Tuesday 9 April 2024

A Spring Trip Last Year With A Look At The Gear I Used

A chilly morning at the camp in Glen Affric
 
Glen Affric is one of my favourite glens and I hadn’t been there for over a year, which is far too long, so I decided to make a visit my first spring trip of the year. I started the walk on a sunny day along the Kintail-Affric Way in the woods above Loch Affric, an easy stroll on a forest track with good views over the trees to the hills.

Leaving the woods behind I walked up the open upper glen and camped near the river Affric, a fine site with spacious views. That evening I sat watching the sun set over the mountains, glowing gold in the last light. As the sky darkened stars appeared and the temperature quickly dropped. Dew formed on the tent and soon froze. There was no wind.

A frosty starry night

By dawn the tent was crackling with frost inside and out. The hills were in mist, soon dispersed by the sun and the sky was clear when I set off on the track up to the Bealach Coire Ghaidheil.

One reason for taking this route was to explore a path marked on the map that made a rising traverse across the hillside from the bealach then stopped abruptly not far below the summit of Mam Sodhail. I couldn’t remember ever taking this path before and I wondered how clear it was and if it really did just stop part way across the hillside. It turned out to be more dramatic than I expected. The path is narrow but easy to follow - I don’t think many people come this way as it’s not an obvious route – and towards the end it runs along the edge of steep crags with excellent views of Mam Sodhail and Carn Eighe, the two highest summits north of the Great Glen.

Carn Eighe and Mam Sodhail from the path from the Bealach Coire Ghaidheil

The path did just stop too but from its end it was an easy short walk up grassy slopes to the ridge above and then on to Mam Sodhail and its massive cairn, built by the Ordnance Survey in 1848. The wind was strong and cold on the summit. The views were excellent though distant hills were hazy.

My plan had been to take a path down into Coire Coulavie but the top of this was blocked by a large steep snowbank. Attempting to descend this without ice axe or crampons seemed unwise so instead I took the long ridge over Mullach Cadha Rainich to Sgurr na Lapaich. This is a splendid walk and gave better views than I’d have had in the corrie anyway.

The ridge to Sgurr na Lapaich

As the wind was fierce on the ridge I descended from Sgurr na Lapaich before camping. An intricate rough narrow path winds a way down through little crags on the steep south-east ridge of the hill to a flat boggy area where I had to continue a fair way before finding anywhere dry to camp. Here on the edge of the woods I was sheltered a little from the strengthening wind. The sky was clouding over and that night there was no dew or condensation. In the morning it was just a short walk through the trees to my car.

Camp below Sgurr na Lapaich

Planning & Preparation

The forecast was for sunny and windy weather the first two days with a frost at night then clouding over with rain on the third day. As usual for spring trips in the Scottish Highlands this suggested a bit warmer sleeping bag and clothing than in summer but not full winter kit.

Glen Affric & Beinn Fhada

As the weather had been hot for the past week I suspected there’d be little snow left so I didn’t take ice axe or crampons. As it was I had to change my route once due to a steep snowbank. The dry weather also suggested the ground would be fairly dry so I chose non-waterproof footwear, reckoning comfort from good breathability preventing sweaty feet would be more important than keeping out water. My feet did get damp once, in the bogs below Sgurr na Lapaich near the end of the second day.

I planned on low level camps due to the likelihood of strong winds up high, though I still took a tent with good wind resistance.

As I intended climbing at least one Munro with the full pack and I knew the ascents in the area were steep I wanted to keep the weight as low as possible so where there were choices I went for the lighter option.

 

EQUIPMENT

Atom Packs The Mo VX60    935g (M)   £285  ****1/2 best buy



  • Likes: ultralight, pockets, tough fabric, comfort
  • Dislikes: expensive 
  • Capacity: 60 litres
  • Materials Body: EPX200 200g/m2 recycled 200 denier face fabric, 45-degree cross ply, recycled 70 denier backing fabric. Back: 500D textured nylon. Side pockets: 210D Robic Extreema. Front pocket Dyneema Mesh.
  • Closure: rollover with stud and buckle fastenings
  • Back System: framesheet with 12mm alloy bar, shaped 8mm closed cell foam panel
  • Hipbelt padded: adjustable
  • Pockets: 2 open side, front mesh, base mesh, 2 mesh shoulder strap
  • Features: front and side elastic
  • Sizes: 4 length, 5 hipbelt
  • Load capacity: 19kg 
  • www.atompacks.co.uk                              

The Mo 60 is the larger version of the Mo 50 I gave Best Buy to in 2021. The extra capacity is the only difference between the two packs. For this spring backpacking trip the 60 litres were welcome as I had bulkier clothing and sleeping bag than I’d carry in summer.

The back system is comfortable and stable with the frame transferring the weight to the wide hipbelt well. The body-hugging style does lead to a damp back on warm days, as I found on the walk down Glen Affric, but I don’t mind this as I’d rather have good stability. The latter was very useful for balance on the steep rough descent from Sgurr na Lapaich.

The pack is well-made from tough materials and feels very robust. There are plenty of pockets for items needed during the day, though none of these are waterproof so drybags are needed in wet weather. I added the Atom Packs optional hipbelt pocket (28 grams, £20) for access to small items while wearing the pack. There are also long adjustable shockcords on the side and back for attaching extra gear. I used these for carrying the bulky closed-cell foam Multimat.

I can’t fault the Mo 60. It is expensive though.

 

Atom Packs The Roo VX bum bag  105g (L)  £39.50     ****1/2  Recommended

 

  • Likes:            volume, water-resistant zip, made from offcuts
  • Dislikes:        expensive
  • Capacity:       2.5 litres
  • Materials:      VX21   210D nylon/polyester/PET film
  • Features:       Lycra stretch front pocket, YKK Aquaguard zip, nylon strap
  • www.atompacks.co.uk

This little bum bag held various items I wanted quick access to such as smartphone, mini binoculars, sunglasses (on and off many times) and more. The first day I wore it as a waist pack but it didn’t feel that comfortable. I guess I could get used to it like this but for the next two days I wore it as a sling, which I preferred.

It’s made from offcuts from pack manufacture and has a waterproof zip and a mesh pocket on the front. I used the latter for my phone. There’s a key clip and a small compartment inside the bag. The long strap is adjustable but not removable.

For both backpacking and travelling (I used it for phone, keys and wallet in cafes on the drive to and from Glen Affric) this is an excellent little bag.

 

Mountain Laurel Designs SoloMid XL       575g (outer)    $275/£218* (outer)  ****1/2  Best Buy

*price conversion correct in early May

  • Likes:                   lightweight, spacious, headroom
  • Dislikes:               only available from USA
  •  
  • Design:                 pyramid
  • Material:               silpoly
  • Pitching:               flysheet first
  • Fabric:                  20D silpoly, hydrostatic head 5,000+mm
  • Pole:                     trekking pole
  • Dimensions:          280 x 142cm, max. height 140cm
  • https://mountainlaureldesigns.com

This tent was my Best Buy in June’s Solo Tents review due to the low weight, roominess, headroom, storm resistance, and ease of pitching. It’s made from silicone polyester rather than silicone nylon which has the advantage of not stretching when wet. This was a boon the first night of the trip as by dawn the tent was soaked with dew and condensation. Silnylon would have sagged. The silpoly didn’t.

By dawn the dew had frozen. This soon melted once the sun rose, and the tent dried very quickly. Silpoly is meant to absorb less moisture than silnylon.

The SoloMid is easy and fast to pitch, not that there was any hurry on this trip. I didn’t attach guylines to the four tie-outs on the sides, though I had them with me, and the tent resisted the gusty wind on the second night fine. Just one trekking pole is needed.

I enjoyed the space inside and the wide door, which I never closed so when I work during the night I could gaze at the stars. I just used a groundsheet inside as it was too early in the year for midges. In summer I’d want a mesh inner tent. 

Therm-A-Rest Parsec 20F/-6C   865g (Reg)          £415     ****1/2  Recommended

  • Likes:                          lightweight, warm, comfortable, recycled fabric                        
  • Dislikes:                      expensive                    
  • Fill:                             800 fill Nikwax Hydrophobic Down
  • Shell:                          Recycled nylon
  • Construction:              box wall baffles, heat mapped zoned insulation, quilt
  • Zip:                             full-length                              
  • Sizes:                         Small, Regular, Long                         
  • Rating                         comfort 0°C, comfort limit -6°C
  • www.thermarest.com

With the likelihood of frosty nights I wanted a bag that would keep me warm a few degrees below freezing. The Parsec 20F seemed a good choice and so it proved the first night when the temperature fell to -2°C. I slept warm without even closing the hood.

The Parsec is designed to attach to a sleeping pad and has two stretchy straps on the underside. I find doing this restrictive as it prevents me sitting up in the bag so I didn’t use the straps. This wasn’t a problem as there’s enough room to move around inside. The base has less insulation than the top but stayed under me both nights. If I’d felt too hot I’d have turned the bag upside down so the base was on top.

The down is hydrophobic and the foot of the bag did get a little damp the first morning when I pushed it against the wet tent fabric. It dried quickly.

The shell fabric is very soft and I found the Parsec really comfortable and ideal for the conditions. It’s an excellent lightweight sleeping bag but it is expensive.

 

Therm-A-Rest NeoAir XTherm NXT         455g (Reg)          £260   ****

  • Likes:             lightweight, warm, very comfortable
  • Dislikes:         very expensive
  • Type:              air bed
  • Materials:       nylon with reflective inner coating
  • Dimensions    183 x 51cms
  • Thickness       7.6cms
  • R-Value           7.3
  • www.thermarest.com

The latest version of the XTherm sleeping pad is thicker, warmer, much less noisy and a touch lighter in weight than the original version. It’s thick and comfortable and reasonably light and compact given the warmth. It made for a very comfortable night’s sleep though I didn’t need such a warm mat on this trip. With an R-rating of 7.3 this is a mat for the coldest winter nights as it should be warm down to -32°C, which is lower than the coldest night ever in the UK. Therm-A-Rest says it has the best warmth-to-weight ratio of any sleeping pad. This warmth perhaps justifies the very high price. For most UK camping a lighter mat like the XLite would be fine.

The low weight and high warmth come from its internal construction which has two layers of triangular baffles plus reflective material. The baffles also help the pad keep its shaped when inflated.

The XTherm is quick and easy to inflate and deflate. I found it most comfortable if I didn’t inflate it fully as then I could sink a little into it and was in no danger of rolling off.

 

Multimat Superlite 8    171g           £27.50        ****1/2   Recommended

  • Likes               ultralight, inexpensive, durable, warm
  • Dislikes           very bulky, not very soft
  • Type                closed cell foam
  • Materials         cross-linked Plastazote polyolefin foam
  • Dimensions     180 x 50cm
  • Thickness        8mm
  • Rating              -70°C
  • www.multimat.uk.com

Given the warmth of the XTherm I didn’t need this closed cell foam pad for sleeping on. However it was useful for protecting against the cold, damp and hardness when sitting outside the tent and during the day as a sitmat. As it can’t be punctured I’d rather use a closed cell foam mat for this than a mat like the XTherm. There’s no need to check the ground for anything sharp. The mat can just be chucked on the ground.

The Superlite mat is very light but it’s also bulky so I strapped it on the outside of the pack, which was convenient for quick access anyway. The foam is quite tough so I wasn’t bothered about it being scraped on rocks or vegetation. I wouldn’t carry an inflatable mat like this.

 

Primus Express        75g                         £40         **** Recommended

  •  Likes:                  ultralight,         
  • Dislikes:               needs windshield
  •  
  • Type:                    canister-top stove
  • Fuel:                     gas canisters
  • Dimensions:          115mm/90mm
  • Burner Diameter:  35mm
  • Power:                  2600W
  • https://primusequipment.com

The Express stove is a simple gas burner that’s very light and compact. It folds flat and takes up little room in the pack. I selected it for this trip as I hadn’t used it in a while and wanted to remind myself how it performs. I used it with the Evernew and MSR 900ml and 600ml pots that have been favourites for decades and which have a combined weight of 229 grams plus a foil windscreen weighing 53 grams. Primus says the narrow flame is good for wind resistance but in more than a gentle breeze the windscreen is needed.

The Express doesn’t have a piezo igniter, though one is available as a standalone extra, which I don’t mind as I’ve broken many of them and so always carry a Light My Fire FireSteel to light the stove.

The pot supports lock into place firmly and could hold big pots. However the flame is narrow and concentrated and so best used with smaller pots.

The Express isn’t as powerful as some gas stoves but still boiled water fast enough for me, including on the frosty morning after being left in the porch all night. It simmers well too.

 

Inov-8 Rocfly G390       818g (9)  £175        *****    Best Buy

  •  Likes:        lightweight, durable, good grip, wide fit
  • Dislikes:     nothing
  • Uppers       mesh with overlays
  • Sole           Graphene-Grip
  • Sizes          men 6-14, women 3-8.5
  • www.inov-8.com

With the forecast for warm weather breathability seemed more important for footwear than water-resistance so I wore these boots from Inov-8. Whilst they do have a higher ankle than trail shoes they are actually more like a beefed-up version of the latter than like a hiking boot.

The boots have one feature that makes them very comfortable – Graphene-infused foam in the midsole. This is meant to deliver greater energy return than other midsole materials. It’s certainly soft and comfortable on hard ground, like the forest road I followed on the first day. Graphene is also found in the outsole which should mean excellent durability. I found the grip fine on the wide variety of terrain I crossed on the trip.

The uppers are made from breathable knitted mesh with a tough rand to protect against abrasion. Breathability is excellent and my feet never felt too hot or sweaty. Drying time is good too. I did get the boots wet at the end of the second day on boggy ground. They dried very quickly during the short walk the following morning.

The Rocfly G390 boots have a wide fit, which is just right for my wide feet. They’re very light too and ideal for three-season backpacking. 

*Note: currently on sale on the Inov-8 website. It looks as though this non-Gore-tex version is being discontinued, which would be a great shame.

 

Falke TK1 Adventure Wool Trekking Socks       95g (42-43)      £29        *****      Best Buy

  • Materials:      70% merino wool/30% polyamide
  • Length:          calf
  • www.falke.com

I’ve had these socks for a few years but hadn’t worn them much until last winter. After wearing them on many trips I’m impressed. They’re soft, comfortable and warm. They come with shaped left and right feet. I’m never sure how much difference this makes but these socks certainly fit closely with no bunching or loose fabric. And they’ve kept their shape after many washings and when worn for three days at a time, as on this trip. They wick moisture fast and combined well with the Inov-8 boots so I never had sweaty feet. Near the end of the second day they did get damp in the bogs below Sgurr na Lapaich but still felt warm and comfortable. They dried quickly the next day.

Outdoor Research SuperStrand LT Hoodie    315g (L)   £220   ****  Recommended

  •  Likes                light, warm
  • Dislikes             non-adjustable hood
  • Fill                    85% recycled VerticalX SuperStrand polyester
  • Shell                  ripstop nylon
  • Front                 full-length zip         
  • Hood                 stretch rim
  • Cuffs                 stretch
  • Hem                  stretch
  • Pockets             zipped hand
  • Sizes                 men S-XXL, women XS-XL
  • www.outdoorresearch.com

Since I first used it in spring last year this lightweight insulated jacket has become a favourite. In sub-zero weather I’ve worn it while walking, on trips in milder weather like this one I’ve worn it in camp. On this occasion it was just right for keeping me warm at the first frosty camp.

It’s filled with an 85% recycled synthetic insulation that mimics the shape of down clusters and has a lattice structure to keep its shape. This fill is very soft and compresses easily so the jacket is comfortable to wear and packs down small for carrying. The jacket has distinctive discontinuous quilting that is also said to make compressing the jacket easier and which also reduces the amount of stitching.

The jacket has roomy handwarmer pockets. These are cut off by a pack hipbelt and I did wish this wasn’t the case when walking in the jacket in winter. On this trip it didn’t matter. The non-adjustable hood does blow back in a strong wind if worn on its own as its quite loose but worn over a hat it stays on.

Overall this is one of the best insulated jackets I’ve tried. It’s very comfortable and has excellent warmth for the weight.

 

EDZ Merino Wool Plaid Flannel Shirt   365g (L)    £110 ****1/2      Best Buy

 


  • Likes          temperature range, comfort, wind-resistance
  • Dislikes      pockets could be bigger
  • Fabric:        merino wool
  • Pockets:     2 buttoned
  • Cuffs:          buttons
  • Sizes:         S-XL
  • www.edz.co.uk

Like the Outdoor Research SuperStrand jacket I first tried this shirt in spring 2022 and like that jacket it has since become a favourite and an excellent alternative to a lightweight fleece. I’m particularly impressed with the wind-resistance of the close-woven fabric. This is just enough to keep out the wind on days with above freezing temperatures. It was the only outer layer I wore while walking on this trip and the wind was quite strong and cold at times. The only other walkers I saw on Mam Sodhail were both wearing waterproof jackets.

The fabric is also very breathable so when the sun came out and the wind dropped I didn’t overheat. It’s more comfortable over a wider range of temperatures than a fleece. The thin, soft wool doesn’t itch and feels comfortable next to the skin. On this trip I wore it over a thin short-sleeved base layer. On winter days I’ve worn it as a base layer.

The shirt has buttoned front, cuffs and pockets. With cold fingers the small buttonholes are a little awkward to use and could do with being a bit larger. Bigger pockets would be nice too as they won’t hold a smartphone. Overall though this is an excellent shirt.

This feature first appeared in The Great Outdoors last year.

 

Sunday 7 April 2024

Camp below Sail Mhor

 

Following on from the last video clip here's my camp below Sail Mhor. 

I must learn how to avoid/crop my shadow!

The View From Sail Mhor


Here's a little video I took on Sail Mhor last month on the trip described in this post

I took the clip twice, once on the Sony a6700 camera and once on the OPPO Find X5 Pro smartphone. This is the phone one. The camera video looks fine but the wind noise drowns out my words. I'll have to take a separate microphone in future. Or else just use the phone.

I took another clip of my camp later in the day. I'll have a look at that and post it next if it's ok.

Thursday 4 April 2024

Igloos & Ski Touring on the Moine Mhor

The igloos & the tent

The annual Inverness Backcountry Snowsports Club igloo building trip took place on the last two days of March this year. These trips began back in 2010 after I’d given talks to the club on my adventures with Igloo Ed, designer of the IceBox tool we use to build the igloos, in the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming and some members were interested in building one in the Highlands. (I’ve posted about every igloo trip on this blog, here’s a link to that first one).

Sgor Gaoith from Carn Ban Mor

That first trip we built an igloo on the slopes of Carn Ban Mor on the Moine Mhor above Glen Feshie in the Cairngorms. This year we went back there for the first time in a decade. The snowline was quite high – about 750 metres – so we had to carry our skis a fair while before we could use them.

After the storm

Soon after we reached the snow the dark clouds that had been blowing across the sky thickened. Rain, then hail, then heavy wet snow began to fall. For a short while we were in a blizzard. With the snow sticking to our wet clothing it wasn’t pleasant but we were to be glad of the new snow the next day. 

Into the mist

Eventually the wind died down and the snow faded, leaving us continuing upwards in thick mist. We were aiming for a long shallow stream gully that began not far below the summit of Carn Ban Mor and which holds the snow well. We weren’t likely to miss it but even so we checked maps and took compass bearings.

Braeriach begins to appear

Slowly the mist began to dissipate and the shadowy hanging shapes of steep slopes on Braeriach began to appear. For a while the sun shone as the storm passed over Sgor Gaoith. Our gully appeared and we began to search for the deepest snow. Clouds still swirled across the sky, summits appearing and disappearing constantly.

Starting an igloo

A suitable site selected two IceBoxes were unstrapped from packs and igloo building began. The snow was soft and damp and made blocks easily. Even so it took many hours before the igloos were finished.

Cloud over Monadh Mor

The huge clouds were a distraction as they piled up into constantly shifting shapes catching the setting sun. Up there the wind was still roaring. I crossed the gully to shallower snow and flattened a site for my tent. I usually have to get up for a pee at least once a night (getting older!) and I sometimes read for a bit if I can’t get back to sleep so using a tent means I don’t disturb others. I can also lie in the tent and look at the stars. I do admit that if the weather was stormy I’d have been in an igloo though!

The igloos at night

After sunset the clouds cleared and there was a brilliant night sky, the stars sharp and bright. Across the gully headlamps lit the igloos before everyone settled in for the night.

My tent

Dawn came with a frost, beautiful light, and a chill breeze. Thin clouds quickly started streaking the sky and the brightness soon faded. Two people headed back down to Glen Feshie. The remaining four of us set off across the Moine Mhor plateau for Monadh Mor, a remote Munro.

The cornices

Soon after leaving the igloos we passed above a deep section of the gully overhung with cornices. Here one of my bindings came loose, the ski came off, sped unerringly towards a cornice, and disappeared over the edge. The only way to retrieve it was to descend below the cornices and then walk back up the gully. I hoped I could find it. I soon did and at least had a close-up view of the giant curls of snow hanging above.

Skis back together again. Thanks to Andy Ince for taking the photo.

I’d already thought I was unlikely to make it up Monadh Mor. I now wasn’t even going to try. I didn’t want to lose a ski again far out on the Moine Mhor. I might not find it this time. I also knew that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the others on the downhill from the summit, partly due to rusty skiing skills but mainly due to my mismatched boots and skis, the former being too light and soft to properly control the latter. Why was I using such a bad setup? Because in a year of looking I’ve failed to find any suitable replacements for my cracked and worn-out plastic boots. Nothing available is anywhere near wide enough for my feet. So I was back on my old leather boots from the 1990s. (For anyone interested I wrote about this in a couple of posts last year – here and here).

Heading for Monadh Mor

The others were on a mix of much more substantial gear – split board, ski mountaineering, heavy duty telemark.

Sgor Gaoith

The undulating terrain of the Moine Mhor was not a problem so I didn’t turn back until the slopes started to steepen and the ascent of Monadh Mor began. I enjoyed the gentle skiing, gliding over the snow, stopping to admire the clouds and mountains. The fresh snow was only a few inches deep and starting to thaw. It had fallen in the storms of the day before. Without those storms we’d have been walking across the Moine Mhor. Only in a few sheltered areas was there any older or deeper snow.

In the tent. Again, thanks to Andy for taking the photo

Back at camp I melted some snow for a drink and chatted to some ski tourers, curious about the igloos. Once the others returned we packed up and skied back across the shoulder of Monadh Mor and down the snow towards Glen Feshie, as far as it went. Then the skis were back on the packs and the long walk out began, straight into the now bright and hot afternoon sun. Soon jackets and hats came off, gaiter and trouser leg zips undone. Still too warm. This was shorts and t-shirt weather. I was glad of my leather boots now. Finally we reached the glen and then the cars and another successful igloo trip was over. I wonder where we’ll go next year and whether I’ll have found some new boots that fit.

 

Nicki doing the traditional standing on an igloo

Two fine igloos

Clouds

Sgor an Lochain Uaine & Cairn Toul almost appearing

Looking for a site in the stream gully