7.14.2010

Seiland: The place and the gear


High Perch

Although I'm sure there's no written rule on this it always feels like I should start with the trip report and finish up with some reflection on the gear. It feels, therefore, like I'm doing this one backwards, or upside down, depending how you look at it. Nevertheless, the trip report may yet be a while in the making and the observations on gear, well they're already in my head and just need setting free. Hopefully the process will free up some neurons for the write up. Reflections on gear are bound to be trip, terrain and weather specific so first some short comments on the trip to give the rest context

North versus South
It was a short trip of just four nights conducted at a relaxed tempo. Seiland is a wild and pointy little island with, at least on its North side, barring the road from the ferry dock to Hornseby, very little by way of infrastructure. Routes are marked on the Turkaart leading South out of Hornseby along the eastern shores of Storvatnet and Ovrevatnet and on to Seilands Jokelen, Norways Northern most glacier. These are “route suggestions”. Don’t be fooled into thinking there is any kind of path on the ground. There isn’t. Don’t be fooled that the dashed line follows the most sensible line over ground either. It doesn’t. At least not all of the time, as we found out to our cost on one occasion. Crossing Seiland requires that you navigate, often along watercourse and shoreline, frequently on contour detail alone, but always staying in reasonable contact with the map. The ground under foot is rough. Where marsh is marked it is wet, deep and may require detours. Where vegetation is marked is bushwhack territory of the first order. Where nothing is marked is often extensive boulder field. At this latitude, 71 degrees North, climatic zones are compressed into thin layers. Seiland is at it’s highest point just 1000m up. We used only half of the altitude available to us but passed though everything from coastal to high alpine zones with lush birch woodland and bilberry carpeted hillside in between. Bare mountainside with closely spaced contours and all the trimmings, in July 2010 including snow and ice, jumps out and bights you from around 400m. There were times when, especially at lower altitudes, with packs and dogs and all and sundry, we were making just 1.5km an hour over ground.

As far as the weather is concerned we were dealt a good hand. I guess the temperature hovered around 8°c, give or take a couple of degrees either way. We got little by way of rain, a reasonable amount of sun and a little light wind. At times, when sheltered and out of the shadows, the temperature felt more like 15°C. When in the shadows and exposed to the wind it felt cold. Although the sun didn’t always shine it was, of course, ever present. Wind-chill and sun-bake aside the temperature was remarkably constant without the usual rollercoaster boom and bust normally associated with the swing from day to night in the mountains. Thankfully we always had good visibility making navigation that much easier.

Tarps versus Tents
Hmm tents. It’s a hard one this me not being a tent person and all. Randulf had a new Tunnel tent on test and needed nights in it so that was what we took. Large and heavy it wouldn’t be, for either of us, the tent of choice for the job in hand. I’m not about to spill the beans on the review and talk specifics but my generic experience of tent use on the trip is worth sharing (at least I think so). The two main motivations for choosing a tent over any other form of shelter in this part of the world are a) bighting beasties and b) weather.

Let’s deal with a) first. In retrospect, the insect activity was never so bad that I would choose a tent over tarp for this reason. We camped in relatively exposed locations at elevations of around 200m and, although I took some flak, I’d have been happy to use a bivvy with some mesh protection. We passed through areas at lower elevations where I would definitely not want to overnight, tent or otherwise, and of course, had we been Inland, on the infamous Finnmarks Vidda, I would most likely draw another conclusion but Seiland, at least in July of this year, was not at all bad.

Now for b). We didn’t get heavy weather. A bit of wet but nothing major. For what we were dealt a bivvy bag/tarp combo or even just a bivvy bag would have been ideal. Of course there’s always a chance that you get caught out in something nasty. On normal trips I apply the rational that, I’m out for just a few nights, I’ve checked the forecast, that I know how to pitch my tarp and, perhaps most importantly, being never more than a half days walk from a hut or village, I may have a rough night but bail out is always possible. Seiland is, in that respect a little different. lack of paths, the requirement for careful navigation in poor visibility, terrain that slows you down to 1.5km an hour could all potentially force a couple of miserable nights before a bail out was executed. Hmm, tent or tarp?

A factor I hadn’t reckoned on before the trip was the midnight sun. I’ve camped in tents in hot climates and know how unpleasant it can be. Lying sweating in an oven-like tent and being forced to come out for air in the early hours isn’t my idea of fun. I associated that experience with summers spent in the south of France not with the far North. In reality the two aren’t so far apart. Wherever you sight your tent, at some time in the next 24hrs, it will potentially be in full sun. In Seiland, I found myself, on several occasions, wishing I was in an open shelter, in a light breeze with fine views. That was partly due to my choice of bag but mostly due to the choice of shelter.

I think, on balance, regardless of the mosquito and sunshine arguments that, because of the remoteness and potential for heavy weather, I would again choose a more enclosed shelter than a tarp. Whether that shelter would be a two skin tent would depend upon factors beyond my experience. The middle ground between tent and tarp is somewhere I’ve not yet been. Although enclosed single skin shelters like the MLD Duomid or Trailstar, look ideal to my eyes, I’d want to give them a thorough trying first. The jury is still out.

Shoes versus Boots
I started with warm, dry, blister free feet. I finished with warm, dry, blister free feet. On the whole I’m happy with my boots. To be fair, the pace was never fast and distances were not that great, we never covered more than 10km in a day. There were moments when I wished I could just cross watercourses without performing a strange dance. There were moments, when boulder hopping, I felt a desire for helium-filled footwear with sticky rubber souls that would transform me from a lumbering hulk into a graceful athlete. There were no moments when I thought my footwear was truly unsuited to the job in hand. I don’t need to change the formula but, in the interest of science, I’ll be trying out trail shoes this year.

Down versus Synthetic
Down every time! Perhaps I’d be singing to a different tune if I’d had all my insulation collapse on me but, so far, five years and counting, I’ve managed to stay high, dry and warm with down. I suspected the PHD Ultra Pullover rated to -5 would be overkill for this trip but wanted a little extra just in case. I also wanted the security of it’s drishell outer. In the event it was just right. The second night in camp saw me wearing all my available layers (Merino base, microfleece Gillete, PHD Ultra pullover and Hoglof Oz shell) and I was just comfortable. Any colder and I would have had to retreat to my bag. At other times, the comfort range of down being so great, I was happy in a baselayer and the Ultra pulley when stationary. Hoorah for down!

Applying similar logic I went with the PHD Minimus 300 also in Drishell. This was a mistake. I cooked in the tent. No zipper and too much down. Given the choice again I’d run with my Cumulus Quantum 200. Less down, a full zipper and 200g lighter. I’d anticipated I may spend a nights outside of the tent but rain put a stop to the idea. You can only push Drishell so far.

Meths versus all comers
I had the white box stove with me again. This time combined with an Alpkit My Ti Pot equipped with a foil lid. The pot, sold as 1300ml but in practice having the capacity for a little under a litre, is big enough for two. The combination worked well. The stoves simple fool proof and easy in use. It was reached for at most lunch breaks to brew up and as a second burner when preparing main meals for two. It doesn’t burn as well or as cleanly with Norwegian Rod spirit as I’m accustomed to with my normal fuel (clear, 95% Methanol) but, sooting can be reduced by adding a little water to the mix and it does the job.

More test kit provided an interesting comparison. A Swedish jet-boil look-a-like (no prizes for guessing correctly) was used as the main boiling machine. A heavy unit, especially when paired with a large canister, but I can see the attraction. Even putting fuel efficiency arguments aside the convenience is a major plus. The ability to cook safely in a tent is welcome. The luxury of stretching an arm out of your bag to hit the piezo and brew a first pot of coffee is bordering on hedonistic.

When it suited us we also cooked on open fires so a third fuel wades into the mêlée here. Wood fires sure don’t win on convenience but it has to be said that they elevate the wild camping experience to something bordering on the spiritual. It’s fantastic to have the freedom to set a fire! We didn’t experience a shortage of fuel at any point, never higher than around 500m, there was never more than a couple of hundred meters drop separating us from supplies of birch. Had we been serious about using wood as an only fuel we wouldn’t have had a problem collecting on route. Even at higher elevations there was sufficient creeping vegetation to fuel a small fire.

I think all three types of stove have developed to a stage where, on short trips like this, the weight argument is as good as irrelevant. I think the choice basically boils down (no pun intended) to personal preference. If I were to travel through this sort of terrain again (please let it be so), for this duration and sort of trip, then I would be very tempted to take a wood burning stove. I’d want backup fuel to contend with bad weather and laziness, but I’d want a fire to feed my soul.

Inflatable’s against the World
The Neo Air remains a miracle in my eyes. Together with the Granite Gear Vapor Trail it forms the foundation of my pack list. Never have I slept better on a camping mat. In Seiland it very nearly lost it’s crown. After an abortive attempt to bivvy (rain stopped play) I found it was deflating every few minutes. I managed to find the hole and patch it up (a blob of superglue and a strip of ductape-why don’t TAR supply a repair kit on purchase, surely the product costs enough for them to cut us a little slack!) so it lives to fight another day, its reputation a little tarnished but still functioning. Clearly I have to take more care not to run up punctures but, and this may just be coincidence, this is the first time I’ve managed to fix a mat of any description in the field. Even at home, with the aid of a bath full of water, I’ve never yet been able to locate the source of a leak in self-inflatables and down mats alike. Against the silvery base of the Neo air the puncture stood out like a saw thumb. I’m in the market for a longer mat (I have the short Neo Air) and the POE Ether elite has got my attention but it’s going to have to be good, very good indeed, if it’s going to displace the Neo Air.

Fresh versus Freeze Dried
As far as food was concerned we pooled resources. We ended up using a broad mix of fresh ingredients, preserved food and technical freeze dried meals. It was interesting. The trip became as much about preparing food and acquiring it as backpacking. Real Turmat was interspersed with alternatives concocted from supermarket packets and fresh produce. Real Turmat is good, realy good, but when you have the time, the fuel and the inclination you can make a fine meal from supermarket packets for a fraction of the cost. I had a couple of those “must make this at home moments”. In terms of main meals we’d packed a little light. We had more than enough staples but we were banking on fresh fish to add interest. We weren’t disappointed. trout and arctic char, straight out of the lake into the pan, supplemented several meals. Of course in order to fish you need to build time into your schedule. On Seiland, blessed with good weather and endless days, armed with only the sketchiest of route plans and an easy going attitude towards objectives and schedules, we made time to fish on all but the last day. Boy does arctic char taste good next to a plate of dried porcini mushroom mash!! It would take some effort to persuade me to leave rod and real behind if I where to go back to Seiland!

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