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!
As some of you may have gathered from my last post on Lowe Alpine’s new range of Dryflo base layers, I was rather impressed by what they had to offer in terms of performance and value for money; so much so, in fact, that I decided to buy some for myself. With winter now in full-flow, this should be the ideal time to put them through their paces, I thought.
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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.
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.
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).
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!
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.
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