the chicks scuttling off in every direction. High up golden plover piped loudly, the only sound other than the rain lightly pattering on my jacket. Meadow pipits fluttered in the heather and it was probably a flock of these I saw mobbing a cuckoo. On the lower moorland wheatears perched on stones then flashed the white rumps that give them their name – it comes from ‘white arse’ - as they flew off.

Despite the relatively low height of the hills I was in the mist long before I reached the summit of Carn Glas-choire. Away from the tracks I had to concentrate on navigation as the terrain is fairly featureless though there are some little crags and many rock outcrops. Visibility was very poor, even close-up views hazy in the falling rain and drifting cloud. 

On the summit

The rain was never heavy, barely more than drizzle, but it was constant and penetrating. There was no wind and I wasn’t really conscious of feeling wet as I was warm. I didn’t bother with waterproofs, feeling I’d be too hot. When I got back to the car I found I was soaked to the skin. It really had been a wet day.

Whilst I hope it doesn’t last the rest of the summer the rain is welcome. It’ll damp down the high fire risk, freshen fading vegetation, and eventually refill rivers and lochs, which are very low. On this trip I walked over dry peat bogs that are probably usually quagmires. It was easier to walk on the black peat and follow its channels than on the heather tussocks above. That’s not usual. But then, it’s not been a usual summer.