More Trailstar playing

I’m hoping to got to Dartmoor in the middle of this week for a final Challenge limber up. If I go, I will be taking the Trailstar for another test. Yesterday, I had another play in the back garden with it.

IMG_0897.JPG (2)I’m starting to get the hang of pitching it. It’s still not totally straightforward on our sloping garden lawn. I wanted not just to practice pitching, but to experiment with the positioning of the OookStar nest. Instead of pitching the nest at the back, I pitched it to one side, as James of Backpackingbongos suggested.

IMG_0898.JPG (2)This gives another option depending on the slope of the ground, which could be handy. On the whole, as a default position, I think I prefer it. It is actually easier to get in and out of the nest. Unless the wind is blowing into the door, it’s well protected against rain. If the wind was blowing in the door, it’s a simple operation to change the direction of the door panel.

I also experimented with my Team IO Laser Competition spinnaker tent footprint as a porch groundsheet. To secure it, I used the thin titanium pegs that were supplied with the F10 Nitro Lite. I was very pleased with it. Although slightly heavier than using double glazing film (as some others use), it is robust and, at 75g, is very light. It can also double as an inner tent footprint for the OookStar should I need it.

IMG_0899.JPG (2)I’ve made a couple of other tweaks. Unfortunately I didn’t take any photos. I’ve added a small karabiner to the loop that secures the glove hook at the apex of the Trailstar. It’s a lot easier to hook the OookStar to the karabiner than the glove hook.

Secondly, I’ve added a loop of cord to the grosgrain loop at the apex of the OookStar, so I can tie the apex of the OookStar to the trekking pole supporting the Trailstar. This pulls the nest forward and tightens the fabric panels, for a better pitch. I’ll take a photo to explain when I’m out next.

I’m still waiting for some Black Diamond flicklock poles. Unfortunately, the first pair had a fault, so I’m waiting for a replacement set. I think flicklocks are much better for the Trailstar.

Monadhliath gear round up

Here’s a quick round–up of some of the gear I used for the Monadhliath Meander.

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MLD Trailstar/OookStar. This was the first time that I’ve used the Trailstar/OookStar. In the event it was only for one night, so this is only a first impression. I was quite impressed. Pitching was relatively straightforward, although I spent a lot of time tweaking it. I’m going to swap to flicklock trekking poles rather than the twist locks I use at the moment. Flicklocks are easier to adjust and there’s no chance of slippage. The OookStar is surprisingly roomy. It’s also draught proof and cosy. The porch space of the a Trailstar is huge. The only downside is the footprint is large but in most situations it should be ok. Getting in and out requires a bit of crouching but it wasn’t as inconvenient as I thought it might be. The stability is impressive and I think it should be able to cope with almost anything. I took a combination of MSR Blizzard pegs, Easton blue pegs and titanium pins. Although the MSR Blizzards were overkill for our pitch, I think at least three hefty pegs are a good idea for the rear pegging points. Overall, I’m pretty happy with the TS/OS combo. It’s a toss up between this and the F10 Nitro Lite for the TGO Challenge.

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Sawyer mini water filter. This was another piece of new gear that I took. If you’re looking for a water filter, this is the one! It weighs only 38g and fits my Source liquitainers. The flow rate is good and I prefer the cap to the push/pull stopper on the larger Sawyer filter. What else can I say? Just works perfectly and with next to no weight penalty for peace of mind. Fabulous.

Berghaus VapourLight zip short sleeve base layer. I’ve been experimenting with base layers recently. In many ways I like merino, but once it’s really wet, it takes an age to dry. I found the new Lowe Alpine Dry Flo disappointingly smelly. On the other hand, the VapourLight seems to resist body odour quite well. It’s very light and wicks moisture away rapidly. I really like it, so I’ve bought a t–shirt and a long sleeve zip shirt as well.

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Paramo Vasco jacket. It’s a shame that Paramo discontinued the Vasco as it’s a great jacket. The floating yoke and arm vents mean it vents really well. In cool showery conditions as we encountered, it was ideal. It is quite heavy, but I really like it for walking in. It obviates the need to wear a hard shell most of the time (although I took a OMM Cypher smock as well). I’m fairly sure I’ll be taking the Vasco on the Challenge.

Montane Oryx fleece. I’d forgotten how well this combines with Paramo in cool conditions. The thinner side panels means you don’t over–heat in it. It looks like Montane have stopped making it, which is a shame because it’s a great lightweight (231g) fleece jacket.

As Tucas balaclava and wind trousers. The Sestrals balaclava is excellent instead of a hood for a sleeping bag. The material is pleasant to the touch and the insulation gave the right amount of warmth without overheating. It’s also very usable instead of a hood with a duvet jacket. At 45g it weighs very little and is a definite for most trips for me. The wind trousers (now a stock item called Millaris Pants) were brilliant as well. At 72g, they are probably the lightest wind trousers you’ll find. Again the material is pleasant to the touch. They can be worn on their own or over thermal leggings. Naturally, they are (very) windproof but they also shrug off light rain. I love them. They are exactly what I’ve been wanting for years. Brilliant. Another permanent fixture.

Sleeping gear. I was going to take my modified Rab Neutrino SL 200 but I didn’t know whether it would be warm enough, so I took my Alpkit Pipedream 400, which, yet again, proved what a great sleeping bag it is. I’m still toying with taking the Neutrino on the Challenge. For my sleeping mat I used the Nemo Zor, which was fine for warmth but was quite hard when we slept in the bothy. I’m considering using a Thermarest XLite for the Challenge.

Disclosure: all items mentioned were purchased with my own funds. I have no formal or financial relationship with any of the companies mentioned.

Ecco Biom Hike Mids: an assessment

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I’ve been using my Ecco Biom Hike Mids for around 18 months, long enough to give them a thorough test. I’ve used them both on backpacking trips and for dog walking. Indeed, I’ve probably used them too much for dog walking! So here’s a long-term use assessment.

Positives

Comfort: footwear is next to useless if it isn’t comfortable. The Biom Hike Mids are very comfortable. They DO take a little bit of breaking in (I briefly had a bit of soreness on my left Achilles’ tendon), but soon become very soft and flexible. Although they look a bit chunky, they feel quite nimble on your feet. Some purists might be put off by the EVA cushioning, but I’ve found it a good compromise between “feeling” the ground and cushioning the impact of your foot striking the path. This is particularly noticeable on hard surfaces. My feet don’t feel fatigued at the end of the day. The front of the boot is very flexible so there is no impediment to the natural movement of your foot. Although they are definitely boots, they do not feel at all restrictive like conventional walking boots. Of all the boots I’ve ever owned, these are the most comfortable. At just over 600g per boot, they are quite light for a leather boot.

Protection: so far the Biom Hikes have proved to be waterproof. They have a GoreTex liner, so, I guess you’d expect them to be. However the yak leather seems to be pretty water resistant, even if if does wet out quite quickly. I’ve started using Scarpa HS12 cream, which seems to help prevent rapid wetting out. I’ve not noticed them to be excessively sweaty (perhaps being a mid rather than a full boot helps). Indeed, in many ways, they seem to be better than fabric boots. In fabric boots, the outer material can become saturated, impeding breathability, making boots a bit sweaty (Adidas Terrex being the worst example, but Salomon Fastpackers also suffered). I love the rubber toe bumper and rand on the Biom Hikes which are not only protective but also help with water resistance. It’s a shame that the bumper scuffs so easily.

Grip and stability: The deep sole pattern and the rubber compound used on the soles give a good grip. They feel very secure on every surface I’ve encountered so far. I’ve also found the Biom Hikes to be very stable. For some reason, occasionally, I seem to lose balance with my right ankle rolling over on uneven surfaces. I’ve found this to be much less of a problem with the Biom Hikes. The Adidas Terrex mids were almost unusable because of this problem. It helps that the sole unit is so flexible, almost on a par with my Salomon X Ultras, which are virtually trail shoes.

Negatives

Footbed: I’ve replaced the footbeds in every boot I’ve ever owned, so this is not a huge criticism. In the Biom Hikes, I’ve found a Sidas Comformable footbed is the best. The footbed supplied is flat and provides no support.

Laces: the supplied laces are a bit stretchy meaning that it is more difficult to get an accurate fit. I’ve replaced them with some Scarpa laces.

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Heel wear: neither the footbed or laces are particularly serious negatives. However, after eighteen months of wear, I’m quite disappointed that that I’ve worn through the rubber to the EVA foam on the heels (outlined in red on the photo above). In the picture below, you can see the wear compared with the new Biom Hikes that I bought recently (the new boot is on the right).

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The next picture shows the difference in the depth of tread. The top is my old boot and the bottom is the new boot.

IMG_0886.JPG (2) (1200 x 900)This suggests that the rubber compound that Ecco is using is quite soft. While this may be good for grip, it’s not so good for longevity. Indeed it looks like the sole wear will be the determining factor for the life of the boot. I will still be using the old pair for the TGO Challenge, but will make an assessment and give an update afterwards.

Is this a deal breaker? While it’s disappointing, the fact that I bought a second pair shows how much I like the Biom Hikes. Perhaps when they bring out a second version, Ecco could either use a harder rubber compound on the heel or use thicker rubber on the heel. Overall, I really like these boots, despite the heel wear issue.

Suggestions for improvement:

  1. Address the heel wear issue.
  2. Better footbed.
  3. Sturdier laces.
  4. Tunnels rather than “D”s for lace eylets (like the Biom Terrain).
  5. Scuff resistant toe cap rubber.
  6. Option of a non-GoreTex version.

Disclosure: I purchased both pairs of Biom Hikes with my own money and have no formal or financial relationship with Ecco.

Monadhliath meander part 3

Day 3, Dulnain bothy no. 3 to Aviemore (16km)

Although it rained overnight, I had a good sleep. By the time I answered a call of nature, it had stopped raining. I decided that rather than have breakfast in the bothy, I would have it in the tent. I really like breakfasting in a tent. After finishing, I packed my gear and went into the bothy. Alan and Andy were having breakfast and had started a fire. Any thought of leaving early was erased by the pitter patter of rain, so we waited until the fire had nearly burnt out.

IMG_0853Eventually, there was no delaying the moment, so we donned waterproofs and out we went. While it wasn’t raining hard, it was enough to be annoying. I followed Andy on a little diversion to the bridge, while Alan took a more direct route.

IMG_0855We walked through another area of burnt juniper bushes. The breeze was light and there were a few midges about, fortunately not biting. We sauntered along, sometimes on the bluff and sometimes on the valley floor.

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After about an hour we reached the Red Bothy. The cloud was low towards Caggan, but the rain had stopped. We decided to have an early lunch before taking the Burma Road to Aviemore.

IMG_0859View from Red Bothy towards Caggan

After an hour or so, it was time to gird loins and head for Aviemore. I noted that there are plenty of places to camp should I wish to do so when I do the Challenge next month.

IMG_0861Looking back to the Red Bothy

A little way up the Burma Road we were treated to a very moody view down the Dulnain, north eastwards. Unfortunately it was difficult to capture it effectively on the iPhone.

IMG_0869Now the Burma Road stretched before us and all we had to do was to plod upwards. The Burma Road gets some bad press as a being a bit boring, but I quite enjoyed it.

IMG_0871Higher up, it became a bit drizzly and cold so I put my overtrousers back on.

IMG_0872At the top of the pass we sat down for a rest. The limitations of the camera and the poor light meant it was difficult to take any decent pictures.

IMG_0876From here, it was downhill all the way. Hurrah! Even descending a few hundred feet, it was noticeably warmer. I took a photo of the tree that, according to Alan, appears in just about ever Challenge account that covers this route.

IMG_0880It wasn’t long before we were at the bottom and back in civilisation.

IMG_0882To get to Aviemore, we had a rather grim walk along the B9152. After a bit of a trudge, we reached the youth hostel, which was our accommodation for the night. In truth, the hostel was a bit of a disappointment, particularly the room, which was a bit shabby and not very well designed.

Having been unable to get a table at the nearby pub, we went to the fish and chip shop instead and had a rather good meal. Alan rounded it off in traditional Scottish style with deep fried Mars bar. Standards have to be maintained!

IMG_0883The advantage of the youth hostel is that it is near the station, so we didn’t have to get up too early. The train journey was only notable for an altercation between a rather large elderly lady and Alan over the temperature of the carriage, when he requested that the ticket inspector turn on the air conditioning.

There was a rather nice surprise at Berwick, where gourmand Challenger, Humphrey Weightman delivered a bag of cheese, quiche and meetballs to Mr Sloman. The cheese was saved for the infamous daunder, but the quiche and meatballs were gratefully consumed.

All in all, it was very pleasant little trip and a good introduction to the delights of the Monadhliath. From the small bit that I’ve seen, it’s ideal backpacking country with a lot of good places to camp. If you’ve not been, I suggest you make an effort to see it before it’s spoilt by the proposed wind farm developments. It’s a real shame that this splendid part of the country is so under-appreciated.

Monadhliath meander part 2

Day 2, Dulnain bothy no. 1 to Dulnain bothy no. 3 (10km)

The weather overnight was ferociously windy with driving rain. In the warmth of the bothy, we were glad we had decided not to camp. While the weather eased in the early morning, it didn’t really let up until mid-morning, so we had a delayed start.

IMG_0805Leaving the bothy

The photos for the next two days were taken on my iPhone inside a waterproof case, so the quality is a bit sub-standard. In the light of the weather and the late start, we decided to have a leisurely walk down the River Dulnain to bothy no. 3. Despite the relatively short distance, it was a superb walk. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

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IMG_0851Hopefully the pictures give a good impression of what it was like. We stopped for lunch at Dulnain bothy no. 2, which was the least impressive of the bothies we visited. Along the way we encountered the skeleton of a deer and bleached remains of juniper bushes. There were a number of really good places to camp (saved in the memory banks for future reference).

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The real sadness was two huge masts for measuring wind speed. These were stark reminders of the threat of a massive wind farm at Allt Duine. If it is built, it will totally destroy the wilderness feel of the area. I’m glad that we walked down the Dulnain before this monstrosity is built. I only hope the planning permission will be turned down.

Rather than push on to the Red Bothy, we decided to camp on the flat ground outside bothy no. 3. It was a good chance for both Alan and I to play around with our Trailstars. I decided that I would take the experiment one stage further and cook in my Trailstar, while Alan and Andy went inside the bothy to cook.

When I had finished, I too went inside, to find a roaring fire from some dried juniper wood that had been stored at the back of the bothy. We had a fine bothy evening, but juniper wood burns quickly, so we turned in relatively early. By this time the wind had freshened again and it was starting to rain. Despite this, I had a good night’s sleep.

Monadhliath meander part 1

When Alan contacted me about accompanying him to the Cairngorms for a leg stretch, I lept at the chance. Andy Walker was also invited as pacemaker and jester. In the planning process, it became clear that a reasonable route in the Cairngorms was going to be difficult with the amount of snow still lying around, so our attention was shifted to the Monadhliath. This suited me, as I’d never been to the Monadhliath and I was anxious to see them for myself.

After successfully meeting at King’s Cross station, despite Alan’s radio silence, we boarded the midday train. A seven and a half hour train journey can hardly be described as enjoyable, but Andy kept us entertained. At one point he indulged in a slightly surreal conversation with the tea trolley attendant on the number of cherries in the fruit cake slices.

We arrived at Kingussie on time and walked back along the cycle track to Newtonmore where we stayed at the Newtonmore Hostel, which is now owned by the Mrs O’s of TGO Challenge fame. Solid and liquid sustenance was consumed at the Glen Hotel opposite the hostel and we repaired to bed for a reasonably early night. Despite a heavy cold, I was able to get some sleep and didn’t disturb my compatriots too much.

Day 1, Newtonmore to Dulnain bothy number one (16km)

Morning dawned grey and rather gloomy. In the common room I introduced myself to the only other person in the hostel, Rosemary, who spent her childhood very near to where I live. It’s a small world. Sue Oxley, one of the owners of the hostel came over as we were having breakfast. To complete our happy little throng, Val and Dave, who were walking with us for the day, arrived.

DSC01174View over Newtonmore

After a bit of a packing faff, we were off. Having (almost) successfully navigated our way through the back streets of Newtonmore, we were amongst the fields. The cloud was lifting and breaking, so it seemed we might get a reasonable day. Our route took us to the wood on the western side of Loch Gynack , along the northern shore of the loch, before striking north just above Pitmain Lodge.

DSC01175View towards A’ Chailleach

Easy paths and pleasant conversation made for a gentle start to our bimble. North of the Lodge, the land becomes more remote and wild, although the walking was straightforward, following a Land Rover track above the gorge of the Allt Mor.

DSC01184Alllt Mor

On crossing the Allt Mor, we branched west to a lunch hut to partake of some food, sheltered from the cold wind.

DSC01191Lunch hut

It was quite cold, even in the hut, so we didn’t hang around too long. To the east of us, over the Cairngorms, the weather seemed to be improving.

DSC01193View SE to Cairngorms

However, over the Monadliath themselves, especially to the west, the clouds were still thick and brooding.

DSC01195View W towards Am Bodach

After a minor navigational mishap, we located the track up to “Freaky Dean” (Carn an Fhreiceadain). At the south western end of the summit ridge, there’s an impressive cairn, which provided a suitable point for a posed photo.

DSC01196Cairn on  Carn an Fhreiceadain

From the cairn, it was a short march to the summit trig point. By this time the wind had picked up and it was quite cold. On the northern flank, there’s a small shelter, which Val, Andy and I bagged to get out of the wind.

DSC01199View N from Carn an Fhreiceadain

Instead of following the track, we cut westwards over easy terrain and were rewarded with a sighting of a hare, still in its white winter coat.

DSC01202Hare on Carn an Fhreiceadain

As we descended, it became warmer and the cold wind less noticeable. On regaining the Land Rover track, we were treated to some sunshine.

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Track down to the Dulnain

Despite some occasional patches of snow on the track, spikes were not needed. While most of the snow had cleared there were still some occasional spectacular banks of snow in sheltered places.

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Snow bank on the Dulnain

At the bothy, we sheltered from the wind. Val and Dave left us to return to Newtonmore. The wind was beginning to pick up and Alan suggested that it would be better to use the bothy rather than camp. It would prove to be a wise decision.

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River Dulnain looking SW from bothy

All in all, it had been a great first day in the Monadhliath.

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