5.05.2011

Huldreheimen Gear Round Up:Hits Misses and Maybes

 
Well then, that’s another one done and dusted. At this time of year I normally find myself holed up inside, tucked away from the grey, wet shit going on outside, wrapping up my reflections on the winter gone and, when all is neatly boxed up, turning my face towards the summer and putting together plans. This year, it’s been hard to find the motivation to write up the winter trip in a way that does it justice. Spending long days in the garden wearing shorts and short sleeves, in the driest warmest spring in recent history isn’t the best mental preparation for evenings spent attempting to put into words my experiences in the wind-sculpted, Norwegian Fjells. As I write this the Huldreheimen are nine degrees of latitude, thrity degrees centigrade and a meteorological season to my rear. Still, there remain just a few things to be said before punching in the last full stop. Mostly they’re about gear but to be of value those comments need to be seen in the context of the terrain and the conditions so that’s where I’ll start.




The Area

I’d love to know how others plan trips in Norway. There’s so much of it that I seem to spend half my life procrastinating about where to go and only laying down the detailed plans in the last minute before midnight So why the Huldreheimen this time out? Before setting out we saw this area as a step up from Oyer. Marked trails rather than pulled tracks but still providing some security and easily navigable bail outs should things go tits up. Likewise huts a plenty. Steeper than Oyer, with the option of much more aggressive terrain should we want to take it on, but comparatively gentle through the valleys and passes. In retrospect much of that fits the reality. I think it’s a good place for those with intermediate Nordic skills to tour, maybe even find a challenge and improve. For the rest, it’s a lovely area that provides long views of some of the big guns of the Jotunheimen. That’s a big positive since it brings with it a feeling of being in the mountains in a way that the softer terrain on the other side of the Gudbrandsdal doesn’t. The negative side, if you’re wired up like me at least, is that you may find yourself wishing you were in the Jotunheimen instead. An observation which brings me neatly back to the start of a long period of procrastination about where to go next but that's a subject for another post.



The Conditions

The character of any trip, summers included, is forged by a mix of terrain, physical and mental state and weather. I learnt this time out that, in winter, the equilibrium is more precariously balanced. Some of my lasting memories of this trip will be of icy snow and wind. In the Huldreheimen we experienced strong, often local, winds that played a major role in determining snow quality, where we spent our nights and the routes we followed. I’m sure, in better conditions a reasonable skier could really get around in the Huldreheimen. I’m also sure that a veteran would consider what we did a gentle warm up and the conditions beer garden conducive. Daytime temperatures were comparatively mild. At a guess the winds we experienced where around 6-7 with gusts of 8 perhaps 9 at the extreme. For those who like their winds in pictures that’s somewhere between “Umbrella use becomes difficult” and “effort needed to walk against wind” with a few intermittent seconds of “Some branches break off trees”. In everyday life just about the worst thing that’s going to happen is that your bin gets blown over, but even that’s not likely to happen if your bastard local authority only empties your bins once a fortnight. That we were dealt winds just shy of two thirds of the way up Beauforts scale is a sobering thought and, bare with me a little longer, that sobering thought is why I am blabbering on about wind speeds so much. Simply put, the knowledge that Mr Beaufort still has the most spectacular gradations of wind induced misery up his sleeve will very likely influence my gear selections for future trips.





The Skis

I used two sets this time out. Waxless, Salamon XADV88’s and Fischer S-Bounds. Although the intention was to take waxing S-bounds the ski hire Mafiosi offered us, on the evening before departure, the Waxless version and, not in a position to refuse, that’s what we took. Wide, and wider still waisted skis which attempt to find an acceptable compromise between tracking and turning ability. They do seem to achieve the latter. Willem-Maarten, a learner on free heel skis, could Telemark on both when conditions allowed. Theo, a good piste skier, could transfer those skills, again when conditions allowed. Me, probably the worst living skier who regularly finds himself in the backcountry on skis, could also make them turn albeit using some sort of mongrel stemming technique the likes of which most of you wouldn’t want to be seen doing in public. I don’t think any of us could have turned as effectively, if at all, on classic double cambered Nordic tourers like the Fischer E99’s.

But what about tracking? Harder to say. Conditions where, for me, often not conducive to effective kick-n-glide. A comparison spanning a year and a world of difference in terrain and snow conditions suggest not as good as Fischer E99’s but that’s a dodgy comparison. Of the two, the XADV 88’s where, as you’d expect, the better all-rounders. But who are we kidding anyway? Throw a rucksack weighing 15kg or more into the mix and the truth is you’re not going to be gliding along like one of the Aukland brothers. At least I’m not. Right now, if I were going to spend my own money on skis, I’d probably buy a pair of XADV88’s. Most would consider them overkill for Nordic touring on comparatively gentle terrain but I genuinely think they provide me with better downhill control than I’ve experienced on other skis. Perhaps that’s just in my head, but even if it is bag it up I’ll take it thanks very much.

Waxed or waxless? I didn’t get the chance to put my newly acquired waxing skills into practice so the truth is any opinion I have on this subject is still shrouded in a mist of ignorance. I have to say though that I’m with the English and against the Irish on this one (by the way, that’s not prejudice, take a look at my surname, it could’ve gone either way). Also notice that I’ve left all Scandinavian nationalities out of the argument. Such discussions are much more fruitful when all parties have no idea what they’re talking about. Although fishscales weren’t doing it for me in the Huldreheimen, given the conditions, when there was snow at all it was patchy frozen old snow and at lower elevations softened up in the afternoons, I don’t think even the best prepared wax wizard would’ve had a spell to suit. My waxless bases where at least ineffective for zero effort. I’ll now retract my head safely below the parapet.

Oh. And one last thing, in case you didn’t already know, full length steel edges are a must. Skiing in the Huldreheimen was all about those things I learnt on my first day of piste skiing and never used again ever. Skiing in the Huldreheimen was hardly ever anything like the fun things I learnt later. Sidestepping, Herringboning, kick turns, falling over and getting up again etc where the most commonly used techniques. Edges. All of it uses edges. Buy more steel!



The Bindings

I’m for 75mm. Probably for 75mm with cables. Why? Again ignorance may be leading me here, but Rotefella Chillies are what I’ve been able to hire here in NL, they’re consequently what I’ve used, they work fine and I’m reluctant to change. That reluctance stems from the tick of the clock. A quick beermat calculation reveals, assuming I’m going to tour six hours a day, five days a year until I’m seventy (and believe me, given my family history that’s aiming high) that I’ve got another 870hrs of quality Nordic time left in me. Screw up one trip with gear that doesn’t work (for me) and I’ve screwed up just shy of 4% of my skiing this side of St Peters gates. Those numbers mean two things. One, There’s limited opportunity for improvement (even if you don’t include arthritis, Alzheimer’s and motor neurone disease in the analysis) and two I’m always going to be pretty conservative about gear choices for these trips.

I think, although in the eyes of most certainly too heavily gunned for the work I put them to, light 75mm cables offer me control (all things are relative) and more stability with a heavy pack. I had more fun with chillies paired with XADV’s than I’ve ever had on Nordic skis before. I’d try NNN’s, especially Magnums, if I didn’t have to commit to them for a whole trip before even clipping in, but that’s not likely to happen. I live in the Netherlands remember! I might not even get a chance to look at them in a glass case before finding myself looking down a steep icy slope with the things under my feet.

What would I spend my own money on? Again don’t listen to me I have no idea what I’m talking about, but if you must know I’d be tempted to go with Voile Hardwire 3-Pin. The bombproof reliability of 3 pins without taking away the cables (and thus without killing dead my fantasy that one day will see me making elegant turns down powder strewn hillsides)?


The Boots

Last time, leather coffins. This time, boot/bucket hybrids in the form of Garmont Excursions. A LOT of deliberation and mail traffic with Breamar Mountain sports and Telemark Pyranees (both of whom coincidently provided impeccable service) lead me to this choice. For the born and bred Nordic Skiers out there, the ones that could telemark turn in rubber boots loosely sellotaped to two 3m lengths of rough hewn douglass fir, if you thought my skis and bindings were overkill you should take a look at these! Overpowered for touring on rolling terrain? Overpowered for XADV88’s? I don’t know. I went with them because a) I hate leather 75mm boots. b) I guessed they would provide better control and was prepared to take the hit in terms of tourability and c) I expected they would be warm and that removable inners would be great around camp/in the huts.

The Garmonts are the lightest plastic Nordic touring shoes (currently) available. Since Willem-Maarten went with Scarpas I had the opportunity to compare T4’s and Excursions. In principle they’re very similar differing in a few details: excursions use a Velcro “power band” to provide extra support in descent and the Excursions are definitely more flexible in the forefoot and slightly lighter. Although I could swap skis with Willem-Maarten our shoe sizes are too different to allow swapping footwear so I couldn’t compare the two in anger but they do differ in fit. The Scarpas are a narrower fitting than the Excursions.

Theory and practice more or less matched up. I came closer to really skiing the down hills in these things than with any other set up I’ve tried (skiing forestry roads down to the valley was just like piste skiing on this stuff, On the whole they were warm, except for one morning after I’d slept with the inners outside of my bag (stupidity should be bagged up and safely locked in the cellar before undertaking any outdoor activity in winter). It was great to have the inner shoes in the tent/around the huts. Even the trade off in tourability wasn’t too bad (remember my technique isn’t great in the first place and, in my opinion kick n’glide with 15kg on your back should be renamed stomp n’ stomp).

The one, huge and hairy, negative is that they caused me pain. Two key words: Prolapsed and arches. My feet are flatter than piss on a plate. If I choose carefully most footwear will conform to some degree to my extra terrestrial feet. Hard plastic shoes mail ordered, sight unseen, from Andora will expect my feet to conform to them. My feet are stubborn (well they’ve been doing it like this for over forty years you understand). The long and the short of it is that the Excursions chewed up my, already deformed, feet. I got nasty blisters at the top of the arch/bottom of the instep on both feet. I also had, inexplicably since they I never experienced pain there, two blackened toe nails. After two days of skiing just putting the shells on was enough to make me wince. Before leaving I posted something along the lines of “there’s no surer way to ruin a trip than by wearing ill-fitting footwear”. I still stand by that statement. When I took them off in the car park in Gausdal it was, without any question, for the last time. The anaesthetic of time now having kicked in, I wonder if I can do something to remedy the problem. Cut off thermofit inners? Good money after bad? Unless I can modify them in a way that ensures they won’t screw up another trip they’ll be up for sale. Any takers? Size 11.5 UK. Only used once. Promise to wash the blood off! If not leather and not plastic then what's it to be? There’s not much left over other than this sort of stuff. Advice welcome!



The Shelter

Big n’light. That’s how I like my shelters. The Golite Shangrila 5 didn’t disappoint. Which ever way you look at it a shade over 1.2kg (outer and pole) for a four man shelter (Golite, playing the manufacturers hand, claim it’s a five man but unless you’re heading out with the Baka People don’t kid yourself) is a superb kg/man ratio. At a little under €250 they’re comparatively affordable too! I wasn’t without reservations regarding wind stability and robustness of construction. The thing is 1m 85cm at the apex so I figured there’s potentially a lot of surface to catch the wind. The 15d ripstop used in the new model also seemed a little light to me. Again a LOT of e-mail back and forth reassured me of the viability of this shelter. Uncle CT in particular very kindly shared his experiences with other models of the Shangrila (3 and 1) and his positive feedback swung it.

How was it in practice? Though we didn’t do so, preferring instead to commune and eat outside, there’s bags of space for four to sit cook and eat and it’s “big enough” to sleep four with winter gear. Frosting up of the single skin, even when containing four breathing, sweating men, was no worse than I’d experienced in my two skin in Oyer.

Practice pitching in high wind before leaving revealed some deflection on the windward side if not guyed up fully. Even with guys strong wind could eat up some living space. In Norway we were careful to choose a low level pitch with some natural shelter and to use all available guying points (corner mid panel and ventilation beak tie outs). We managed to locate a really sheltered pitch so I don’t know how the tent would have faired if exposed to very strong wind. I don’t consider this to be a high alpine tent though and would avoid pitching it in exposed mountain top situations. For winter use I would always construct snow walls or dig the tent in to provide additional security against wind. Since it’s an outer only tent, unless I’d taken the measure of sewing on snow valances, I’d want to dig it in anyway in order to prevent blowing snow coming under the sides. On this trip I’d taken a 70cm pole extension with the intention of digging out more living space. Snow cover was however too light to enable this. The extra construction and guy work means that, although the tent itself pitches in no time, establishing a secure pitch takes some time and effort. My opinion was and still is that, in winter, this is a base camp tent. It is however a good winter base camp tent.



The Snow Shoes

MSR EVO Ascent with flotation tails. I used them in Scandinavia. There. I’ve admitted it. Shoot me down. I originally didn’t want to but there were two pairs in the group and I tried them out for the return from Storkvelvbua for a section I knew would take us over very patchy snow/ice and bare rock. They’re better than skis for that kind of work. Yes, I said that to. Even in Norway. The fact is, at least for someone with my skill level, even on skis, under those conditions, you’re just walking. A kilo or so of close fitting snow shoe takes less energy to move around than a kilo or so of ski where much of the weight is a metre or more from the point of contact with your foot. For those of us not born on skis, skis remain unwieldy, long and awkward when moving through intricate terrain.

One big surprise to me was that snow shoes weren’t vastly slower over ground. That’s of course going to be dependent on the conditions and competence of the skier but in our hands (on our feet?) a mixed group of skiers and snowshoers could, more or less, keep together. Snow shoes are inevitably slower over long easy descents but on steep ground, up or down, which required herringboning or kick-turn traverses, snow shoes claw back some of the difference. I think I still dare to do more on snow shoes. If it wasn’t for the foot thing, in the Huldreheimen, snow shoes would’ve opened up the door for me to bag a couple of those scantily snow clad tops. If it wasn’t for the weight penalty I’d really be inclined to take both. Part of that weight penalty at least could be offset by leaving full-length skins at home. Neither a hit nor a miss but definitely a maybe for future trips?



The Skins

I used skins a lot. I used them on slopes that I wouldn't expect to need skins for. There were times when skinning was the only way I could keep moving forwards. There where times when I kept skinning because I couldn't be arsed to stop to take the damn things off again. Skins are miraculous and provide traction on almost everything. Nevertheless It wouldn't bother me if I never saw a skin again so long as I live they kill almost all your glide and should only have to be used on real steeps. Could kicker skins be the answer for the conditions we encountered. Could these be better still?



The Food

Adeventure foods expedition breakfast continues to be a big hit. It’s good enough to eat! Main meals were courtesy of Fuizion Foods. There have been a lot of posts on these meals. Believe the hype. They’re very, very good. On winter trips, more so than any other trip, food becomes central, at times an obsession. Several times on this trip I felt my mood and outlook swing through 180° after eating a meal. Of course food, more than anything, is highly subjective, but the Chicken Jalfrezi was a highlight of my trip.



The Clothing

There’s too much to give everything a mention. Much of what I used was standard fare anyway. The full breakdown is in the gear list which will follow some time but some notable items follow.

For once I can’t fault my glove system. Montane e-vent outers and heavy pile inners (Resolute), a pair of cheap Decathlon silk liners and a pair of Extremities thinnies. While skiing I used either the silk liners or the thinnies swapping them out as they got wet or conditions required. When the wind picked up I would use either as inners in combination with the shells. Around camp I used the pile mitts. All components got used and it all works more or less. Skiing trashed the silk liners but they provide such dexterity, great when using the camera, that I’d consider treating them as consumables and buy a new pair each winter. Alternatively, in future, I may pack a second pair of thinnies which I can’t fault.

The shells were great, I didn’t get clammy sweaty hands at all and they cut the wind completely. Shock chord idiot loops attached to the shell mitts worked great. I could let them hang loose while operating the camera and when I was finished they were right there. The pile inners were great around camp. They’re a little tight in a large but they’re warmer than Buffalo’s and a more pleasant hand–shaped, shape. They turned out to be great for keeping my balls warm.

This time I swapped out two items, a vapour rise smock and a goretex shell, for a Finisterre Humbolt smock. A Paramoesque item with brushed inner layer and breathable DWR ripstop outer it’s a shell and midlayer rolled into one. I like smocks. I own, erm….several. Apart from the fact that there hangs an air of expedition about them they’re really practical. I don’t need a full zip. If conditions permit fully opening up the zip they probably permit taking the jacket off and stowing it away. I like big chest pockets, they don’t get fouled up under hip belts etc.

Unlike Paramo the Humbolt is close fitting. I went with a size up so as to enable me to use more insulation under it. It’s a soft feeling supple garment that’s pleasant to wear, moves with the body and provides complete freedom of movement. It’s well vented with long side zips, nice for venting but maintaining protection from the weather you're moving through and the cuffs are wide enough to enable sleeves to be pushed up beyond the elbows. Except for during the climb out of Espadalen on the first afternoon it never got overwhelmed and I never had to take it off when on the move. I love the hood! It’s helmet compatible (do surfers need a helmet?), perhaps excessively so, which means that since I never use a helmet, when cinched in there remains a half yard of material left and right to form huge comedy hamster cheeks. It’s not a look I’m particularly keen on but it all functions very well indeed so who cares?

One minor niggle: someone saw fit to work some press studs into the design so that the hood can be folded away into a collar sort of thingy. When testing it out on a foul wet weekend in Zeeland in February, after prolonged exposure, rain penetrated the neck area soaking the the light down insulation underneath. I think the press studs were to blame. I wish designers would stop trying to hide hoods. It doesn’t work, people can still see you’ve got one and the argument that a hanging hood impairs breathability is somewhat mute if, like me, you always have a rucksack on your back. For use in dry cold it’s not an issue. I run too hot to use a garment like this in all but winter conditions but otherwise the leaky neck would rule it out as my rain shell. If I was in charge I’d bin the press studs.

In the Huldreheimen I wore the Humbolt over a base layer (200g merino) and sometimes over a base layer plus fleece gillette (100g). It was mostly just right for activity at my burn rate but the ability to add or take away a light fleece gave me enough room to tune the setup to the conditions. In strong winds, when I, literally almost froze my balls off in vapour rise, the Humbolt stood its ground. I love it, it’s become my go to winter top and I want something just like it for my legs. I can’t recommend it highly enough! Want one? Tough! It’s so good they don’t seem to sell ‘em anymore (Correcton: Maz is right. They still have some on offer for 97 uk pounds. Only in black and only in M and L. Remember you might wan to go a size up?)

My main down insulation for stops and evenings comprised two layers. A MontBell down inner and a PHD Ultra Pully (drishell). When I paired them up for the first time in Oyer it was motivated by a reluctance to spend more yet more money an yet another down jacket to take me down to lower temperatures. I soon learnt that doubling up made a lot of sense. More flexibility. A light jacket to wear for short bursts of activity or for boosting your sleeping system. A heavier jacket for stops in the day time. Two jackets layered up for deeper cold in the evenings. It's good and the MontBell Inner combines well with the PHD Ultra. I'm not the only one who thinks this way. Jorgen does something very similar.



The Sleeping System

Cumulus prime 700 rated to -18°c with two mats a thermarest Z-rest paired with a POE Ether Thermo 6. My sleeping system was, next to the boots, perhaps the biggest miss of the trip. I spent two nights out and on one of them got very cold indeed. I don't understand what went wrong. We weren't expecting night time temperatures below around -5 to -10 °C. We camped in a dip figuring keeping out of the wind had higher priority than avoiding cold air. It may have been considerably colder where we slept but I'm not sure by how much. What I do know is that my bag got wet. Very wet at the foot end. Concern about blisters lead me to break a golden rule: I doubled up my socks pressing my dry camp socks into daytime service. On the first night I kept them on my feet. Was the moisture in those damp socks enough to collapse my bag? I didn't notice undue frost formation on the tent or lots of frost falling on my bag. There will have been some but I don't think any more than the year before in Oyer. On the second night out I fared better. I dried my socks against my torso. My bag was still damp but I slept quite warm. Still, things were damp enough that another night out may have been significantly more unpleasant. Right now I don't have a system that will deal with multiple consecutive nights out and that dissapoints me. Next time I'll be trying something different. VBL or synthetics top quilt that's the question. I suppose the right choice would depend on whether the moisture came from the inside or the outside. Unfortunately I don't have the answer to that question.


All photo’s courtesy Willem-Maarten van Haaften



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