Wednesday 15 May 2024

The Cape Wrath Trail

 

Pack packed, gear sorted, train tickets bought. In a few days I'll be setting off on the Cape Wrath Trail, making my way from Fort William to Cape Wrath through the NW Highlands.

I've thought about walking this route for many years. I had planned it for last autumn but various things got in the way and I ended up with five stormy days in the Eastern Cairngorms instead. So I'm trying again. 

The Cape Wrath Trail isn't really a trail, at least not in the sense of a continous footpath or even a set route. There's nothing official about it either so no signposts or waymarks. The guidebook and maps do suggest a route, along with alternatives in places, but there's no need to stick to any of these. Walk from Fort William to Cape Wrath through the hills by any route you choose and that's your Cape Wrath Trail. I'm not even certain which route I'll take in places. I may climb some hills along the way. Then again I may not. It all depends on the weather and how I'm feeling.

There are a few sections described in the guidebook I will do as they will be new to me. Much of the route I've already done in small sections as part of other walks and I've been up all the Munros and Corbetts along the way. Maybe I'll go up some of them again. What I want to see is how it unfolds as a continuous walk, how it feels as a whole, how much does it make sense.

It feels good to be setting off on a long walk again, as always. There'll be pictures and stories of course. During the walk at times, probably, afterwards, definitely.

 

Sunday 12 May 2024

Update from the Cape Wrath Trail: The Heat Exchanger Pot Performed Even Better Than Expected

Jetboil Stash pot & stove

Heat exchangers are corrugated fins or vanes on the base of a pot that capture heat that would otherwise be lost to the air and up the sides of the pot and transfer it to the contents. Jetboil launched the first stove system with a heat exchanger (HX) pot twenty years ago. Since then I’ve used and reviewed several such systems, from MSR and Primus as well as Jetboil. I’ve always liked the fast boil times and fuel efficiency yet I never thought of taking one on a long-distance walk due to the weight and bulk (the lightest, the Jetboil MicroMo, weighs 349g). Until that is Jetboil launched the Stash, a basic burner and HX pot that at 200 grams could genuinely be called lightweight, back in 2020. I reviewed it for The Great Outdoors in 2021 and said I’d consider taking it on my next long walk. I’ve used it a great deal since then and I think it’s a wonderful unit for solo backpacking. I’m taking the Stash pot on the Cape Wrath Trail soon but maybe not the Stash stove, for reasons outlined below.

Jetboil Stash

It’s the pot that’s impressive with the Stash. It’s made from hard-anodised aluminium and holds 800ml. It’s not tall and narrow like many HX pots and so easier to stir and to eat from. It weighs just 140 grams. The Stash burner is also light at 60 grams but doesn’t have the performance of higher spec stoves as it’s not regulated and so power declines in the cold and as the canister empties. It also has no wind resistance at all so a windshield is needed in all but the gentlest breeze. It is still a perfectly adequate stove that I’ve used on many trips but there are better ones.

MSR Pocket Rocket Deluxe with Jetboil Stash pot

After a year with the Stash, using it on every trip, I decided to try the pot with other stoves in cold and windy weather. The results were impressive. With the regulated MSR Pocket Rocket Deluxe (PRD) stove water boiled faster than with the Stash burner, the power stayed high with an almost empty canister, and it didn’t need a windshield until the wind got quite strong. The Optimus Vega remote canister stove and Stash pot again outperformed the Stash stove. This setup also has the advantage of being low profile and more stable. However there is a significant weight penalty – it’s a 100g more than the PRD and 125g more than the Stash burner. With the Vega the canister can be turned upside down to turn it into a liquid feed stove in extreme cold though this does increase fuel usage. I only use it in winter.

Optimus Vega stove with Jetboil Stash pot

The Stash pot is superb, the best solo backpacking pot I’ve used. You can’t buy it on its own though, only with the Stash burner, and Jetboil warns that it should not be used with other stoves. When I asked why Jetboil said “the Stash pot was designed for high performance on the Stash burner as a Cook System. However, we cannot guarantee its performance or safety on all the assortment of burners and pan supports available, so we recommend only to use on Stash”. So if you use it with other stoves it’s at your own risk.

There is a big disadvantage in doing so anyway. The high cost - £155 at the time of writing. That makes for an awfully expensive pot! So what are the alternatives and are they any good?

Fire Maple HX Pots

The only standalone HX pots I knew about until recently were ones from Vango and Optimus that are too heavy for solo backpacking except on short trips, at least for me. The Vango Ultralight Heat Exchanger Cook Kit, which I have had for a few years, comes with two bowls and cutlery and has a cosy round the pot. The total weight is 387g, the pot alone 286g*. The Optimus Terra Express HE weighs 377g and has a non-stick coating. Both are worth considering for duos.

Soto Windmaster 4Flex stove with Fire Maple FMC-XK6 pot

Searching online for lighter standalone HX pots brought up some fascinating videos from Flat Cat Gear about the ultralight 800ml Fire Maple Petrel HX pot and an interesting article called  Superstove for Optimal Backcountry Cooking by Alan Dixon and Jaeger Shaw on the Adventure Alan website that recommends the 1 litre Olicamp XTS pot (which is identical to the Fire Maple FMC-XK6 HX) as the best alternative to the Stash pot and also mentions the Fire Maple Petrel HX pot. Curious to try them I bought both Fire Maple pots, at a combined cost less than a third that of the Stash.

Soto Windmaster Triflex fitted onto Fire Maple Petrel pot

Both the pots are hard-anodised aluminium with plastic lids – an excellent one on the Petrel, a poor one on the clumsily named FMC-XK6 (which I’ll call the FMC from now on). The Petrel is tall and narrow and not so good for simmering food or eating from as the wider and bigger FMC. The Petrel weighs 166g, the FMC 195g. The Petrel is unique in having slots on the base of the heat exchanger. These are designed to fit the pot supports of a Fire Maple stove but also just right for the Soto Windmaster with the Triflex three-pronged supports (the stove comes with a four-pronged support, the Triflex is an extra option). The Windmaster is a powerful regulated stove comparable with the MSR Pocket Rocket Deluxe (which won’t fit in the Petrel slots unless you do some modifications as shown in this Flat Cat Gear video). The only other stove I have that fits the Petrel is the Jetboil Mighty Mo, which in fact fits even more securely than the Windmaster but is a fair bit heavier – 98 rather than 68 grams. Of course you can just balance the Petrel on a stove without using the slots but that means it’s less effective, Having the burner inside the heat exchanger improves fuel efficiency, boiling time, wind resistance and stability.

Of the two pots I prefer the FMC as the width makes it easier to use than the Petrel. The FMC is 55g heavier and a bit bigger than the Stash pot. The combined weight with the PRD stove is 279g. The Petrel is 25g heavier than the Stash. With the PRD the total weight is 234g. Either of these is a good alternative to the PRD/Stash pot combination, which weighs 225g, or the Windmaster 4 Flex/Stash combination, which weighs 229g (the Triflex supports are too short to be stable with the Stash pot).

The Stash pot plus the PRD or Windmaster stove combines the best pot with the best canister top stoves that I’ve used. But for the price of the Stash you could buy six Fire Maple pots.

Why HX Pots?

Do HX pots really have advantages? That depends! Faster boil times are often touted as the big plus but I don’t think a few minutes difference really matters, and fuel efficiency is higher is if a stove isn’t run at full power. What is significant is reduced fuel usage, especially on long trips where there may be many days between resupply points. Heat exchanger pots also increase performance in cold and wind, which I also think more important than fast boil times.

From left: Jetboil Stash, Fire Maple Petrel, Fire Maple FMC-XK6, Jetboil MicroMo

HX pots are all hard anodised aluminium which may not last as long as titanium but which costs far less. Why not titanium? Jetboil did try this with the Sol Ti stove but there were problems with the heat exchanger fins melting and it was discontinued. No-one has made a titanium HX pot since as far as I know so I guess there are possibly insurmountable technical problems.

Three years ago I posted a piece on pots in which I said of HX pots “these do reduce the amount of fuel needed and speed boiling times but also add weight. I like a heat exchanger pot in winter for snow melting but otherwise I find a standard pot fine”.  I’ve changed my mind. I now use an HX pot year round.

Heat exchangers. Clockwise from top left: Fire Maple FMC, Fire Maple Petrel, Jetboil MicroMo, Jetboil Stash

I can see no big disadvantages to HX pots. The size and weight increase over titanium pots isn’t that big. The Evernew 900ml titanium pot that I’ve used on every long distance walk for over twenty years weighs 137 grams, just 3 grams less than the Stash pot! The 900ml MSR Titan titanium pot is lighter at 125 grams but there’s still only a 16g difference. In comparative tests I found that on average using HX pots meant a fuel saving of about 4 grams per 500ml of water boiled. So the weight difference between the Titan and Stash pots covers enough fuel to boil 2 litres of water.

There is a view that HX pots are unsuitable for anything other than boiling water but I’ve found this is more dependent on the burner than the pot. This opinion may have come about because the first HX stove systems didn’t simmer well. This isn’t true of most current ones and certainly not of HX pots combined with regulated stoves. Having a stove and pot that aren’t locked together also helps as you can easily lift the pot off the stove to see the flame when you turn it down. I’ve simmered food without problems in HX pots with PRD, Windmaster, Stash, Vega, and other gas stoves.  

Testing, testing

Testing lab

I recently reviewed a selection of stoves for The Great Outdoors in which I compared boil times and fuel usage with HX and non-HX pots. The results further convinced me that HX pots are worth using. I then did a follow-up test comparing the Soto Windmaster Triflex with the Petrel pot, the Stash stove and pot, and the Jetboil MicroMo. The Soto had the fastest boil time, the Stash took 17 seconds longer to boil the water but used a gram less fuel. The MicroMo was between the two on both counts. Practically there’s no significant difference. However this was in warm calm weather with full canisters. The Stash stove doesn’t perform as well as the others when it’s windy or in the cold, especially with a less than half-full canister. As well as being regulated the Windmaster, like the PRD, has a small windshield round the burner, and is further protected by the Petrel heat exchanger.

Windshields

Windshield round MSR Pocket Rocket 2 stove and Evernew titanium pot

A big problem with the Stash and similar stoves is that they aren’t wind-resistant. Anything above a gentle breeze can blow the flame sideways and reduce the performance significantly, sometimes preventing water boiling. A few stoves like the PRD and the Windmaster have tiny windshields round the burner that do make a difference though in strong winds the performance still deteriorates. The Jetboil system stoves like the MiniMo and MicroMo are much the same. The only stoves I’ve used that don’t require any wind protection are the MSR Windburner and the MSR Reactor stoves. These are great for winter use, especially snow melting, but weigh 425 and 432g respectively. With other stoves I use a foil windshield that can surround three sides of the burner and which comes part way up the side of the pot. It woirks well. I’ve never had a canister get hot doing this. My current foil windshield weighs 55g.

MSR Reactor. Great in the snow but heavy

There are windshields available that fit around the burner. I tried a few of these in the past and found them clunky, awkward and not as efficient as the foil windshield. However Flat Cat Gear has a range of windshields for different stoves that look effective and easier to use.

*All pot weights include the supplied lid. This could be replaced with a lighter one, such as a piece of foil. A lid increases fuel efficiency so I always use one.


Monday 6 May 2024

Spring Arrives: Ryvoan Pass & Meall a' Bhuachaille


Some years spring creeps in so gradually it’s hard to say when it has begun. This year spring has arrived with startling speed. One day the end of winter was still dragging on. The next the sun was hot and winter felt long gone. April was mostly grey, wet, and windy. The snowdrops in the garden lingered most of the month. The buds on the trees appeared to be making no progress. Then May arrived with sunshine and brightness. The world had changed. So fast! It was hard to adapt. I still had winter gear – snowshoes, ice axe, crampons – in the car. Winter boots littered the porch. Suddenly all redundant. Until the autumn.

A favourite spring walk called. Well, it’s a favourite anytime, but especially in spring and autumn when the woods are glorious. Ryvoan Pass and Meall a’ Bhuachaille never fail to delight.

Still not trusting the sunshine I set off in a windshirt. It was in the pack in less than ten minutes and never reappeared. A t-shirt was enough. And dark glasses and a sunhat. In the trees it was hot.


The birches were just coming into leaf and starting to glow green. The stars of wood anemones lined the path. An Lochain Uaine was pretty but, for once, rather bland. Higher up, as the trees began to thin out, I heard a bird singing. A pause and I spotted it, a willow warbler, tiny and olive green, perched, appropriately, on a young willow shoot. Another summer visitor soon showed itself, though silent. A handsome stonechat perched atop a young pine.


More willow warblers sang as I approached Ryvoan Bothy, which is being renovated by the Mountain Bothies Association. The corrugated iron porch that has been there for decades was gone. It will be replaced. Inside all was the same.


The paths were a surprise. I had forgotten they could be dusty. I’d grown used to sodden ground and mud. I was wearing trail shoes for the first time since last summer and had assumed they would get wet but it would be warm enough for that not to matter. They were to stay dry all day.


The climb up Meall a’ Bhuachaille felt hard work in the heat. Having cursed the endless winds all winter I welcomed the breeze higher up. Across Ryvoan Pass Cairn Gorm and the Northern Corries still sported strips of snow, though far less than usual at this time of year.


From the summit I could see the mountains fading into a hazy distance, the light more like high summer than early spring. The sky had clouded over as I climbed. Now the clouds began to break, bright and dappled as the sun cutting through them.

As soon as I reached the first trees I heard a willow warbler and spotted another stonechat. There were wood anemones again too, even more profuse than earlier.


To the right of the path a large area of spruce had been recently felled, the ground covered with pale stumps. The skeletons of long dead pines rose into the air, presumably ones left when the plantation was created. The plantation on the other side of the past was felled quite a few years ago and now has thickets of young birch and a few young pines springing up as it recovers. I noticed that regenerating spruce had recently been cut down here.


For a short distance the path runs in a corridor of scattered trees with the felled areas either side. In the decades to come this land should recover and become a natural forest again.

Soon I was into the dark confines of the mature forest and back in the glen. My spring walk was over. I thought of willow warblers, stonechats, and wood anemones, three symbols of the new season for this year.

Saturday 4 May 2024

Deer Drama: A Joust In The Fields

Approach and retreat

Roe deer are a common sight in the fields in front of our house. Sometimes they wander into the garden. Usually they just amble around browsing, entering and leaving the garden with a graceful flowing curve over the fence. Lovely to see but nothing dramatic. That changed yesterday. A pair have been visiting the garden quite often recently. Yesterday a second buck appeared. The first buck chased it out in the field where they stopped and faced each other.

Clash!

A tense battle then ensued. The two bucks faced each other, often lowering their heads, and several times charged and locked antlers. Slowly one backed away, losing a little ground with each tussle. Eventually they moved out of sight.

Standoff

We watched all this through the kitchen window, a privilege of living here. Then I went up to my study for a better view as they moved further away and took some photos through the window.

We’d never seen this exciting and dramatic behaviour before. Hopefully neither of the bucks was seriously injured.

Photo note: I took the photos through my closed study window with the Sony 70-350mm lens at 350mm (equivalent to 525mm full frame). I was shooting handheld but as the day was quite bright I didn’t have to up the ISO much to keep a high shutter speed. Settings were ISO 400 and 1/1600 second at f6.3. I cropped the photos as the deer were far enough away that they were still small in the pictures. The raw images were processed in DXO PhotoLab 7

Uncropped image

 

Wednesday 1 May 2024

A Look At The June Issue Of The Great Outdoors

 

The June issue of The Great Outdoors, out now, has my account of a trip to An Teallach to see how the It's Up To Us path repair programme was going and to try my hand at a little of the work. The piece is illustrated with some excellent photos by James Roddie. It's sponsored by Keela, who provide the clothing for Cairngorm Wilderness Contracts, the company doing the path repair, and I wore some Keela clothing I like and had already reviewed - the Pinnacle Jacket and the Scuffer trousers. 

In the gear section I review the Berghaus 3D Freeflow 30+5L pack, the Patagonia Nano-Air Light Vest, and eight apps for navigation, weather forecasting, and photography. Lara Dunn and Alex Roddie review four lightweight waterproof jackets each and Fiona Russell and Pete Macfarlane review the same number of trail shoes.

The theme of this issue is the mountains and landscape of Wales and the opening spread is a dramatic photo by Kat Lawman of Y Lliwedd from Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) above a sea of clouds. In the main feature six more photographers who live and work in the Welsh mountains describe their love of the landscape and show some favourite photographs. 

Jim Perrin looks at Pen Pumlumon Arwystli in the Cambrian Mountains in his Mountain Portrait. Crickhowell to the south of the Black Mountains features in the Your Weekend In .. pages. Creator of the Month filmmaker and storyteller Emma Crome describes her filmmaking and the importance of her move to Wales. In the Opinion piece Sara Huws looks at the history of the relationship between locals and visitors in the Welsh mountains. And Francesca Donovan reviews Emma C Marshall's Wild Swimming Walks: Eryri/Snowdonia.

Away from Wales former editor Carey Davies returns to the magazine for a celebration of the Langdale Horseshoe in the Lake District while Peter Elia goes much further afield to explore the Caucasus Mountains in Azerbaijan. In the Skills section Alex Roddie gives advice on dealing with midges. In her Notes from the Edge about her walk round the coastline of Britain Emma Schroeder describes what she ate and the importance of her stove and cooking set-up. 

Wales appears again in the Wild Walks pages with five of the ten routes there, all with the theme of water. In Eryri/Snowdonia Andrew Galloway visits lakes and waterfalls in the Gwydir Forest and crosses a river twice on a walk in the Dyffryn Ardudwy valley and up Moelfre, whilst Ian Battersby does a round of the lakes of Cadair Idris. In Powys Roger Butler visits the Pistyll Rhaeadr waterfall and walks over the Berwyn hills whilst in Bannau Brycheiniog/Brecon Beacons Fiona Barltrop goes round the Waterfall Country near Ystradfellte.

The water theme continues with the two walks in Scotland and three in the Lake District. Ian Battersby has a coastal walk on Muckle Roe in Shetland. Alex Roddie visits the loch that gives the mountain Lochnagar its name. Vivienne Crow finds a hidden waterfall, Holme Force, in the Loweswater Fells and visits Styhead Tarn and Sprinkling Tarn. And Norman Hadley walks along the top of the Wast Water Screes and then back along the bottom, right next to the lake itself.