Monday, 13 March 2023

Thoughts On When To Replace Plastic Ski Boots (And On Checking Gear)

My Nordic skiing gear is pretty ancient, the newest items dating from over twenty years ago, the oldest from nearly forty. It’s also been well-used. How long should it last? At what point would anything become unsafe?

Now before any trip I do give gear a quick once-over to check it’s okay and there’s no damage or anything missing like tent pegs. Items like crampons I check more closely. I’d rather not have them fail on an icy slope. A fleece jacket with a hole or two (I have several) is hardly a problem. A broken crampon strap would be a different matter.

But ski gear? How crucial is that? It depends, I guess, on where and when it’s being used. I’ve skied in remote places abroad where the snow was so deep that walking was very difficult and slow. A broken ski could have meant a very long exhausting multi-day trek. In the UK hills such deep snow is rare and distances are much shorter. Walking out is always possible. The biggest risk here is boot failure.

I thought about this after reading a piece sent me by an outdoor writing acquaintance describing a recent ski tour in deep snow and stormy weather on which the sole fell off one of his boots and had to be roughly kept in place with duct tape. He had companions to help out by carrying his pack and supplying repair items. Solo it would have been really difficult and probably hazardous.

Now you can’t always tell when boots are going to fail but careful examination can show potential problems. After reading about the boot sole delamination I checked my ski boots very carefully. I have two pairs, one leather, one plastic. The first are thirty years old and still in good condition with the welt-sewn soles firmly in place. The second are just over twenty years old and also look fine – at a glance. A close examination reveals cracks – some are just visible in the picture above. Now in leather these wouldn’t be a problem, but plastic can fail and fall apart. Looking at advice on various ski sites online I found that plastic ski boots should last for 150-200 days use or 6-7 years, whichever comes first. My boots have had well over 200 days use and are three times that age. I’m probably lucky they haven’t fallen apart out in the hills.

After reading about how long they should last and noting the cracks in the plastic I decided it was wise to retire the boots, which is how I ended up with mismatched skis and boots on the ski tour described in my last post

The plastic boots in use in 2009 with the skis doing duty as tent pegs

My leather ski boots are basically heavy-duty walking boots with a sole that fits Nordic ski bindings. I bought them in the early 1990s when I was leading ski tours, mostly in Norway. I used them with fairly narrow Nordic touring skis and the combination worked well on undulating terrain. Steep downhills could be difficult but there weren’t many of those on the trips I was doing. I still have several pairs of the narrow skis but all are battered and in poor condition. I use them for skiing in the local woods and fields where it would only be a short walk home if they failed but I wouldn’t trust them for longer trips high in the hills.

My only decent skis are a wider pair, described as light telemark ones, that need a stiffer boot with good ankle support to turn them easily. The leather boots don’t fit this description as I found on the descent on the recent trip. Trying to force the boots to turn the skis led to sore feet and ankles and a few clumsy turns plus one fall before I resorted to long traverses and kick turns done while stationary. I admit my lack of ski fitness and rusty skills probably didn’t help but I knew in advance these were the wrong boots for the skis. But as the combination was all I had in half-decent condition I used them. This isn’t a setup I want to use again though. I’ll have to get some new boots.

I’ll look for something between the leather and plastic ones. I’d like some that are stiffer and more suitable for the skis than the first but more comfortable and easier to walk in than the second.

In the plastic boots on Ben Macdui in 2012

Despite all the years I used them I never really liked the plastic boots. For downhill control they are great. For the rest of the time they are heavy and uncomfortable. For walking they’re diabolical, so bad in fact that I took to carrying them to the snow rather than wearing them. 

I can feel affectionate towards some gear, especially if it’s been on many trips and brings back good memories. Not these boots though. I’m happy to never wear them again.



Saturday, 11 March 2023

A Day On Skis In The Cairngorms

In recent years I haven’t been out in the mountains on skis very often. Mostly I’ve used snowshoes as the snow cover has been patchy. Unless I’m going to be on skis almost the whole time I’d rather not bother with them. I don’t like carrying them and I don’t like repeatedly taking them on and off or having to take a convoluted route linking snow patches. Snowshoes are so much easier to carry and anyway you can walk across snow free ground, snow with stones poking through, and even streams without taking them off.

View across Glenmore to Meall a'Bhuachaille

This last week has seen complete snow cover in the Cairngorms though so I thought it was worth taking out the skis. It really was too even though I had mismatched skis and boots (the latter too light and flexible for the former) for reasons I’ll go into in another post those uninterested in ski gear can ignore.

The air was crisp and cold, the sky blue, the sun shining. Perfect conditions. Visually anyway. The snow was hard work, especially on the lower slopes, as it was unconsolidated with a soft crust. My skis broke through constantly, the tips sometimes catching in the heather below the snow. Progress was slow. 

Walking would have been much tougher though, as I could see from the deep trenches left by those on foot. I saw several parties of half a dozen or more ploughing single file through the snow. At least they could take it in turn breaking trail.

I didn’t mind the effort involved. I was on skis and climbing into the mountains on a day with brilliant views. Lower down there was a cool breeze but I was warm enough with the exertion involved in pushing upwards through the snow.

Higher up the wind was stronger and bitterly cold. Spindrift blew across the snow and thickening clouds made for flat light. To see the terrain more clearly and for more face protection I swapped my dark glasses for snow goggles. For warmth I donned a light insulated jacket under my shell jacket, something I can’t remember having to do for a very long time. It really was extremely cold.

Beinn Mheadhoin

I found a sheltered spot behind the boulders of a little top not worthy of a name on the map but with a spot height of 1028 metres. Here I could pause and watch the light and shade delineating the complex folds of Beinn Mheadhoin and the white ridges of distant Ben Avon. Glorious views, glorious mountains.

Ben Avon

The ascent having taken longer than expected and fearing the descent would too I went no further. The slopes back down were not difficult to ski, being broad and fairly even, and the soft snow was ideal. My rusty skills, along with the mismatched skis and boots, were not however and I made a rather slow ungainly descent, though I did only fall over once, sinking deep enough into the snow I had to remove my pack before I could extricate myself. I was enjoying myself though. 


Tuesday, 7 March 2023

Countryfile Going to Extremes on BBC iPlayer with my five minutes!

The Countryfile episode I wrote about in this post is now available on BBC iPlayer.  I think the whole episode is worth watching (other than the now out-of-date weather forecast). My five minutes during which I wander across some rotten snow, talk about the Cairngorms, and camp out in wind and rain starts at 32minutes 22 seconds.

Saturday, 4 March 2023

Above the Clouds in the Cairngorms

Late February saw the start of the first prolonged period of high pressure this winter. The strong winds of recent weeks died away, the temperatures dropped, the hills froze. A night out in the snow called.

On the ascent I was surprised at the amount of fresh snow high up. I’d expected less. Drifting in the wind meant in places it was soft and deep while in others it had been blown away and only thin icy old snow remained from earlier falls. None of the latter were quite extensive enough for crampons though I did consider donning them a few times. Mostly I could boulder hop the iciest sections. 

The rocks and boulders were decorated with forst and snow patterns, fingers of white splayed across the warm brown granite. 

Having left fairly late the western sky was darkening and turning orange as I reached the summit of Cairn Gorm, the sun a searing white ball about to set over the frozen mountains.

The light fading and the cold increasing I dropped down to a shallow corrie and found a flat spot for camp. The snow here was quite thin and I was able to shovel most of it away and pitch on almost clear ground. I left the tent door wide open so I could lie and gaze at the stars and the moon.

I woke to see a band of orange on the eastern horizon above a sea of cloud filling the flatlands beyond the mountains. The temperature was -5.5°C but I was warm in my down sleeping bag and jacket and soon had hot coffee. There was a trickle of water in the nearby stream, just enough to fill my bottles. Knowing the water would freeze overnight I’d filled my pot before going to sleep. Sure enough it was solid ice but after a few minutes on the stove it had turned to boiling water.

As the sun appeared and the light strengthened I wandered along the edge of the deep Loch Avon basin gazing down at the dark water, edged and patched with ice, and across to snowy hills. To the east the cloud was rising and slowly winding up Glen Avon.

The sun was high by the time I returned to camp for more coffee and a slow packing up. It was not a day to hurry. The first other people appeared, two skiers descending a wide strip of unbroken snow. I reckoned they must have carried their skis a fair way.

I ambled up to the crest of Stob Coire an t-Sneachda to see a vast sea of cloud filling Glenmore and Strathspey.  Up here the sun was strong, the views stretching out endlessly. Down there the air would be grey and the world enclosed. Looking back I could see the mist much closer now. Maybe here would be enveloped soon.

But not yet. Back on the summit of Cairn Gorm the sun was bright. I shared the summit with others enjoying the views, the alpine blue sky, the mountain majesty, the grandness of the Cairngorms.

That mist was still creeping upwards though, from both sides now. A line of walkers heading upwards were backed by a boiling wall of cloud. 

I wasn’t far below the summit when the air grew hazy and damp, the sun thin and pale. Soon visibility was less than a hundred metres. The world had changed. Boulders loomed up like huge cliffs only to shrink as I reached them. At times I wasn’t quite sure if the ground in front went up or down. If there’s been more snow it would have been a white-out, but I could see rocks and then heather and patches of grass.

I came out of the mist to a cold car park under a grey sky. Time for Aviemore and a cafĂ©.