Sunday, 30 December 2012

Photo Review of 2012

January - Winter climbing in Scotland. 
Best route of the season was Melting Pot (IV 6) under a blue sky. A very snowy start to the season followed by high pressure gave some good conditions for a few day. ran plenty of winter climbing and mountaineering courses in the Cairngorms and on the West Coast

February - Skiing off the summit of Blencathra in the Lake District. 
Good conditions in Scotland were replaced by an early thaw and challenging working conditions.

March - Fog bow on Tower Ridge, Ben Nevis.  
Limited ice but stunning alpine conditions with plenty of cloud inversions. Winter was over by the middle of March (and summer by the end!)

April - Ski touring on the Vanoise Icecap. 
Despite varied weather we completed a full traverse of the Vanoise Icecap getting a couple of days in the powder as well.

May - Two Cuillin Ridge Traverses in a week. 
Perfect weather on Skye for some great scrambling and climbing. Selected for ITACE 2014, An expedition to cross Antartcica via Shackletons' proposed & uncompleted route. Started working with The North Face as a blogger and kit reviewer.

June - Filming with BBC Natural History in Greenland. 
Provided safety and rigging (plus some filming!) for a Barnacle Goose & Arctic Fox shoot on a loose basalt escarpment. Finished 10th in the Terrex Swift, a 48 hour Adventure Race.

July - Running the Tour du Mont Blanc,  
110 miles and 10,000m of ascent of some great trail runningSecond attempt at the Lakeland 100 mile ultra. Retired after 75miles saving my legs for Greenland

August - Leading a Greenland expedition for Eton College.
A 3 week exploratory expedition in Liverpool land which succeeded on an unclimbed peak and the second highest summit in the range. Blogged live from the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc for the North Face following their athletes Jez Bragg & Lizzie Hawker

September - RIP Dawa Sherpa who was killed in the Manaslu avalanche, 
one of the strongest and friendliest Sherpas from our 2011 Everest expedition.

October - Leading an expedition to Island Peak, Nepal
Despite the coldest October in 20 years a very successful expedition putting 11 people on the summit

 November - a solo ascent of Ama Dablam, 
One of the world's most beautiful mountains. Open bivi at Camp 2 before a quick climb to the summit and back to Base Camp. Stayed on in Nepal to lead a successful Annapurna Sanctuary & Tent Peak expedition.

 December - Winter fell running & climbing in the Lake District
Great early season conditions coincided with a spell of high pressure.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Tour de Helvellyn

Enjoying the very soggy conditions at CP3. Knee deep snow here last year! 
(Photo from Stu Smith of Adventures in Mind & Nav 4 Adventure)

Just in the process of drying out after an epic Tour de Helvellyn. Last year this 38 mile classic trail run featured knee deep snow over Sticks Pass, this year it was almost knee deep in water! Entries had more than doubled and there was a long crocodile of runners making their way up on to the fells from Askham in the early hours of the morning. This is probably the trickiest bit of the route in terms of navigation and it looks like plenty of folk had decided to extend their day to 40 miles plus. I managed to keep on track this year and was ticking along nicely until an old injury flared up while traversing above Thirlmere. A tight hip flexor and IT band meant that I was reduced to a hobble downhill but was fine on the flat and uphill. However I'd done enough early on and I managed to get back round to Askham in 8:41, over an hour quicker than last year. Big congratulations to Eden Runners Kim Collison who beat the 6 hour barrier by 7 seconds, lowering the course record in the process and to Joe, Stu and the rest of the Nav 4 team for another great day out.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Ultra Running

Descending off Green Gable on leg 4

I've been putting the miles in on the hills since returning from Nepal with the though of a winter Bob Graham attempt keeping me focused. Unfortunately a wee tumble while out on an all night training run has left me a bit battered and bruised. Long grass, ice and waterproof bottoms don't mix and I took a slide over a small outcrop performing a couple of backward somersaults before landing on my head. Somehow I walked away but have had to put my attempt on hold until after Christmas.

However with the shortest day of the year approaching it's also time for the now classic Tour de Helvellyn, a 38 mile off road ultra in the Lake District. The last couple of years have seen plenty of snow on the route but things are looking like they're going to be a lot more wild and woolly this year. There are more than 200 runners entered for what's a great day out in the hills. Here's a small video I put together from last years event.

Tour de Helvellyn - 17th Dec 2011 from Mountain Zac on Vimeo.

For January 2013 there's also a new event in northern England with the inaugural Marmot Dark Mountains, an overnight mountain marathon. I recently spent a night out in full on conditions route checking and it's looking like being a very challenging competition which will really test runners mountaincraft. This is a great original idea so if you're looking for something a bit different next year then I'd encourage you to go for this especially as the organisers have promised a full moon and great conditions!

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Mileage on Great End

 Climber topping out on Central Gully Right Hand

The current spell of arctic weather is forecast to end tonight with a general thaw and high winds. Unfortuently my climbing partner cried off after a dodgy pint so it was back into solo mode. There had been plenty of reports of good conditions in the Great End Gullys so a quick stomp up from Seathwaite was called for. I suspect a number of sickies had been pulled today as the crag was heaving as folk made the best of the conditions. With teams just starting my first two choices I opted for plan C and South East Gully (III) There was a team of three on pitch 2 but I was able to bypass them by climbing the narrow left hand variation and traversing back right into the main gully system at around III+. Topping out in to the sunshine there were spectacular views over towards Scafell but a chilly wind sent me back down Custs Gully for a quick descent. Conditions were proving to be pretty good with plenty of bomber neve but some hollow ice and a surprising amount of spindrift. I also found a couple of small pockets of shallow windslab on gully exits. There was plenty of evidence of avalanche activity from last weekends thaw below most of the gullies but things were very stable today. 

A quick traverse across the crag apron and I headed up Window Gully (II/III) which was in good but thin condition. The Upper Icefall Finish gave a reasonably steep exit on good ice and well frozen turf. Back down Custs Gully which involved a squeeze under the lower chockstone minus my rucksack and across to Central Gully. Reaching the Amphitheatre the ice fall of  the Left Branch Finish was in place but so were six climbers waiting patiently for their turn. I opted for the Right Branch finish (II) which featured a very thin crux but then easy snow slopes to the top. A quick blast down via Esk Hause and time for a couple of hours Christmas shopping in Keswick after 800m plus of climbing :)

Interestingly after destroying my helmet last month in Nepal I was climbing in my retro Meteor but not to be outdone I passed climbers in bike and snowboard helmets today! 

South East Gully (III) & the obvious Central Gully RH (II)

 Topping out on Great End in to the sun

Footsteps across Great End

 Icy summit slopes towards Ill Crag and Scafell Pike

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Aconcagua Training

 Good neve on the slopes of Catsycam

Just another alpine day in the Lake District fells! Today I was working for Activius with Alison who's away to attempt Aconcagua in the new year.Today was all about fine tuning her crampon work and looking at some of the strategies she could use on this very big and very cold mountain. a brisk walk up to Red Tarn was followed by a spot of self arrest on the slopes of Catsycam. We eventually topped out before following the ridge along to Swirral Edge and the summit of Helvellyn. There were some great views across to the Central Fells but while the Keswick and Penrith were basking in the sunshine the Southern Lakes were hidden under a cloud inversion. We descended the same way dropping south in to the snow bowl and to the shores of Red Tarn.

The soggy snow pack from earlier in the week has refrozen giving some great conditions in the easier gullys. There was ice on the paths above 400m but the watercourses were all still running. The mixed routes on Viking Buttress looked very bare to half height but then there was a wee build up of rime, probably not enough to tempt me but plenty of other teams were out and about and most of the routes on the East face were climbed today. A couple of more mature gentleman reported a large cornice overlooking Nethermost Gully although it received a number of ascents yesterday. The ridges were in great condition with perfect neve over all the difficulties. With a thaw and gales forecast to arrive on Friday tomorrow could be the last opportunity to enjoy the current good conditions.

 Ullswater & the Northern Lakes in the sun

 Cloud inversion over the Southern Lakes with Steel Fell & Coniston Old Man breaking through

Plenty of climbing teams topping out on Helvellyn

Some cornicing above the East Face but everything well frozen

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The North Face Meru Kit Review

Self portrait on the summit of Ama Dablam

I've just returned from seven weeks in Nepal climbing and guiding. My personal highlight was a solo of the South West Ridge of Ama Dablam, summiting in seven hours after an open bivi at camp two. Either side of this I lead two very successful commercial trips to Island Peak in the Khumbu and Thapu Chuli or Tent Peak in the Annapurna Sanctuary. The North Face very kindly kitted me out with three items from their flagship Meru range - the Shaffle down jacket, the Meru mitts and the Gore Tex shell of the same name. I wrote a couple of initial reviews for the Shaffle & Meru jackets just before I departed but have now had a chance to put them through their paces in the environment they were designed for.

I opted to use a similar system to The North Face athlete Andy Houseman, as described to UKC, with a technical baselayer, synthetic insulated jacket, Meru Gore shell and the Shaffle as a belay jacket. The Khumbu was experiencing it's coldest October in twenty years with plenty of high winds so I spent a lot of time climbing in the full system. Summit temperatures on Island Peak were -26oC with strong winds.

 Summit of Island Peak at -26oC

My last few trips to the Himalaya I've gone for the soft shell option only taking a very lightweight waterproof for the walk in. However based on my experiences in the Lakes I decided to use the Meru jacket in my system. The Gore Active fabric proved to be incredibly breathable and I didn't suffer any condensation problems.

I usually take a size large but the medium gave me a good neat fit. I would have struggled to get any more insulation underneath but as part of an over layering system it worked very well. I really appreciated the slightly longer length which was a welcome boost to my comfort levels in the high winds. Combined with the longer length of the Shaffle jacket and boots with built in gaiters I was able to use a relatively lightweight soft shell trouser in all but the coldest conditions.

In my initial review of the jacket I was critical of the inclusion of mesh backed chest pockets. These were designed to increase ventilation in the same way as pit zips arguably do. I personally feel that your shell should be as simple and bombproof as possible. Using these pockets in poor conditions means your core will very quickly become wet and cold. Additionally you can only use this venting if you have nothing in the pockets. In practice I never used the pockets to cool down preferring to use them to store hat and gloves which I found far more effective at adjusting my temperature.

The hood is by far the best non wired design I've used being one of the few that is truly helmet compatible. it won't clinch down to a full tunnel but does provide plenty of protection from the side. It's major advantage is that it will stay in place over a helmet or hat and turns with the head with the volume reducer being a particularly efficient design. I'm not usually a huge fan of hoods finding them restrictive in all but the worst weather but in the windy conditions experienced this season I found myself tucked away under this hood for most of the time at altitude.

The jacket is made up of two different weights of fabric to help protect wear points and increase durability. It proved itself as a tough jacket standing up to almost everything I threw at it apart from minor damage to the front / chest pockets. This area is made of the lighter weight fabric with no reinforcing however I find that it is always prone to damage if you have anything in the pockets. Maybe it's my graceful climbing style or just the fact that I store a lot of equipment in the pockets but it does always seem very vulnerable and my last four waterproof jackets have all suffered from this.

The rubberised dots around the shoulders and waist seemed to work. I wasn't carrying a huge rack but I didn't notice my harness slipping and I certainly didn't have to re-tighten it at any point during the day. A number of other manufacturers have tried similar ideas but have had real problems with durability but I'm happy to report that all dots are still in place! The velcro cuffs were a fairly universal design but with a better than average contact area. I've had real problems with small velcro tabs becoming choked in heavy snow conditions meaning it's impossible to seal the cuff. All jackets suffer from this to some extent but I anticipate this not being a huge problem with the Meru.

The best compliment that I can pay this jacket is that I didn't notice it in action. It provided a simple windproof, waterproof and breathable shell in which I could climb and trek. The features all worked and there was minimal faff. Some reinforcing on the front of the jacket and waterproof pockets and this jacket would nearly be perfect.    

Cold start on Island Peak

This jacket proved to be incredibly lightweight, useful and a great colour!. It uses 200grams of top quality down in a jacket that weights just 808grams. With no velcro on the cuffs it was very easy to whip on and off and I found myself using it for even short breaks or even in anticipation of windy conditions on the col above.

Like the Meru Gore jacket I wore a medium rather than my normal large which comfortably fitted over my three under layers. The very lightweight face fabric has proved surprisingly tough and there's no visible damage. Overall it's a very simple design with no drawcords, velcro, excess pockets etc, yet it maximises it's insulation while keeping the weight right down.

Sat around in the mess tent at base camp I had to use a couple of other layers plus this jacket to be comfortable. My older and far heavier expedition weight jacket is usually fine just over a thermal but now feels like overkill for anything under 7000m. It certainly takes up a lot more space in my bag. I didn't notice any difference in insulation with the body mapping, which places more down in certain areas, but then again I didn't suffer any cold spots in what is essential a very lightweight jacket. The theory behind mapping makes sense and allows The North Face to make the jacket lighter while offering the same level of overall warmth.

The cuffs of this jacket feature a recessed seam which produces a very warm collar of down around the wrist. In practice I couldn't decide if I liked this feature or not. It was certainly very warm giving a real boost to this vulnerable area, (warm wrists mean warm hands) but I found that it kept getting in the way and got very dirty especially when trying to eat dehydrated rations.

The hood worked great fitting over all my other layers and a helmet. It offers limited protection to the face but even without a volume reducer or drawcords it doesn't get in the way even when worn on its own.

The Shaffle is a very striking looking jacket and there were plenty of questions about it. Warmth for weight it's arguably one of the best pieces on the market. The North Face have done a great job at keeping it simple offering maximum warmth with minimal faff.

Looking down the summit ridge from Island Peak

The Meru Mitts proved to be a very adaptable design being less bulky than traditional high altitude mitts. The combination of pile and Primaloft meant that they were plenty warm enough and were less prone to compression when trying to do anything with them on, a problem with down mitts. With wristovers and thermal gloves I'd be very happy to use these above 8000m with a pair of down mitts in my bag as backup.

I would suggest that the majority of climbs over 6000m these days are made on fixed lines requiring wearers to spend long periods maneuvering a handled Jumar. None of the popular models of ascendor will accept a full down mitt into the handle but the tapered shape of these mitts meant that they worked reasonably well with a Petzl handled version. However the little finger was then vunerable to the cold where it presses against the angle. The Meru mitt has what feels like a stitched through seam in the insulation along it's lower edge which gave a noticeable cold spot in use. I would imagine technical climbing with modern tools would have the same problem. Moving the seam would immediately resolve this problem or a more radical approach would be to fit a foam insert to protect and support this vulnerable spot for the many hours spent hanging from a jumar or ice tool.  

The information that came with the mitts described a removable liner. My version didn't have this feature and was the poorer for it. Being able to remove the insulation to aid drying the glove is critical for multi day trips.

The gauntlet style offered plenty of protection without being too bulky over the Shaffle down jacket. There is reduced insulation in the extended cuff to help with this. However the supplied wrist loops are attached to the end of this gauntlet sitting half way up the forearm and proved very fiddly to use restricting removal of the mitt. Despite insisting all my clients used idiot loops on their gloves I was eventually forced to remove mine.

The leather palm has proved very durable and doesn't show any sign of the many meters of fixed line I slid down with an arm wrap - unlike one of my jackets!

I found the fit to be pretty good. I usually take a large glove to get the volume right but this usually leaves my stubby little fingers with rather too much deadspace. In mitts this can be worse but the pre-curved shape and the X-Trafit insert technology seemed to do a very good job of putting my hand in the right position with no excess fabric or insulation getting in the way of the job in hand. Surprisingly for a mitt i was able to operate my ascender and various karabiners while wearing them. The one minor gripe is the fit of the thumb which I found short and snug especially when wearing a pair of thermal gloves.

Overall the fit and technology behind this mitt are very good. A removable inner would transform it into a very practical option for all but the worst conditions. 

Relaxing at the top of the crux Yellow Tower having just free climbed it

Settling in for an open bivi at the exposed Camp 2

Summit of Ama Dablam with Everest in the background


The iconic Ama Dablam

A great wee film from Andy Houseman in his The North Face Meru kit climbing the Slovak direct on Denali

Thursday, 6 December 2012

A wee run in the snow...

 Looking towards Helvellyn from the Eastern Fells

Started in the dark and finished in the dark but 44km and 3400m of ascent later it was a pretty good day. Tough going in the drifting snow but the Lake District is world class on days like this

Braving the spindrift driven on by a strong northerly

Monday, 3 December 2012

Images from Tent Peak

 Tent Peak from the North Col

 One of the locals from the walk in!

 Surrounded by mountains in the Annapurna Sanctuary

 Sunrise on the South Face of the 8000m Annapurna 1

Crossing the glacier to Base Camp

 Climbing up towards Tent Peak ABC

 First views of an insignificant looking Tent Peak

 Crossing the glacier on summit day

 The exposed and dramatic summit ridge from the North Col

 Steep climbing on fixed lines

 Tent Peak summit

 Tired legs on the descent

Plenty of stunning sunrises on this trip