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 It wasn't bad but the blue sky had been replaced by grey cloud enveloping the surrounding hills and the wind has started to pick up.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.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Assynt Canoe-Camping Adventure

The far north-west of Scotland had so far eluded me. Assynt, in particular, with the majestic hulk of Suilven rising proudly amongst a patchwork of lochs was a place I'd long since dreamt of exploring.

Last summer, after having just purchased a Z-Pro Flash FL200 inflatable canoe I hatched a plan to spend a week exploring NW Scotland and visiting Assynt. Part touring, part exploring, the plan was use inflatable canoe as a new means of exploring and a quick glance at maps and web-research showed that Loch Sionascaig and Loch Veyatie were obvious options, the former having a number of small islands and also access to Stac Pollaidh and Suilven.

Loch Sionascaig, with Suilven to the north
There is no direct access to Loch Scionascaig, the easiest access with a short canoe portage is via Loch Buinne Moire just off the road south of Lochinver.  The other option being from the east heading up Loch Veyatie, into Fionn Loch and then heading overland into Loch Veyatie.  This would involve a fair portage and with an inflatable weighing 17kg it was not a realistic prospect.

A full days drive meant we arrived in Aviemore at 6pm on a Friday evening were somewhat surprised to find every campsite full due to a biking festival.  After trying several sites we managed to persuade one campsite to allow us on the last available caravan pitch.

We'd booked an intro white-water  instruction course with Ace Adventures on the Saturday and spent an enjoyable couple hours working our way along the River Findhorn in an inflatable canoe, learning the basics of reading the water, negotiating rapids and practicing crabbing.

It was over all to quickly and with Aviemore already behind us we decided to head north taking the A838 - which must rank as the longest single track road in Britain - following the shores of Loch Shin. The term 'range anxiety' is usually reserved for describing the fear of electric car owners being unable to find a charging point, but the distinct lack of service stations meant I was suffering my own range anxiety of a diesel kind.  Nothing prepares you for the sheer enormity of the wilderness in Scotland, the expanse of landscape and the distances involved.

Reaching the A82 on the north-west coast we continued to head north, rarely seeing another vehicle save for the odd camper-van with French or German number plates.  Some three and a half hours later we arrived at Sango Bay, Durness on the north-west coast, just a few miles from Cape Wrath.  It felt like we'd reached the end of the world - looking north the next piece of land would be the Arctic Circle.

We entered the campsite and found a fabulous pitch perched on the cliff directly overlooking the bay and were greeted by the beautiful sight of crystal white sand and clear blue-green water.  The view wouldn't have looked out of place in the Caribbean!

Sango Bay, Durness
The next morning we explored Smoo Cave and Balnakeil Craft Village before heading a little further south.  Sandwood Bay is reportedly the most remote beach in the UK, reachable only via four mile walk-in.  Parking in the tiny hamlet of Blairmore we trudged north along a clear path with darkening skies and a strengthening breeze.  Reaching the bay at around 4pm it was almost deserted - anyone else had clearly been blown away by the wind.  Sandwood Bay comprises a huge swathe of sand nestled between two headlands, the southern cliffs ending in the sea-stack of Am Buachaill, and a jumble of sand-dunes separating the sea from Sandwood Loch behind.

Sandwood Bay
Looking out to Am Buachaill sea-stack
After rock-hopping and taking some photos we decided to find respite from the breeze and find a camp-spot behind the dunes on the shore of Sandwood Loch.  As the evening progressed the wind-dropped and the inevitable midges confined us to our tent while I scoured maps of Assynt trying to plot the next stage of our mini-adventure.

Camp by Sandwood Loch
The next morning we returned to the car and headed further south, veering off the A894 at Unapool to take the coastal route around to Lochinver.   From there we would follow the single-track road that skirts the western edge of Assynt to check out the canoe access via by Loch Buine Moire.  As we wound our way around we would periodically catch a glimpse of the unmistakable bulk of Suilven.  We stopped in a small lay-by by Loch Buine Moire. It was smaller than expected and would likely take only a 10 minute paddle to cross and the small col over which we would then have to portage into Loch Sionascaig didn't look too severe.

Carryinh on I'd forgotten that we would pass underneath Stac Pollaidh, one of the most recognisable Scottish peaks.  We headed back north on the A9 to check out access to Loch Veyatie but parking and access seemed less straighforward and the route would involve a long paddle straight into the wind.  It was already mid-afternoon so we decided to head into Ullapool where we stayed the night in the town campsite before grabbing last minute provisions and heading back up to Loch Buine Moire the following morning.

Parking in a small lay-by we lugged our rucksacks and canoe down to the waterside.  I had that excited, slightly nervous feeling you get when you bid farewell to the car and an adventure begins.  Ten minutes later the canoe was inflated and the rucksacks strapped fore and aft.  It was only going to a short paddle across the loch, but as we pushed off I smiled as the adventure begun. We knew there was to be another portage to get across into Loch Sionascaig but were unsure of how long/high.
Setting off - ready to un-pack the canoe

Canoe loaded and ready for the off
Fortunately it was only 100m or so and didn't involve anything to steep and two shuttles and a muddy scramble saw boat and gear sat on the shore of Boat Bay at the western end of Loch Sionascaig.

Setting out from Boat Bay
The water was still in the sheltered bay but the ripples soon increased as we headed out into the main body of the loch.  There are numerous small islands dotted throughout, the majority of which are largely inaccessible and are in no way flat enough to camp.  Eilean Mor, by it's name the largest, was the obvious destination and a known destination.  Approaching from the west its rocky ramparts looked impregnable and only on reaching the far eastern tip was it evident where you could land and possibly camp.  Once ashore our excitement was immediately tempered by the presence of five or six tents already in-situ. The island was already colonated!  Judging from the large plastic storage barrels they were likely from an organised canoe tour.   Also evident were the midges, by the million. We beat a hasty re-treat onto the water and  as we departed we could see in the distance a trail of open canoes heading back towards their newly claimed home.

In search of a camp for the evening we headed north and scouted the shoreline but struggled to see anything remotely flat. Eventually, out of desperation, we pulled up in a small sandy inlet and after a quick recce, found a spot that was relatively flat and on which the tussocks of heather were sparse enough for the tent.  The rain started as we pitched but it didn't deter the midges which were out in force. Marooned inside, we whiled away the evening, tucking into a delicious Expedition Foods curry and squishing midges one-by-one against the inner (don't tell David as it was his tent we borrowed!).

Camp on north shore of Loch Sionascaig
The next morning the sun was peeking out from the clouds. From our camp-spot Suilven was hidden from view so we decided to head up the ridge to get a better view, and hopefully check-out Loch Veyatie and Fionn Loch. The next thirty minutes reminded me how trekking in Scotland is far more tiring than anywhere else in the UK. Tussocks of grass, heather interspersed with hidden big conspire to disrupt any rhythm and make every step an effort.  On reaching the ridge I was surprised that the lochs were still not visible.  Whilst the map was clear in my mind I'd underestimated the scale of the topography.  Suilven loomed large but from our vantage point appeared all but impregnable.  Between clouds that rose periodically rose from nowhere to shroud the summit, binoculars offered an occasional glimpse of the steep route up to the central col. Behind us lay the peaks of  Cul Mor and Cul Beag to the east, with Stac Pollaidh standing proudly to the south.

Looking back down on Eilean Mor we spotted a trail of canoes departing so we guessed our island sanctuary had been vacated.  We headed back down, quickly packed and paddled back across to the island to pitch our tent and stake our claim, before heading back onto the water to explore further.  We eventually made shore on the south of the loch and deciding to head up Stac Pollaidh. Again the heather-bashing and bog-hopping impeded progress but eventually, after one last steep slog, the summit was ours and we could look back on the expanse of Assynt before us. And what a sight it was!

After drinking in the views for an hour we descended back to our canoe and paddled back out to Eilean Mor to find the midges in full-force.  Scouring around I found a few small pieces of broken branches and twigs and although damp I managed to light a small fire, hoping in vain that the smoke would deter the midges while we had dinner.  T'was to no avail and despite the headnets I ended up covered in bites before another evening spent marooned in the tent.  A heavy storm appeared from nowhere during the night.  Lying awake my mind turned to thoughts of the canoe being blown away and us being stranded on the island, so around 2am I jumped up to bring the canoe further on shore, weighting it with rocks.

The next morning it was calm and misty with a slow drizzle.  Packing the canoe we pushed off to an eerie stillness to the loch.  The water was jet black, almost like oil and suddenly we felt just a little vulnerable afloat on a deep dark loch.  The mist lifted a little but it's surprisingly difficult to pick out shore features when on the water and we missed the entrance to Boat Bay.  A quick GPS check and we headed back north entering Boat Bay and landing with only a short portage and a 300m crossing of Loch Buine Moire to reach the car.

A murky trip back to Boat Bay
So we survived our first canoe-camping trip - a new adventure - and I'd scratched my Assynt itch! aside from the midge we'd had a great trip and the canoe added to the sense of adventure and exploration.

I'm not sure it quite qualifies as a packrafting trip - the canoe stayed inflated and you wouldn't want to lug 17kg very far, but it did open up a new dimension for exploring if you choose your route appropriately.  Maybe it's the first step on the road to a proper packraft such as an Alpacka raft.  Weighing it around 2-3kg they are far more luggable.  They aren't cheap but if watch some of the online videos of people tackling serious white-water in them, then you can see how robust they are.
There are some new lighter packrafts on the market, more suited to gentle river/loch crossings - the apaddleinmypack blog is a great resource if you want to investigate further.

And for anyone considering a similar canoe/camp adventure I can recommend the Scottish Canoe Touring guide book as a useful start point. 

Monday, 7 July 2014

Gear Thoughts - A Weight off my mind

You can't manage what you can't measure is one of my work mantras, and so it should be true when considering how to lighten my backpacking load.   Un-packing from my Lakes trip I decided to grab the kitchen scales and for the first time weigh my gear in a quest to save my my sore knees.

I had no obvious excess - no hefty 3kg tent, no behemoth of a sleeping bag to ditch. Friends often take the 'mickey' about my lightweight gear though of course it's all relative and they've clearly not heard of ultralight!   But when it comes to counting grammes the law of diminishing returns rules. The incremental ££'s spent to shave extra grams can be considerable, but so can the trade-off in terms of practicality, usability or plain old comfort - else we'd all save some weight and ditch the shelter!   So I figured that by actually understanding where my weight was, would at least let me make an informed judgement as to where I could shave some grammes if I chose.

Here are some initial findings and musings on the main areas of weight.

Camera - The first shock was my camera!.  Over the past couple years Ive enjoyed getting back into using my dSLR but a quick pitch onto the scales showed my Canon 60D and 17-85 lens with a couple of filters and a small table-top ultrapod tripod weighs 2kg!  Admittedly I could take a lighter lens, but it's a cracking lens and goes wider and longer than the much lighter stock 18-55mm lens.   As a comparison my Panasonic Lumix LX5 compact camera weight 300g.  The real question for me is the trade-off between the versatility, control and sheer joy my dSLR gives me versus a significant weight saving.  I knew it was heavier, though not by that much, but I can at lest now make an informed judgement decision on a trip by trip basis.   Ironically a camera is not always included in base weights - some would say that if your carrying it, its not in your pack-weight.  Semantic I say, my knees still feel it!

Sleeping - My PHD Minim 300 sleeping bag and Neoair inflatable mattress (regular length) at 615 g and 380g respectively are reasonably light and efficient in the performance/weight stakes. In fact I've been considering a new bag which is warmer (and heavier) for early spring and late autumn.  I know others have reservations about the comfort and robustness of the NeoAir but I'm happy with it. And I've taken to using spare clothes as a pillow after my Exped inflatable pillow sprung a leak. So no quick/easy win here.

Shelter - my new Luxe Hex Peak shelter is not the lightest option at an all-up weight of 1340g including pegs, stuff sack and pole extender.  My Laser Competition tent is nearer 1kg but the benefit of twice the space and extra stability of the Hex Peak mean I'm currently happy the extra grammes are worth it. The breakdown is 620g for the fly, 495g for the nest, with the rest split between pegs and extender.  I suspected the pegs would a quick win as standard supplied ones tend to be relatively heavy but the V pegs with the Hex are a paltry 10g each including the small tie loop.

On my first couple of outings with the Hex Peak I should really have counted an extra 320g as I only took the Fizan Compact walking poles because I needed for the shelter (zero logic, I know!). However, after the recent Lakes trip I have to confess I'm a convert to poles.....just don't tell anyone!  The downside is I'm now carrying the 320g in my hand rather than counting them in my pack (or maybe thats an upside as I don't need to count it in my base weight now).

Hex Peak without the inner
Tarping it! - on the second night of the Lakes trip I didn't use the inner, except as a groundsheet.  Many backpackers are opting for a tarp set-up such as the Trailstar which doesnt even have a door.  I'd always quite enjoyed the cosy confines of a small tent, particularly in bad weather when you could zip up and snuggle down. I found it ironic that many a Trailstar user would immediately seek out an inner or a bathtub floor and even how to fashion a door....doesnt that make a tarp a tent..!?!

Without the inner the extra feeling of space was immediately apparent, though a warm damp evening did mean a few inevitable midges.   I can see how in the height of a Scottish summer then a fly-only (no pun) option would would be midge hell, hence the number of tarp users who use a bivvy bag/nest.  I left the door wide open at first - pleased that my view across to the main Lakeland massif were as unimpeded - though it also meant that I could watch the midges home in and enter inside.   It was a pleasant evening without the inner.  Everything was easily at hand, it felt more airy, possibly a little more drafty, though I can pitch the fly higher or lower according to conditions.  I'm definitely open to leaving the tent inner at home for the next trip, that it's a viable option and I can choose to save 0.5kg if I wish and the conditions allow.

Midges aside, one concern of not using the inner was whether my sleeping bag would get damp from brushing any condensation on the inside of the fly.  The Hex Peak is long enough for me not to worry unduly about it (though maybe not if you are over 6').  I have been researching the bivvy bag as an option and have just ordered a cuben Borah Gear ultralight side zip bivy (a paltry 140g) to offer me some moisture and bug protection without the need to take the inner.

Pack - Of late, for backpacking, I've been defaulting to my OMM Villain pack with the optional MSC
pouch on the front, my other packs are more streamlined and climbing orientated.  When I bought it a few years ago the Villain at 1200 g was probably classed as fairly lightweight for a 45+10 litre pack and has several removable items (allegedly it can be stripped to 750g) but with a load of over 10kg I find it doesn't carry weight that well with the weight not transferring to the hip-belt effectively.  The back panel is a removable foam/polystyrene mat with an integral metal frame - weighing this I was surprised to see it is 233g itself.  It's designed to be removable and you can insert your own sleeping mat in its place though this would suit foam mats rather than my NeoAir.

Over the past couple of years manufacturers, especially some of the smaller ones like Gossamer Gear (Granite and Mariposa get good review, Mount Laurel Designs (Exodus) and ULA (various models), are being more creative in design and material choice to deliver lighter and more usable options.

I can see a new pack in the near future.  I've been narrowing down my options to the GG Granite or Mariposa - my only conundrum being which what volume pack to go for - smaller to incentive me to pack efficiently or larger to give more flexibility (though I do have an aversion to floppy half-empty packs!)

Sawyer filter in use
Water - at 1kg per litre it's heavy stuff but in fortunately in the UK you're never very far from it. I
tend to run hot in the hills so I find I drink a lot and am generous in the water I carried.  During the last trip I tried to limit the water I carried, filling up or drinking from streams during the day and boiling water from tarns in the evening. My Sawyer Squeeze filter is only 100g and if that's too much there is Mini version at only 65g.

Cooking - my current stove of choice is the JetBoil Sol (339g + 170g for small gas canister). It's speed, convenience and packaging for me outweighs any significant weight saving I could achieve with a lighter set-up. One click of the ignition and I'm boiling water quicker than it takes me to find my tea-bags!

Miscellaneous - a trawl through my ditty bag and other bits and bobs showed how it can soon add up. I also carried a Powermonkey Extreme solar charge which weighs 260g and also includes an internal lithium battery, but is probably overkill for anything less than a week. An Ipood trowel in largely unnecessary when I could use a tent peg.  The head torch was largely redundant in summer when a small LED keyring light would do. Multi-tool knives are small but relatively heavy and I've never used it.

So thanks to half an hour with scales I've a much better handle on where my weight is, the options I have should I choose to travel lighter should trip and conditions allow, and areas where I could still seek too lighten my load without too much sacrifice.

It was 30 minutes well spent and, if you haven't already, I can recommend giving it a go.  You may be surprised....and your knees will thank you for it!

Sunday, 22 June 2014

A Lakeland Escape

I should have been summiting Mount Triglav in Slovenia. Flights were booked, the route planned and huts contacted some months back but misfortune afflicted my travel companions - one was advised by his doctor not to go lest disrupt his ankle rehabilitation and the other fell foul of a hernia the week before.

At a loose end I made a last minute decision to head to the Lake District for a 2-day hike/wild-camp. For reasons unknown, but more likely the M6 traffic, I had yet to explore much of the Lakes, favouring the shorter hop to Snowdonia than the lottery of the M6 north.

Pouring over maps, and finding the OS Getamap tool surprisingly useful for route planning, I considered a linear north-south traverse of the Lakes but the limited public transport to get back to my car on a Sunday pushed me to looking at a circular route.

Leaving London on Friday morning I pulled into Keswick six hours later to pick up some last minute provisions and then headed down past Derwent Water to Rosthwaite where I would leave the car.   My first nights camp was to be on Thuncar Knott.  Low cloud obscured the fells and a short shower reminded me of the folly of stashing waterproofs at the bottom of my pack as I followed the Cumbria Way up towards Stonethwaite.  To the right I could see the start of Langstrath but my route kept me left, following Greenup Gill up to the head of the valley.

The route steepened as I reached onto Greenup edge and the broad col between Ullascarf and High Raise. Crossing boggy ground I headed right and pulled up onto the summit of High Raise.  Heading further south the path dropped gradually before rising again to the rather indistinct Thunacar Knott.  I was looking for the summit tarn by which to camp but I was on a path slightly left of the one marked on the map ended up being distracted by exploring a number of small pools above Pavey Ark. Eventually I headed back up to the true summit and found the small tarn I was searching for, and the one small flat and dry patch on which to pitch the Hex Peak.  I've gotten the hang of pitching it and the inner now.

By the tarn on Thunacar Knott summit

The sun was starting to break through the cloud, hinting a colourful sunset so after a rather delicious dinner I sat against the summit cairn to watch the sun go down.

Beautiful blazing sky

Sunset behind the summit cairn

The next morning the sun was out as I struck camp and headed west, dropping down to Stake Pass following the path round and up to Angle Tarn, nestled below Bowfell.

The morning view
By Angle Tarn I turned right towards Esk Hause, stopping by the stone shelter lower down for a mid-morning snack.  I decided to quickly nip up to the summit of Allen Crags where a 360 degree view meant it felt I was truly at the heart of the Lakes.

Dropping back down to Eask Hause I headed down past Sprinkling Tarn, nodding politely to the day-trippers on their slog up to Scafell Pike.  The cloud was closing in on the peaks as I reached Sty Head where I stopped to consider my route.  I planned to head over Green Gable and Brandreth towards Honister, so I could choose either the direct route up Great Gable, or drop down to Styhead Tarn and then ascend Aaron Slack to Windy Gap. The latter would save me around 100m of ascent but I decided to head straight up Great Gable where the poles were a god-send on the slog-up.  Visibility worsened as I gained height and I reached a cold damp and grey summit.  I took a bearing to head down to Windy Gap, taking care on the steep descent.  A quick haul up to Green Gable and I was soon heading down and up again to reach Brandreth.  Rain and cloud meant following a bearing north to Grey Knotts, with my thoughts drifting to the prospect of tea and cake at the Honister Mine cafe.

Dropping down off Grey Knotts visibility returned.  The descent was taking its toll on my knees and feet dampening enthusiasm for the looming prospect of heading up Dale Head across the pass. Thankfully the cafe was still open as I reached it before 5pm.  In a moment of weakness I considered heading down the valley to find a campsite and a pub in which to watch England vs Italy match, but re-energised by tea and cake I headed straight up the flank of Dale Head.   Using the altimeter on my Suunto Core watch I veered right at around 600m heading towards Dale Head tarn.  As it came into view I could see the tarn was occupied by another couple of tents so I kept right heading to the higher Launchy Tarn.  Exploring more boggy ground I opted for a higher mound away from the tarn which also afforded wide views across to the central fells.

Saturday evenings camp-spot

I decided not to pitch the inner on the Hex Peak and see how I got on, using the inner as a ground sheet on which to plonk the NeoAir and my sleeping bag.  The first thing I noticed was how much space I suddenly had. The next thing I noticed were the midges!  Closing the door to stop the midges meant losing the view but a heavy shower mean the view disappeared anyway so I spent 20 minutes stalking the midges one by one.

The next morning, rather than drop straight down to Roswthwaite I headed up to High Spy and its impressive summit cairn. Visibility dropped once again and I resorted to compass and pacing in order not to miss the path east, dropping down to the small hamlet of Grange. A pleasant jaunt along the Derwent took me back to Rosthwaite and the car.

Re-tracing my route back at home, for the first time I felt I had grip on the Lakes. I still have plenty to explore but I've finally found my feet and my bearings.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Trekking in the Tatras

Southend Airport?!?  There was incredulity in my voice as my fellow chaps advised they'd booked their flight to Krakow.  Our annual boys weekend cum pilgrimage to the mountains was fast approaching and this years destination were the Tatra Mountains, straddling Poland and Slovakia.

The main highlight was to be Orla Perc - a kind of extended Crib Goch with a never-ending succession of peaks spires, ladders, chains with a forecast time of 5-6 hours along the ridge, together with a 2-hour ascent and descent either side.  The other objective was Rysy - at 2,499m the highest peak in Poland, and which straddles the border with Slovakia.

Orla Perc - the destination we never saw
A trawl on the web revealed frustrating little info on routes, huts or conditions.  Eventually tracking down a list of the mountain lodges I was concerned to find the main huts were already full on our planned dates. This called for a more open-minded and creative approach to the route planning, but attempting to piece together a practical route, given the limitations of accommodation was proving to be rather difficult, not aided by the time delay between sending a mail and receiving a response.  Added to the mix was that contact with the hut on the Slovak side of Rysy was via text message - I placed enquiries and questions in English and received random ad-hoc responses in Slovakian!  Eventually after much persistence we had a plan of sorts, which did involve potentially having to sleep on the floor at one of the main huts.

Southend Airport was as painless as can be expected for an airport where the long-stay car park is 20 yards from the main shed...sorry terminal.  David made things more interesting by attempting to get through security with a walking pole strapped to his rucksack with the sharp end protruding in the air.

We hadn't booked any onward travel but were reliably advised that there was were buses aplenty to Zakopane, the Polish equivalent of Chamonix.  So on arrival at Krakow airport we jumped into a taxi and headed straight for the hostel that we'd booked for the end of the trip, and dumped our posh change of clothes.  The bus station was around the corner where we found there were 3 or 4 buses an hour depositing us in Zakopane some 2.5 hours away.

We walked up to Krupowski, Zakopane's main street, for a quick look around some shops and as the heavens opened we found shelter in a bar and sampled our first Polish beer.  We needed to crack on as we still had a couple of hours walk to reach the first hut.  Another 10 min bus-ride deposited us at Kusznice from where we would make a 2-hour ascent up to the Murawaniec hut for the evening.   The trudge up through the forest was uneventful save for the un-ending rain and we arrived to a warm welcome and were quickly shown to our surprisingly spacious bunk-room for four.

We ordered dinner and a beer and quickly noticed that most people had brought their own provisions. Unlike many Alpine huts there were cooking facilities and hot-water for those guests who wished to be self-sufficient.  We also quickly established that there were no slippers sandals - people brought their own spare footwear, which we hadn't. It doesn't take long to work out the local routine but it was too late for us to do much about it so it was bare feet and purchased meals for us.

After a day of travel we slept soundly and the next morning our plan was to climb up the pass at Zawrat, to gain the infamous Orla Perc ridge and head eastwards along its peaks, troughs and spires. The map suggested it would then take around 5 hours along the ridge till we would reach Kryzne, where we could then descend for another 2 hours into the next valley and reach the Dolina Piech Stawow hut where we had provisionally booked a floor to sleep on.

As we left Murawaniec the weather was rather grim with low cloud obscuring the views and a constant drizzle soaking us more than it should.  As we ascended by a large lake and waterfalls we were sure the usual summer views were spectacular, but alas not today.  The route steepened as we gained height, the remnants of snow became more frequent and chains and the odd ladder and chains protected the more exposed sections.  We had no idea where we were but as we gained height the rain started to turn to snow, with the occasional halistone!!  The sensibility and appetite of traversing Orla Perc in such conditions started to evaporate as we reached the col at 2158m.

Visibility was poor, the rock was wet and it was now snowing.  The prospect of 5 or 6 hours on an unknown route, with no views together with wet rock, ladders and chains didn't seem like fun, and potentially an unnecessary risk.  So despite my protestations (well I pretended they were all wimps and we should just do it) the group decision was made to press on over the col and descend directly to the next hut.   We were heading down into Dolina Pięciu Stawów, the valley of the Five lakes, which is allegedly rather stunning but there were no lakes to be fact there was nothing to be seen!  We reached the hut around 3pm with the one benefit of the poor weather being that the hut had several cancellations, so at least we had a bed for the evening.

The plan for Saturday was to head up and over to the next valley, dropping down to Morskie Oko lake and then commencing the long 1,100m ascent up to the summit of Rysy, before descending into Slovakia and the newly re-built Chata Pod Rysmi hut.  

Once more the rain meant a damp start and the low cloud obscured any views as we ascended a few hundred metres before David remembered he had left his mobile on charge at the hut's reception desk. Two hours later and we were descending to Morskie Oko with a break in the clouds gave us our first view of the beautiful lake.   The lodge at Morskie Oko was already rather busy with the day-trippers who had braved the damp weather to walk the 9km from the car-park in the valley. We stopped for a quick coffee and headed around the lake and climbed 150m up to Czarny Staw pod Rysami, a beautiful blue/black lake nestled in a cirque.   

The rain stopped briefly and the cloud lifted just a little, enough to see impressive cliffs and rock spires towering all around us.  A glimpse of our route ahead included a surprising number of snow fields as the path dissappeared into the clouds.  The summit remained out of view and as we skirted the lake and traversed the first snow-field the rain started in earnest once more.  The path was largely manufactured steps from stone and boulders, winding its way relentlessly upwards.  We crossed a few more snow-fields but with visibility so poor we still couldn't work our where we were or how far above was the summit - our only reference points being the red and white markers painted on the rock and the altimeter on my watch.

As we gained hight we could feel the temperature dropping and the cloud closing in.  The snow-fields became more regular and then the ground steepened as we reached the first chains.   The climbing was probably no more serious than scrambling the north face of Tryfan and the chains in some ways made things tougher - rather than thinking and picking your way up with careful hand/foot placement it was easy to just grab and haul on the chains, except this method was actually more tiring.   Thirty minutes later and we suddently reached a sharp ridge with a sheer drop straight in-front.  This took us by surprise as we were expecting to drop down the other side into Slovakia but this didn't appear to be the summit with higher ground to the left and right.  Pausing for breath we guessed we needed to move right across a scary ledge with huge exposure.  After a couple of careful steps we found a welcome chain on the far side of a block and we traversed a ledge to gain higher ground and the summit blocks of Rsys proper.   Enveloped in cloud we didn't hang around but were debating the route down onto the Slovakian side and checked with another group coming up.  Confusingly they appeared to be coming up the same route as we had come from but they confirmed they had come up from the Chat Pod, our destination.   So we headed off, still unsure of our route, until half an hour later we reached a col and looking right we could just pick out roof of the hut - a welcome sight.

The Panoramic WC without a view
The hut was completely re-built a couple of years ago after being hit by an avalanche.  Just by the door we passed a sign pointing towards the panoramic WC some 100 yards up a rocky path, so clearly the re-build didn't include sanitary facilities.  The hut was already busy with drying jackets and other clothes strewn everywhere. We relaxed over a beer and claimed our pre-booked bunks.  There was no chance of a shower as the hut doesn't have running water except for the well-equipped kitchen. The goulash was particularly tasty as was the dark Slovakian beer which aided the slumber which pervaded our tired group.

After an unventful night in a full dorm, we awoke to a glimpse of sun through the window and our first view of the valley below.  The WC already had a decent queue from people who'd crossed their legs all night rather than brave the trip to the loo during the night.  Indeed the WC shack was rather well-equipped with a sit-down loo albeit over a hole, a tap fed from a stream and a full height double glazed window providing particularly fine views while one contemplated.

The Panoramic WC with the morning view
The last view looking into Slovakia
After a quick museli breakfast we left and re-traced the previous evenings route back up to the summit of Rsys. We we were looking forward to our first views of the Tatras from the summit but we could see the cloud rising up the valley and 15 minutes later we were once more enveloped in cloud. 

With little visibility the descent from the summit into Poland was still as confusing as ever as picked our way down, alternating between a path and chains.  
The chaps descending from Rsys
At the first sight of running water we stopped for a welcome brushing of teeth and freshen up.

Hygenie stop
After a couple of hours of descent the cloud broke and provided a wonderful view straight down to the two lakes ahead of us.  Alas it was just a tease with normal weather resuming as we trudged down and finally reached Morskie Oko and the sanctuary of a celebratory beer.  

We still had a 9km walk down the tourist path to catch a bus to Zakpopane where we wasted no time and tramped straight to the bus station.  Three hours later we were enjoying a welcome hot shower in our Krakow hostel and shortly thereafter we were strolling through the crowded streets and market squares of Krakow before our flight home in the morning. 

So Orla Perc lives to fight another day.  We were all agreed that the peaks/views we had glimpsed were indeed worthy of a return one day and we can recommend them for anyone looking to visit further afield.  And, as if by magic, normal weather resumed as soon as we left and Zakopane has bathed in a constant 29/30 degrees ever since.