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TGO Challenge 2013: Reflections

June 14, 2013 2 comments

2013-05-19 10.33.24

A few weeks have passed since I headed home from Scotland and the 2013 TGO Challenge is very much behind me now. Trip reports have appeared on a wide variety of blogs, routes and gear have been discussed, amusing anecdotes (and a few rather less amusing ones) retold. It’s very much time to look for the next adventure.

It was a strange finish to the walk for me this year. After leaving Tarfside, walking alone again, I started to feel that I simply wanted to get to the coast. Many walkers will tell you that the eastern part of the crossing is unsatisfying, but I think that I was especially unfortunate with my choice of route this time, a slog through rather industrial farmland and strangely forbidding hamlets. Even so, there are always bright moments: at one point I realised that a car was drawing alongside me, a shabby hatchback seemingly driven by the sort of man who is either living an homage to Deliverance or on the lookout to score some cheap Buckfast… my heart sank. And then he spoke, and instead of the mockery and jeering I expected he turned out to be cheerful and enthusiastic about my walk (once I’d explained why I couldn’t accept his kind offer of a lift) and I quite clearly shouldn’t judge people as I did, which is one of the inevitable outcomes of living in Manchester. Considerably buoyed as he waved and drove on, I continued towards Lunan Bay.

My planned route to the coast didn’t survive for long. Enjoying a spot of lunch between the White and Brown Caterthuns, a couple of Iron Age hill forts which turned out to have excellent mobile ‘phone reception (very forward thinking people, the Iron Agers), I decided to press on a bit since the weather was glorious. I’d heard that there was a campsite at Brechin, which turned out to be one of those strange towns where the modern world has rendered past glories into liabilities; the place was full of churches, most of them up for sale. The site turned out to be right next to the road and not especially tent friendly, then I discovered that the chap running it was out and would “probably be back soon.” I sat and looked over the map, considering my options… then I picked up the rucksack and started walking, slipping into that rather dangerous “sod it, I’ll just keep going” attitude. And keep going I did, right on to the coast, arriving at Red Castle in the evening, well ahead of my planned schedule.

2013-05-21 18.09.52

This was a little ridiculous, since I wasn’t supposed to reach the coast until Thursday and I was actually there two days early. Red Castle itself, home largely to rabbits and seagulls, struck me as a fair place to pitch my tent for the night, so I decided to head down to the beach and cook a meal, waiting until later to set up camp so as not to be in the way for anyone trying to enjoy an evening stroll in the area. Dinner on the beach was quite delightful, with the section I was on being separated by a channel from the main part where people were dog walking and flying kites. I happened to spot a birdwatching hide, which I discovered was unlocked, so I sat in there for a while when the wind picked up. Naturally I didn’t set up my mattress on the benches and spend the night there, though. Naturally.

A few miles in the morning took me to Montrose, where I met a number of the early arrivals and those people who had sadly had to drop out for various reasons. Quite a few seemed to have finished earlier than they planned as I had. It was rather nice to meet people as they rolled into town over the next couple of days, spoilt only by a bout of suspected food poisoning from a chicken salad I unwisely ordered at the hotel, the effects of which stayed with me for over a week and kept me off work for days. As a result I was in an unusual frame of mind at the end of the Challenge.

I spent a lot of time, both when walking to the coast and as I sat around feeling grim and sorry for myself, thinking about the Challenge and how it had worked for me this time around. This was my third and I had certainly learned quite a bit since the first one, but I had to admit that I had done a poor job of planning the route, cobbling it together hurriedly during a period of blackest winter depression when I was seriously regretting having even applied for the walk. Importantly, I had reached the point at which I knew a great many Challengers so the social side of things was wonderful,  bumping into people I’d encountered on a hillside a couple of years earlier. This is a major reason why the Challenge has such a hold on people, I suspect, as there’s no reason why you can’t just go walking across Scotland at any time but meeting fellow Challengers makes it something special. That may be one reason why the last couple of days left me feeling a little hollow and directionless, as I left everyone behind and pressed on.

In previous years I have started the Challenge with great intentions of really getting back into walking, something I’ve done much less of since moving to Manchester, then by the time I’ve reached the coast I’ve pretty much been ready to pack away the gear and never venture out again; indeed, the last time I did any serious backpacking before the 2013 Challenge was the 2011 Challenge… Coming home this time I realised that my goals had shifted a little. I’ve been out walking since I came back and have plans to get out more often, mostly relatively local walks reachable by public transport but Manchester does at least sit on the edge of some fine walking country. I realised that I very much want to look at some of the other major trails around the country, routes I’ve neglected in recent years, ambitions I’ve put aside. Smaller trips, long weekends or perhaps a week taking in some different routes closer to home. At this point I have absolutely no idea whether I’ll apply for the 2015 Challenge (every other year is the best I can aim for, as it eats up my holiday allowance rather badly), yet I do know that I want to get back to frequent walking and that I’ve let things slip away in recent years. I went walking with friends last week, a ten mile loop to help them train for an upcoming charity walk, and as we stood outside a shop in Littleborough at the end, eating ice creams in the sunshine, a simple walk in the British countryside seemed like the grandest thing in the world.

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This sort of thing ain’t my bag, baby!

June 4, 2013 2 comments
This is, in fact, my bag.

This is, in fact, my bag.

The rucksack hasn’t changed since my 2011 TGO Challenge, a semi-custom ZPacks Zero constructed from Cuben Fiber, and it’s still going strong. Such a light bag requires some thought across your entire range of kit, since you can’t overload it and expect it to be comfortable, nor does it take kindly to being loaded with gear any old how. For my needs it once again proved to be superbly comfortable with the fairly light load I was carrying and is showing very little sign of wear and tear, a popped stitch on the haul loop being about the extent of it so far. Were I to add a few more pounds or take bulkier equipment then this would not be the right pack for the job.

The brolly you can see furled and stowed in the picture was a silvered version of the Swing LiteFlex Trekking model I’ve used previously, but unfortunately this didn’t fare so well. I recall Colin Ibbotson, I believe, mentioning some failures he’d had with this brand and sadly a rogue gust snapped a stretcher on mine, causing it to tear through the canopy. A repair left it able to fulfil some duties as long as there was no chance of much wind, but I’ve had to bin it now. Excellent as a cooling sunshade, a very convenient tarp porch cover and an essential shelter on rainy breaks, I’m still a great fan of the umbrella when hiking, but these particular models are just a little too light, too weak.

On previous Challenges (and indeed most of the time when I step outside, for the past twenty years) I wore a Tilley Hat. I have rather too many of these, if I’m honest, despite not having bought a new one for several years; looking at the range now it all seems a bit cluttered and fancy, somewhat removed from the solid outdoors credentials of the originals, but a few of the venerable models are still there including the classic T3. This time I took the plunge and made a change, a peaked cap from Marks & Spencer costing an impressive £2 from the sale bin. These were most likely poor sellers due to being labelled as size XL but actually being big enough to fit me, which makes it more like an XXXL (the availability of a size 8 is one of the reasons I discovered Tilley Hats in the first place, the world being unfairly biased towards people with tiny heads). My thinking here was that I could wear the cap more easily under the hood of my windshirt or waterproof, which certainly worked. I wore the thing practically non-stop for the fortnight and it even stayed neatly on my head without a chin cord, only once blowing off… when I returned to Manchester. Naturally, it landed straight in a fountain. Despite a foldaway neck cape I did get a little too much sun on my ears, so I expect I’ll go back to full brim hats most of the time.

The Prat in the Hat.

The Prat in the Hat.

A large number, perhaps even a majority, of Challengers can be seen to use Crocs, particularly the classic enclosed sandal style, because they are very often hanging from their rucksacks. They may not pack neatly away, and they are certainly astonishingly ugly lumps of plastic, but they are quite light (around 300g for a large size men’s pair), easy to clean and very comfortable. Boot wearers switch to them in camp and also when fording streams, whereas those who opt for trail shoes generally walk straight through the water regardless and wear the same shoes in camp as when hiking. Sometimes it’s nice to have a change, though, and since Crocs were too bulky and a bit heavier than I’d like I made a pair of flip-flops:

Is there no beginning to my talents?

Is there no beginning to my talents?

A couple of bits of spare foam from my sleeping mat and a few strips of duct tape. 23 grammes for the pair. Absolutely perfect for using in campsite showers and pottering around a bunkhouse. They made it through the fortnight intact, albeit with little cushioning left under the heel.

After the 2011 Challenge I was largely happy with my cooking system, but having seen a Trail Designs Caldera Cone in action I thought it might fix the one weak point, namely the inadequate foil windscreen I was using. Last year I bought a Caldera Cone but otherwise kept the same Esbit burner and titanium pot (the one minor annoyance with the Cone is that it has to be bought to fit specific cooking pots, as it can’t be adjusted). Cooking performance and convenience was vastly improved and I also saved on quite a bit of fuel, as I could generally manage both the main meal and a hot drink on a single tablet. I ate well and it never seemed like a chore to set up the stove.

Mm... Christmas pudding and custard.

Mm… Christmas pudding and custard.

Most of the other kit performed well and much of it had been in the bag for the 2011 Challenge. A pair of Jacks ‘R’ Better Down Sleeves made my old PHD Minimus Down Vest much more versatile, giving me increased flexibility for sitting around camp and to boost my down quilt quite a bit on a couple of chilly nights. I only had one night when I woke up cold, which was fixed by reaching for extra clothes; in the morning the spare water bag was frozen and I draped the quilt around me as I left the tent. My Mountain King walking poles are still going, giving me occasional concern as they flexed alarmingly when used as tent supports on windier nights, and I wore the same pair of Inov-8 Flyroc shoes that I used on the 2011 Challenge, although they certainly won’t manage a third.

Instead of my old GoLite Cave tarp I tried a Gossamer Gear SpinnShelter. Slightly longer and considerably lighter with useful doors at each end, it’s also less versatile than the Cave as it can only really be successfully pitched in one basic configuration. The tent is not currently in production as the fabric used is now virtually impossible to obtain, but it certainly deserves to reappear if an alternative material can be found. The classic sloping shape only allows you to sit up at one end, but it kept the weather out successfully and was fairly straightforward to pitch tautly. An inner from BearPaw Wilderness Designs, the Minimalist 1, kept the ticks and midges out and as I specified a silnylon area at the foot end it meant that I could keep the doors of the Spinnshelter open, reducing condensation without risking wet feet from the rain. I originally bought the inner for my Cave, but it fit the SpinnShelter quite well.

Please excuse the clutter.

Please excuse the clutter.

Trousers were a pair of stretch Sprayway Compass Pants, very comfortable and surprisingly weather resistant with well designed zipped pockets, and a Rab Meco 165 shirt (bought, like the trousers, in a clearance sale) worked splendidly to keep me comfortable in challenging conditions. Instead of the Paramo 3rd Element jacket I wore in 2011 or the Snowsled Ventile smock from 2009 I decided to take a Marmot Essence waterproof jacket (which I normally pack for cycling use, hence the eye-watering shade of orange) and a Rab Cirrus hooded windshirt. The Cirrus was fantastic, good for all but heavy rain and one of the few windshirts around at the moment with big useful pockets. The Essence was okay and worked well, but for the very typical May Scottish weather of the TGO I think I’ll go back to the Paramo in future. Less faffing around as conditions change, which they do quickly and often, and supremely comfortable in cold wet weather.

Would I take the same on a future, hypothetical Challenge? Some of it. I might go back to a thicker mattress (my foam MultiMat is rather flattened with use and age now, for one thing), tweak a few things here and there, but very little genuinely needs to be changed. It doesn’t take a huge amount of gear to be comfortable on the Challenge, with the caveat that I choose my route accordingly: I wouldn’t think of deliberately camping high or in very exposed locations with this exact kit. I carried about 4lbs more this time than in 2011, extra weight accumulating from more and heavier warm clothes, the tent inner, sturdier tent pegs and numerous other odds and ends, which I don’t regret at all. The compromise between weight and comfort is always there and I managed to be comfortable due both to a fairly light pack and a very adequate range of camping gear. I don’t have any set ideology here, though, and you’re just as likely to meet me on a hill wearing leather boots as trail shoes. Horses for courses, as they say.

Ooh, a packhorse… maybe I could take a packhorse…

What Has It Got In Its Pocketses?

June 3, 2013 2 comments
Moistly picturesque along Glen Affric

Moistly picturesque along Glen Affric

Continuing my unsystematic method of writing about the 2013 TGO Challenge, a few idle thoughts (of a very idle fellow) concerning the kit I carried. Whether you call it hiking, hill walking, tramping, rambling, backpacking, bimbling or some equivalent in a long dead tongue, the important thing to remember is that it’s about the journey, the experience, the act of being out there and moving at nature’s pace, and it’s certainly not about the gear. Except that’s what everyone talks about, because people are like that. Anyway, if you want trip reports you need to be following people like Philip Werner, who started his TGO piece this week. It contains a couple of pictures of me grinning buffoonishly and Philip is comically generous in his estimation of my tent pitching skill, but don’t let my presence put you off. I kept photobombing the poor chap’s walk.

So, what worked? With some doubts and fears for its safety I decided to take my smartphone, not a cheap item (for me at least, it’s a very rare bit of fairly high-end electronic folderol) and an inherently fragile one. Despite being relatively new to the world of contract ‘phones I upgraded last year to an HTC One X, which has done fantastically well at pretty much everything I’ve used it for. I made a protective case for it using bubble wrap and an aLoksak, essentially a very overpriced sandwich bag, which worked to fend off moisture and minor bumps, although I was under no illusions about it protecting the ‘phone against a fall with my ample bodyweight crushing it against the rocks. A silica gel pouch added a little defence against moisture in the bag, keeping the humidity down but not likely to do much if the seal failed. The resulting package fit nicely in the pocket of my Rab windshirt.

There’s no user-replaceable battery in that particular model, so I also carried a TeckNet battery pack, capable of recharging the ‘phone up to four times before itself needing a charge; my thinking was that I’d rather leave the battery plugged in at a campsite or pub than I would the ‘phone itself. In practice the battery pack proved fickle, apparently very unhappy about the generally low temperatures, and had to keep being prodded in order to continue charging, but it has worked and continues to work perfectly well at home and when travelling. It also behaved itself in the pub, allowing both myself and Philip Werner to simultaneously recharge our ‘phones as we made use of the reasonably priced WiFi at the Fife Arms in Braemar. The result was that I had a way to call and text Challenge Control (on those occasions when I had a signal… not in any way guaranteed and there are many known signal dead zones in the Highlands), an entertainment centre including MP3 player and a Kindle reader app with plenty of books, and a back-up mapping source; in common with many modern ‘phones it could also function as a torch and a radio if needed, too. The HTC One X, pouch, headphones, charging cable etc came to about 250 grammes and the battery pack 200 grammes (roughly a pound in all), so a fairly heavy bit of kit for someone hiking in a relatively lightweight style but I found it to be worth carrying.

While I’m not here to recommend a particular ‘phone or even operating system (The One X uses Android, if you didn’t already know) I will point to an app I sometimes used and have found to be very handy indeed, Arthur Embleton’s Grid Reference. There are likely to be similar apps for other operating systems. Grid Reference does one thing: turn on the ‘phone’s GPS and it displays, big and bold, filling the screen, your UK mapping grid reference. That’s it. A few seconds and there it is, handy confirmation of your position for those occasions when visibility and local conditions make a little reassurance very welcome. I used it in very poor visibility as I approached Jock’s Road and it saved me a bit of floundering through the muck after I reached an area where the path was indistinct. Without a proper map it’s useless but I’ve been very happy to have it on a couple of occasions now and can imagine it having a useful place in rescue situations.

As I don’t own a digital camera the ‘phone was intended to take on that role, but of course there are issues with using a camera on a hiking trip. Water, primarily. Keeping the ‘phone in my pocket meant it was available to use as a camera quite readily (I left in on all of the time in “airplane” – sic – mode and had ample battery life) but naturally exposed it to greater risk than if I’d buried it in the rucksack. In the past I’ve been told that I take too few pictures, which is certainly true, so I took the chance and only kept it in the pack if conditions looked especially dicey.

2013-05-13 10.38.49

It’s not all mountains and moors, you know.

I’m no Ansel Adams, but looking through a few old boxes of photos this weekend showed me that the features built into a smartphone camera have greatly improved the snaps I’ve taken when compared to my old 35mm compact. For my needs the results are perfectly acceptable, although of course dedicated equipment could do better still and would give far superior results in low light conditions. Still, I’m happy with how the pictures turned out and I’m tempted to trawl eBay for a modern compact, which would allow me to take pictures in those circumstances where I simply did not want to risk the HTC: you’ll notice that I have no pictures taken during storms or when hiking in the rain and snow.

Finally for now, one related item I got absolutely no use from: the Woxom Slingshot. It’s a great idea, a flexible cradle with a standard tripod mount, allowing you to use a smartphone more like a regular camera. It comes with a basic handle/tripod but works very nicely with my old Ultrapod too. Perfect for self-timer images, keeping a better grip on the ‘phone in precarious poses and generally stabilising the platform to produce sharper images. Seemed like a great idea. I didn’t use it once. That’s my fault rather than any problem with the Slingshot, however, and I fully expect to use it in the future, it just didn’t make it out of the pack on the TGO.

Martin Rye and Philip Werner boulderly go where TGOers have gone before.

Martin Rye and Philip Werner boulderly go where TGOers have gone before.

I Was The President’s Body Double

May 27, 2013 4 comments

2013-05-16 13.55.22Martin Rye and Philip Werner cross the Lairig Ghru, a less fit hiker trailing in their wake.

Regular readers will be very aware that there is nothing to regularly read here, lately in particular. Faced with the realisation, and accompanying statistics, that by far the most frequently visited post on this blog was me having a royal whinge about a shoddy bike I bought last year I slumped somewhat, unable to summon much enthusiasm for what has always only been an occasional dabbling (unlike the blogs of the two gentlemen above, infinitely more professional efforts and worthy of your time). At home on a cloudy bank holiday, still suffering the effects of suspected food poisoning and with the 2013 TGO Challenge behind me, it seems as good a time as any to jot down a few thoughts on recent weeks and what has been going on.

The TGO Challenge, widely acknowledged to be the most significant outdoor event since Pheidippides announced that he was just nipping outside to stretch his legs, concluded last week for another year. I’ve discussed it before on this blog and others have certainly done so with far greater depth and knowledge, so I shan’t be writing a complete trip report, nor a detailed dissection of the gear I carried this year; I do plan to touch on a few elements here and in later posts, though, which may hopefully be of interest when compared with how I tackled the 2011 crossing.

Plenty of people reported exceptionally bad weather early on, whereas I was lucky to see only a pretty typical mix of rain, snow, hail and sun for the first few days before things mostly improved. The worst weather I faced was probably on the campsite at Braemar, indeed, where I was at least in a good position to ride it out. It was a little disconcerting to return to my tent in the early evening and discover a party of ducks disporting in a newly created pond mere feet away, however.

Just Say No To Quack.

Just Say No To Quack.

In the first week I made my way to Drumnadrochit, bordering Loch Ness and consequently the leading location for all manner of tat with Nessie printed on it. The crossing, on a boat full of smiling Challengers helmed by the stalwart Gordon Menzies at the wheel, was delightful, with bright sunshine and scarcely a ripple on the surface of the water, although we were visited by at least one voracious creature. I’m no cryptozoologist or else I might have been able to positively identify it as the lake monster of myth, but perhaps you might do better from the hurried photograph I took as it attempted to swamp the boat.

Indisputable proof of the existence of Nessie.

Indisputable proof of the existence of Nessie.

A few miles inland I met a couple of hikers at a road junction, both with the characteristic bearing of TGO Challengers. We’d never met before, but Martin Rye and Philip Werner were familiar to me through Twitter and their blogs and we soon fell in to chatting as we headed off. The two were hiking together and had crossed Loch Ness the previous evening, full of horror stories about a wild and turbulent crossing, clearly bordering on the epic; my own description of an idyllic putter across in the sunshine did seem to deflate the drama somewhat. One thing I did know about Martin and Philip was that they were travelling in a party of three along with the President of the US. Sorry, that should read, along with the president of the US hiking equipment manufacturer, Gossamer Gear. Grant Sible had unfortunately been forced to withdraw from the Challenge at the very start due to illness, which must have been especially galling given that he had travelled all the way from Texas to participate. That’s the story I was told, at least, and certainly it seemed a little early in the Challenge for a shortage of supplies to have been behind his mysterious disappearance, cannibalism accounting for relatively few non-finishers on the event these days. Anyway, I’d been hoping to meet him (for one thing I was using a Gossamer Gear SpinnShelter on this trip and had a mind to fish for pitching tips), but instead found myself hiking and camping with his team-mates for a couple of days, taking his place as a sort of Stunt Grant, if you will. These were some of the very best days on the Challenge for me, wonderful walking and terrific company.

I expect that I’ll be edited out of the final photos, of course, and replaced with a CGI version of Mr Sible. That’s showbiz.

Start Trek

January 5, 2013 1 comment

2013-01-03 15.43.27

The humble bicycle. My preferred method of travel, my means of commuting and recently, alas, the source of considerable stress and annoyance which I may possibly have already mentioned once or twice. Since this blog is an irregular and eclectic thing, more a bag of Cadbury’s Mis-shapes than Mr Gump’s box of chocolates, there’s far too high a proportion of moaning bike posts in the recent entries, so let’s stop that and have a rather more positive one before moving along to more interesting topics.

After the unmitigated disaster that was the b’twin Riverside 1 bicycle I’ve been relying on a bike loaned to me by the ever generous JJ, who had one day found himself in possession of a neglected machine superfluous to his needs (long story). A quick Internet search revealed it to be a Raleigh model currently selling for nearly £400, so it’s a decent enough bike in its own right, just sadly abused and neglected by the previous owner. As a commuting machine the obvious deficiency was the complete lack of mudguards (a pet peeve of mine, since they ought to be standard for road use outside of specialist racing cycles: try following someone who doesn’t use them in wet weather and you’ll immediately see why, assuming you can see anything at all), so I bought the cheapest possible model to attach to the seatpost. Mudguards of that type are better than nothing, but only by a hair and of course they don’t address the mess and damage caused by spray from the front wheel coating the chain and lower part of the headset (addressed on this rather more authoritative site, if you don’t believe me). Still, tight budget and all that. In use the biggest problem actually turned out to be the dilapidated state of the gears. After an hour or two of tinkering and repair I managed to get them back to almost exactly the state they were in before I started messing around with them, after which I found that the best thing to do was to leave them in the one gear I could find that didn’t slip dramatically. This meant that I was effectively riding a single-speed bike, which is the closest I’m ever likely to get to being a hipster.

Via Twitter my plight came to the attention of Dave, the genial face behind revolveMCR, who suggested that he might be able to put something together for me. Knowing what a fine job he’d made of servicing and repairing my old Pashley in the past I was interested, so we discussed my requirements (which are not especially demanding or specialist) and he came back with some options. You can see the end result in the photo above, a nine-speed bike with suspension forks, full mudguards (FULL MUDGUARDS), pannier rack and slightly bonkers handlebars, all based around a Trek frame. I’d never really looked at these sort of “butterfly” handlebars before, but Dave threw out the suggestion and I decided it was worth a go. They’re great, actually, offering enough variety of positions to avoid stress or numbness on my hands. The odd-looking pole they’re attached to will change, incidentally, as I’m going to raise them up just a little based on having ridden the bike for a few days. One very nice thing with not buying an off-the-shelf design is that it’s possible to leave room for alterations like that. The other interesting point for me was Dave’s initial spreadsheet listing his suggested configuration. I’ve never dealt with a bike as a collection of brand-name components prior to this and it was intriguing to be able to search for reviews and information about the particular frame or forks, rather than just the bike as a whole. Trek, for instance, simply wasn’t a brand I knew anything about (I’ve not exactly been keeping up with the cycling world over the past twenty years) but this appears to be a pretty well regarded frame. At 26″ the wheels seem strangely small to me (which might seem odd coming from a former Brompton rider; it’s probably just the comparison with the Pashley) but I certainly can’t complain about the smooth ride and responsive handling. It does mean that my spare tyre won’t fit, though.

The end result is a compromise of course, a collection of new and secondhand parts due to my very restricted budget, but how nice it was to be able to choose the compromises. Instead of a generally inferior machine I’ve managed to get something with a pretty decent specification but no unnecessary bells and whistles (having said that, I shall be adding an entirely unnecessarily fancy bell very soon) which, so far, rides quite beautifully. It would have been lovely to have had the frame repainted, hub gears and dynamo lighting fitted, but that can come later when I can afford such things. As a working bicycle I couldn’t ask for more on my budget.

Dave’s business is bicycle repair and maintenance, I should point out, and I am not suggesting that he generally offers complete bikes for sale (contact him directly if you want to discuss anything). Delighted that he did this one, though.

Gearing Up

September 19, 2012 1 comment

Weighty matters…

The cheque is in the post. So is the application form.

It’s TGO Challenge time again, or at least the time when several hundred of us scramble to submit our applications for the draw and hopefully avoid the dreaded waiting list: the Challenge itself kicks off next May. For some this is an annual event, some will be entering for the first time and others will be back after a break of a few years. I’ve been lucky enough to join and complete the Challenge twice now, in 2009 and 2011, and it looks as though every other year is probably the very most I can manage, always assuming I get on of course. Thoughts now turn to route planning, getting some more local walking done (or at least fairly local, since I’m stuck in a city these days) and, that evergreen favourite, gear.

Discussions of hiking kit are both engaging and exasperating. Gear is very easy to talk about. Something new comes out, it’s announced with great fanfare by those who make a living from selling it, discussion forums clamour for details and pick them apart, arguments and comparisons abound. I read this stuff too (and occasionally get involved in the conversations, although rarely too deeply) and I certainly spend a more than reasonable amount of time looking at clothing and equipment, but when you get down to it much of the gear on the market is quite superfluous for the typical camper. Still, it’s not the creep of comfort and technology that feeds all this gear talk – people would probably be arguing over colour schemes in the absence of anything else – and I’m certainly not going to claim that I prefer my old Peter Storm cagoule to my Paramo 3rd Element.

My cupboards will tell the truth even if I try to fib about it: I’m not immune to this. I’ve bought things I didn’t need and plenty more I thought I needed, but could have done without. Perhaps luckily I don’t have a lot of cash to throw around, which does at least minimise the occasions when I succumb to temptation.

With the Challenge back on the cards I’ve been looking through my hiking equipment and seeing what needs to change, as well as what might be interesting to change. Despite being tarred with the “ultralight” brush I don’t think of myself as an ultralight hiker. I do try to carry as little as possible, yes, but the whole idea of arbitrary weight categories and the like is such nonsense it almost embarrasses me to find myself associated with it. It’s nearly fifteen years since Ray Jardine’s interview in Backpacker magazine, the first time I and the majority of other hikers came across his lightweight system. Any number of new and established companies have jumped into the lightweight paddling pool and we’ve seen gear go to flimsy, wispy extremes and then start to settle into a slightly more stable and usable norm. Isn’t it about time that “ultralight” hikers were simply regarded as hikers? It’s not a competition. Well, for me it’s not; some people do seem to compete to have the lightest possible pack regardless of practicality, but their sort have been around since recreational camping began, and even before that:

   “We all know the type. He professes an inordinate scorn for comfort of all sorts. If you are out with him you soon discover that he has a vast pride in being able to sleep on cobblestones… In a cold climate he brings a single thin blanket. His slogan seems to be: ‘This is good enough for me!’ with the unspoken conclusion, ‘if it isn’t good enough for you fellows, you’re pretty soft.’ The queer part of it is he usually manages to bully sensible men into his point of view… ‘Bootleg is good enough for me!’ he cries; and every one marvels at his woodsmanship.

— Stewart Edward White, Camp and Trail, 1906

So, on that slightly defensive note, I have to admit that I weigh every single piece of gear I might take on a trip. I began trying to carry less weight (and also less actual stuff) in the mid to late nineties when I found myself suffering from ankle and hip problems when hiking. Unfortunately I went about it in entirely the wrong way, trimming ounces and keeping pounds, and it was a few years before I had anything approaching a sensible system of gear, with minimal redundancy and everything chosen to work together as well as possible. Camping suddenly became much more enjoyable. The little digital scales I now use (under a fiver from eBay and an absolute bargain at that) mean that I can compare items in my notebook or on a computer spreadsheet and use weight to help me decide which of two similar things might be better for the task required, but weight is always only a part of it. Scotland in particular can be a harsh place for someone hoping to use kit intended for American long-distance trails, a wholly different environment.

This time there’s every chance that my rucksack will weigh a little bit more than it did in 2011. That year saw some pretty rough weather – high winds, in particular – and apparently the most recent Challenge was the wettest on record, so I see no reason to skimp on comfort and protection. The lightest item that properly does the job is what I aim to take. Considering the bag weight was not far over eight and a half pounds last time, not including food and water, I can easily add in some waterproof overtrousers and an insulated down vest without fear of my knees buckling. Since I already own some it means I don’t have to reach for my wallet, either.

The tarp, though… Ah, the tarp. I was not the only tarp camper in either 2009 or 2011, but we were certainly rare; it’s easy to see why. Many people simply dislike the idea of sleeping under an open-ended sheet of nylon. Others like to take higher routes where tarp use becomes questionable, or at best somewhat limiting. Personally, I love camping with a tarp (have done ever since a school trip where we camped with them, although they were universally known as bashas then) and don’t mind choosing my route to accommodate that choice. I aim to have plenty of more sheltered options when it comes time to set camp, although in a pinch the tarp can be more storm-worthy than many expect. Having used mine for over ten years I’m familiar with its quirks and limitations, one of which is that it’s only seven feet long. As I’m six feet tall that doesn’t leave a lot of extra cover when the weather turns wild. So, a different tarp may be on the cards. There are several options – fewer than I expected, to be honest, as most manufacturers seem to be aiming for very light tents these days – almost all of which are hampered by being sold only in the USA. Import charges would inevitably make for an expensive purchase, so I need to weigh the choices. Whichever I opt for, though, I probably shan’t get into an argument about it:

 “On a campaign you may attack a man’s courage, the flag he serves, the newspaper for which he works, his intelligence, or his camp manners, and he will ignore you, but if you criticize his patent water-bottle he will fall upon you with both fists.

— Richard Harding Davis, 1917

The Vicar in Aspic

June 20, 2012 4 comments

This… is… SPARTAN!

The Vicar died recently.

A few years ago I bought a bike to carry me on the commute to work, about six miles away. Since Manchester is almost entirely flat I could quite easily manage the ride on a single speed, but in the end picked a bicycle with an extravagant five gears to choose from, of which I think I used perhaps three. I’m not from Manchester, and in comparison to my Staffordshire homeland the place is practically a table top. Looking to get a solid, preferably British, machine I picked a Pashley Roadster Sovereign, a traditional design of “sit-up-and-beg” bicycle, with hub gears, hub brakes, hub dynamo… hub everything, really. The saddle was like a mattress and the whole thing weighed enough to ballast a ship of the line. The bell didn’t just “ding”, it went “ding-dong”. It was a joy. I dubbed it “The Vicar”.

The ride was smooth, majestic, relaxed. I could cruise along easily, sitting high and with great visibility over Manchester’s horrendous traffic, bowling down the roads with surprising speed. Of course, in the event I took the bike further afield and encountered a hill it was also a damned struggle to get to the top, something akin to pedalling a house, but it was a lovely bike to ride. Stupidly expensive by my standards, it was also only affordable because my employer happened to be trying out CycleScheme that year. I bought it from a co-operative in Rusholme (no link: I wouldn’t recommend them to anyone) who provided a seemingly-generous deal of three free services over the first year.

The only trouble with a bike like The Vicar is that things have moved on. The notion of a bike you keep, service and repair over the years has been eroded, replaced in large part by very cheap supermarket machines where it’s far easier to simply throw the thing out and buy a new one than attempt to repair it, not an ethos I find to my taste. The parts weren’t all standard. It wasn’t fancy enough to be specialist, but nor was it cheap enough to be disposable. Technology has also changed; the bikes on the market now are surprisingly different from the ones I used to ride. As time rolled along and repairs were needed it became obvious that Pashley use a unique combination of expensive and fairly poor parts on much of the bike; even the bell managed to fail in short order. Things were not helped when it became clear that despite being happy to sell the bike the shop had nobody who actually knew how to service it. Yes indeed, the only chap there who knew the slightest thing about hub gears was in the process of retiring. They never successfully set up the gears even once, not even from new. Thankfully I eventually found RevolveMCR, a considerably more honest and capable outfit, after which the bike was running perfectly. And then Dave, aka RevolveMCR, went on a huge and lengthy overseas trip (about which I am only enormously jealous) and I was forced to go bike to the shop in Rusholme again. The resulting “service” cost a fortune and left the bike in a terrible state.

Today The Vicar is away in storage for a while, waiting for me to decide whether major repairs are worthwhile or if I’ll be forced to sell it. I had to face the sad fact that the absolute minimum it would cost to buy new tyres and put the bike in for a service (ignoring the fact that several other things needed urgent replacement) was rather more than the cost of a new, basic machine from somewhere like Decathlon, the chain of French sporting warehouse-style shops. With The Vicar no longer in a rideable condition and Manchester public transport costs being rather high I needed to find something fairly quickly, the result being a Decathlon B’Twin Riverside 1, which you can see in the picture above. Compared to The Vicar it features a rather hunched riding style (not great for riding in traffic), but is very light and responsive, so I can’t say it’s exactly better or worse, simply different; the handlebars are straight instead of swept back, which makes for a very different experience. It’s made in Germany, which is an improvement over having things shipped from the Far East, and seems pretty solid overall. No mudguards as standard (why the hell would anyone buy an “urban” bike with no mudguards?) but the staff at Decathlon cheerfully sold and fitted a set that are actually the wrong size, so they allow spray to fly up my back anyway. The Lovely Emma sacrificed the pannier rack from her bike, which fitted quickly and neatly, and getting it set up for the commute was fairly straightforward. After about a week, the back wheel developed a huge amount of sideways movement. To their credit, Decathlon were entirely happy to repair or replace the bike with no fuss, so we took it in and had things sorted in about an hour. Cones, apparently. My maintenance reference book suggested a bent axle or bearings problem, but it seems it was the cones. I don’t know what cones are, but there you go.

The Decathlon bike has 21 gears. It’s not a mountain bike, but apparently more is considered better. I expect to use perhaps three.

Categories: Cycling, Manchester, Outdoorsy