Storm warning

I have worked in the financial markets for 27 years and what is going on at the moment is really scary. You may not think the turbulence in the banking sector will affect you but you’re wrong. Even if you don’t need to access credit, others do. When credit dries up, economic growth slows, there could even be a recession. I have never seen a loss of confidence quite like this before. I’m battening down the hatches for a tough 2-3 years. I suggest you do the same.

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Akto observations

The Akto appears to have become as polarising in backpackers’ opinions as Paramo and trail shoes. Some love it, some don’t. When my ME Ultralite failed to live up to its early promise, the obvious choice was an Akto, so I duly dipped into my pocket (well credit card) and bought one. There are loads of reviews out there on the Akto, so I’m not going to go into exhaustive detail, but just give you my opinions.

 One reason for buying the Akto is that it has become the tent of choice for the TGO Challenge, with fulsome praise from such luminaries as Chris Townsend and Andy Howell. For Scotland, it’s ideal. It is easy to pitch, robust, stable in high winds (although I’ve not experienced very high winds in it), has a good amount of room with a capacious porch.

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I haven’t suffered the excessive condensation problems that others mention. I had a very damp pitch in the Rothiemurchus Forest last year (right hand photo), where the ground was waterlogged and the temperature fell to 2c overnight (measured by my Silva ADC). Sure there was some condensation on the inside of the outer, but the inner was fine. One problem I have found is that the inner and outer become charged with static electricity and stick together, which could account for some of the problems that others encountered. I countered this by wiping the surfaces with a damp cloth to discharge the static.

If I was being highly critical, I would prefer a drop down door and I would also like some adjustable venting at either end of the inner. They appear to have improved the pegs from earlier versions. Overall, I really like the Akto. However, I’ve bought a Laser Competition (£70 off), but haven’t yet been able to use it, other than putting it up in the back garden. It’s definitely a bit less spacious, but the 500g saving is probably worth it. We’ll see. Let’s hope the views are as good.

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All my yesterdays

One of the highlights of last year was seeing Van Der Graaf Generator live at the Barbican in London in April. Probably not many of you know who VDGG are, but they were (are) a highly influential but obscure prog rock group from the 1970s. While they never garnered the huge popularity of stable mates Genesis, in some ways they have been more influential, counting The Sex Pistols, The Cure, Blur and Red Hot Chilli Peppers (amongst others) as fans, even though VDGG’s music is a million miles away from theirs.

In 1978 they broke up and the lead singer (Peter Hammill) pursued a low key solo career. To everyone’s utter amazement, they reformed in 2005 releasing a new album and doing a concert at the Royal Festival Hall, which sold out in two microseconds. In true VDGG style, having made a triumphant comeback to huge critical acclaim, they fell out with their sax player. Reduced to a three piece, they ploughed on undaunted last year recording an album (to be released this year) and doing a tour. There were doubts about whether thay could carry it off as a three piece, but after a shaky start, the Barbican concert was one of the most spine tingling events I’ve attended.

My musical tastes are eclectic, but I do like challenging music, stuff that demands attention and reveals different aspects the more times you listen to it. VDGG’s music has that in spades. Like most works of genius, it teeters on the brink of madness, sometimes going over the edge. It pushes and stretches, demanding a response.

A couple of years ago I gave one of my younger work colleagues some surplus CDs from my collection. The trend of re-mastering older discs, left me with a few duplicates including VDGG and some other 70s stuff (King Crimson, Blue Oyster Cult, Wishbone Ash). He was eager to expand his musical horizons. Although he liked the other stuff, he just didn’t “get” VDGG. That sums it up. There is a minority who “get” it, but the majority just can’t understand it (bit like backpacking, really).

Anyway, excitements of excitements, they’re touring again and I’ve got a ticket for their April concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall!!!!

Carbon Monoxide

Let’s be clear, carbon monoxide is a non-issue the vast majority of the time. As long as where you are cooking is ventilated, it shouldn’t be a problem. That said, it’s shocking how much CO most stoves chuck out, even Meths stoves. Cooking inside a single skin tent or in an enclosed porch where the ventilation is impeded (perhaps by snow) could cause a problem and it is as well to be aware of the hazards.

I was alerted to this by a series of articles by Roger Caffin on backpackinglight.com. You have to be a member to access the full articles. The summary of the introductory article was as follows:

  • Carbon monoxide can be emitted by a stove under the right conditions.
  • This carbon monoxide really can present a serious health hazard.
  • This hazard would seem to get worse as we go from butane/propane to white spirits to kerosene.
  • Some stove designs may be worse than others because the pot is placed too close to the burner.
  • The hazard is not inevitable: there would seem to be ways to reduce it to negligible levels.
  • Long flames and yellow flames may indicate a CO hazard.
  • Ventilation is crucial under any circumstances.

 

Of the gas canister stoves available two stood out as having outstandingly low CO emissions: the Primus Eta and the Snow Peak GST-100. The articles persuaded me to ditch my Jetboil and buy the GST-100. The GST-100 is a beautiful piece of engineering (and it certainly needs to be for the price), weighing 88g (111g with the case). I’m thinking of getting an Ortik Heat-It and it would be interesting to see whether the fuel efficiency can match the Jetboil.

What astounds me about most gas stoves is the faulty design of the burners. On the GST-100 below (left) you can see that the gas burner holes are near vertical.  This design keeps the tip of the flame at a constant height no matter how open the gas regulator valve is. Contrast that with the Pocket Rocket (below right), which has a similar burner to the Jetboil (couldn’t find a picture of the Jetboil burner). The burner jets are pointing up. This means that the height of the flame varies according to the flow of gas.

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Now forgive me for going back to my science lessons at school, but weren’t we all told that the hottest part of the Bunsen burner flame is at the tip? The reason why a lot of these gas stoves chuck out too much CO on a high setting is that the pan is not high enough relative to the flame (i.e. not at the apex) and the gas does not burn efficiently. Excuse me designers, are you not aware of basic combustion science?

This also suggests that most gas stoves are inefficient at high settings as that is when the CO emissions are highest. On the one hand the Jetboil is undoubtedly efficient because of the fins at the bottom of the pan, on the other it is less efficient than it could be because of the burner design. Memo to Jetboil: change the burner design and produce a titanium version, then you’d have a winner.

Forward planning

Like most people, I’m thinking about what I might do this year. Initially I had planned to apply for the TGO Challenge this year, but various issues and commitments meant this was not possible. As a legacy of this, I now have three TGOC routes planned from Strathcarron, Lochailort and Oban. If I can, I’m going to raid one of these to do a week in late May.

I’m probably going to do Strathcarron to Dalwhinnie. One advantage of not doing the TGOC is that I may take one day longer doing this route than if I were doing the Challenge. However, part of me wants to reserve this route for the Challenge itself. As an alternative, I could do the Oban to Dalwhinnie route. This disadvantage is that it doesn’t look quite as interesting and the travel is more awkward (and expensive).

Other tentative plans are a couple of weekend trips on the South Downs Way and possibly a weekend in the Lakes, taking my 12-year old daughter for her first exposure to fell walking. I’d like to return to the Cairngorms in Sept/Oct perhaps for a long weekend using the sleeper. The chances of doing all this are slim, but we can dream!

Olympus DVR WS-331M

As I mentioned a while ago, I ordered an Olympus WS-331M digital voice recorder just before Christmas and it arrived a few days ago. Having had a bit of a play around, I can now give you a heads up. To re-cap, I have been looking for a voice recorder for some time, but one that had good sized storage and ran on conventional batteries (re-charging is not very practical for obvious reasons).

The WS-331M weighs only 47g with a single AAA battery installed. It has a very reasonable 2GB of storage. This gives you 71 hours of HQ stereo recording or 142 hours of HQ mono. The long quality LP option allows 555 hours of recording. There is also a stereo XQ (extra high quality) option which gives 35 hours of voice recording. It records in WMA format but will playback both WMA and MP3. Size is H 9.5cm, W 3.5cm, D 1.0cm. It has a built in stereo microphone and comes with stereo ear phones and a USB extension lead. It will also plug directly into a USB port. Cost £106.93.  At the same time I bought an ME52W mono noise cancelling microphone (weighs 15g)  for £13.32, which comes with an extension lead, clip and foam cover. All the components are pictured below and compared to a £2 coin. 

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Like most good backpacking equipment, this little beauty fulfills several functions. Firstly, it’s a pretty good MP3, player. The quality is not far short of my bigger I-River HP-140. It has a WOW surround sound and TruBass equalisation function. Secondly, in low quality mode you can use it as simple voice note taker. It has five voice recording folders that have a capacity of 200 files each. Thirdly, in the higher quality mode, you use it to record podcasts, which is the primary reason I bought it.

So far I’ve only performed some short experiments indoors, but they are promising. Clearly you cannot expect the quality and clarity of Bob Cartwright’s podcasts, but the quality on playback through earphones is of an acceptable quality. The internal mic is higher quality than I thought it would be, but has the disadvantage of picking up the noise of holding the device and using the control buttons. Using the mono mic with a lead avoids these issues and makes for a clearer recording. I don’t yet know how it performs in a windy environment, but in a calm environment voices are admirably clear and there is some detail from background noises.

The mode selectors and hold sliders are on the left hand side and record/stop/play are small buttons on the right hand edge. On the face is a menu select button and a jog wheel for forward/back/volume. There are two further buttons on the face for erase and folder/index. The screen is slightly disappointing old style LCD screen, but the characters are clear. I like the way the battery compartment slides off to reveal the USB connector, so it can be connected directly to a computer. File management is easy in the Windows interface.

At some stage in the summer I will experiment with podcasts when I’m out and about. I’ve got some software to edit them. Whether I release them on here depends on how brave I am. I will also have to upgrade my space on WordPress to take audio files. Even if you’re not bothered with podcasting, the WS-331M is a neat little MP3 player, which gives some extra flexibility to take some voice notes as you walk along the trail. I don’t know how robust it is, but Judy Armstrong took a similar device on her trek and has recommended it. As long as you don’t throw it around or get it wet, then it should be OK.

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