Monday, 17 January 2011

Getting ready for backpacking

A certain amount of shopping crept into my weekend recently in the Lake District, without much resistance on my part I have to confess. I've been looking for a down sleeping bag for some time and being a goodly portly man and a corpulent, I had my eye upon the Big Agnes Lost Ranger. This could have presented a problem as they have no distributor in Europe, but Keswick outdoors shop, George Fisher carries the brand and had the bag in stock, so I've bought one. Its a backless design, thus depending on your sleeping mat to provide insulation below, but is still fully enclosed, so not draughty. I have read conflicting reviews about how warm it is, but I sleep hot, so I expect it to be near to spec for me, which is about -7C, nominally 15F anyway. I also got the expander panel, or Wedgie, which adds about 7 inches of wiggle room to the bag, which I need. Should I slim down a bit, this insert can be removed and slightly lighten the carrying weight of the bag, (by about 6 ounces actually). Actually I'm glad the bag is roomy, as I don't like all this Mummy bag thing much, even if I understand the notion behind it. Maybe if I became a thin person with less natural insulation I might change my mind on that.

I also need to think about a rucksack as the one I have is heavy and lacks certain essentials, such as lashing for attaching light but bulky items like closed cell foam mats etc. I have a feeling that my self inflating sleep mat will need the support of a foam mat underneath in really cold conditions. But having thought about that, the negligible weight of the closed cell mat makes the combination of the two a good flexible option for summer/winter camping. I tried the Thermarest Neoair when I bought my sleeping bag - the shop assistant in Fishers slotted it into the back of the bag and I was invited to try out the fit there in the shop. I noticed two things - firstly the bulky Thermarest (when inflated) somewhat reduces the roominess of the bag, although I was also fully dressed which will have made a difference, and also I felt a bit uncomfortable on the Neoair, owing to its bounciness and distance from the ground. It was like lying on a beach ball. Maybe there's a happy medium where the thing should be very slightly under inflated - this was like a drum skin!

So, for rucksacks I might look at the Golite Jam or similar, but really there is a bewildering array of possibilities, especially when you consider some of the American products which seldom get here - as was the case with the Big Agnes sleeping bag which I have only seen advertised by Fishers in the UK. If you have deep pockets there seem to be some very exotic fabrics and designs in rucksacks, tents, tarps and the like, notably the Cuben Fibre based products which I have yet to see first hand. I remember going to Springfield oudoors shop in Halifax eager to get my hands on a Terra Nova Laser 35 day pack, but when I got my hands on it, it felt so flimsy I couldn't bring myself to trust it. Even if it weighed less than a chickens egg, (alright, a pretty big chicken!), and I ended up buying a Lowe Alpine Crag Attack 40 which is a bit big for a day sack, but very comfy. I have a similar feeling about the Gossamer Gear Murmur (now discontinued I think) as I did with the Terra Nova day sack - it looks like it might tear against a rock and spill stuff everywhere - I know that's very unfair, not having handled one, but there's a certain doubt creeps in when a whole rucksack weighs about the same as a pint of milk. However, on YouTube, I saw a demo of the strength of Cuben Fibre. A guy has three or four weights of fabric swatches and spears them with a big heavy tent peg and tries to rip through the swatch. the really lightweight ones (I'm talking half an ounce per sq yd) rip fairly easily, but when he gets to the medium weight swatch he can't tear it easily and the heavy weight one (an elephantine ounce and a half per sq yd) he can't tear it at all. It looks like this stuff is really strong, so I'm thinking maybe there is something in it.

All this lightweight argument is a bit frail in my case when I reflect that I could lose a couple of stone in a fortnight if I could be bothered and be lighter carrying all my gear, than I am now carrying nothing as I step out of the shower. I wonder what it would be like ascending the hills if I was only 14st instead of 22st. I think its fairly easy for the body to adapt to that much work in a muscular sense, but I think the joints and tendons might be paying a price I can ill afford later in life. It makes me think I should have as much enthusiasm for weight saving close to home as I do in the gear shops! Something to work on.

Just a note regarding the assistant in Fishers, and in fact all of them in my experience - they are outstanding in both knowledge and the tact with which they approach and attend to customers. As a rule I feel awkward in some of the outdoors shops, but I have had really good experiences in George Fisher and Cotswold Outdoor recently. I could perhaps even extend that to Rathbones too, where I often go to check pricing - they can be amazingly cheap on some mainstream items, especially Berghaus, or supplies like the laughably expensive Nikwax concoctions. I think you get to know shops well over a few visits and grow accustomed to them. If I think of Needle Sports in Keswick, I have felt a bit intimidated going in there, partly because its so small and you therefore tend not to simply browse, but as much because its rather focused on proper climbing, and I felt a bit embarrassed asking such serious guys about walking poles or whatever. Actually, when I did go in with a mission to get a Terra Nova 2 man bothy bag (following my episode stuck on Glaramara at New Year) the guy who helped me was really knowledgeable and interested in my story, recommending the super lightweight bothy on the basis of its weight, but hinting that for the sake of a few ounces more to carry, the standard bothy was more than adequate and much cheaper. The thread that run through all of the good experiences is the impression one gets of a real enthusiasm for what these people are selling, which naturally leads to good product knowledge, and that they want you to enjoy what you've bought and benefit from it. Sadly, some shops seem to approach things like fashion shops who just hope you will be back to get next seasons colour, and I don't think I need to name the chains who are guilty of that. Well, I will be posting details of a trip up Scaffel Pike shortly as I finished this post after the said trip and can reflect with real experience on at least the sleeping bag.

Post Script: I forgot to mention that I have been on the lookout for some new walking poles after slightly bending one of my Trekmates. Those trekmates are OK for a cheap brand, mine being the ones with the lever locks, rather like the Black Diamond style. Anyway, when I bent the pole it would not retract so one pole was permanently extended which is a bit of a nuisance. So on the lookout for new poles I was impressed by some I found in Ambleside. I'd never heard of Fizan before. An Italian company that has been making ski poles for over half a century and I picked up their Compact Ultralight poles for £50 the pair. They weigh only 158 Grammes each which I can tell you feels like nothing in the hand - really pleased wth them. They pitch them as the lightest collapsible poles in the world.


More than a year ago, I visited the Lake District with 'she who must be obeyed' with the intention of getting her involved in fell walking. My wife loves the Lake District but, at that time, detested effort of any kind (ooh, I'm in trouble now...). Anyway, on this particular occasion, a Sunday, I persuaded her she would be able to manage Catbells as it's a modestly sized and popular hill that many a be-sandalled tourist has romped up in the past. However, this particular day was very breezy indeed, and it really only became apparent when we got up to the saddle of Skellgill bank just above the mine - we had started from the lake side of the fell and come up the grass track to the old fenced off mine workings - a surprisingly steep route near the top. so heading on after a rest, and only about 20 metres into the final rocky section leading to the summit she decided she couldn't get up fearing the wind, the wet rock and being very nervous of heights anyway, so she gave up and returned to the car while I bounded up the last bit and descended over the other side of the summit and down towards the lake.

Since that day, she has vowed she would one day return and conquer her first Wainwright. This vow has been hollow for some time as we strolled to Hard Knott one day from Hard Knott pass - hardly mountaineering I know but her first tick technically.

Well, this weekend just gone, we decided last minute to go up to the lakes staying in a B&B in Portinscale and of course suffered one of the most miserable niggardly sullen Saturdays imaginable and thus turned to shopping in Keswick, then visited my Brother in Lowca, followed by a very nice evening meal and a few drinks in the pub. We'd kind of given up on walking after Saturday's weather but Sunday morning saw the wife in stubborn determination to walk upon something. I was going to suggest perhaps a round of the water in Buttermere, but a madness took her, and even though the rain was falling fairly hard she demanded I take her to the Catbells car park to see if other walkers were braving the elements. They were.

So, against all common sense we were donning boots and water proofs, packing rucksacks and heading off up the engineered path toward Skellgill bank. I say common sense, but I don't mean it was in any way hazardous - just dreck and miserable. Surprisingly, after about 20 minutes, the rain stopped and a bit of a breeze blew up, which by the time we arrived at the scene of last years failed attempt, was giving me déjà vu, but her attitude seemed different. Goat-like, she scampered up the steep rocky section mainly ignoring my directions and picking her way resolutely up through the crag. She had very quickly realised that walking poles were as much use as tits on a bull, and tossed them at me to collapse and put away. And off she went, gloves off, grasping the scenery as she went. Ten minutes later we were standing on the summit with me proudly snapping her on the Blackberry. It was a bit windy by this time so we decided to descend via the Newlands side paths along by all the old mines - a new route down for me and for anyone wanting a gentle stroll up Catbells I think the easiest route to the top. Of course, now she's done this she's suddenly Sherpa Tensing and wants to scale all the lofty heights as soon as. I doubt with her experience she will be rising to Sharp Edge any time soon, but blimey, it's a start, and I can only congratulate her. I thought I'd be at 214 before she got to 2, but as I'm only at 67 ticks so far there's a good chance she will be at the same number before I get to 214. Roll on our next walk I say. Well done Leigh. My only gripe about the whole episode is that after this little triumph, and with the weather fine, she dragged me into a bit more light shopping and levered a new Goretex coat out of me. I'm hoping she doesn't think she's getting that treatment for every Wainwright she does!

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

New Years on Glaramara

Yep, I have a horror story which happened to me just this New Years eve on Glaramara. I tell this story to warn newer walkers that its always possible to encounter difficulties even in apparently straightforward situations. Sadly I am at risk of criticism and ridicule, but as I deserve it, I’ll put up with it.
I went up to the lakes on Thursday 30th intending to walk all of Friday, a bit on Saturday, hangover permitting and maybe some of Sunday. My chosen route for Friday was a circular route from Seathwaite Farm in Borrowdale, up Allen Crags via Styhead and Sprinkling tarns detouring to Seathwaite Fell on the route and back down via Glaramara and off the Seathwaite-side flank.

I left Seathwaite at about 11.30 and had a thoroughly enjoyable stroll up to the stretcher box at Styhead via Stockley bridge and the West flank of Seathwaite Fell – I was in no particular rush. Despite the cool weather I found myself in T-Shirt sleeves as there was no breath of wind and I was too hot in my fleece. I think I put my jacket on again when I got to Styhead where it was a bit more breezy. I rested for lunch and set off for Seathwaite summit and Allen Crags about 1.00 or so. I figured I had plenty of time to complete the round, expecting dusk at about 3.30, but with 2 head torches and so on to help me out for the last bit if need be.

The going up to Seathwaite was a bit slow with lots of ice on the path to dodge, but I eventually reached Seathwaite top and summitted the highest bit, or so I thought. I noticed there’s a bit about 1m higher a little further onto the fell, so felt I must do this and thus lost about 30 mins, before setting off to Allen crags. Summitting Allen Crags was simple but I noticed as I trudged off to Glaramara that fog was beginning to thicken, where previously there had been only intermittent mist. The fog made going very slow as I constantly checked my compass for direction, Snow was thick on the ground up here and paths were thus concealed, except for occasional footprints where other walkers had been. Anyway, I eventually clambered up a rocky escarpment which seemed where the summit should be and I found a few cairns etc to confirm this. Unfortunately it was now almost dark and still thick fog, so I was ready to call it a day. Here’s where it got difficult. I took a bearing for the path down, and headed off but found that no matter how much searching I did I could not locate the path or the Ghyll it runs by. After a good couple of hours searching around in fog so thick I could only see about 10m, I found a set of newish footprints coming up from where I thought I should be going, so I followed them to their origin going down a Ghyll which terminated in a sheer drop after about 200m of descent. The scariest thing about this was that where the water in the Ghyll tumbled over the fall, there was a snow bridge above the water about 3 feet thick and wide and about 6 ft across – with the footprints walking straight over!! This put the wind up me enough to climb all the way back up the Ghyll, and try to find the summit and start all over again.

To shorten the story a bit, by midnight, I was still roaming around trying to figure out where to go, but the fog, snow cover and dark made this all but impossible, no longer being certain of where I was with any precision. Out of nowhere, I suddenly remembered that my Blackberry has a GPS feature which would give me degrees and decimal minutes, so I wondered if it might help in some way. I’d been aware all along that I had a phone signal up there, and had resisted calling mountain rescue as I never felt I was in danger of death – just horrible discomfort, but it meant that I might be able to find a website that could convert my GPS reading to an OS grid reference and tell me where I was with some accuracy. The theory was good, but the reality was that I couldn’t find a website that helped.

Then it started sleeting, so I decided to take shelter for a rest and found a clump of rocks and made a makeshift shelter with a plastic heat sheet weighted down with a couple of rocks. This got me out of the wind and rain but I immediately started to feel cold from sitting still. The plastic ripped after about 20mins because of the wind and I salvaged a piece big enough to lie on and got down low behind the rocks, surprisingly comfy and did my best to warm up, changing into dry socks, lining my soaking wet boots with pieces of the torn heat sheet, and putting my fleece, hat and everything on under my Paramo Jacket, ( also had Paramo trousers on too which are fairly warm). In the summer, I had some camera stuff nicked from my car and the robbers pinched my rucksack to carry it off in. It hadn’t even occurred to me that in taking the rucksack, they had taken my orange survival bag too, which I’m sure everyone just puts in their rucksack and ignores (hopefully) forever – of course, it had never occurred to me that it wasn’t in my rucksack because I’d forgotten I now have a different sack! Anyway, I rested on the ground like this for an hour but lost heat to the ground so much that I started to shiver violently and uncontrollably, and realised I had to warm up any way I could. I ate some sausage rolls I still had and packed up ready to walk again and got back on the move, figuring I could walk in circles if I needed to just to keep warm. This was effective enough and I was soon warm again, but very tired. Realising I would likely never find a certain path, I consulted the map and decided that even with an error of perhaps a quarter of a mile or so either way I could take a bearing roughly north and providing I didn’t walk off a cliff, should end up descending the mountain near Stonethwaite, so I started out. It was slow going and what looks like easy ground on the map is boggy and rocky away from a good path. Some bog was frozen solid like glass and extremely dodgy to walk on, some was slushy and messy, but I plodded on. I noticed the going was easier to the east so I favoured the east facing slope a bit and found the ground descending quite steeply, which suited me quite well. By 2 am I found I was in another bouldery Ghyll but the descent was steady and I decided to follow it realising I was now descending on the east side of the mountain. This tactic worked well until at about 4am I realised the ground fell away vertically past some trees gripping the crag, but I felt heartened that any tree was evident – it meant I was quite a long way down. I decided it was safer to wait until light rather than risk descending into uncertain darkness and hunkered down again, by now out of the wind, but still with light drizzle falling. I didn’t get so cold this time and lasted 2 hrs before I felt I needed to move around again. I knew by this time that dawn was only just over 90 mins away, so I decided to explore the horizontal contour option to the south, and after about 100 meters found that the down slope resumed steeply but safely. I carried on down and gradually as dawn came and some fog thinned out I could make out the valley floor and located myself easily by identifying the curves of the beck below. It was Langstrath Beck, which told me I’d estimated my start point as more Westerly than I actually was.

I was disappointed to realise I would have a 4-5 mile walk back to my car basically walking all the way around the foot of Rosthwaite fell, but I knew I was in the final section. The last part of the descent took about an hour and I plodded painfully slowly back on the flat via, Stonethwaite, Seatoller and finally Seathwaite Farm. My toes were all numb and ragged from being wet for so long. In fact, as I write a few toes on my right foot are still a bit pins and needles, so I wonder if I slightly damaged them when they were cold - not in the sense of frostnip/bite, but maybe kicking snow off my boots too hard and not realising.

So, in the end a bit of an adventure, and an embarrassing lesson in how easy it is to underestimate the conditions, and over-estimate one’s experience. On the other hand, I have learned many useful things from this experience that I would never learn from books.

For one, I am not as good at basic navigation as I thought. I think some of this is because with good visibility and recognisable landmarks, mistakes have little impact. If you are heading for such and such a peak and you head off course slightly, a brief glance up will correct it. Dead reckoning in fog is totally different – you have to be rigorous and really use your instruments precisely. Also, we tend to rely on paths, which in snow don’t exist effectively.
Secondly, some simple cheap survival equipment could have altered my story a lot. I have now invested in a 2-man bothy bag which would have probably meant I could have stayed put in one place until light, and maybe even got a kip. I have also replaced my survival bag. These simple things make jobs like changing socks easy instead of a nightmare.
Thirdly, attitude is everything in an emergency situation. There is one thing I am proud of in this story – not panicking, and not despairing. I knew I must focus and make reasoned decisions, even if they were ultimately a bit off, and I knew I was getting off that mountain, sometime. I was never frightened for my life in the whole episode, although strangely when I was down and plodding back to my car I was overwhelmed with relief and felt a bit choked if I’m honest. Its something I’ve always been able to do in a crisis though – focus now, panic and worry about what might have been when its over.

Everyone has asked me why I didn’t ring mountain rescue. My main reason is that I didn’t think I could give them an accurate location for where I was, and I wasn’t going to endanger someone else hunting for a needle in a haystack. As it turns out, I had an extremely accurate way to locate myself, but didn’t know. The GPS coordinates that I thought were useless would have got me off the mountain in probably an hour or so. I have now found that OS maps not only have OS Grid marked on them but also, degrees and decimal minutes printed at the edge. In fact, I noted the original coordinates down, and having now checked, I was within 50m of where I thought I was the first time I took them. Had I known this, I could have paced out a bearing to the path which was about 2 mins walk away and found my way down easily. I’m not pleased I didn’t know about this, but maybe I would never have found out otherwise. Perhaps this combination of paper map, compass and simple GPS are actually quite a strong reason not to fork out £500 on a fancy GPS and digital maps etc, which I was wondering about. Despite my meagre skills, I still think GPS would be little extra use to me than what I now know.

So, there we have it – a story that doesn’t flatter me, but might act as a warning to anyone who is tempted to underestimate how dicey things can be. To be honest, I can’t wait to get out there again fighting for the advantage against the weather and the hills – all my mistakes are plain to me, and easily fixable, and most of all lessons learned first hand, which means I’ll learn them better.

When I left my Guest house on Sunday fully recovered, fed, rested and warm, I bought two jars of marmalade from the landlady who donates the takings to mountain rescue - you never know eh?