Webtogs Road-Trip to the Brit-Brand Trio & Marmot!

Aptly-named snack of the week. Great value too.
Aptly-named snack of the week

I should probably start out by explaining that when I say ‘Brit brand trio’, I’m referring to Rab, Mountain Equipment and Montane. These three brands are the standard-bearers for the UK outdoor industry, and between them they account for over half of the products ranged on Webtogs.co.uk at any given time. It was these brands, along with another of our suppliers; US brand Marmot, that Webtogs MD Keith and I set out to visit last Sunday on a 5-day buying road-trip. I can report that it was epic thanks to the exciting new products on show… and the added bonus of getting to take the bike out on some awesome trails in the Lakes (Altura Trail, Whinlatter & The North Face Trail, Grizedale) and Peak District!

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A Wild Night to Remember…

Wild camping

So what do you do when you are seen wild camping in a not-so-stealthy spot? Where three teenagers, a cocky lad and two girls, walk past with a bottle of rum to be drunk down by the river, just 30km outside San Salvador near the main road?

Well, we said hello as they went by and stayed where we were.
But half an hour later the three return, inebriated.

The lad was staggering and slurring his words. Barely understandable. But he is asking for a phone. We don’t have one (so we say), but soon he gets aggressive and starts demanding our phone. And the girls are peering through the tents looking to see what they can take. Time to get serious. Take a stand. Make clear there’ll be no messing with us. How exactly they thought they could steal from us in their intoxicated state I don’t know. I suppose they weren’t really thinking at all!

But as they leave, we immediately start packing up. Time to find another place. We don’t know if they will come back, or bring others, or if someone else will see us.

And that’s how, at 8pm, in darkness, we push our bikes back to the main road and hesitantly cycle on. But being on the road after dark in these areas is not safe either. So we ask if we can camp in the yard of the first home we see.

Although it is difficult to understand all that the father is saying, he eventually tells us go follow him across the road to another house.

The gate is locked, but it’s only wood and barbed wire, so it is bent and we carry our bikes over. And up to the front door of this simple single room, corrugated roof house. The door is locked, the curtains drawn. The father and son knock on the door. No reply.

The son raises up one of the glass slats on the window, pulls back the curtain and calls inside. No reply.

I peer through too. The TV is on and a man is sat in an armchair with his back to us, watching it. The son calls again. No reply.

Maybe he is sleeping.

I feel guilty for not only disturbing one family, but now waking up another stranger having broken through his gate and pulled apart his window.

I say that perhaps it is better if we carry on and look for somewhere else to camp. But the father will have none of it.

I think the man must be drunkenly unconscious not to hear our racket outside. But his left hand is up in the air.

Now the father has a 3metre long stick from the garden and is starting to poke it through the window. I hope the man inside isn’t startled and have a shotgun close to hand. Seriously, how can he not have heard us? We have been here a good fifteen minutes trying to raise the dead…

Actually, it turns out we’ve been trying to raise the deaf.

So there we are, calling to a deaf man in the darkness and waving a long pole through the window to get his attention.

Finally he sees us.

He opens the door, wide lop-sided grin on his face, pleased to see his neighbour, even if it is nighttime and there are two strange gringos with bikes there too.

Now we know we are in a safe place. He wants us to stay in his home, but we insist on camping in the garden. We have intruded enough already.

The father and son leave us to put up our tents. The happy deaf man offers us fruit and gives us a bottle of ice cold water. With a few hand gestures he shows us the toilet and explains what time he must go to work in the morning. Not only is he deaf, but he doesn’t speak either. Surprisingly though, it is easier to communicate with him than with some locals who speak Spanish very fast and no English at all.

What a night and we haven’t even cooked dinner yet! But at least we are safe it. And so I sleep well… until the roosters start calling at 5.30am, which apparently is enough to raise even the deaf, because our man is already sweeping the yard when I emerge from the tent.

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The Advantages of Commuting to Work

Living only six miles from work, I have swapped my car for the bike to get me to the office. It’s over a month now of cycle-commuting and the benefits are numerous. I can’t think of any bad points in fact.

With the cost of fuel ever-increasing, the financial benefits are one obvious advantage. Although with such a short journey, it’s a modest fuel saving, it would add up to an annual saving of over £500 and that doesn’t factor in the reduced cost of maintaining a bike. It is of course the environmentally friendly way to travel too.

Commuting to Work

Surprisingly it doesn’t take any longer to get from home to office when you take into account, when driving, the time it takes to find a parking space and walk from the car. Thankfully there are facilities so I can shower at work, as I wouldn’t particularly wish upon my colleagues a faint odour of my sweat permeating through the air-conditioned office!

There are then, of course, the health benefits of regular exercise. So if you’re looking to lose weight, the 45minutes a day of exercise it takes for the round-trip is a great help. And if you’re not, you can indulge in that chocolate bar without feeling guilty – that’s what I usually do! Either way, it keeps you fit.

Because I am now regularly cycling to work, I don’t need to spend my evenings exercising. No runs and no gym. And that, in my opinion, is the greatest reason of all. I hate the gym and now I have more time to plan the next big trip – biking the Great Divide.

My touring bike is all fixed now ready for the US tour, so I’ve been using this bike to commute. It has the racks on already, so I just stuff a pannier with a change of work clothes and my lunch and I’m off (shower kit stays at work).

 

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Six Month’s On the Road to Freetown

I’ve now been on the road for six months – I can barely believe it! And after six months and 9,000km I’m in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

My last note was about the Sahara and unquantifiable amounts of sand. I have since then travelled through five countries over hugely varying terrain and differing geographical regions: through the flat, arid sahel and mangrove swamps of Senegal, along the river of the Gambia, through primary forest divided by many rivers in Guinea-Bissau, the green highlands of Guinea and down into the tropical forests of Sierra Leone.

The roads have been equally varied: from smooth, freshly laid asphalt, to gravel, to bumpy dirt tracks and sandy lanes and on occasion across country on barely recognizable footpaths.

Needless to say, a lot has happened: encounters with countless animals, insects mostly; termites, spiders, ants, mosquitos; but also monitor lizards, snakes, monkeys, chimpanzees, mice. Encounters with friendly locals, corrupt officials, screaming kids; fortunately I’ve not bumped into any rebels or mercenaries as feared.

At times I’ve been so happy, feeling so lucky, to be undertaking this journey. At other times, I’ve be tired, ill, overwhelmed. There have been tears and anger and despair.

But all of this adds up into one amazing adventure. I have never once wished to be back home, never wished to be elsewhere, never thought about giving up. Without the tough times, the good times wouldn’t be so great.

Looking forward to what the next six months will bring… I’m headed for Mali and will no doubt soon be cursing the heat and sand again!

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Scarp Charmoz GTX Review

Charmoz GTX – Scarpa
I was fortunate enough to spend my alpine summer with a pair of Scarpa Charmoz GTX Mountaineering Boots to try out and pass my humble opinion on, and I have to say it was an experience I’d be only too happy to repeat. Aimed squarely at the mixed ground climber the boots take a B2 rated crampon, working particularly well with the Grivel Air Tech for mixed routes up to Grade 5. The midsole provides good support whilst the ¾ shank gives just enough flex to keep the approach comfortable. The Charmoz uses the recently introduced FT last, giving a good, precise, feel both when scrambling and climbing and the Vibram Mulaz sole with its plastic inserts for better traction on snow.

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Where the Charmoz really excels is on true mixed ground, with constant switches between snow, rock and ice proving no problem. When you’ve got a snow slope followed by a rocky scramble then an ice pitch or two you need something that gives support, grip and traction reliably throughout, and inspires confidence. The waterproof breathable Gore-Tex membrane somehow managed to keep my feet dry even when post holing to knee deep on the ascent of Mont Blanc. Long hard walking on rocky paths felt comfortable which I attributed to the ¾-length shanks, and when it came to steeper icy routes it was simple to fit a pair of Newmatic crampons. The rigid soles and flexible uppers gave excellent support and the shape and fit gave all the precision needed for grade 5 ice and hard mixed climbing. I believe if you want one boot that does it all – or at least Alpine summer or Scottish winter, then look no further. When the mountain terrain changes every few hundred feet, take it all on with the versatile Charmoz GTX Mountaineering Boots.

Nick Parks – Mountain Guide

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Science, Religion and the Outdoors

It’s long been recognised that the wilderness, especially mountain wilderness, has a spiritual quality that humans need. John Muir expressed it perfectly when he said “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul.” and it’s interesting to see the use of the term “pray” in this famous quote.

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CREDIT: “John Muir, full-length portrait, facing right, seated on rock with lake and trees in background.” c1902. The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920, Library of Congress.

When I first heard the line I just dismissed the term “pray” as coming from the steotypical religious mix of Scottish heritage and American tradition and substituted it with “think” in my mind, but experience slowly changed this view. It’s no coincidence that we bestow religious terminology to the finest mountain wilderness, and how early descriptions were full of the sense of awe and wonder usually reserved for religious sights. For millenia people have held nature in awe, from early beginings when deity was bestowed on nature itself to the use of natural amphitheatres in the Peak District used for banned religious meetings.

There is something spiritual in nature, and like religion an introduction to wilderness can change lives in the same way as a religious epiphany – read Andy Cave’s book Learning to Breathe to see just what a difference it can make. Like a religion experiencing the outdoors is a personal experience, but one that can benefit at times from being shared with others, and there’s no-one more enthusiastic than a new convert. The great outdoors draws us at weekends, replacing for many the traditional Sunday church attendance as our feel good factor and inspiration, and when we find the perfect mountain view we even refer to it as a cathedral.

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Almost un-noticed, science has entered the spiritual world of the outdoors, but rather than destroying the religious analogies it merely reinforced them. The key to religion, no matter which religion, is surely faith – and that’s precisely what science tries to grow in us. Take a look in at any piece of outdoor kit nowadays and examine the label – you’ll be confronted with more science and technical terminology than the average A level student, but what does it really mean? Take some of the most popular fabrics used for outdoor clothing: There’s Pertex Endurance, Pertex Quantum, Pertex Shield, Pertex MicroLight and Pertex Classic for a start………..now Classic is obviously an original form but how much should you read into the others? Pertex Shield you’d expect to be some sort of shield so probably good for abrasion resistance, and Pertex MicroLight seems pretty self explanatory. Pertex Endurance doesn’t seem too difficult to work out where its strength lies but Pertex Quantum??? Is it some weird option based on advanced physics? The only way, of course, of finding out is to check out the labels and tags that adorn every product, and that’s where faith comes in.

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Read a garment tag, skipping the washing instructions, and you’ll find wonderful descriptions of how oilophobic membranes with XYZ ions and silicone dioxide beads combine with silver fabrics and microfilament yarns to produce ……what, really? something you can wear and not something you expect to find in a government laboratory? Seriously now, how many peopple really follow all the scientific or pseudo-scientific geekspeak? You’re expected to put your faith in it just because it’s got a paragraph or three of jargon behind it that makes it look like it’s come straight from NASA. Personally I’m not bothered if it says it an intelligent, semi-permeable micropore membrane with hydrophyllic and hydrophobic lares laminated together – I want to know if it’s going to keep me dry when it rains, and shift perspiration when I get warm…end of! Faith may be defined by a belief in something you can’t see, but surely that doesn’t mean in something you can’t understand either? That’s why I’ve been happy this week to go through all the outdoor clothing on the site, noting their core technology and coming up with a real world description of what they are and what they do. Don’t let the science baffle you or demand a faith it may or may not deserve, save that for the wilderness itself and the faith that it will always be there when we need its spiritual qualities.

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First steps in the Alps – An introduction by Mountain Guide Nick Parks. Part 2

Glacier Travel
Glacier travel is not something that is possible to replicate easily in the UK and as many alpine excursions involve tackling glaciers, understanding the dangers of crevasses and falling ice cliffs and how to minimize the risk is essential. Crevasse rescue skills and prussiking can be simulated to a degree on rocky crags but there is no substitute for practicing on a glacier itself and this is highly recommended at the beginning of your first alpine visit.
Top tip: Understand the hazards and get to grips with all these new skills by undertaking an alpine course with a qualified mountain guide http://www.mountaintracks.co.uk/summer/introduction/alpine_101

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Weather and clothing

Alpine weather is often extreme and can change very rapidly; in summer you can have snowfalls, dramatic thunderstorms and sweltering temperatures all in the same day even at moderate heights. This means you have to be well equipped to cope with all eventualities not only with the skills but also with the right kit. In recent years there have been significant advances in outdoor clothing technology and my recommended solution to coping with Alpine weather is to use a layering system.

Starry skies as you leave the hut often belie the afternoon realities of alpine climbing, take climbing Mont Blanc du Tacul for instance. Absorbed in the colossal North facing glacial approach you don’t see the thunderheads rolling in from Italy until it’s too late. The early start means you may have to cope with a bone chilling wind, your efforts in the mid-morning sun have you sweating and then bang you have to try to out-race the showers. So lightweight layering is the only way to cope with the absurdity of it all.

It’s a three-hour uphill grind to the summit so you need effective base layers to evaporate your sweat the whole way. When the wind kicks up your Wind Jacket’s hanging mesh liner adds warmth and facilitates wicking, while its shell blocks wind and sheds moisture. The entire time, light, hard-working Simple Guide Pants breathe, protect, and dry in a snap. When the afternoon storm hits you find shelter, that’s when the down jacket becomes a reassuring heater. If afternoon showers catch you a back-up hard shell stashed in your rucksack keeps you dry.

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Summary

Certainly for climbers it is a jump up in lots of ways and there’s a learning curve everyone must follow. A sense of urgency is vital and at all times you must remain alert and aware of the potential pitfalls. For most of us alpine trips have a tendency to throw up the odd hiccup, mercifully not too serious, and dealing with hardships; caught out in a storm; benighted high up; sun burn; dehydration and exhaustion are weirdly in retrospect all part of why we do it. Remember the Alps are daunting and rightly so but they are awesome too and worth taking those steps for.

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Nick Parks is a leading British Ski and Mountain Guide who has been guiding parties for 25 years in mountain ranges across the globe. Particularly well known in the ski industry Nick is also a highly regarded safety expert to the adventure film industry. A keen photographer he contributes regularly to outdoor magazines and professional publications.

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First steps in the Alps – An introduction by Mountain Guide Nick Parks.

For most hillwalkers and climbers from the British Isles leaving our shores and tackling the mountains of our nearest neighbours for the first time, the barriers to success and enjoyment often seem overwhelming and a bigger challenge than they are wishing to tackle.

In this short series of articles we explore the differences between the UK mountain experience and the Alpine one and show you how these barriers can be surmounted safely to allow you to enjoy even more rewarding mountain adventures.

Its never been easier to access the Alps, with low cost flights and fast trains its as quick to get from London to Chamonix as it is to Capel Curig. They have beauty and wilderness in common but that’s where the differences between Tryfan and the Triolet end. First off is quite simply the huge difference in scale. Add altitude acclimatization difficulties to overcome and the glacial environment to safely negotiate and it’s easy to appreciate why tackling the Alps can be so daunting.

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Tryfan….impressive but not Triolet

Scale What are we talking about and how to adapt?

In the UK 300-400 metre long routes are rare, in contrast many Alpine routes can be 1500 or even 2000 metres long. Four times the size means that successful climbing in the Alps requires you to plan thoroughly, work to a timetable and use every part of your day productively, thereby avoiding epics like night-time descents. Gaining information, be it online, or from guidebooks is essential in helping you make correct route choices so that you don’t take on more than you can tackle. Seeking up to date information is critical too as the Alps are constantly changing, especially in these times of accelerating climate change. Glacial recession and rockfall can create drastic change even over the course of one season.

Top tip: Start off on alpine routes that are similar in length to those you are used to in Britain.

Preparation

Many of the skills necessary for safe success in the Alps are the same as those needed in the British hills; sound navigation; rock climbing; scrambling and in winter snow and ice techniques. All of these are directly transferable from our crags and mountains. Learning to move safely together on alpine ground is a key skill. Many alpine routes, like the Hornli ridge on the Matterhorn, although exposed are technically straightforward. However their length is such that climbing it in pitches aka British rock climbing style you would need a week to climb the route. Moving together using running belay techniques, gives a sufficient measure of protection whilst allowing you to get down in time to celebrate.

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The Matterhorn – an Alpine icon

Top tip: Practice moving together techniques like short ropeing, on long scrambling routes in the British hills e.g North ridge of Tryfan

Nick Parks is a leading British Ski and Mountain Guide who has been guiding parties for 25 years in mountain ranges across the globe. Particularly well known in the ski industry Nick is also a highly regarded safety expert to the adventure film industry. A keen photographer he contributes regularly to outdoor magazines and professional publications.

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Nick Parks – Ski and Mountain Guide

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Kid’s and the Outdoors

Life for me turned upside down on 24th July 2007 when Ifor was born and the amount of outdoors time that we had before hand changed for the worst. We have tried to keep our outdoors lifestyle up to date since then but through necessity have had to compromise. I’ve blogged before about how the Macpac vamoose has really helped us still go outdoors but this article from Stephen Regenold has some great tips about what to do when your life turns upside down! In particular his tip about slowing down when you have kids is a great one. You may not get as much in as life before chidren, but what’s important is your experience changes and incorporates your kids which for us has added a new dimension to our camping and hiking.

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