Pyrenees Mountain Walking Gear Wednesday September 15, 2010

Some years ago I bought a Berghaus Goretex jacket I subsequently found was not a good choice. It’s got a mesh lining and roll away collar which are somewhat awkward, and elasticated cuffs which don’t work very well. I reasoned I needed a lighter and sleeker design for summer, bought a North Face Paclite jacket in a January sale and found it suited me better in all but bad winter conditions when the extra length and protection of the Berghaus is worthwhile. I think there are probably jackets I’d like even better than my Paclite – notably those that now use Event rather than Goretex – but it wouldn’t make very much difference, so I don’t think about it. Similarly, I initially bought a super light meths stove, then found I preferred gas, but find the canisters a bit of a pain and might consider meths again: there’s a learning and optimising process in regard to kit and what suits you.

I don’t drool over kit, monitor the product market, or think about it very much. There is however some value in making trip reports in regard to what kit you used and how you found it. Walking magazines are full of kit reviews, and this is similar: a list of what I’ve used in the Pyrenees and a report on the experience. To illustrate, here’s a crazy Englishman conveniently modeling, very handsomely I must say, the following gear on the top of Posets (3375m):

And here he is again, modeling on another intrepid Pyrenean expedition in 2009:

Rucksack

I bought an older style GoLite Jam about 2 years ago, at a bargain price of about £30. I compared it to the later and current model of about twice the expense and didn’t think it had any significant advantage so decided to save money. In fact the older style had attachment loops I felt were useful which were removed from the later design.

The capacity of the Jam is about 40-45 litres depending how tightly you pack it; there’s some variation in this because of the voluminous roll over lid. I’ve taken it to the Pyrenees twice and found it adequate for a 2/3 week trip carrying supplies of three or four days only. It’s a bit tight, and I have to strap baguettes and my jacket onto the outside, but I don’t mind that. A bigger pack would be heavier and I’d only use it for extended trips, whereas I use the Jam for shorter UK trips also.

Waterproofs

My jacket is called a Phantom, it’s comfortable to wear and rolls up very small. It has pit zips which you don’t see very often, which I rather like but they are fiddly and awkward to use – so much, I don’t use them very much. They have no disadvantage however (they certainly don’t leak), so on the whole I like having them. It’s a nice jacket. It does the job. Not much more to say. I also took some nice, light, Berghaus Goretex rain trousers. I find them so comfortable wearing them doesn’t bother me very much, which seems contrary to the feelings of many other walkers. I find rain trousers essential because if your trousers get soaked, and some wind strikes up, it’s not as serious as heat loss in the torso or head area but it’s still a problem, especially on multi day trips.

Boots

Actually I’ve not taken boots to the Pyrenees, except on my first visit when I stayed in Lescun – because that was in the autumn, and they were definitely needed. This summer and last summer I used Keen Boulder sandals, which I really like. The grip is good, there’s a good heel cup doing much of the job of ‘support’ people think you have to get from high cut boots, and they’re both comfortable and wonderfully agile. Trail shoes are commonly used these days; I prefer sandals to keep my feet cool. Last year there was one moment when I put on socks after some prolonged rain, and this year I did the same and when I was climbing and traversing large snow fields. I’m regarded as eccentric for this: last year a hut warden queried my choice, and this year another man did the same as did a British guy I met and spent time with: he was wearing heavy Scarpas for the entire Atlantic to Mediterranean Haute Route trek. It’s certainly unusual, walking for example across a huge and steep snowfield in sandals which is what I did, but if the air temperature is mild it’s not such a wacky idea as it appears. I know Chris Townsend, gear editor of TGO magazine (The Great Outdoors), also uses sandals in such conditions. As I recall, he said he used sandals in the Himalayas.

There’s a further advantage that the Keen Boulders are so comfortable, I don’t need a footwear change for the evening. Similarly in mountain huts I don’t have to mess around with the stinky light sandals they provide, when you have to change out of your boots. In theory they could object to my ‘outside’ footwear and it is problematic if they are wet or covered in mud, but other than that there’s not really any difference to their stinky change-over footwear.

My first walking sandals were Merrells and while I liked them very much – comfortable, light and agile like the Boulders – the heel area constantly rubbed and then cut my feet quite viciously.

Base layers

I don’t like synthetic fabrics. Their wicking properties may be good, but they feel nasty. After every Lake District walk in my Berghaus synthetic, I would gleefully rip it off and change into a cotton shirt at the end of the day. There’s something wrong with that; comfort, as well as ‘performance’, has to be considered. I’ve tried merino wool garments in shops, and bought two nice tops at bargain prices but then returned them. The wool is wonderfully soft but still slightly itchy, and I think that feeling would increase with sweaty activity in the hills.

About two years ago I bought two silk tops which I rather like and use all the time. Wicking and breathability are good, and they’re soft and very comfortable – I’m happy to wear them in the evening after a walk. I don’t think the performance of silk is as good as synthetics; in particular, the thermal properties are not as good. When it’s wet with sweat and you take your rucksack or jacket off and put it on again, it can be unpleasantly cold. That was one of the benefits of synthetic I noticed and enjoyed when I first used it: no more cold shock, as I used to get with cotton. But I don’t mind this with silk: the comfort benefits far outweigh a few seconds of a cold back.

After years not worrying very much about underwear I got some merino briefs last year and discovered they do, indeed, make a useful difference. Wicking, cool, and comfortable, the brief style has the further male benefit of keeping everything comfortably packed away which boxer shorts (yes, that’s what I used until last year!) don’t achieve.

I had a cotton vest with me which I prefer to even a silk top, when it’s hot. It doesn’t matter if it gets soaked in sweat; the overall effect is still cooler and more pleasant.

Trousers

I use lightweight North Face zip offs and find them just about perfect. I really like the elastic waist which is as comfortable as it gets, they dry fast, don’t restrict me as a pair of Craghoppers used to (they eventually split), and the pocket system works well (including an internal pocket where I stow my passport and then forget about it) as do the convertible legs. The zips of the latter are noticeably and annoyingly fiddly – I often spend minutes trying to get the damn legs on and off – but I think this is characteristic of convertible zip offs. I don’t understand why more people don’t use them, rather than non convertibles, for comfortable three season use.

Mid layer

I bought a reduced price micro fleece last year by Rab. I think it’s slightly superior to my cheap unbranded fleece; not sure if it’s warmer but it packs up a bit smaller and for about £20 I thought that that made for a worthwhile investment. Fleece is quite bulky and I’d prefer to avoid it for that reason, but it also has the best bulk/weight/warmth ratio.

Socks

My feet get warm so even with winter boots I only use thin sock liners. I can’t remember the brand; it’s no big deal. Ah yes – Coolmax, I think. I took two pairs of these, and a pair of Sealskinz Goretex socks for rainy or snowy conditions. I like this system: used with sandals it means your basic footwear is optimised for warmth, suitable for summer in the Pyrenees, but you can add another layer – just as you do on your body – if it gets cold or wet.

Head wear

This year in the Pyrenees I had some superior head wear compared to the casual cotton beanie I’d used previously. I had some very bad exposure last year, not so much burning as a serious swelling of the face so I looked disfigured and couldn’t see out of one eye. It lasted several days. I had sun protection cream with me but didn’t use it this year: I decided, and found I much prefer this, simply covering up is the best protection. That means occasional hot periods when zipping off my lower trousers would be nice, the same with wearing my vest or rolling up my sleeves, but I don’t like the sticky ooze and dodgy chemicals of sun cream.

My head wear fit the plan – not to ooze my neck and face with cream, but cover myself with a hat. I bought quite an effective cotton hat from Blacks: wide non reflective brim, eye hole ventilation, with a roomy interior to insulate against the heat. It works well; the cotton wicks away sweat and a breeze then cools your head.

I also took my lightweight Goretex cap in the event of rain and for an extra head layer, and a silk balaclava that cost about £10 and is quite handy. Both of them stuff into my jacket pockets very easily, and that’s where I store them.

Cooking

This is one area I’m going to change. Firstly my inexpensive Coleman F1 stove needs replacing, and I won’t buy another. The screw together mechanism is slightly fiddly, though I never found this a great problem unless it was dark. The problem is, it’s seized up. This happened when I was in Scotland in June and I thought I then resolved it with some WD40, but that’s not the case. It seized up again in the Pyrenees which meant I was assembling and disassembling the F1 at another screw joint below where you’re supposed to do it. This was just luck, and in my tightly packed rucksack it would have been very awkward if I’d had to keep the entire stove permanently assembled. I assume the issue is caused by using low grade metal, hence the cheap price of the F1 at about £20. I’m going to replace it with a more expensive and presumably superior quality model, probably a Primus Micron or Optimus Crux – though I may consider a new meths stove if it burns hotter than my current one, and fuel consumption is not a major issue for extended trips. Chris Townsend once said gas is better for trips of more than a few days for efficiency/fuel weight reasons but there may not be much difference, possibly the situation has changed with new stove models, and buying gas when you arrive in the Pyrenees is an onerous and time consuming task: I think finding meths is probably easier.

Additionally, I’m going to change my pot system. In my tightly packed rucksack I’ve only wanted my Alpkit titanium mug, reasoning that a leisurely wait for a drink, then cooking, is not an issue in the evening. In fact, I’ve decided I want another pan so I can make a drink and then start cooking immediately, and the important factor here is packing convenience: I want one pan to stow away in another, and for that reason I’m considering the Evernew products though haven’t yet decided on this.

I use an Alpkit fold-away ‘Spork’, supplemented with a second teaspoon I find very useful.

Tent

Another area where I feel I can make some useful comments, because not many British walkers use Henry Shire Tarptents. Mine was a gift, when I didn’t want the expense of a tent before I knew I’d enjoy backpacking. It suits me very well. There’s a British prejudice against single skin tents, that I think is unfounded. I’ve used it in Wales, the Lake District, Scotland and the Pyrenees, and only once have I experienced a significant condensation problem – beside Grizedale Tarn, on a still summer night. But even then it wasn’t really an issue because for solo use the Rainbow – my model – is such a generous size you easily avoid touching the fabric and getting everything wet.

The Rainbow is a compromise, as all tents are, whereby it’s a little unstable in wind and the porch area is relatively small for cooking purposes – compared say, to a Hilleberg Akto. There’s room for shoes, food, cooking gear etc but your rucksack and most of its contents have to be stored inside the tent – though this is not a problem, just a characteristic, because of the large internal space.

The other compromise is the ventilation area, a mesh covered panel around the bottom of the tent that can be uncomfortably breezy if you want to be snug and protected. But conversely in warm conditions – and I rate this as a three season fair weather tent – the tarp-like openness of the mesh is very welcome.

Other than that, Tarpents are beautifully light – generous in size, you can easily sit up inside them – and they only weight about 800 grams. I thrust the tent down one side pocket in my rucksack, and the poles and pegs down the other.

Sleeping

I have a lightweight PHD down sleeping bag, rated to zero degrees. It’s good for three season use; I have used it in British winter conditions but I had to wear a fleece and a hat, and worry that if the temperature dropped even more I’d be in trouble. I like having a side zip – I think it’s ridiculous not having one just to save a few grams, which some people choose – because you can open it up when its warm. The zip though, is very annoying: it constantly gets snagged on the fabric, though this is not enough of an issue to justify finding and buying another model and I’m not sure the problem is unique to PHD.

I use a Therma Rest ProLite, which I find very comfortable. The only problem I have with this is its slippery surface, which means I occasionally slide off it in the night. This happened a few times in the Pyrenees, but the ground was warm and it didn’t disturb me. When I woke in the morning I expected to feel stiff but this wasn’t the case, after sleeping on the ground. For that reason I might try a Gossamer Gear sleeping pad which is theoretically less comfortable but lighter to carry, and could be attached to the outside of a rucksack freeing up some space inside it.

I like having night wear with me – a cotton top and trousers – because it feels clean and luxurious after walking all day. The thin trousers are my day wear when I wash my walking trousers and both would, in extreme conditions, be an additional emergency layer.

Miscellaneous

I like to carry a light, inexpensive aluminium mug I got from a bargain sports outlet called Decahtlon. I think it was about £2. I clip it to my rucksack with a mini karabiner so it’s easily accessible for drinking from streams; I find this very convenient, much better than using a plastic bottle.

I use a tiny Swiss Army knife, which has everything I need: a sharp small blade, scissors to cut my nails, and a file to smooth out the slight crudeness of this operation.

Water pouch – why do they get called ‘bladders’? Surely pouch is a nicer word. Anyway mine’s a two litre Platypus. I think they’re all pretty much the same. I don’t like the bite valve on these, and when I lost mine I replaced it with a Biro pen top. It works very well; no leaks, pull the cap off and you suck down the tube instead of bite and suck on unpleasant rubber.

Purification – I use chlorine dioxide to clean dodgy water supplies, in the form of the Aqua Mira brand. It’s inexpensive, light and convenient, compared to mechanical or UV devices and has no health danger as does iodine. I find it very bizarre that both iodine and the insect repellent DEET are not advised for children or pregnant women and you have to be careful not to use too much of them. They’re poisons, basically, where too much iodine damages internal organs and even a few grams can even kill you, and DEET is a pesticide that melts plastic and damages your expensive waterproofs! Both chemicals undoubtedly work in their capacity of bug killing and midge repellence, but then arsenic or sulphuric acid might do the same! Chlorine dioxide releases a high concentration of oxygen into your water which kills all bugs, and that’s all it does. It also leaves no unpleasant taste, which I understand is a further problem with iodine. I think the only reason to use iodine is if you visit countries where organisms like giardia and cryptosporidium are in the water; chlorine dioxide doesn’t work against these. Other than that, boiling purifies water very effectively and it’s what I use for my morning coffee and evening cooking.

I use Leki carbon walking poles, which I really like. The weight difference compared to aluminium is immediately noticeable, and that accrues when you use them for an entire day. I find them particularly useful going downhill when you thrust them ahead to brake and stabilise your descent, and reduce some of the jolting that damages your knees. Pacer poles seem to be the fashionable choice for many, but I tried them in a shop and didn’t like them. I like the versatility of gripping a strap and holding the handle in different ways; I think with the Pacer pole handle you’re more restricted.

I like to carry a small sitting pad I think I bought in Grasmere some years ago; it weighs virtually nothing and I find it very handy both for rest stops – particularly on cold or wet rock – and for inside the tent.

My head torch, which I use quite a lot, is a compact little Petzl. It only has three LCDs and I’d prefer four which are now obtainable, but it was quite expensive at £30 and I’ll use it until it breaks. I remember buying it from a shop in Keswick.

I had a ‘buff’ with me – those versatile tube garments that wrap around your neck or fit over your head in the manner of a scarf or hat. I find them very effective to shield the neck from sun. I have, in the past, used an old silk handkerchief I bought in Crete many years ago – a nice greeny yellow design – or the sleeves of a shirt. The former isn’t really big enough, the latter is too big; a buff does the job perfectly. You can see the handsome chap modeling this in the second photograph.

After reflecting on the matter for weeks, I acquired a Suunto Observer altimeter watch. It’s a very handy navigation aid, where for me I think GPS is mostly overkill. Not only can you check the height of where you are but it’s also a nice looking, tough watch suitable for outdoors rough stuff. My ‘day watch’, which I used to use, was never really suitable. I chose the black ‘negative face’ version which disappoints me a little with dusk level light where it’s hard to read compared to my day watch or the conventional black on grey LCD style, but I think it’s a sleeker and more attractive design and if necessary, it has an excellent back light. The alarm is useless, it’s so quiet; you can get better watch alarms but I reasoned if ever this is very important I should have a small alarm clock with me which is much better again.

Last year, I bought a Suunto Vector just before I left for the Pyrenees. I needed to test it, to see if in fact I found it useful, and a chap in the store (The North Face) was very generous about this. He said he’d extend the normal 14 day trial period for a few days, and it was OK if I took it to the Pyrenees. Normally, the rule is you wear it indoors only. However, I was too nervous that even slight cosmetic damage would make it un-returnable (we both understood it had to in perfect condition) and, more importantly, it was much too big on my wrist. My jacket didn’t easily fit over it and with a watch that big I would inevitably whack it against rock, trees etc. The Observer is a nice compact design, about the same size as normal watches.

Food

I’m vegetarian and brought with me a supply of Quorn slices, which last well in their sealed plastic sachets. I bought baguettes constantly, and had to eat them one or two days old which is not pleasant. I had some dried soup, and found some enjoyable pasta meals with dried powder based sauce in the sachet. I bought cheese, walnuts, noodles, sunflower seeds, and muesli bars. When I had a good reserve of gas I liked to have soup or noodles for lunch, but this is time consuming and I think I only did it twice. I decided carrying a small but heavy treat was worth it, sustained for just a day or two: I like yoghurt for breakfast and bought multi packs a few times, and on one day had a banana for breakfast. I had a few meals in the mountain huts, which vary from simple but very satisfying to pretty much the opposite. The Renclusa and Viados meals for example were very nice, whereas the Soula and Portillon meals were not.

I think that’s about it. While kit itself doesn’t interest me a great deal it’s fun to write about it. Such reports are very practical and, I think, useful as a kind of tip swapping process.

Pyrenees Photographs

Pyrenees Book

 
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