Spotlight - equipment views and reviews from the AK team
By Kenny Stocker | 01, Oct, 2010
Little adventures lead to big adventures
With the nights drawing in and the paths slippery with fallen leaves, the evenings are surely best spent with friends, loafing around a fire and chewing on sweet chestnuts. But wait before you pull on your favourite slippers, and place your windcheater in mothballs. The short days are also an opportunity to develop your fast and light approach to new levels of commitment.
Carrying just enough kit to get the job done whilst getting through the ordeal with all your faculties intact requires not only the right kit, but also the experience to use it. There have been some great exponents of this philosophy over the years, but it is not without risk, and the successful ones have built up their experience over time.
"Scott lays his long, yellow suit-clad frame out on his long pad and disgorges a massive, six-pound synthetic sleeping bag from his pack - mine weighs two pounds, but I count on shivering half the night. Unzipping the bag he pulls out a pillow." Steve House from Beyond the Mountain
At this time of year, no matter how light you travel, you are always going to have to factor in the dark. It changes the game, and you are going to have to step up to the challenge. In the dark you are at the mercy of your own mind. Creeping doubts will be triggered by the illusion of lurking dangers, unseen, but heard. They will eak away at your confidence to stay light, to move confidently towards your objective. But you are going light, and this is no place to carry your teddy bear.
We asked some people we know, across a range of disciplines, for their suggestions on how to build up the confidence to stay light and prepare for the demands of their activity. It is an interesting and eclectic mix.
Paul Errington loves to ride and race bikes in some of the most inhospitable corners of the Earth. He has completed Yak Attack, a race around the Annapurna Circuit and faced up to Arctic conditions on the Arrowhead. Paul suggests splitting the West Highland Way over 2 days to test your endurance and confidence to pack light. Sponsored by Alpkit, Ayup Lights and Montane, Paul blogs regularly at Shoestring Racing.
Milngavie to Fort William... 95 miles... a mix of double track, single track and hike a bike sections... with a whole host of opportunities for bivvi camping this route is a perfect testing ground for proving bikepacking set ups. The route starts at Milngavie just beyond Glasgow, easily accessible by train. When I rode the route we didn’t rush to get to the start so ended up with a later start than normal but with a view that we only wanted to cover half of the route on our first day of our multi day trip we took it steady. The route starts easily enough on relatively flat double track which allows opportunity to fine tune kit placement on the bike and get used to how the fully loaded bike handles.
The bikes we chose were fully rigid singlespeed for nice and light reliability... we packed as light as I have ever dared.. 1 pair of shorts for the entire trip. The real test of the route is the hike a bike section along the banks of Loch Lomond, 4 miles of barely rideable but the compensation is that it’s literally along the banks of the Loch so the view is fantastic. Although we packed food for this trip there is plenty of opportunity along route to stock up so weight being carried can be reduced again. Broken up over a weekend, 45 miles / day this is very manageable, the option is then to extend it onto the new East Highland Way and then a final section on the Speyside Way sees you at the East coast... 240 miles done.
Ironmen aren't scared of the dark
Hywel Davies won the first double Ironman to be hosted in England in 2008. FYI that is a 4.8 mile swim, 52 mile run and a 224 mile bike ride. It is no wonder that Hywel was officialy the UK's fittest man in 2001 and currently rides for Planet X.
You can't make an omlette without breaking some eggs, some Joker once said. You can't train to run 52 miles without finding some time in the dark. What was once a barrier, with a good head torch, becomes an addiction. You want a dull, mind numbing experience to prepare you for the boredom of a 52 mile multiple lap run, then fine....set a headtorch to a low beam spot on the ground and spend many hours trying to catch it. You never will, unless your head has fallen off. If however, you want excitement. Run in the woods and on the trails, use the full beam and pretend that every set of yellow eyes you see in the trees is something that has escaped from the underworld.
Running at night, away from the streetlights, is an experience that everyone should enjoy. The focus is intense. You can only see the light, until the full beam of a car fails to notice you are not a cyclist. In training for a double ironman, 15-20 miles a day was the norm, but running at night made it a very different experience. You well trodden routes take on a whole new perspective and there are things that you never noticed. The darker the route the better, the more intense it becomes as the light is your only guide. In a normal training plan, the light dictates whether you train in a gym or run in the morning, but with a good headtorch, it seems a shame to waste the winter hours. All of those runs are still possible, but they are now even better. Wear a few more clothes and dress up like a beacon, and it becomes a safer experience for all. You are focused, others can see you and you enjoy it a lot more.
A midwinter's night in the hills
Pete MacFarlane is an accidental freelance outdoor writer, equipment tester and advocate of lightweight outdoors stuff. Pete shares his thoughts on his website PTC*.
I was going lightweight and camping at over 1000m on a narrow ridge in the Grey Corries to do some dusk and dawn photography. This can be tricky at the best of times, but this trip was livened up by being in the middle of last winter, the most severe for years. I decided on a trip to my local haunt, the Arrochar Alps, to see how the lightweight gear would fare in such cold conditions before I headed a little higher.
I've got a few packing rules, and not doubling-up on kit is a good one to start with. In the old days I used to carry spares of everything, seven pairs of gloves and three hats, not any more. It's lighter, less bulky and just makes more sense, going light is often just the application of common sense, and that doesn’t cost you any money. So I packed thin liners and some fleece-lined windproof mitts for camp and backup, no weight at all and less faff at camp as well. Another lightweight advantage, simplicity: the best gear just works. The cold had me tempted to pack lots of food, but that's real weight and bulk, so I made a list of what I ate in a 24hr period and took that. The Arrochar trip was from an afternoon start over to the next morning, so I didn't need days of food. Besides, extra food = extra weight = extra tiredness. I took minimum cook kit, one pot, mini canister stove, one 100g gas and I made an evening meal, breakfast and several cuppas with no issues and plenty gas left.
I camped at 880m, a little higher than planned, but these hills are very familiar, not too far from a road, and I could get down easy enough if it wasn't going well. It dropped to -15C inside the tent and the vital test was my sleepmat. I'd taken the lightest one possible with no insulation in it and I found that it was on the absolute limit, it was a vital lesson. For the big trip I backed the mat up with the foam stiffener from my rucksack and the heatloss through the matt was stopped dead. The weight of the foam was already in the rucksack, so there was no extra carried, definitely a Win! When the Grey Corries trip came, I headed out with a pack that was as light as my winter daysack from ten years ago. I made camp, got the sunset shots I was after, stood watching the stars with a hot chocolate and then walked the ridge in the dark before slipping into a warm bag in the early hours as the cold clawed at me and covered all the gear in frost. Lightweight isn't the goal, it’s a tool to get you out there and make the most of your time. Lightweight is a big key for you to unlock adventures. Get to it!
Making yourself at home on the Nose
Pete Rhodes likes climbing big walls, and when he isn't he likes writing, speaking and teaching people to climb them. Pete has recently made a film of his ascent on Cerro Catedral in Patagonia. Find out more about Pete on his website.
To go hard and fast in the greater ranges you have to go harder and faster at home first. 'Home' for my formative climbing years seemed to be Yosemite National Park. The playground of the climbing elite and a test-bed for speed in the vertical. During the middle of a disappointingly wet season in which my partner smashed his heel in a fall and was laid up for three weeks I climbed a route that changed everything.
It was about 9pm when the idea came about. "Hey Mason, wanna try The Nose in a day tomorrow?" "Sure." We had another beer. This was crucial, though can't be recommended. We started with the rack. This would be easy. Lining up the full recommended rack from the guide book we promptly removed 10 cams. All the nuts got left, except one; a number 4 micro that we were told (by a drunker chap) fits above Texas flake. 6 quickdraws. 6 slings. 2 screwgates. Then we took out my Alpkit Gourdon. Start superlight. A 5mm 50m line in case we had to bail. 2 waterproofs, 4 powerbars, 2 gels, some fingertape, some more fingertape. We took 3 liters of water and figured we would drink a gallon before the start.
3am is an awful time to begin pushing your limits let alone to be drinking 2 liters of water of trying to eat 1000 calories to lower the defecit. We knew no better. By the top of the fourth pitch we were under an hour. Light was right. By the top it was almost night. We were very light!
If you can't catch any z's, try catching some fish
Mark Boyd shares some tips to spending a long night on the river bank. Mark is a big game angler, guide, coach and writer. He blogs at School of Fish.
Autumn, one of the best times for any adventure seeking fitness freaks out there, who can sit still long enough in one spot, to snag themselves a big chub, perch or barbel. As the rivers begin to fill from their Summer lows, the fish start to feed up, preparing for the long haul of winter, where upon their natural food supplies will gently fall away, and metabolisms slow down. These fish love to feed in low light conditions, so anyone who can fish the last couple of hours of daylight, then brave a night on the bank with a Wedge (easy for me to carry along the banks with all my fishing gear) combined with one of Alpkit's toasty sleeping bags in preparation for a dawn start, could capture some fine specimens. A trustworthy headlamp is a must, the Gamma Headlamp being ideal, as if you capture a big night time chub, you can change the colour of the LED to red, thus not ruining the night vision your eyes have adjusted too - Try for a chub in excess of 5lb, a barbel over 9lb and a perch over 3lb. The perch will be a last light and first light species, they will not feed after dark. The chub and barbel become more confident once the light has fell away, the beasts that lay up under the overhanging banks will cruise into open water throwing caution to the wind, thus offering your best chance of a heavy specimen. Handle your fish carefully, and return them gently. If there's a big full moon present, there is no better way to spend a night - bats, owls, foxes and badgers will be your company for the night... Jack Frost may even put in an appearance, albeit an unwelcome one!
Hammer out your path to adventure racing
Matt Hammerton competed in the SAAB Salomon Mtn X Race in 2008 and regularly competes in triathlons and Ironman races throughout the UK. Here he suggests building up to a multi-day adventure by completing the Welsh 3000ers.
The Welsh 3000ers is simple, you need to climb all 3000ft peaks in Wales in a 24 hour period; All 15 of them without using any transport other than your feet – 24 miles (30+ miles including the walk in/walk out). When I say simple, that’s the concept. The challenge is anything but simple especially if you’re trying to achieve as quick a time as possible. However, it provides a good representation for what you might be faced with on one of the arduous days of a multi-day adventure race. Not only is it physically draining but it throws up navigational and logistical challenges. What to take in your pack, what to eat, when to eat, what to wear, when to start, what pace to set, how to work as a team? This type of challenge gives you the essential experience necessary to answer some of these questions and is not a bad training session either! And if you fancy extra orienteering experience, there are some cracking permanent courses laid out in the hills above Betws-y-Coed to take the edge off your legs.
So you want to survive in the Amazon?
James Vybiral is a visual anthropologist who is currently teaching web management, blogging and photography to the Matses in the Peruvian Amazonia. You can see some of James' work and photography on his website.
As it is hot as hell, the only time you really need to run is when hunting. Let's presume you are living with the locals (who are probably quite a bit smaller than you and quite fast on their feet), so keeping up with them sounds like the best way to ensure you get home. So do what they do - they go in with an antique single barrel shotgun and a pouch of cartridges - and come out laden with monkeys, wrapped up in various vegetation. The best thing to compare is fell running - but not races and defined routes – the kind when you are sitting in your wagon in a valley bottom after a failed climbing session with rain beating down and you look up to a hill and decide it is your destiny to get to the top, no matter what (even though the direct line looks totally illogical). Try and do this in Scotland - in high midge season, with no path and through a forest, with as many clothes on as possible to ensure you get dehydrated. The important thing is not the number of miles covered, but navigating as many obstacles as possible: slippery fallen trees, crossing rivers, bogs and dense undergrowth. There are no recommended routes - but that's part of the fun - be innovative. In the jungle, like in the alpine environment, light is also fast; unless you are carrying specialist gear, all you need is a water filter, the locals will pick up food on the way. The key is to stay hydrated and carry nothing. That's it... oh yeah, do it on a hangover – you need to feel like you are going to pass out.
Tried and tested lightweight gear
Johnny's gear guide to a lightweight OMM.
Original artwork by Andy Smith