The gentle snapping crunch, accompanied as it was by a slow sagging to the right, was enough to tell me that the spring on my bike saddle had just broken. Again.
Manchester’s roads are, on the whole, bloody awful – if they ever need to fake a video feed from the Mars rovers they could just set up a camera here and point it at the potholes – but my commute is generally level and I don’t launch myself recklessly, or even with reck, off kerbs and over obstacles, so it’s more than a little disappointing to have a supposedly heavy-duty item like a saddle spring fail during a slow, smooth ride. When this happened last year the manufacturer, Brooks, fitted a new spring, apparently newly crafted to solve a design flaw in this particular saddle which historically had both rear springs twisting in the same direction and was prone to failure. I can’t fault their customer service, at least.
This time the B33 saddle (which, for the curious, looks very much like this) is going back for a replacement rather than repair. After enquiring about alternatives I’ve been offered the even more sofa-like B190 (this wide boy here); no saddle like a razor blade for this commuter, no indeed. And if you recall that advert you’re probably as old as I am. The “stranded rear coil springs” haven’t actually left me stranded yet, but breaking twice in under two years has left me wary of them.
In the meantime I’ve pinched the saddle from Emma’s bike and fitted it temporarily to The Vicar. I’m sure she won’t mind.
This is not a post about my cat. Not about anyone’s cat, as it happens, but there does seem to be a law of the Internet (not quite Godwin’s, unless we’re discussing Nazi cats… Catzis? Have I strayed far enough from the point yet?) requiring all blogs to include at least one cat photo, so here it is. As it happens, the photo is of my cat, the genuinely adorable Mrs Peel, but the rest of the post will not be about cats at all, unless I’m feline up to it. *ahem*
So anyway, yes, ultralight hiking! I knew there was a topic in here somewhere.
I cannot claim complete immunity from an interest in the material side of hiking, the kit, the gear, the gubbins etc. My wardrobe is full of the stuff for one thing, although there’s a handy degree of crossover with the gear I use when cycling to work. No point buying two lots of performance clothes, eh? I like to research something before I buy it, which does mean that my dearest girlfriend (Mrs Peel is her cat too. Damn, I mentioned cats again…) has to put up with me while I wander around camping shops, click between outdoorsy websites and pore over the technical listings in gear catalogues. The end result should be that I buy precisely the right thing for the job and don’t waste money or acquire kit I end up not using. And here’s a lovely bridge I’d like to sell you.
Even so, I’m an amateur, the merest dilettante, when compared with some people, especially some of the people who like to frequent hiking forums on the Internet. On one site there was a rather sad post from a lady bemoaning the fact that such places always start off with excitement, enthusiasm and innovation but inevitably become little more than a string of enquiries as to which new gadget to buy.
In the case of ultralight hiking the shift from weird marginal extreme pursuit, the haunt only of the obsessed and the creative, to slightly less marginal pursuit with lots of commercially available products has happened pretty much alongside a similar but more pronounced shift for the Internet itself. In the late nineties the ‘net was growing, creeping into homes and offices, but not everyone was convinced and not every company felt the need to have a website. Today you really don’t need much in the way of technical knowledge in order to surf, just as you no longer need to source exotic coated synthetics and break out the sewing machine if you want to use ultralight hiking equipment.
There comes a point, of course, when the rapid innovation and explosion of ideas slows, when new gear begins to look a lot like the old gear, merely in a different colour and fractionally lighter (or even, to the horror of many, slightly heavier!). In many respects we are hitting material barriers in the pursuit of ever lighter equipment. Some incredible fabrics and materials have been found and put together with ingenious methods of construction, but really, how light do we need to be? At what point does the compromise become too great? Price, durability, complexity – pretty much everything except, say, your pet cat… Damn again – figure into the suitability of any one piece of gear for any one hiker. The numbers game of ultralight is fascinating and it’s very easy to find yourself drawn into shaving off an extra ounce or two, or even a gram, but like many people I’m less interested in the extremes of the process than I am in enjoying a nice walk and a spot of camping. For me, carrying less weight does indeed mean a much better hiking experience. I’ve had fewer injuries and less fatigue for starters. That said, I can’t say with any conviction or honesty that a full rucksack weighing nine pounds is going to adversely affect my hike when compared to one of eight and a half pounds; small differences might show up eventually, but if the difference is down to a warmer pullover or an extra bar of chocolate I’m as likely to shoulder the difference and not worry about it.
When I did my first TGO Challenge walk across Scotland in 2009 I was wearing my battered old Ventile smock and trusty cotton duck Tilley Hat; trousers were almost certainly involved as well. If the comments I heard are anything to go by then this was considered somewhat eccentric. The smock was worn every day, since it was both my windproof and waterproof outer garment. Only on one day did a relentless spell of rain overwhelm it, but for the route I took and conditions I encountered (including sleet and snow) it was excellent, as good as it has always been. Even so, I’m taking a Páramo 3rd Element jacket on the next Challenge, partly because I’m being slightly less cautious about my route and will be spending more time out of the valleys. The 3rd Element (now sadly discontinued, although that’s why I was able to buy a new one for rather less than half price) is considerably more eccentric than my smock – I’ll let you Google it to discover why – yet is greatly prized by the likes of Andy Howell and Colin Ibbotson. Colin, of course, is British ultralighting’s combination boffin and test pilot, pushing the limits on behalf of us all, but mostly because he clearly enjoys it.
Anyway, I might also carry a very lightweight windproof jacket, useful as an extra layer to trap a bit of warmth, or too help keep the bugs off on very hot days when zipping up the Páramo would be unbearable. Mine is a GoLite something-or-other, bought, like so much of my kit, in a clearance sale and consequently a particularly eyebrow-raising shade of orange. This flimsy, gossamer-thin hooded top weighs a rather astonishing 108g (bit of a sop to the metric users out there. I get complaints, you see), despite the fact that I don’t take small sizes. It folds into its own pocket to form a tiny, wallet-like pillow of nylon, yet erupts impossibly out of the pouch as though liberating itself from John Hurt’s chest, ready for action. It is by no means the lightest such jacket on the market. How light can such things get? How light do we really need them to get, indeed? Posts on the ultralight hiking forums seem to suggest that newcomers are terribly worried that their gear might not be light enough. Are they buying the right things? Will losing another half pound make all the difference? Will the big boys point and laugh at their comparatively heavy kit? In reality, it’s not at all difficult in these days of supermarket fleece jackets and tough synthetics to get a respectably light outfit together for a very reasonable amount, without needing to spend hundreds on the cutting edge. Carrying twenty pounds is a lot better than carrying thirty (unless the extra ten pounds are included for a purpose, of course: lightest possible is not necessarily lightest suitable), so why agonise in advance? It’s a wonderful thing to be able to access all of this information and opinion from one’s desk (or even ‘phone), but nothing substitutes for experience: a decent, cheap start lets you actually get out and hike, then next time you can start tweaking it all to suit your personal preferences.
My stove, of course, sits sneering at me to highlight my apparent hypocrisy. It weighs less than half an ounce and is made of titanium, of course. Get over it.
For entirely unclear reasons, geeks like sporks.
In one of those rare, rare crossovers between the nerdy and vaguely sporty worlds, hikers seem to like sporks too.
Very few people seem to like calling them “foons” however.
Ultralight hikers – generally considered to be someone who carries a full load of camping gear, including rucksack and shelter, weighing roughly twelve pounds or less – seem especially enamoured of these odd little objects, yet as a group they are particularly poorly served by the spork. Ultralighters often engage in weight-saving gambits such as ditching crockery and eating out of Ziploc freezer bags instead, so the last thing you’d imagine they might need is an eating utensil terminating in several pointy bits of super-hard titanium; and yet they buy them and use them. From the colourful plastic (Did I say merely plastic? Silly me: the colourful Lexan Polycarbonate Resin Thermoplastic) to the aerospace darling titanium, often engineered with little cutouts and spaces to reduce the weight still further, sporks are ubiquitous where hikers gather. Some have a serrated edge to substitute for a knife. Others have elaborate mechanisms (elaborate for a piece of cutlery, anyway) to allow them to fold. Not only do they weigh virtually nothing, now they take up less space!
Incredibly, despite the space-age materials (titanium, people! This is the stuff they built the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird out of, which is a pretty big deal as any veteran Top Trumps player will tell you: the Blackbird handily kicks other aeroplanes in the Jacob’s when it comes to speed and maximum altitude) sporks have been around for more than a century. And they’re still crap for eating noodles with, the standard fare for hikers since time began. As for soup… what we are dealing with here, ladies and gentlemen, is a spoon with several long holes cut into the front end…
Not that I’m criticising, you understand. Not harshly at least, since I’m one of the relatively niche group of hiking geeks. A quick glance at my mountain o’ hiking kit shows two sporks, both titanium. One of them folds. They’re over there, just next to the folding chopsticks. Neither of them are foons.
No, this Inspector Frost works for the Greater Manchester Police, isn’t named Jack and was calling to let me know about my job. For some months now we have all been toiling away under the looming shadow of government cuts and inevitable job losses, hovering above us as… OPTIMUS! It’s an unfortunate choice of name for the review, since as a result I now have a very negative view of an entirely innocent heroic Autobot leader who is, at least as far as I’m aware, nothing at all to do with the chopping and changing throughout the force.
Mine is a civilian post with GMP, which means that I can be made redundant. Every day is spent trawling through job applications and criminal records to ensure that anyone applying to work with children or vulnerable adults is suitable to do so and not hiding anything awful in their past. It’s given me a rather jaded view of taxi drivers and thrown up some genuinely shocking incidents, but I’m very well aware that I’m not on the front line dealing with the horrors face-to-face.
I still need to eat, though, and to pay the mortgage, so the news that my position was “at risk” was a hard blow and has been sitting heavily over Christmas, breathing down my neck like a sinister asthmatic parrot. In a quite typical example of my exemplary timing I was off work today, just as the announcement was due regarding how many jobs would go and who was first for the chop, so the first part of the morning was spent waiting nervously for the ‘phone to ring with news. I’m always nervous if I expect a ‘phone call anyway – absolutely hate the bloody things, to be truthful – so there was the very real possibility of my day off being utterly wrecked by anticipatory dread, but Inspector Frost did call and the news, for me at least, was good: my job is safe, for the moment.
The full details are waiting for me at the office, so I don’t know who is leaving, how many people opted for voluntary redundancy and who, if anyone, is fighting over a position, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I am immensely relieved, even though I know that this is only the first round of cuts and my role may well vanish entirely in the next.
So The Lovely Emma and I went out for tapas and a cold glass of lager and had an entirely lovely lunch, without the fear of nervous indigestion. Sometimes a few words from a policeman can really brighten your day.
Christmas takes its toll on the waistline, I know, as do the accumulating years, but even so it seems a little insensitive to point it out by gift:
Time to get out and do some more hiking, I think.
Jotting down a few words to test the automatic Twitter update, what with being rather new to this blogging lark and all.
The weekend beckons, looking particularly tasty since I’ve thrown caution to the winds and holiday allowance to the devil: for once, for this January only, I’m having a weekend from Thursday through Tuesday. No more sitting in front of a computer, feeling my eyeballs begin to deliquesce. No sir! For one glorious long weekend I shall be… sitting in front of a computer. Oh well, at least this time it’s my computer and the project one of my choice.
Far beyond this beckoning weekend looms the TGO Challenge, the annual tramp across Scotland for roughly three hundred assorted loons, and this year will be my second. Much as I’d love to set off in a vaguely eastish direction the fine folk at Challenge Control demand a wee bit more preparation, so I shall be plotting my route in minute detail and sending them a summary, along with planned alternatives should there be any foul weather (In Scotland? Hahahahahaha….) and notes on distances, ascents and all that sort of eye-glazing business. At least I’ve finally joined the late Twentieth Century and now have computerised maps, not just the lovely paper Ordnance Survey ones I used for my previous route planning. Wonderful to pore over, but the living room rapidly turned into an endless wall of inescapable paper, as though Kafka had discovered origami. Hopefully the computer will simplify things, or at least speed up the process of making a huge arse of the whole thing and having to start again.
As well as the maps I spend more time than can strictly be considered healthy, or even necessary, reading through books about camping and hiking. I have several. Some, even. Quite a number, to be slightly more accurate, ranging from the late eighteen hundreds through to, more or less, the present day. Those from the teens and twenties are perhaps my favourites, part of a flowering of interest in camping which led to all sorts of crazy innovations – sleeping bags! and packs that turn into sleeping bags! – and gloriously pompous, opinionated advice. Today’s “ultralight revolution” has its roots in the those years, though most have forgotten the link, when tiny silk tents sporting bamboo poles were the cutting edge of portable shelter technology. A few books from recent years, most famously those by Ray Jardine, take the lightweight camping idea even further, but there are not as many of them as one might expect; and the truly worthwhile ones can be counted on the fingers of one hand, still leaving enough spare digits to make a cheerfully obscene gesture in the direction of your chosen politician.
Has the Internet culled the herds of these books before they even had chance to roam free across the plains of horribly overwritten metaphor? We no longer have to write letters to Horace Kephart or Stewart Edward White asking where they buy their shelter or cooking pots: a few minutes of Google returns an evening’s worth of links to manufacturers and suppliers. Techniques are shared almost in real-time, generous souls posting their plans and photographs, hammering out niggling details in collaboration with people half a world away. We Tweet and Facebook (well, I don’t Facebook, but I hear that it’s terribly popular with the hep cats and swinging young things these days) and create a library of text each day. But we don’t write books any more. New works are few and seem curiously dated, left behind by a technology that has become seamlessly integrated with lifestyle and society. There is more advice and information out there for the interested hiker than there has ever been.
But it’s not bound and collected, to be read now and passed along through possibly dozens more readers as these old books of mine have been, which might be a Good Thing in its way, even if it seems a little sad. Sometimes, when the raging river of information is surging past, I like to open one of those faded volumes and take the time to think.