Wednesday 26 February 2014

Performance, Durability & Lightweight Gear

Tarp camping on the Arizona Trail

As my last piece on lightening the load has proved popular here's a piece that first appeared in TGO magazine looking at the performance and durability of lightweight gear.

Two myths appear regularly when weight is discussed by backpackers. The first is that lighter gear means lower performance. The second is that lighter gear means lower durability. Both are untrue if the right gear is selected.  Lighter gear may mean fewer features and lighter materials - not necessarily disadvantages – but it doesn’t have to mean poorer performance or greater fragility and shorter life.

Choosing the lightest equipment means knowing the weights of alternatives. This can be difficult as too many companies and shops don’t give the weights of many items, especially clothing, and when they do they are often inaccurate (and not only in one direction despite what you might cynically think).  The weights of tents, sleeping bags and stoves are usually given, those of fleeces, waterproofs and socks rarely so. Yet some fleeces and waterproofs weigh more than some sleeping bags (and a few waterproofs weigh more than the lightest tents) and socks can weigh as much as a stove so the weight of these items does matter if you’re trying to reduce how much you carry. Hefting items in each hand can be a help but it’s better to take scales into the shop with you and check the weights yourself. But surely, you may be thinking, the difference in weight between comparable fleece jackets, say, is hardly enough to matter. On its own this is true but a few grams here and a few grams there soon add up. In one fleece test I did the lightest Polartec 100 fleece weighed 267 grams while the heaviest weighed 337 grams. That’s a mere 70 grams difference but if ten items all weigh that much more than alternatives it becomes 700 grams, which in a light load is significant. The 70 grams gets you a full length zip and two handwarmer pockets but no extra warmth. Often the weight is more than 70 grams too. Take stoves for example. A simple screw-in gas stove can vary in weight from around 250 grams to less than 100 grams. Thus it’s possible to save 150 grams + by choosing one similar stove over another. 

Lightweight Camping On The GR20 in Corsica

With some items lighter weight actually means increased performance. Down filled clothing and sleeping bags are much lighter than equivalent synthetic filled ones. Shell fabrics, down quality and features make a difference between down items too.  In one review I tested two vests with the same loft yet one weighed 227 grams and the other 551 grams. You could carry two of the first and still save weight on the second! A heavier shell and down with a lower fill power were the main reasons for the weight difference. 

Wild Camp In The North-West Highlands

Increased performance can also mean increased durability. Some lightweight gear will actually last longer than heavier gear. Down is a case in point, being far longer lasting than synthetic fills. The lightest tents are usually harder wearing and longer lasting than heavier ones because they have flysheets made from silicone nylon and this fabric is far tougher than the heavier polyurethane coated nylon and polyester used in other tents. (All the shelters pictured are made from silicone nylon).

A lightweight Dyneema pack

Of course lighter weight doesn’t automatically mean better performance or greater durability so care needs to be taken when selecting gear. A thinner sleeping bag won’t be as warm as a thicker one, whatever the fill. A tent so small you can’t sit up won’t be as comfortable as one in which you can. Packs made from ultralight ripstop nylon aren’t as abrasion or tear resistant as Cordura nylon ones. However Dyneema Gridstop, identifiable by the white grid of polyethylene threads, is both very light and just as strong as heavier pack materials.

None of this is to say that the heavier items are no good. Far from it. Many are top quality products that perform well and might be considered by any backpacker. However by choosing the lightest alternative you can save many kilos. And I would argue that the performance and durability of many light items is in no way inferior to that of the heaviest ones. Choose carefully and you can reduce the weight of your load a great deal without any loss in performance and durability of your gear.

A Comfortable Lightweight Camp On A Rainy Day

If you found this and my previous post interesting take a look at these older posts:

Monday 24 February 2014

Thoughts On Lightening A Backpacking Load

On the Pacific Northwest Trail

This is a feature I wrote for The Great Outdoors several years ago. At this time of year when many people are planning their spring and summer backpacking trips I thought it might be of interest

There is only one reason to reduce your pack weight and that is to make carrying it easier and more comfortable. If you don’t notice the weight on your back then reducing its weight is not going to achieve anything. A lighter weight load has no intrinsic superiority over a heavier one. But most of us do notice the weight on our backs and would be happy to reduce it, if that could be done without compromising safety or comfort (or costing a fortune). The lighter the load, the more enjoyable the walking. The question is how to lower the weight without making sacrifices that result in getting wet or cold because your clothing is inadequate or spending sleepless nights wriggling about on hard ground because your sleeping mat is too thin. Of course, as the saying goes, any fool can be uncomfortable and that can apply regardless of the weight of your gear. Indeed, in some cases lighter options perform better than heavier ones. A good down filled sleeping bag will keep you warmer than a much heavier synthetic one for example.

What does your load weigh?
The lighter your pack the further you can walk without feeling tired or your legs and feet aching. This doesn’t mean that lightening the load is only for those who want to cover big distances every day. Walking the same distance with a lighter load means you are fresher at the end of the day and more able to enjoy time in camp. You’re less likely to feel stiff the next day too. And the heavier the load, the more often you’ll need to stop for a rest and the sooner you’ll want to make camp. On the flat you probably won’t actually walk much slower with a heavy load but you will uphill - much, much slower.  

There are three ways to reduce the weight of an item. The first and most effective is not to carry it in the first place. That’s a 100% cut in its weight. However whilst this might work for spare clothing you don’t really need it’s not a good idea for your waterproof jacket, which you only hope you don’t need. The second way is to customise an item so it weighs less (see below). The third is to replace it with a lighter alternative. The often recommended way of going about the first option is to separate gear after a trip into stuff you used and stuff you didn’t use. I don’t actually think this is very helpful. Your first aid kit will hopefully be in the pile of stuff you didn’t use. That doesn’t mean you won’t need it next time. If it didn’t rain your waterproof jacket will be there too. And in the pile of stuff you did use there might be the spare warm top you wore in the tent but which you wouldn’t have missed if it had been left at home. Instead of this approach I suggest listing what you needed or might have needed and what you didn’t need. This is where you need to be ruthless. Many backpackers carry lots of spare clothing, maybe adding up to a kilo or more. Most of it isn’t actually needed. “Nice to have” and “need” are not the same. Once you’ve made such a list consider the “not needed” items to see which ones you would really, really miss. These are luxury items that add enough pleasure to a trip to be worth their weight. If you think you’ll enjoy the trip less without them transfer them to the “needed” column. I always used to carry a book to read in the tent when it was dark or stormy or even during long uninteresting road walks. A book obviously wasn't essential but I know from when I finished one before I reached anywhere I could buy another that I felt deprived without it. So for me a paperback or two was worth the weight. These days books have been replaced by an e-reader, again something that might seem unnecessary to others but which I wouldn't be without.

What can be discarded are bits of gear that are often carried out of habit. Do you really need a candle in midsummer, enough dressings to cover a thousand blisters, the survival bag from your daysack when you have a tent? Don’t carry stuff just in case it might come in useful. It’s also worth looking for dual purpose items. Instead of that survival bag you could wrap yourself in the tent in the remote chance that you need emergency shelter where you can’t pitch it.  Clothes in a stuffsack make a serviceable pillow. If the weather is unseasonably cold socks can be worn as mittens. A small cooking pot can double as a mug and a bowl for a solo backpacker. Rather than a sleeping bag liner take a thin set of base layers that can also be worn during the day in chilly weather.

In the Western Highlands on the TGO Challenge

The traditional cliché about lightening your load by customising gear is to cut the handle off your toothbrush. Even if you’ve saved every other gram you can that still wouldn’t make a noticeable difference however. Saving a few grams per item on many pieces of gear does add up but even then it probably won’t be very significant. It’s all about how it feels on your back. Only if your load is already ultralight – under 5kg say – will you notice tiny reductions in the weight of gear that isn’t very heavy to start with. It’s the big items that matter – pack, tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, stove. If together these weigh 6-9kg, as they easily can, shaving a few grams off a cooking pot or a pair of socks isn’t worth the effort. Knowing the actual weight of your gear is a starting point – and I mean weighing it yourself, not assuming makers’ weights are correct as they often aren’t and when wrong they tend to be on the low side. And don’t assume that if an item is described as lightweight it actually is – some companies have peculiar ideas as to what lightweight means. Also, look at what is included in the weight. The minimum weights for some tents don’t include pegs. There can be a weight variance in the same products too. If you take your scales into the shop you can weigh the specific item you’re buying.

If you already have the main backpacking items aren’t you stuck with that weight? Not necessarily. Gear can be customised to reduce its weight a little. Straps you never use on a pack can be cut off and maybe the frame can be removed – at least for those shorter trips when the overall weight isn’t high to begin with – and also the lid. Tents often come with hefty pegs and thick guylines that can be replaced with much lighter weight ones. If it’s a two-skin tent perhaps the inner can be left behind and a simple groundsheet used instead, which not only saves weight but gives you extra space. Sleeping bags are harder to customise though I do have one friend who removed the zip and turned his bag into a quilt. All this done you still won’t make a big dent in the weight of the big items so these are the ones that you might well plan on replacing over time if you really want to cut the weight you carry. Again, check the weight and look at alternatives. If your empty pack or your tent weighs over 2kg, as many models do, there are plenty of lighter alternatives that will perform as well. However if your pack or tent weighs 1kg or less then the options for weight reduction are much less. It makes sense to first replace those items where the most weight can be saved.

Keeping weight in mind when choosing gear is a way to avoid being seduced by amazing but heavy designs. Lighter gear usually means simpler designs. Bells and whistles add weight. They may seem functional but ask yourself if you really need them. How many pockets on clothing or on your pack do you actually use? Do you need reinforced clothing designed for mountaineering or a tent that will withstand a blizzard on the Cairngorm Plateau for backpacking a long distance footpath in summer?

Camped by Lochan Fada on a spring trip in the NW Highlands

Looking at the big items let’s start with the pack itself. Heavy packs are great for heavy loads. But if you’re load is around 10 kilos, say, you don’t need a pack designed to carry 20 kilos. Lighter loads are usually more compact loads so your pack needn’t be as big, which also saves weight. A guide I’ve used for years is that a pack shouldn’t weigh more than 10% of the total load (that is, with food and water as well as gear). So for that 10 kilo load the empty pack should weigh no more than a kilo. With shelters a solo model needn’t weigh more than 1.5kg and many weigh much less. Sleeping bags for temperatures above freezing needn’t weigh more than 800 grams and sleeping mats no more than 400 grams. So the total weight of these four big items of gear needn’t reach 4kg (in his book Smarter Backpacking Jorgen Johansson sets a target of 3 kilos for these items – I think this is ambitious, though I achieved it on the Pacific Northwest Trail, those items weighing 2.9kg, at least until I changed my pack for a more supportive but heavier one and the weight went up by nearly half a kilo).

Having been tempted by heavy gear myself in the past – my pack weight went up during the 1980s and early 90s with tent, pack, stove, pans and clothing all increasing in weight – I set myself maximum target weighs for every item of gear. If something weighs more than this I reject it immediately. And I try hard to get the weight well under this target.

I also have a target for the maximum my pack should weigh for a trip, without food, water or camera gear (of which I carry more than most for photos for articles and books). This base weight doesn’t vary with the length of the trip, just with the season.  For 3-season backpacking (May to October inclusive) my target is 7kg, which was my base weight for the Pacific Northwest Trail. In colder weather it goes up by at least a kilo due to more clothing and warmer sleeping bag. When there’s snow and ice on the hills another kilo is added for ice axe and crampons. This is all for solo backpacking. Duos who share tent and cooking gear should be able to knock at least a kilo off those weights.

Lightweight camping in Glen Feshie on the TGO Challenge

Finally, don’t forget footwear. A kilo on your feet equals two or three kilos on your back. Going from 2 kilo traditional boots to 1 kilo lightweight boots or trail shoes is the same as knocking a kilo off your empty pack weight and a kilo off your tent weight. I’d reduce footwear weight before anything else. As indeed I did many years ago on the Pacific Crest Trail when I discovered that carrying my boots and walking in the running shoes I’d brought for camp and town wear was less tiring even though the weight on my back went up by over a kilo.

Sunday 23 February 2014

Gear Reviews on The Great Outdoors website

Gear airing after weeks of wet weather on the Pacific Northwest Trail

Many more of my gear reviews have recently been uploaded to The Great Outdoors website. For example my gaiters reviews from a recent issue. There are also reviews by other members of the magazine's test team. Reviews can be found by category or via the search facility.

Watch out for more reviews in the future, some from the magazine, some just for the website.

Friday 21 February 2014

Exclusive Terry Abraham film for TGO: Backpacking Around the Scafells with Chris Townsend

Terry Abraham filming Scafell

An exclusive short film by Terry Abraham from our recent Scafells backpacking trip is now available on The Great Outdoors website.

The film is taken from footage shot for Terry's Life of A Mountain:Scafell, which will be premiered in May.

Back on the Pacific Crest Trail

Pacific Crest Trail Journal Entry, May 24, 1982

Much of the last few days I've spent on the Pacific Crest Trail. In my mind anyway. Working on my book on my hike (Rattlesnakes & Bald Eagles) I've spent many hours looking through my old Kodachrome slides, my journals and other documents from that wonderful trip, all of them taking me back to the deserts and forests and mountains and snow of the American Far West.

Writing the book is a way of reliving what was the most significant of all my long distance walks. I'd looked at the photos on and off over the years for magazine articles and slide shows but I'd never done more than glance at my journals before. Reading them is bringing back events, places and people that had faded from my memory and I've realised that I've forgotten much. I am so glad I have my words to refresh my memory. Those little black notebooks - bought, I note from Megson Stationary in Manchester for £1.95 each and labelled 'Challenge Oilskin Note Book the super-strong Note Book with soilproof covers' - are some of my most treasured possessions. They contain a seminal part of my life.

Camp in Crabtree Meadow, High Sierra, Pacific Crest Trail, May 21, 1982

Thursday 20 February 2014

Contrasting Conditions

Sunshine over Glenmore

Bright sunshine, sleeves rolled up, sunglasses and sun hat on. An unusual way to start a February ski tour in the Cairngorms in any year but especially this one of seemingly endless storms. But today the weather was becalmed, at least below the summits.

Wondering if I was risking sunburn on my bare arms (also very unusual at this time of year but the sun felt hot) I climbed the slopes above a crowded car park. Clouds drifted across the face of Meall a'Bhuachaille away over the dark green of Glenmore Forest. Above the summits came and went in the cloud.

The Cairngorm Weather Station

A cool southerly wind on the ridge had me donning my jacket and a warmer hat. The summit of Cairn Gorm was shrouded in cloud but it didn't look very dense. I climbed on into the thick mist. The vast expanse of views suddenly shrank to a few yards. Eventually the summit cairn and weather station hung in the air ahead of me, ghostly and pale. The weather station was plastered with thick snow and ice and crowned with a huge multi-layered snow mushroom. In many winter visits I've never seen it like this before. Above the mist blue sky tantalised. Just fifty metres more and it would be clear. Or so it seemed.

Almost sunny

Turning away from the wind and the cloud I skied down the northern side of Cairn Gorm. The snow was hard and crusty, blasted into firmness by the wind. Once out of the mist I could let the skis run and enjoy the descent. The sun shone again. It was a different world.

Walkers descending

Returning home I stopped by Loch Morlich and looked back to the mountains. A narrow band of cloud followed the contours of the summits, rising and falling with the terrain. An extra fifty metres would have made no difference.

Cairngorm Cloud Cap

Monday 17 February 2014

A Brief Respite From The Storms

Sunlight Catching a Shoulder of Cairn Gorm

Today the clouds are low, the rain faills steadily and the hills are hidden. As it has been much of the time for several months. Yesterday though was a rare break from the storms. The sun shone, the wind was cold but gentle, the hills were white and shining.

Creagan a'Chaise in the Cromdale Hills

For once going for a walk wasn't a struggle against the elements but a pleasurable wander through the woods and fields. Buzzards called from high above, a pheasant broke cover and crashed away loudly, a flock of rooks rose from a stubble field, rabbits raced away to their burrows. Across the strath the Hills of Cromdale were snow-covered.

Bynack Mor and Beinn Mheadhoin in the Northern Cairngorms

Away to the west clouds still swirled around the High Cairngorms but the summits were clear and white with bursts of sunlight lighting up their slopes.


Above me the sky was blue and bright and streaked with thin clouds; a vast skyscape unusual this winter.

Lichen on aspen

As well as the vast vistas of the hills and the sky the lull in the storms made it easier to notice details and appreciate the subtleties of nature. It's hard to do this when you're head down into a gale and rain is lashing the landscape.

Sunlight on the Cairngorms as the clouds thicken.

Friday 14 February 2014

Scafell Filming with Terry Abraham


Following The Cairngorms In Winter film we made last winter Terry Abraham has been working on a new project in the Lake District called Life of a Mountain: Scafell Pike. A few days ago I went down to join him to film a winter backpacking sequence. The weather forecast wasn't good but we'd already put the trip off once due to the extremely stormy weather. As it was, we were to be very lucky and have a brief interlude of relatively calm and bright weather between two big storms. This didn't seem likely when I arrived in heavy rain and strong winds. Our first evening was spent in the warmth of The Strands Inn in Nether Wasdale and then the Wasdale Head Inn and the first night was spent in the comforts of camping pods on the National Trust Wasdale camp site. Given the ferocious weather I was happy to have solid walls around me. The morning brought low cloud and a gusty wind but the rain and hail that hammered down during the night had faded away.

Terry Abraham in camp before the snow in Upper Eskdale

Mountain guide David Powell-Thompson, who will also feature in the film, drove us round to Eskdale from where we walked up beside the River Esk before cutting up the hillside to camp beside rocky knolls above the flat expanse of the Great Moss with, theoretically, a grand view of the Scafell summits. In fact all we could see were dark clouds low down on the hills. Just before dusk the sun did slice under the clouds to light up some of the lower slopes with a beautiful golden light, a few magic moments before a stormy night.

Evening Light

The clouds stayed low so the next day we decided that navigating on compass bearings on the Scafells and seeing nothing didn't really appeal. Instead we stayed closer to camp, wandering round the knolls and slopes below the clouds, taking photographs, filming, looking at the rocks and the grasses and the ravens and the sheep and the juniper bushes. It wasn't very cold and only glimpses of snow streaks below the edges of the clouds suggested it was winter.

Snow Traces Below The Clouds

The day stayed dry, thankfully, and not too windy but dusk brought rain and wind. This didn't last though and soon a bright moon with a halo round it shone down hazily through the drifting clouds. Then the mountains suddenly appeared, white and huge, the best view of the trip soar. Terry was soon busy with time-lapse photography. At least the snow-covered mountains would show it was winter.

A Snowy Dawn
Camp with Scafells

Dawn showed that they didn't need to. Puzzled by a slithering sound and not awake enough to recognise it I unzipped the tent door. A shower of wet snow fell into the porch. The sound was the snow slipping off the tent when the wind shook it. The hills were still hidden but the world was now wintry. Later in the day the clouds broke up and Scafell and Scafell Pike appeared looking white and huge and glorious, shining in the sun. The light and the views couldn't have been better. This was what we had come for.

Terry Filming

It was, though, our last day so in the afternoon we packed up and headed back down the valley to meet David and a lift back to the Strands Inn. By the time we arrived there the wind was howling and hail was bouncing off the ground. Again I was quite happy to be inside enjoying the excellent food and ale from the inn's own brewery. Terry reckons it's the best pub in the area. I can't say I've been in enough of them to confirm this but it's certainly excellent.

The following day the next big storm hit, with high winds and torrential rain. I was racing the storm by train, just staying north of delays and closures, and thinking of those shining white mountains.

Scafell Pike

Friday 7 February 2014

Interview on Solo Hill Walking for the BMC

On a solo trip in the NW Highlands

A few weeks ago I was interviewed about solo hill walking by Nicola Jasieniecka for the BMC. The interview has just appeared on the BMC website here.

The Great Outdoors latest issue: John Muir, Cross-Country Ski Tips, Going Lightweight In Winter, Mid-Size Packs

The March issue of The Great Outdoors has just appeared in the shops and as a digital download. This being the centenary of the death of John Muir my backpacking column is a tribute to this great wilderness explorer and conservationist. In the Hill Skills section I give some tips on starting out cross-country skiing and going lightweight in the hills in winter. My main gear review covers fourteen 45-55 litre packs and I also review the Hillsound Trail Crampons Ultra and the ultralight Berghaus Hyper Therm jacket.

The magazine opens with the now standard dramatic photographic double-page spreads. I particularly like Damian Shields image of Buachaille Etive Mor and the River Coupall. It's a much photographed scene but this wide angle image still stands out.

Jim Perrin writes about his concern at plans to allow wildfowling close to the Wales Coast Path in a conservation piece and in his Hillwalker's Library praises photographer Gordon Stainforth's excellent The Peak: Past and Present.

Up in the hills Dan Bailey tackles four classic winter mountaineering ridges in the Lake District and Ronald Turnbull tours the Southern Uplands. James Reader starts his Munro tally in the most dramatic way possible with winter ascents of Buachaille Etive Beag and Buachaille Etive Mor.

Far from the wintry British hills Tony Howard describes a long-distance route running the length of Jordan that he is helping to develop. Back in Britain Ed Byrne tries night navigation, a useful skill at this time of year, and Carey Davies wonders why strangers met in the hills are so friendly after an encounter on a wild winter's day on Schiehallion.

In the gear pages Judy Armstrong reviews sports bras and briefs, Tim Francis of Natural High Guiding describes his favourite gear, James Reader gives some Canada Goose garments a severe test and Daniel Neilson tried Montane's warm Tigertooth Pro softshell jacket.

Thursday 6 February 2014

The Shining River Spey

The River Spey at Grantown-on-Spey

Yesterday's need to take the car to the garage for repairs (see previous post) left me with a few hours to wander beside the nearby River Spey. The swirling river was a deep, rich blue, full with recent rain and snow melt. Overhead dark fast-moving storm clouds sped by, split at times by short-lived flashes of sunshine. Far upstream I could see snow on the hills.

Between the surging water and the racing sky the strips of trees along the river banks were a reminder of a solid world. Even then their reflections in the water shivered and shimmered.

Tree Reflections

Mostly the water was so dark, almost black, that it was impentratable. If it had been still it could have been solid. Moving it looked thick, almost oily. In places though it had overflowed onto the little sandy bays that dot the riverside and here the golden rippled sand was clear under the water.

Ripples in Sand

As the sun sank lower and started to dip below the clouds its shafts of light grew stronger and sharper, turning the river and the clouds silver. The light was marvellous and I was glad the mundane nuisance of a burst tyre had brought about the wondrous magic of this stroll by the river.
Silver River, Silver Clouds

BBC Radio Scotland Out of Doors Compass & Navigation Chat

Following yesterday's rather wild ski tour (see last post) I returned to Coire Cas to be interviewed for BBC Radio Scotland's Out of Doors programme about compass declination and navigation in snowy conditions. This should be broadcast on this weekend's programme - 6.30 a.m. Saturday, 11.05 a.m. Sunday.

Compared with yesterday the weather was much windier, snowier and wilder. The ski resort was closed due to the weather and the snow and wind blasted car park almost empty. We wandered a short distance and found a shallow defile partly out of the wind for the recording. I'll be interested to hear what the weather sounds like!

En route to Coire Cas I had a punctured tyre for the first time in many years. After managing to shuffle into a car park I was pleased to discover there was a jack and a wheel wrench in the boot along with a spare wheel. I hadn't seen any of these for so long I wasn't sure they were there! It took a bit of effort to force the rusty jack to turn and I had to kick the wrench to get the wheel nuts to turn but I did eventually manage to get the old wheel off and the new one on. The car park was in woodland and whilst I wrestled with the wheel two other cars came in with walkers aboard. In both cases the occupants came over and offered help. I didn't need it but it was really good to be asked.

Finally moving again I arrived in Coire Cas forty minutes late. Presenter Euan McIlwraith was still there. My thanks to him for waiting.

The interview over it was off to my local garage to get a new tyre. Two new tyres it turned out when the others were checked. And a sticking brake pad fixed. At a loose end whilst all this was going on I wandered down to the River Spey where there was some wonderful storm light. A short walk and some satisfying photography later I actually felt the burst tyre had been a cloud with a silver lining - and I had pictures of the latter. I'll post some of the photos tomorrow.

Tuesday 4 February 2014

Winter Storms Continue In The Cairngorms

Figures in the Storm

This stormiest of winters runs on into February. Searching the weather forecasts for a day that looked as though the hills might offer more than a desperate struggle I seized on the 4th as one where the winds were 'only' forecast to reach 35mph on the summits and there might be good visibility between the showers. Not wanting to cope with winds that strong on the Cairngorm Plateau I decided on what seemed a fairly unambitious ski tour into the Northern Corries and down Lurchers Gully with perhaps an ascent of 1053 metre Creag an Leth-choin if conditions were good.

The wind hurling spindrift around the car park in Coire Cas didn't suggest an easy day. The car park is notoriously windy though and I hoped once I was away from its exposed flatness the wind might fade a little. With climbing skins on my skis I left the busy downhill ski area and headed for the two huge cliff-rimmed corries of Coire an t-Sneachda and Coire an Lochain. High above the Plateau was invisible in swirling clouds though away from the mountains the sun shone over the brown and green of Strathspey. A strange aspect of this winter is that whilst the hills have been cold and snowy down in the glens it has been mild with only the occasional dusting of snow. The fairly abrupt cut-off line is around 600 metres.

More Figures in the Storm

As I climbed the visibility came and went as clouds of spindrift blasted down from above. In any even slightly sheltered area the snow was soft and deep but elsewhere it was scoured and hard and rough with many rocks poking through. Other figures came and went in the spindrift - walkers, snowshoers, skiers - all with hoods up, goggles on and bent over ski poles against the wind.

In the mouth of Coire an t-Sneachda the wind almost prevented upward movement as it roared down. Ahead I could see nothing so I turned away and contoured round into Coire Lochain. Again the wind made progress a struggle. At around 900 metres in the mouth of this second corrie I decided turning back was wise. I could see nothing except the occasional rock and I was feeling the effort of fighting into the storm. The spindrift was more than head high. Or maybe snow was falling. I couldn't tell.

Facing away from the wind, my beard frozen to my jacket
The return was as difficult as the ascent. I had the wind behind me now but this brought it's own problems as it shot me towards boulders. I kept the skins on the skis and still picked up too much speed for good control at times. The rivers of spindrift racing over the snow made the ground seem insubstantial and almost alive as it shivered and swirled. The air and ground met and I couldn't always tell whether the snow in front of me went up or down. On the wind-scoured refrozen icy snow I skittered and skidded, utilising muscle power and crude ski techniques to keep my speed manageable. My legs are feeling this I thought. Then I would hit the soft windblown powder and my skis would slow abruptly almost throwing me forwards onto my face.

Eventually the car park reappeared. The wind was stronger here, the car rocking as I changed my boots. I'd only been out two and a half hours and had only skied five kilometres but it felt longer in both time and distance because of the intensity and depth of the experience. The whole time I'd been out I'd had to concentrate to stay on my feet, pick a safe route, control my skis, keep track of where I was and make sure I was in control. All that existed was the snow, the wind, the boulders and the spindrift. An elemental world.

Sunday 2 February 2014

Book Review: 8000 Metres Climbing the World's Highest Mountains by Alan Hinkes

Nine years ago Alan Hinkes became the first British mountaineer to climb all fourteen 8000 metre high summits, an epic achievement that took eighteen years and twenty-seven expeditions. Anyone who has done any winter climbing or even hillwalking in snowy conditions might just be able to grasp the immense effort, skill and courage required to climb the 8000 metre peaks. If you've been to even moderately high altitudes and experienced the difficulty this brings to both physical and mental ability you'll have an inkling of just how difficult mountaineering must be at 8000 metres. I've done just enough to have a vague idea of  what was involved and to be over-awed at Hinkes' accomplishment.

Now Alan Hinkes has produced a book telling the story of these climbs in words and pictures, a superb book that is a fine achievement in itself. Most mountaineering books tell the story of one expedition with details of the planning, the approach, base camp and the climb. Here the author is covering all his 8000 metre expeditions so descriptions of each one are necessarily quite brief. I think this adds to the power of the words though and makes for a build-up of tension and astonishment as expedition follows expedition. I felt amazed at the constant risks undergone and the ability of Hinkes to cope with the stresses. His mantra throughout was to always return and not to take undue risks and he retreated many times, hence the need for so many expeditions. At the same time he is aware that just climbing an 8000 metre peak is risky and writes that following his success 'nothing, however, could persuade me to climb the 8000m peaks again. They are all too dangerous'. Deaths of other mountaineers, including friends of the author, punctuate the book as reminder of the dangers.

This is not just a book of words though. Alan Hinkes is a skilled and creative photographer and took pictures on every expedition, often in extremely adverse conditions. The book is filled with his magnificent images which are majestic, inspiring and, sometimes, terrifying. To add photography to all the mountaineering skills needed must have made these most difficult ascents even harder.

I've read many mountaineering books over the years. This is one of the best.