Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Suunto Traverse GPS Watch - First Impressions

I was one of several people to have recently been invited by Suunto to test their new Suunto Traverse GPS watch.  As a long term user of a Suunto Core that accompanies me on my outdoor adventures I was curious to see whether the addition of GPS in a watch was a worthwhile addition or a compromise of size and battery-life.

The Suunto Traverse arrived in smart packaging - not up to Apple's impeccable standards - but typical Suunto.  Unable to specify a preferred colour I received the graphite version which although looking darker in photos is actually a lightish grey which can sometimes have a brownish/green hint in certain light.  It's probably the most anonymous of the range which also includes black (with silver bevel), amber (which is dark grey with orange strap) and white.

My first thought was how compact the watch is for a GPS-equipped device.  Previous Suunto GPS watches, including the recent Ambit, have been characterised by their noticeable bulk primarily from the need to incorporate an external aerial for reliable GPS reception.  On the Ambit there is a noticable protrusion onto the wrist-strap that houses the antenna.   The Traverse is the first Suunto watch to use a new type of GPS aerial that's embedded within bezel.  This makes for a far more compact design, in fact  I was surprised to find it's not much larger than my old non-GPS Core.

Out of the box I ignored the Quick-Start guide provided and dived straight in to the set-up process.  The Traverse has a relatively straightforward menu system, using the right-hand side buttons for up/down/select navigation through the menus.  Anyone with experience of previous Suunto watches will fee immediately at home, but it's straightforward for new users too.   Having an Apple Watch as my daily watch I quickly resisted the urge to tap on the screen and whizzed through the relatively simple menu.
In fact I was slightly surprised that there weren’t more options/functions to bamboozle me, however here it's evident that Suunto have purposely distilled the options and removed a number of the more specialist multi-sport functions that can be found on the Ambit.  These are more aligned to training/althete needs (for a comprehensive review of the Ambit 3 take a look at the excellent DC Rainmaker website,whereas the Traverse is clearly a more focused outdoor activity watch.   By adding GPS to the usual altimeter/baromter/compass functionality it delivers something akin to a Suunto Core on steroids.   For me that’s a good thing as it includes the functions I’d find I need and are practical when hiking/climbing/exploring but without the bloat of functions I wouldn't use.   In common with a growing trend the Traverse also incorporates Bluetooth connectivity to you smartphone, allowing basic notification of messages/alert direct to your wrist.

On the wrist the Traverse has a chunky and robust look - it fits rather well with the current fashion for over-size watches even if it's size its out of necessity rather than design.  The Traverse certainly feels robust without being engendered with excessive heft by a body that appears to be made of a sturdy composite and a stainless steel bevel.  The rubbery strap appears similar to other Sunnto straps in terms of size/fit which suggests it would be simple to swap straps to suit your taste.

I downloaded the Suunto Movescount app to my iPhone and completed a painless set-up and sync process.  I wasn't familiar with the Movescount portal but as well as being able to edit/control various watch settings, also allows you to log and share your activity/routes on a more social basis. it also allows you create routes and/or /POI’s and upload them to your watch.

Battery life is a typical weak area for smartwatches - I currently have to charge my Apple Watch nightly - so I was unsure how the Suunto would fair.  The USB charging lead has a spring-loaded calm to the side of the watch - I guess a plug-in connection would have made in more difficult to seal the unit - as it is, the watch is certified as waterproof to 100m.   Leaving for work with the watch 100% charged I arrived home after a days use, including receiving many notifications, to find the battery at 96%.   Obviously I wasn’t using GPS but even so thats a pretty impressive battery life.  The specs show a 100hr battery life when using GPS so plenty for a long weekend adventure or backpack.

First Outing
My first outing was due to be a trip to the Lakes last weekend but Storm Desmond had other ideas so I was limited to a meander around Richmond Park to give the Traverse its first outing.   Starting a log was a simple press-and-hold affair and the watch confirmed a GPS fix almost immediately.  I'm used to the altimeter and compass functions of my Core but the use of GPS on the Traverse affords a rich array of trip data - distance, speed, pace, altitude, height gained/lost - with you able to customise the screen views to display the info you want. A breadcrumb display shows your route so far and a track-back options allows you to re-trace your steps.  Adding a POI as you are moving is another simple case of press-hold a single button.

At the end of the walk I sync'ed the watch to the Movescount app, whereupon my track was automatically uploaded.  Within the app you are able to view a map view and several graphs with selectable metrics.  Log-in to your Movescount account on a browser and you have the option to also export your GPX track to use with alternate software/services.  You can also import or create tracks and upload them to the Traverse, though the Movescount app only includes Google mapping - if you wanted to use OS mapping for route-planning you would need to do that in another app and export the GPX track in order to import to your Movescount app and then onto your watch.

In summary, my initial impressions of the Suunto Traverse are positive. It's a definite step forward in terms of functionality from my battered old Core, and the addition of the GPS function adds usability without unduly compromising size or battery-life.  Increasingly devices/hardware are being integrated with software services to deliver an overall 'experience' and the Suunto Traverse is fairly reliant on the Suunto Movescount service via app and web. Thankfully Movescount is pleasantly functional - it may not suit the power-user - but it offers the basics in a user-friendly manner.  OS mapping integration, allowing you to plot routes on OS mapping, would  make it even better, particularity given the target market for the Traverse.  Hopefully if the weather plays ball I'll get chance to take it on a proper outing in the next few weeks.

Disclaimer - I applied and was selected as one of a number of volunteer reviewers to whom Suunto have provided test units for evaluation purposes. The watch remains the property of Suunto during the trial period.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Video - Lapland Packrafting Wilderness trip

A short video of our week long hiking and packrafting trip across northern Lapland in early September.  Hopefully it will give a sense of what an amazing landscape we traversed - across the north-west finger of Finland and into Norway.

Lapland Packrafting from Nigel Gray on Vimeo.

For more info on our trip see my earlier blog posts below:

     Lapland Packrafting Adventure - Part 1

     Lapland Packrafting Adventure - Part 2

Flickr photos album from our trip here

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Lapland Packrafting Adventure - Part 2

To read Part 1 of our trip click here

To see a video of our trip click here

Day 4 - Varitgielas-Geatkejohka
After a quiet night we left the hut and headed further north-east ascending gently toward the Norwegian border, taking in a detour to inspect an empty border hut.  We crossed a large reindeer fence replete with an excessively sculpted stile,  and set our sights on a visible col on the main ridge which marked the watershed.  This was big country, with big skies and not another soul to be seen.   The undulations in front of us gave clues to the boggy areas so we contoured around, crossing a few small streams until we reached the foot of the ridge.


A steep climb soon found us at the col for a lunch break while we watched a large eagle circling above. After a long rocky descent we eventually we dropped down to a river which necessitated a planned crossing by packraft.  I drew the short-straw and inflated my raft as we took turns to shuttle ourselves across, with Jaakko pulling the raft back each time using a throw-line.

As we'd dropped height we were amongst the tree and the late afternoon sun lent a warm glow to the autumnal lours.  Another hour of boggy ascent found us by a small lake that would mark our campsite for the evening.

Struggling to find a space clear enough to pitch our shelters we were treated to a gloriously technicolour display as the sun descended.  An owl circled the lake as a reddish glow lit up an endless view.


Day 5 - Geatkejohka-Spanigorsa-Nedrefosshytta

We woke to gloriously blue sky.  After another porridge breakfast I was perched behind a rock with trousers down when a heard the cry "Wolverine, wolverine".  I looked up to see Jaakko pointing and turned to see a dark thick-set beast running off behind me.  Apparently it had been coming my way until Jaakko hosted though the sight of me with trousers round my ankles would surely have made it flee!   We broke camp and made our way upwards, contouring around a peak above the lake.

It was clear the landscape was changing - the colours, the increasing trees and more jagged and snowbound mountains in the distance marked our transition from the high Finnish plateau into Norway.


Soon we could see a giant cleft in the landscape in the distance - the Reisandalen - the valley to which we were headed.   As we slowly lost height the reindeer became more plentiful and the birch grew higher.

The final few kilometres saw us dropping lots of height through steep wooded slopes - quite a challenge with the packs and paddles - until we caught sight of the river below us, glinting in the sun.

We stopped above the waterfall at Imofossen before joining a small path - the first sign of human touch for several days - until we reached the hut at Nedrefosshytta.

Perched below the hut, beside the river was a separate little hut - the sauna - so we enjoyed a long relaxing soak, washing out the exertions of the past few days.   The hut was well equipped - and empty - we filled out forms to allow them to charge us via credit-card.  As night fell well I was conscious that we hadn't yet seen the Northern Lights.  The evenings had been too cloudy and I'd already discounted the chance of us seeing them.  A chance look out of the window at around 2130 and we thought we could see something.   Stepping outside into the darkness, the unmistakable sight of the aurora was above us.   We were treated to a glorious show of irides as the aurora danced and jigged around a star-filled sky.


Day 6 - On the Reisa

This was planned as a partial rest day. Ali lounged in the hut while Jaakko and I disinfected the packrafts - a necessity when crossing the watershed to prevent a known disease spreading to the salmon.   I fancied having some fun in the white water further upstream so we walked a few kilometres up with our rafts and jumped into have some fun.  It was all over all to quickly but enough to whet my appetite for more - the Alpackaraft being so buoyant and manoeuvrable.

After lunch we packed up, strapped our packs to the rafts and set off, the plan being to descent 6 or 7km downstream to find a camp spot for the evening.  Immediately we were into faster water, dodging the boulders that hid under the waves.  Eventually we made shore on a gravel bar on a small island with a visible flat campspot.

The clear sky above hinted at a chillier night ahead so we gathered some fire-wood and Jaakko demonstrated his survival and fire-lighting skills by....using a lighter!  Actually the damp wood made it quite a challenge to keep it light but perseverance brought us a roaring flame providing the perfect back-drop for another aurora display.


Day 7 - Heading down Reisendalen to Saraelv

The alarm went off at 6am we were on the water by 7.30.  With the clear blue sky and quiet waters it would have been easy to just drift along without a care in the world, but we had a long stretch ahead of us to meet our organised lift by mid-afternoon.  


The canyon sides soared above us, punctuated by the odd waterfall cascading down.  Suddenly, an eagle dropped on the cliff above, swooped down in front of us and headed off downstream - such a magical moment that put a smile on my face.

We continued downstream the deeper stretches interspersed with faster rocky shallows as the river lost height  We stopped to admire a huge waterfall and after a few more kilometres we came across the first narrow boats that are used by fisherman and day-trippers.  Shortly afterwards we spied a couple of hikers on the feint path by the river - they were heading up to the hut we'd stayed the night before - the people we'd seen for almost 5 days!


As we meandered downstream the river grew wider and deeper, but ever crystal-clear.  We were gradually easing back into civilisation, with the odd hut and river-boat becoming more apparent, until eventually we reached a small car-park that marked the trail-head.  Shortly thereafter we paddled past a house - first human dwelling for 7 days - before rounding another bend where we were greeted by a smiling Timo, our lift.  We'd done it - we'd survived the wilderness and had a great time to boot! We still had a 3-hour car journey winding along the Norwegian coast to return to Kilpisjarvi.  The scenery was stunning.....but I fell asleep with a smile on my face.

It had been a fantastic 7 days off the beaten trail. Tough going in parts, the most weight I'd carried for a sustained time, but the packrafts added an extra dimension to the trip, making the weight worthwhile.

A big thanks to @korpijaakko for helping/guiding and generally putting up with us!  Compared to his usual Arctic guiding this was a walk in the park for Jaakko and with two people pulling out he could easily have cancelled this trip but his knowledge, humour, patience and company was a pleasure..even if Ali would suggest there was just a little too much gear talk between us!

To see a video of our trip click here

Camp sites 3 to 6 (Days 4 - 7)

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Lapland Packrafting Adventure - Part 1

To see a video of our trip click here

We had been deliberating getting away in September and I'd just taken delivery of my new packraft - an Alpackaraft Yukon Yak - when I noticed @korpijaakko was advertising two spare spaces on his week long hike/packraft trip across northern Lapland - starting in the far north-west of Finland and heading wast into Norway.  Several helpful emails later we confirmed our places to find the other two clients had dropped out so we would effectively have a Jaakko as a private guide for the week.

Food rations
Cue a couple of weeks hastily organising gear - finally managing to get hold of his and hers Exped Lightning 60 packs - as well as organising food rations.  I had been pondering choice of shelters, my girlfriend not over-enamoured with the idea of us both squeezing to my one-person Hex Peak mid.  I had been offered the lone of couple of shelters (thanks @outdoorsMH and @vkemec) but at the last minute I ordered a Lux Hex Peak F6 - a larger version of my Hex Peak, which was promptly dispatched from Backpackinglight.co.uk.

Jaakko was incredibly helpful with travel logistics, weather forecasting and sanity-checking gear lists and random questions.  Erik the Black's gear spreadsheet was handy for checking stuff off and reckoning our weight.

Leaving Heathrow at a leisurely 1020 on the Saturday we flew to Helsinki before boarding an internal flight to Kittilä  some 1,000 km north, to be met by Jaakko, whose stature and beard meant he wasn't to be missed! After chomping down the worlds largest 'regular' pizza we headed to a nearby log cabin for the evening, spent sorting gear and enjoying a traditional sauna.

Day 1 - Kilpisjärvi to Kuonjarjohka

We rose early for the three and a half hour drive from Kittilä to Kilpisjärvi  during which I filled in my knowledge of Finland, its mountains and history, between bouts of slumber.  I was surprised to hear that Finland has only 26 peaks over 1,000m, with the highest Halti being 1328m.

Kilpisjarvi felt like a distant outpost, which indeed it was, though the local outdoor shop opened at 11am so I could grab a couple of gas canisters for the Jetboil. We parked the car and spent a nervous few minutes checking we had everything, shoving in an extra layer as the weather had turned wet and cold.

Finally we shouldered our packs - fully laden we were around 20kg - and trudged off up the path around 1230. Today was to be longest day - over 20km - which coincided with our heaviest pack weight.  

The first part of the route followed an established route north-west, crossing the border with Norway for a short time before heading back in to Finland.  A combination of the pack weight and a path that alternated between rock-hoppping and bog-hopping meant it was hard-work, especially after the early start and long drive. As we gained height the trees had thinned out to mainly dwarf birch until even they petered out.  Our first wildlife was a few lemmings  scurrying under some duck-boards across a boggy patch.  Shouldn't they be at the coast throwing themselves into the sea....?

Finally we reached a small open hut at Saarijarvi and at 4pm it seemed an opportune time for a late lunch.

From here we continued gaining height, the feint path shown by marker posts every 20m or so.   The view and the sky just opened up to give our first real taste of taste of the scale of the wildnerness into which we were heading.

The path seemed to go on for ever and the packs seemed to be getting heavier as we continued to head up over a rocky pass before eventually started a long descent into valley.   We had to cross a small river and as the only one without waterproof boots I carefully picked my way across some stones, only to slip on the final step and fill both boots with icy cold water.  Some 20 mins later the small hut at Kuonjarjohka came into view, replete with tiny outhouse.

A few small tents were scattered around - mainly Hilleberg - but it turned out no-one was staying in the hut so we were free to use it.  Jaakko wanted to try out a Locus Gear eVent mid he'd borrowed so he pitched up by the river as Ali and I sorted stuff for dinner.   An inquisitive reindeer has us scrambling for the camera, just before we tucked into a venison dinner.

Several of the Finnish huts have two halves - a reservation side to be booked in advance and an open side that's first come first served. They're surprisingly well equipped including chopped wood for the stove and several have been recently equipped with gas stoves.  Stove on, meal rehydrating and we were soon snuggled into sleeping bags after a long and tiring day.

Day 2 - Kuonjarjohka-Meekonjärvi-Porojärvi
A clear morning saw us heading north gaining more height until what appeared to be the whole of Lapland stretched out before our eyes.  The last remnants of snow clung to the north-facing ridge behind us but before us lay miles and miles of untouched wilderness.  The stream that ran past last nights camp squirmed its way out on to a vast plateau, a couple of the lakes that were to be our destination stretched themselves out in the distance.  In the distance on the horizon was another ridge that marked the watershed into Norway we'd be aiming for in a few days time.

Gaining further height we dropped over a ridge to see the profile of Saivaara Caivarri a kind of miniature Finnish Suiliven  - rising proudly from the plateau, flanking the string of lakes along which we would be packrafting.



The light was kind and as we approached Meekonjärvi at the west end of the lakes we lunched by some fishing huts while admiring a rainbow.  It was finally time to take advantage of the extra weight and inflate our rafts.  A few minutes later we'd lashed our packs to the bow were finally on the water- this is what we were here for.

The sunshine was punctuated by dark clouds which threatened and added to the sense of fragility in such a emote landscape.  The wind whipped up a few small waves but was thankfully in our direction.

Our route was actually along a string of long lakes, each joined by an outflow that dropped a few metres, though the low water level meant we were pushing and scraping across rocks  A couple of times we were forced to step out, drag our boats to the shore and navigate between them on foot.

After at the end of the third lake we could see the small hut at Porojävri that Jaakko had pre-booked at the last minute.  With two bunks, a wooden stove and a small gas stove we were set for the night and being able to dry our gear.

Day 3 -Porojärvi-Poroharju-Harrejavri

Back on the water the wind was a little stronger and waves a little higher, but thankfully not against us. Negotiating another outflow, a couple of shoves of the paddle saw us over a few rocks and into the next channel.  Eventually we joined a larger river but it was time to get back to hiking.  Landing in a small bay we dragged our rafts over the dwarf birch and grabbed some coffee and lunch before re-packing and heading east on foot.


With no paths the going was tough - we were traversing ground that was higher to the north so were continually rising and falling, crossing each minor water course that meant tramping through bogs.  Eventually I'd recognise that dwarf birch giving way to mini birch and willow indicating the next boggy bit.  The sky darkened and drizzle added to the sense of desolation as we looked back to the peaks we;d left we could still see remnants of the last winter. To the south a plateau stretched out, riddled with rivers and lakes.  Ahead of us the ground undulated with just more birch and bog to negotiate.


We continued contouring, the monotony of birch-bashing, occasionally interrupted by boulder hopping over old stream beds.   "How far?", "Are we there yet?", "..it must be over the next crest". we questioned Jaakko.  We longed to see the tiny hut that marked the end of the day but each time we peered over the next crest we saw just more scrub and birch.

Eventually a dot appeared and after hopping across a river we reached the hut at Harrejavri.  Again it was empty so we made full use of the wood stove and a sleeping platform.  It had been a couple of days since we'd seen anyone else - we were truly in the wilderness.

Click here to follow our journey - Lapland Packrafting Adventure - Part 2

To see a video of our trip click here

For more photos see my album on Flickr here.

For a map of our route see below.

Route of first 3 days from start at Kilpisjärvi. 

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Arenig Fawr - Welsh Winter Wildcamp

No wonder I saw no other soul in 24 hours - the foothills of Arenig Fawr are a pathless, tussocky bogfest that sap the life and energy from your limbs with every squelchy stomp.

The weather forecast had been less than encouraging but a bright blue sky in London teased  a perfect winter morning, so all packed I headed up the M40 - destination Bala.  The fine weather continued till, well, till I reached Bala. It wasn't bad but the blue sky had been replaced by grey cloud enveloping the surrounding hills and the wind has started to pick up. After grabbing some provisions I headed up through the hamlet of Parc to a small lay-by at the end of Cwm Tylo, which would save me some km's.

A quick decision on whether to take the Hex Peak inner or a bivvi bag saw me grab the inner for the extra warmth and shelter. My Viewranger 1:50k map didn't show any footpaths so I followed a farmers track bearing north-east before turning west, traversing the northern flank of Moel Ymenyn, broadly following the line of Dolwyd Bychan which trundled down the valley below.  My feet were soaked within moments and the pathless ascent through tussocks and heather weighed heavy on my legs after the four-hour drive. 

A short pull up to the head of this minor valley led me to flatter ground dotted with pools and more bog and with open view across to the Arans ridge and the shapely peaks of Rhobell Farr and Duallit to the south.  

Looking south towards Rhobell Fawr and Duallit
The south ridge of Arenigs Fawr was my destination for the evening. The wind was picking up and I was consciously taking note of any possible sheltered camping spots lest the ridge was too exposed, but in such a featureless plateau descent would be the only option,  Another steep pull up led me to the south end of the ridge and the first of the many pools of Llyn Crafanc.  The main summit a kilometre further north could just be seen rearing out of the mist.  The wind was howling form the west so some shelter for camp was a must. Heading north I picked my way around the various pools and bogs, feet soaked, seeking out each craggy outcrop for a sheltered, flat and dry spot.  

After much searching (my Viewranger track, left, looked like the scribbles you get on paper when trying to get a biro to work) I settled on a spot behind a crag, just north of the main pool.  It was somewhat sheltered and relatively flat and dry and clearly a favourite spot for the local sheep, the grass having been kindly flattened.  I quickly pitched the Hex Peak tent with darkness falling as quickly as the temperature.  I popped back to the main pool to fetch some water and cursed myself for freezing my hands attempting to fill the bladder for my Sawyer filter.  I normally find it fills easiest by dragging it through the water, but that led to freezing hands made worse by a bitingly cold wind. A moment of logic had me scouping water up in my Titan kettle and pouring the water into the bladder. I can see how cavemen learnt by trial and error!

Winter evenings are notoriously long...and cold..and damp.  I boiled water for a cuppa-soup hoping to regain some warmth, while I organised the tent and removing my soaking shoes and socks.  It was the first time I'd used my new Kovea Spider stove and whether it was the temperature or me being used to my Jetboil I was surprised how long it took to boil.  The  chicken and vegetable soup was completely tasteless, which was surprising as it seemed to infuse the cup and every drink thereafter tasted of chicken soup.

The forcast had warned of higher winds and gusts up to 60mph but whilst I could hear the wind outside, the crag protected me from the worst. After dinner - an Expedition Foods goulash which has the consistency of baby-food but is surprisingly tasty - I snuggled into my sleeping bag, listened to some music and then read a couple of chapters of Mike Cawthorne's excellent One Hell of a Journey, his account of completing the Scottish 1,000m peaks in a single trip over a winter.  It felt rather apt to be reading it within the confines of cold, damp tent - I just needed to awake to 6 inches of snow to really feel at home.

Pitched behind a crag
Inside the tent the temperature dropped to 2 degrees but I was cosy wrapped in my sleeping bag.  About midnight the wind picked-up noticeably and the tent was being buffeted by the gusts as they swirled around the crag.  I could hear each distant roar growing louder until each gust arrived with a violent shake of the tent. The pyramid shaped Hex Peak held its ground, the single pole dancing a merry jig in the centre allowing the tent to flex every which way. 

After a restless night I awoke to a gently pervading light and the sound of a light shower bouncing of the flysheet. The wind was still strong and I was enveloped in cloud so was in no rush to move.   A quick recc'y of the tent showed that one guy-line had slackened off during the night and my walking pole had sunk into the ground an inch or so, so the fly wasn't quite as taut as when she was pitched.  Arenigs Fawr's summit had disappeared in the damp mist and a torrent of damp air was being ferociously channelled up a gully just ahead of me.

I contemplated my plans for the day.  My loose idea of exploring the badlands to the south would be no fun in this weather- between the peaks it's mostly bog, heather and more bog.  A loop north over Arenig Fawr in the mist would lead me towards Llyn Areng Fawr and then across rough country back to the car.  If the winds were too strong I could always stay put for the day, as Mike Cawthorne did when conditions meant he couldn't ascend. 

By 0830 the wind had abated a little, to be replaced by more showers. I was in no rush, I had my chicken-flavoured tea to savour and I started to write this blog post while cocooned in my sleeping bag.  Instant porridge warmed me up and I decided that I had to bag Arenig Fawr while I was here, even if visibility was zero.

A snowy Arenig Fawr summit!
I packed my gear and strapped a soaking flysheet to the side of my pack. I couldn’t face putting on wet socks so opted for Seal-skinz to keep my feet dry.   Compass and bearing was in needed in the poor visibility, aided by a fence-line which ascends the ridge to the summit.  I passed a few remnant snow patches clinging to the eastern slopes and soon reached the summit cairn surrounded by a stone wind-break.  The summit is also home to a commemorative plaque to airmen killed when an american Flying Fortress crashed into the mountainside in 1943.

Looking over Llyn Arenig Fawr

Descending north-west I used compass and pacing till I picked up a feint path. As I dropped altitude there was a short break in the cloud affording views across the moorland below.  I headed over to the cliffs above Llyn Arenig Fawr for a quick lunch stop by which time I was below the cloud.  The rain re-started and kindly accompanied me down through the tussocky bogs and over pathless fields until I reached better tracks and the return to my car.

It hadn't quite been the perfect winter weekend I'd longed for (blue-skies, snow-capped peaks....) but it was good to get in some hill-time and finally visit the wild Arenigs. 

No wonder I saw no other soul in 24 hours - unsurprising when the foothills of Arenig Fawr are a pathless, tussocky bogfest that sap the life and energy from your limbs with every squelchy stomp.

Gear Notes:

Thermarest NeoAir Xtherm mattress - its first outing and it was noticably warmer than my regular Neoair Xlite for little weight or size penalty. It's slightly beefier fabric meant I found it comfier and less crinkly too.  Unless you are really counting each and every gram I'd recommend it as a full-time alternative to the standard Neoair.  And I managed to pick it up in a sale for same price as the Xlite.

Kovea Spider stove - I took this along with my MSR Titan kettle rather than my JetBoil.  A folded Kovea fits perfectly in the bottom of the kettle (though not with a gas canister). A pre-heat tube allows it to be used with an inverted canister in winter.  Compared to my JetBoil, the boil time was much slower, though stupidly I forgot to invert the canister to see if it had any effect.  The Kovea and Titan kettle is a more stable set-up than the taller Jetboil.  I'll happily take it out again. Perhaps a windshield would help keep the heat in and improve boil times.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Keld - Yorkshire Dales - Oct 14

It was a social weekend really - a chance to get away and meet up with some friends and enjoy beautiful countryside, a walk or two, with good beer and food.  We stayed at the delightful Keld Bunkhouse, which a friend had happened across on his Coast-to-Coast route last year.  We booked the entire bunkhouse (sleeps 10-11) though there are also three yurts and space for a few tents.  There's also a bookable hot-tub if you are feeling luxurious.  Directly on the river Swale by Catrake Force waterfall, it's a lovely spot and highly recommended with good facilities. The current owners took over three years ago after giving up jobs in IT and are making a real go of it.

I'd been struggling with a chest infection so was grateful for a leisurely meander down Swaledale on a glorious autumn day.  We headed up Swimmer Gill onto the moor, heading east before dropping down into Gunnerside and making our way back along the Swale for much needed beer and food at the pub in Muker.

It was my first time up in that area of the Dales. I'm naturally more drawn to rugged mountainous terrain but there is no doubt it is a stunning landscape, from the deep-sided valleys, the stream-hewn clefts and waterfalls to the rolling high moors it's 'big-country' in all its glory and wondrously quiet backpacking country that begs to be explored more. 

The 'trophies' hanging at the end of the video were from Ravenseat Farm where we popped on Sunday. The wife, known as the Yorkshire Shepherdess @AmandaOwen8  was busy preening/preparing a 'tup' - a male ram - for market that week, while one of their sons delighted in showing us his mole-catching skills!

Aran Ridge - Quick Video

I took a small SJCAM SJ4000 waterproof video camera on my recent Aran Ridge wild camp trip.  It only arrived in the morning so no chance to read the manual or tweak settings, or fully charge the battery so it didn't last for the whole trip and thus my edit is supplemented with photos from my phone.  It was my first play with video editing - I used iMovie on my MacBookAir -  so lots to learn, but video does add an extra dimension to recording trips.  Strangely, I've never previously thought to try video on my camera or iPhone, so will give that a whirl too.  Anyway, here goes..

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Aran Ridge 2-Nighter

As ever I didn’t manage to get away from London as early as expected so it was 6pm when I arrived in Bala to grab some provisions, parking at the lake to sort out my gear and load my rucksack.

I had some new stuff to try out.  I’d be using only the outer of the my Hex Peak shelter as a tarp and combining it with my new Borah Gear sidezip bivy to protect my sleeping bag.  I was bringing along a new SJ4000 video camera - a Go-Pro clone, but at a quarter of the price.  And as I only had one dehydrated meal left (and they get quite expensive if you are buying them regular) I’d be trying out a new supermarket food option.

Parking in Llanuwchllyn it was a quiet hazy evening as I took the obvious path that gains the start of the Aran Ridge.   Looking back I could see the Arenigs to the north-east, Rhobell Fawr to the west and the main ridge directly in front.  Despite my pack feeling deceptively light I was finding it a bit of a struggle - the 5 hours in the car and little to eat taking it toll.  I stopped at Moel Frenig to check my altimeter and estimated it would be another hour or so to my planned camp by Llyn Pen-Aran, near the summit of Aran Benllyn.  Ahead there appeared to be a serious ascent but as ever fore-shortening made it look much worse.  However my ascent was taking longer than anticipated and it was not long before the setting sun gave up trying to break through the haze, replaced by an almost full moon from the east, rising eerily through the mist.  I struggled on walking off the sudden onset of cramp seizing my left calf. 

Moon rising
I passed a few small pools that I guessed weren’t my destination and a few minutes on I climbed over a stile to find a rather small Llyn Pen-Aran nestled in the gloom.  I needed my headlamp to find a suitable campspot and quickly settled in for a still but damp evening. 

Unpacking my new Borah Gear bivy I was treated to the unmistakable crackle of cuben fabric.  I’d opted for a cuben base and an argon  upper, the latter being incredibly thin, making a lightweight package that packs incredibly small.  Of late I've been using an old Adventure Medical emergency blanket to use as a groundsheet - it’s thin, tough and the silver side helps with heat retention, though it doesn’t offer too much protection from rocks and stones.  I wasn’t sure whether I should use my NeoAir mattress inside or outside of the bivy bag - is there a difference?  I decided to place the mat inside the bag, primarily to see whether it still left room for my bag to loft.  

The air was still and damp and it was not long before condensation made everything glisten in the moonlight.  It was 9pm as I cooked dinner and then snuggled down for the evening, the tent inner quickly soaked from condensation.  With no bugs I decided not to worry about zipping up the mesh hood and soon drifted off to sleep in the silence.

I woke in the morning to find I’d slipped down the tent and my feet had been brushing the wet inner.  Consequently there was a wet patch on the foot of the bivy and some dampness on my sleeping back beneath, but no apparent condensation from within the bag.  I opened the tent door to a white-out - I could barely see the water 10 metres away.  I packed and set-off with regular bearing checks to make sure I didn’t stray from the ridge path, passing the summit of Aran Benllyn and then dropping across boggy ground before a short steep pull up to Aran Fawddvy summit.  Low cloud still obscured the view as I set off south-west in the direction of Llyn y Fign at the south end of the ridge.  

Dropping into the slight col before Glasgwym the cloud lifted for a brief moment and I saw another four walkers popping out of the mist.   Crossing an intersection of paths I started the steep trudge up to Glasgwym, spending a few minutes getting my bearings before eventually spotting the summit cairn and Lyyn y Fign just beyond. I lunched by the cairn as the lake came in and out of view with the drifting cloud.  The mist thickened again as I set-off so I resorted to using the compass and pacing for the next 1.5km.  It’s always quite satisfying to use basic hill-skills successfully and I was rather chuffed to pick up the fence line as planned above the cliffs of Craig Cywarch.

As I dropped height visibility improved until I could look down on a green and verdant Cwm Cywarch.  An old miners path is the obvious decent and across the valley I could pick out the feint line of the path threading up Cwm Hengwm.  My knees groaned at the prospect of having to drop 500m and then re-ascend the same to gain the ridge of Drysgol that spurs east from the main Aran ridge.  

Looking back down to Cwm Cywarch

The ascent was steady but relentless as I was treated to the first rays of sunshine on my back.  On my left Cwm Cywarch opened up to reveal its contours, a few stream carving their way through vertiginous cliffs.  

The path peters out around 570 metres and the re-appears after a boggy section, turning north-west to head up to Drysgol.  My destination was the waters of Creiglyn Dyfi. I knew from my last visit that if I ascended Drysgol I was  only going to have to lose more height the other side. Or I could drop straight down to the infant river Llaethnant but would the need to reascend. I decided to stay at my current height and skirt around and under Drysgol, heading into the head of the valley and eventually round to Creiglyn Dyfi.  

Looking across to Creiglyn Dyfi nestled below the cliffs of Aran Fawddwy

Looking east from beneath Drysgol
The plan worked in that I maintained height but it was false economy as my route meant contouring a steep pathless terrain, adding extra distance and meaning an uncomfortable ankle-straining traverse.  Arriving at the lake around 5pm I scouted round the western edge to gain the north-west corner where I'd heard there was a flatish spot to camp.  Previously I'd pitched in the more exposed and damp south-eastern corner.

My pitch by Creiglyn Dyfi 

The Hex Peak fly was still soaking from the night before but it quickly dried in the sunny breeze.  The sun dropped lending a warming glow but it was to be a chilly evening with such a clear sky.  With my shoes and socks soaking I put on my dry spare socks and found that Exped dry-bags made surprisingly effective waterproof slippers around camp.  

My supermarket food experiment consisted of a tomato and chilli pasta packet (£1) combined with a small tin of tuna (49p).  My JetBoil is designed for boiling water fast so simmering is not its forte.  Stirring continuously to prevent pasta welding to the base of the pan I added the tuna near the end.  It was a surprisingly tasty and filling meal for a quarter of the price of mainstream dehydrated meals.  

Mindful of the night before I positioned my sleeping mat and bivy further up the tent to stop my feet brushing against the inner and then rigged up a cord to keep the mesh hood of the bivy away from my face.  I’d be fully tucked in tonight and went to sleep wearing socks and a top to supplement my Minim 300 sleeping bag.  I wondered whether I’d feel too claustrophobic fully-enclosed within the bivy but it was fine and I woke early in the morning to find not a trace of condensation inside the bag.

It was a much brighter day as I headed down into Cwm Llywdd, keeping left and meant a long traverse beneath Aran Benllyn and the main ridge until reaching Llyn Llibrawn, from where I could contour round to re-join the main ridge path, before dropping down to Llanuwchllyn and the car.

Borah Gear Side-zip Bivvy 
I was interested to see how the cuben/argon combination worked. John at Borah Gear was very helpful in answering my questions and sorting my custom options of a part-mesh hood and an extra couple of inches width.  Thanks also to Peter Dixon @munro277 for letting me call him to answer a few more questions before I decided on which options to go for.    On arrival it weighed in at 136g and packs down impressively small.  I was a little concerned about my choice of the argon upper after the damp getting through to my bag on the Friday night but I put that down to eight hours of brushing up against a soaking fly.  The second night when I was fully enclosed I had no condensation problems in the bivy.  It certainly offers a new lightweight option - the Hex Peak outer + bivy saves around 400g over the inner.   

SJ4000 Video Camera
I had a little play with the SJ4000 camera but as it only arrived on the Friday morning I didn’t have time to fuly charge the battery or read any set-up instructions.  I’ve since used sailing in Turkey and my gf even used it diving down to 25m.  For £70 including waterproof housing and a myriad of mounts/brackets it's not quite Go-Pro quality but not too far off.  Thanks to @outdoorsmh and his TGO Challenge videos for the inspiration to try it out..

MYOG Meals
I rather enjoyed ‘making’ my own meal which was cheaper and tastier than some of the dehydrated  meals I've tried. Though not as convenient as the pre-packaged dehydrated meals I found the preparation added to the  feeling and satisfaction of self-sufficiency that is more in tune with wild-camping.  Supermarket options going to be a bit of trial and error but I'll be trying a more options next time.

So in all, a much-needed weekend in the mountains and an often neglected corner of Snowdonia.  It's good to try out new gear options and even geting navigation in poor visibility.   Even with such a short trip we can learn something and add to our experience and skills.