Friday 29 December 2017

Favourite New Outdoor Gear 2017

Lightwave s20 Sigma tent

After another year of testing gear for The Great Outdoors here are my favourite items of 2017. As in previous years they don't necessarily replace old favourites and they're in no particular order.

Berghaus Ramche 2.0 Down Jacket

This is one of the warmest down jackets for the weight I've tried and easily adequate for the Scottish winter. The weight, size L, is just 473 grams. The design is good too with an excellent snug hood, useful pockets, and a longer length than many insulated jackets. The down is hydrophobic and the thin outer fabric windproof and tough.

Pacerpole Dual Lock System

Pacerpoles have been my favourite poles for many, many years as I find the shaped handles so comfortable and efficient. However I'd always wished for ones with external locks rather than internal twist ones as the latter can jam and slip. This year my wish came true with the Dual Lock poles. These are three-section carbon-fibre poles with an external lock on the top section and a locking pin for the lower sections. This means the length can easily be adjusted and I've found myself doing so more often than with the older design. At 590 grams they are slightly heavier than the carbon-fibre twist-lock Pacerpoles but I think the extra weight is worth it.

MSR Lightning Trail Snowshoes

Whilst I love ski touring I also appreciate snowshoes in deep soft snow and conditions where the snow is patchy and skis would have to keep coming off. The latter was common in the Cairngorms last winter so these MSR snowshoes got plenty of use. At 1.63kg they're quite light for snowshoes, especially ones this tough and supportive. The bindings are easy to use with different boots. The frame is serrated underneath so it bites into hard snow and ice. There are heel lifts too for support on steep ascents. Overall I enjoyed using these snowshoes so much I was reluctant to go back to skis!

Rab Paradox Pull-On

This is an unusual garment, as the name suggests. It's a synthetic insulated top, filled with Polartec Alpha, but unlike other such tops it doesn't have a windproof shell. Instead the soft flexible outer is knitted polyester. And inside it's polyester mesh. The result is a very breathable top that makes an excellent midlayer and which is surprisingly warm for the weight (366 grams for the Large size). With no features bar a long front zip the Paradox Pull-On is essentially a hi-tech sweater. I find it very comfortable.

Berghaus Hyper 100 Extrem Waterproof Jacket

A three-layer waterproof jacket with a membrane and extremely high breathability that only weights 100 grams sounds like every long distance hiker's dream. With the Hyper 100 it's a reality. This minimalist jacket weighs just 106 grams in the Large size and packs down to the size of an apple. There are no pockets and a basic hood but at this weight that's acceptable. It's not a jacket for regular wear or day walking but when weight really matters it's the one to choose.

Mountain Equipment Firelite Sleeping Bag

Weighing 760 grams and rated to -9C the Firelite is one of the lightest bags for the warmth Mountain Equipment has ever made. It has an ultralight thin shell, 469 grams of 800+ fill power down, elasticated top seams, and a long side zip. I find it very comfortable and it's kept me warm at -8C wearing just thin base layer top and bottoms.

Rab Kinetic Plus Jacket
Rab calls this 'a super lightweight stretch softshell with high levels of breathability and waterproofing'. Functionally it's a soft, flexible, comfortable waterproof jacket with excellent breathability. It's no warmer than other waterproof jackets of similar weight so it's not a softshell that adds a bit of warmth or which can be worn as a midlayer. As a light three-season waterproof  - the Large size weighs 298 grams - it's very good.

Paramo Bentu Windproof Jacket

I wear a windproof jacket more than any other garment. Ultralight minimalist ones are fine in summer but for much of the year I prefer something a bit more substantial and with more features. The Bentu jacket fits this exactly. It has an excellent wired hood, large chest pockets and a long length. The fabric is thicker than on many windproofs too. The Medium size weighs 425 grams, which is not too heavy to carry in the pack. The hood and shoulders are lined with the same Pump Liner fabric used in Paramo waterproofs so the Bentu is more waterproof than most windproofs. Combined with the Bentu fleece it performs just like a Paramo waterproof. This combination is too warm for me outside of winter weather however.

PHD Waferlite Down Jacket

 If any item astonished me this year it was this jacket. It weighs 131 grams - less than many base layers - yet is filled with down and as warm as a heavyweight fleece. To keep the weight down there are minimal features - no hood, no pockets - and an ultralight shell. The down is 1000+ fill power, which is as high as you can get. At this weight and tiny pack size (about that of a grapefruit) there's no reason to ever leave the Waferlite behind.

Lightwave s20 Sigma Tent 

Single-skin tents with sewn-in groundsheets and good storm protection generally suffer from bad condensation in humid conditions. That's not the case with the s20 Sigma which is made from a new fabric containing activated carbon that attracts moisture and absorbs so the surface feels dry. I've used the tent on several really wet nights with all doors closed and the walls have never felt wet. The design is a two pole dome with an extra transverse pole at one end. It's roomy - two could sleep in it - and stable. The weight is 1.72 grams.

Gregory Paragon 68 Pack

Packs that will handle 25kg loads comfortably usually weigh upwards of 2kg. The Patagon 68 is only 1.83kg and is comfortable with that weight. Both the thickly padded firm hipbelt and shoulder harness can be adjusted for length and the frame is supportive and helps transfer weight to the hips. The grippy lumbar is good for keeping the pack in place. There are plenty of roomy pockets including a big stretchy front one that will take a wet tent. A good heavy load carrier that's quite light.

Primus PrimeTech Stove Set 1.3L

Primus's remote canister heat exchanger stoves have been favourites of mine for many years, especially for winter camping and snow melting as they burn hot and are very fuel efficient. The PrimeTech Stove Set is the best version yet, with an integrated burner and windscreen for fast, easy setup and a low profile. The unit comes with two 1.3 litre pots, a strainer lid, a locking pot grip, Piezo lighter and storage bag/pot cosy. The total weight is 883 grams.

Arc'teryx Bora 63 Pack

For really heavy loads (20kg+) this is a superb pack with some interesting features, especially the hipbelt. This rotates from side to side and slides up and down as you walk, meaning it moves with you, which is very comfortable. The shoulder straps can be adjusted up and down and side to side for a precise fit too and there is a really supportive rigid framesheet. The pack bag has ample pockets including a big front one. The weight is high at 2.365kg but for heavy loads this is one comfortable pack.

Petzl Actik Headlamp

This little headlamp replaces my long-time favourite, the Petzl Tikka XP. As it has better battery life and a brighter regulated beam I'm happy with this change. It's easy to use and runs off AAA batteries.

Altra Lone Peak 3.5 Mesh Trail Shoes

Last year I tried my first Altra shoes, the Lone Peak 2.0, and really liked them as the wide toebox fitted me well. This year I've been using the Lone Peak 3.5 which I like even more as the sole unit is harder wearing. Currently these would be my choice for my next long-distance walk.

Hilleberg Niak Tent

This simple two-hoop dome tent proved stable in strong winds and is very roomy with good headroom. Hilleberg say it's a three-season tent. I reckon it's fine for all but heavy snowfall. It'll sleep two and it weighs 1.775kg. As usual with Hilleberg the quality is superb.

Granite Gear Crown 2 60 Pack

For loads up to 15kg the Crown 2 60 is an excellent pack with a weight of just 1.125kg. The frame is supportive and the hipbelt comfortable - the padded sections can be altered in length to fit your hips. There are plenty of pockets. A great choice for lightweight backpacking.

Friday 22 December 2017

Wild Camps of 2017

Glen Feshie, February

This year there have been no long walks but many short trips with some wonderful nights out in spectacular places. Here are my favourite photos of these, starting with the one when I wasn't in a tent.

Igloo in Coire Laogh Mor, Cairngorms, February

Glen Feshie, February

On the Cairngorm Plateau, March

On the Cairngorm Plateau, March

Creag Meagaidh, May

The Lairig Ghru, Cairngorms, May

Below Carn Etchachan & the Shelter Stone Crag, Cairngorms, June

On Beinn a'Bhuird, Cairngorms, July

Beside the Beanaidh Bheag, Braeriach, Cairngorms, September

Beside the Allt a'Chaorainn below Beinn Charorainn, Glen Spean, September

Creag nan Gall, Cairngorms, October

Wednesday 20 December 2017

The Thirlmere Zipwires - just what are National Parks for?

Zipwires over Thirlmere in the Lake District? When I first heard about this proposal I was taken aback. Surely no-one could propose such a thing in the heart of a national park. Well, they have. And it’s causing a big fuss, as it should.

Before looking at the proposal itself I think it’s worthwhile reminding ourselves of the aims and purposes of national parks. These are laid out clearly on Here are some quotes from this document: 

      The Environment Act 1995 …. set out two statutory purposes for national parks in England and Wales:

 1. Conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage 
       2. Promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of national  
     parks by the public

National Parks are protected areas. A protected area is a location which has a clear boundary. It has people and laws that make sure nature and wildlife are protected and that people can continue to benefit from nature without destroying it.

Sandford Principle

"Where irreconcilable conflicts exist between conservation and public enjoyment, then conservation interest should take priority"

This principle was updated in the 1995 Environment Act, to say;

"If it appears that there is a conflict between those purposes, [the National Park Authority] shall attach greater weight to the purpose of conserving and enhancing the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the area"

This is quite clear. I think it’s also quite clear that zipwires over Thirlmere should not be allowed under these terms. Conservation should always take priority. 

Thirlmere is a reservoir with many dense conifer woods on its shores. It’s a man-made lake, the woods are a man-made forest. Does this matter, does this mean any development goes? No. In fact rather the opposite. Areas like this can become wilder (see Wild Ennerdale for an example). Water and trees are natural. They’re not concrete, steel or plastic. Remember the words above, the first purpose of a national park – ‘conserve and enhance’, not ‘damage and degrade’. 

In fact little if any of the Lake District landscape is truly wild. It’s all been influenced and modified by human activity. Few though would argue that it’s not an area of natural beauty. I can’t say I know Thirlmere well but I have looked down on it from neighbouring hills and what I see are woods and water, a peaceful Lake District scene.

Proposing zipwires for Thirlmere is also grimly ironic because it was here that the British conservation movement that eventually led to the creation of national parks had its genesis. The Thirlmere Defence Association, set up to campaign against the proposed reservoir in the 1870s, was the first stirring of organised opposition to destructive developments in areas like the Lake District, opposition that led to the creation of the National Trust and Friends of the Lake District. 

Opposition to the zipwires is growing. Friends of the Lake District and The Wainwright Society have both come out against the proposal. My friend noted film maker Terry Abraham in a bold, brave move resigned publicly as an ambassador for the Lake District Foundation at its relaunch due to the neutral stance of this ‘conservation charity’ to the zipwires. You can read his views here

One thing I should make clear is that I have nothing against zipwires as such. I’m not personally interested in them but if people find them fun that’s fine. It’s the location that matters not the actual nature of the development. There should be nothing done at Thirlmere that doesn’t enhance the natural beauty. And roads, car parks, zipwires and noise certainly won’t do this.

If you agree the zipwires should not go ahead you can write and object on the National Park website. Objections have to be submitted by January 2nd. There’s also a petition on 38 Degrees and you could support Zip Off, which has regular updates on the campaign against the zipwires.

Update: Roger Smith has written an excellent piece for The Great Outdoors here.  The British Mountaineering Council has also objected to the scheme.And now the Council for National Parks has done so too.

Update 2: The opposition mountains up. The National Trust has now objected to the scheme, as has the actor Caroline Quinn. Report on Grough. Also the date for objections has been moved to January 12.

Monday 18 December 2017

The Great Outdoors January issue - 2017 Awards, 'Mountain' film review, socks and gloves tested

The January issue of The Great Outdoors announces the winners of the 2017 Awards and has details of all the finalists. I was one of five judges for the Gear Awards and I can tell you the process was rigorous and the results decided after much debate and analysis.

Also in this issue I review Mountain, an excellent new film, and test fifteen pairs of socks (I had a different one on each foot for many weeks!) and three pairs of gloves (and yes, different ones on each hand) plus an Arc'teryx waterproof jacket.

Elsewhere in this issue Hannah Lindon interviews Zac Poulton, the latest member of the Lake District's Fell Top Assessors team and Roger Smith looks at the confusion around very popular places such as the Fairy Pools on Skye. Jim Perrin has a more intense than planned winter ascent of Beinn a'Chaorainn while David Lintern has an equally exciting winter traverse of the South Glen Shiel Ridge. There's more winter mountaineering thrills in Snowdonia where Dan Aspel tackles the little-known Llech Ddu Spur on Carnedd Dafydd. Life is a bit calmer in England where Ronald Turnbull chases waterfalls and Wordsworths in the wintry Yorkshire Dales, Ed Byrne tries his hand at dry stone walling, and Roger Butler has a frosty walk around Dovedale in the Peak District.

The Great Outdoors Guide is about preparing for the winter hills with information on gear, food, using ice axe and crampons, night walking, navigation, conditions and weather.

Sunday 17 December 2017

Scottish Avalanche Information Service begins

Avalanche debris in the Drumochter hills

This weekend the Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) began daily reports for the 2017/18 winter season. Covering six areas - Lochaber, Glencoe, Northern Cairngorms, Southern Cairngorms, Creag Meagaidh, and Torridon - these reports give detailed avalanche warnings and snow information. There are also blogs for each area that give more informal information about conditions on the ground.

An avalanche in the Lairig Ghru, Cairngorms

I've never been involved in an avalanche in Scotland though I have seen plenty of avalanche debris and have altered my plans to take account of avalanche danger. Many years ago I triggered an avalanche when leading a ski tour in Arctic Norway. I still remember seeing a crack spread across the slope from under my skis and the snow starting to slide. Luckily I was able to move uphill - rapidly! - and stay above the avalanche. This occurred during a storm and visibility was minimal. We were unable to find a safe way down to the hut in the valley below and ended up building snow shelters and squeezing into the emergency tents we were carrying. That night the skies cleared and the temperature fell to -25C. Able to see a safe icy way down we were in the hut for breakfast.

Many avalanches occur in the Highlands every year. Most don't involve people but some do and they can be fatal or result in serious injuries. Checking the avalanche forecast before heading out and planning accordingly is always sensible . Noting conditions while out is necessary too. Snow and weather can change rapidly. SAIS has good advice on this here.

As well as the avalanche forecast I also always check the weather forecast - two weather forecasts in fact.  The Mountain Weather Information Service (MWIS) and the Met Office Mountain Weather Forecast.

Avalanches are not the only hazard in snowy hills of course. Cornices need watching out for - don't go too near the edge - and good navigation skills in poor visibility are essential. 

Don't go too near the edge! On Sgor Gaoith.

By The River

Walking by rivers can be exhilarating, terrifying, tense, soothing. It all depends on the mood of the water and the mood of the walker. A few weeks ago during a big thaw the River Spey was wild and angry, full of surging snowmelt, overflowing its banks, submerging tree roots, crashing over rocks. I walked beside the water overawed by its power. The river seemed out of control, unpredictable, dangerous. 

Yesterday as the big freeze continued the river was in a completely different mood. Dark, sombre, deep, somehow sinister and calm at the same time. Black water swirled slowly against snowy banks. Distant hills shone white in bursts of sunshine. Reflections of trees shimmered in the glassy surface. Beside it I felt calm but also alert and observant. There was a feeling of waiting. For what? Anything, nothing. Whatever would happen next.

The flooding snowmelt river was bereft of bird life. Nothing moved on or above the tumultuous water. The river of the freeze was alive with life. Mallards paddled in the shallows by the banks. A pair of goosanders flew low over the water, long necks and bills outstretched, while a solitary female, her reddish-brown head distinct against the much darker river, bobbed on the slight swell. Another long-necked bird, black and cumbersome, flapped upstream. A cormorant. Rounding a bend I came on six more, floating in midstream. Five took off at my approach, skimming heavily away. The sixth remained, alone, slowly turning in the flow.

Three times I put up herons, watching them slowly and heavily fly along the banks before settling again in the shallows. On some snow-covered ice on the edge of a quiet pool out of the main flow I found the tracks of their large feet.

As I watched the constantly changing almost hypnotic complex patterns of the river a small dark dumpy-looking bird suddenly bobbed up, floated for a few seconds, then disappeared under the water again. A dabchick (as I learnt to call them many years ago, more formally a little grebe), the first I’ve seen on the Spey.

Other than the occasional splash of wings on water these birds were silent. The only sound was the crunch of my shoes in the snow. In the background there was the hum of traffic on the main road that lay not far away but I was able to fade this out, it only impinging on my hearing when a particularly noisy vehicle whined and roared.

Then a harsh cry rang out across the river, repeated again and again. I looked up from the water. A crow sat atop a birch tree, cawing loudly, before flying off to disappear into the woods, still calling.

Returning through the woods via an icy set of steps I admired the delicate tracery of snow, ice and frost on the birches, very temporary beauty that would be gone at the first touch of wind, or sun, or rising temperatures.

Tuesday 12 December 2017

In the frozen forest

A slight thaw and then a hard frost and the soft, deep, unconsolidated snow has packed down, losing some of its sparkle and becoming crunchy underfoot.

A walk in the local woods was magical with the frost and refrozen snow clinging to branches and twigs, sometimes bowing the trees down. On the ground a network of tracks - fox, rabbit, red squirrel, roe deer, pheasant - showed that the forest creatures had been out despite the bitter cold, seeking for essential food.

There was no sign of any animal or bird as we crunched through the snow, our loud steps warning of our presence. Some of the tracks were fresh though, the makers probably just around a corner or watching from deep in the trees. When we stopped to look at the frozen trees the silence was intense. Absolute quiet.

As light began to fade we turned for home, heading for warmth and brightness, a blazing fire and a hot drink. Out in the woods the animals and birds would be trying to survive through another freezing night.

Monday 11 December 2017

A Perfect Snowy Winter Day

View across lower Coire Ruadh

As the storms moved south and the weather in the Highlands calmed down I went up into the hills to see what the last blast of winter weather had brought. The roads were icy and the drive to Glen Feshie slow but there was compensation in the winter landscape, especially the trees heavy with snow.

From the upper glen I climbed the path towards Coire Ruadh, snowshoes on from the car. The air was cold - the car thermometer said -8C - but still and as the snow deepened and progress became more strenuous I discarded hat, gloves and finally jacket. Above the sky was a deep alpine blue and the sun shone, though no heat could be felt.

Not wanting to stay in the shaded glen when there was sunshine high above I changed my original plan of heading up the corrie and then returning over the tops. I wanted to be up there now. This last minute change led to a slower and more difficult ascent though and I didn't get as far as I'd hoped. Not that this mattered on such a glorious day. Just being here was enough.

As I neared the top of the pine forest a pair of grouse flew low and fast through the trees soon followed by two more. They made no sound. Black grouse maybe. Red grouse are usually noisy. Soon I could see where they'd been walking through the snow and the wing marks in the snow where they'd taken flight. There were mountain hare tracks too and I saw two of these, barely visible when stationary so good is their camouflage. My snowshoes were making rather larger impressions than hare or grouse in the soft white landscape and I felt clumsy and ponderous as I watched a hare dart across the snow.

High above faint wild cries broke the silence. As they grew louder I gazed upwards. A skein of geese, black and white against the deep blue sky. Their sound that of nature and wildness and beauty.

From a high col I turned south-east towards Geal Charn, now regarded as a subsidiary Top of Sgor Gaoith though it was listed as a separate mountain in the original Munro's Tables. This was my poor route choice. The recent storm had come from the north-west, the strong winds dumping snow on southern and eastern slopes. On northern and western slopes the snow was much thinner and here on Geal Charn's stony steep north-west face that meant many rocks poking through the snow with thick heather between them. Every hollow and dip was evened out by the snow filling them in. Sometimes I was scraping my snowshoes on rocks, sometimes sinking through unconsolidated powder into the heather below. Looking at my phone later it gave my average speed as 1.1mph. I could believe it. On the ascent it was nowhere near that.

The summit of Geal Charn

The arduous climb was worthwhile though. I reached the summit as the low sun lit up the bigger hills to the east, the snows glowing pink. Up here a faint breeze, barely noticeable, crept across the snow. With a temperature of -8C it was enough to chill me and hat and gloves were soon back on along with a down jacket as I replenished my energy with flapjack, chocolate and hot ginger cordial. With only a few hours of daylight left I decided this summit was enough. The glorious day required no more. I would go down.

A mix of tracks - boots, skis, crampons - led away from the summit and down into Coire Ruadh. I followed these and found deeper more consistent snow that I could plunge straight down on my snowshoes, ramming their tails down hard. I should have come up this way.

The sun sank in the west and a distant line of peaks were silhouetted against a red sky. The corrie and the woods below were shadowed now, cold and hard. As the last light faded I reached the first trees and finished the day walking by headlamp in their dark shadows.