Saturday, 20 February 2010

Mournes Once Again

I was back in the Mournes again yesterday, 3rd time ever, 2nd this month, I think I'm addicted. I had a vague idea of where I wanted to go this time and had a few potential routes made out using Quo mapping software, now updated with grid lines which means that maps printed off can be used with a compass and a new 1/25,000 scale OS Ni map of the area.

I had some new gear to try out, a Montane Dynamo soft shell jacket that I was given by 'Parky Again' from the Outdoors Magic forum and a pair of Mountain Equipment G2 Lite soft shell gloves that I'd bought in the hope that they'd provide the same degree of dexterity as fleece gloves but with a bit of added water resistance.

I had been using an ME Ultrafleece jacket with a Montane Jetstream windshirt when required but didn't take a windshirt this time. Again I wore a Trekmates Bamboo baselayer set and a North Cape Rhovyl zip neck top and ME Ibex trousers. Footwear consisted of AKU Croda boots, Trekmates Stretch Gore-Tex gaiters and Horizon Merino socks. I also took a Montane Flux as extra insulation and wet gear was a Marmot Essence jacket and Trespass Pack-Away Trestex over trousers. The ME G2 lite gloves and a North Cape fleece beanie dealt with the extremities

I used a 25L Alpkit Gourdon, one of the early type with side mesh pockets and a shock cord on the back. I like the Gourdon, it's got a roll top and is just big enough for day trips although I'm going to make a pocket to fit the waist belt to keep trail food and bits and pieces.

The rest of my gear was made up of my Beer can/Cone cooking system, Aquagear filter bottle and as it had been snowing the night before I took my Micro spike trekking crampons for a 1st try out.

I wanted to set off a bit earlier than the last time and arranged to pick Marcus up at 8.30. There was a little snow when we set off but the roads were clear and by the time we reached Belfast there was no snow at all. As we neared Newcastle we saw that there was some snow on the Mournes but the cloud base was low obscuring even the lowest tops. We were parked up at Meelmore lodge and ready to set off by 10.30.

The proposed route was to take us directly up Spellack before heading roughly west to Slieve Meelmore. I've heard about the seven sevens, which are supposed to be the 7 summits over 700m, now whether the newer maps have been updated or whether there's another explanation I don't know but I can only find 6 mountains over 700m, Slieve Meelmore is just a bit lower so I'm guessing that it may have previously been thought to be over 700m. From Slieve Meelmore we intended to make for Slieve Meelbeg then turn south to Ben Crom and from there turn north east to reach the final summit of the day, Slieve Bearnagh with it's twin tops. A final descent to the Hares gap and from there the Trassey track would take us back to Meelmore Lodge, in fact from the summit of Slieve Bearnagh the route would be the same as our route from the previous visit.

The climb directly up Spellack was pretty tough coming as soon as it did after leaving the car, by the time we reached the small cairn visibility was down to 50m or thereabouts and the hoped for view across the Mournes didn't happen.

I decided to try the Micro Spike crampons and found them very easy to fit and very comfortable to wear. I didn't really notice much difference in grip at that stage. The Shelter on the Summit of Meelmore soon appeared through the mist and we stopped for a breather and I gave Marcus the Micro Spikes to try.

After having used them on the way up I really noticed not having them on the descent to the saddle between Meelmore and Meelbeg. Still shrouded in mist Slieve Meelbeg came and went and it was only when we had descended to the saddle between Meelbeg and Slieve Loughshannagh that visibility began to improve.

With the next waypoint selected on the Garmin Geko we set off for Ben Crom which rises gently before falling away steeply to the south down to the Ben Crom reservoir. We had only gone a short distance before the mist began to clear and the mountains that had been hidden made fleeting appearances. The cloud gradually cleared and we were treated to fantastic views of Doan, a nicely shaped hill, much nicer than our destination Ben Crom, and across the valley holding the Ben Crom reservoir to Slieve Binnian and Slieve Lamagan.

We changed direction again and made for Ben Crom across terrain that is more like the Antrim hills with mossy ground and peat banks but we soon found a trail winding through the peat banks and as the ground started to rise it was soon harder underfoot. The sun was shining by now and most of mountains were clearly visible with only the higher tops still capped with cloud.

The views from Ben Crom were fantastic, across the reservoir far below was the Annalong valley running north/south and flanked by Binnian and Lamagan, Slieve Commedagh and Slieve Donard, the big 2 could be seen to the east/south east and behind us to the north were Meelmore, Meelbeg and the final top of our planned route, Slieve Bearnagh.

Leaving Ben Crom for Slieve Bearnagh meant tramping through more peat banks but once we started to gain height onto the lower ridge of Bearnagh the going improved. I was starting to get hungry and we decided to try to find a sheltered spot but ended up on an exposed stony area which although it made a nice spot to set up the stoves didn't offer much in the way of shelter.

I decide to pull on my Montane Flux and with an eye on the dark clouds moving in also pulled on my Marmot Essence. We had only just got the stoves set up when we were hit with a snow/hail shower which lasted almost until we were ready to set off again and by the time I had packed up and removed the Flux jacket my hands were numb, the soft shell gloves having failed on both counts, warm and water resistance.

We started up the progressively steeper slope to the top of Slieve Bearnagh and my hands started to feel painful as they heated up but after about 10 minutes, by which time we'd reached the final summit rocks they were fine.

There was a stiff breeze blowing up from the west side of the summit ridge and quite a bit of spindrift blowing around but without any warning the cloud lifted again, the sun broke through and we were treated to spectacular views in every direction with fantastic cloud formations and the snow covered Mournes virtually clear.

The views were an extra bonus and much more than we could have hoped for when we started out and especially welcome on the final hill of the day. We were sheltered from the breeze as soon as we set off down the ridge towards the secondary North Tor of Slieve Bearnagh and the camera was in constant use.

We soon reached the final descent to the Hares gap but although it had been icy I hadn't worn the Micro spikes as Marcus didn't have any and I didn't want to lead him into icy areas where he'd have no grip. We decided to wear one crampon each after Marcus slipped on a snow covered rock and while one crampon isn't as good a 2 it made a significant difference and we were very soon at the hares Gap with only the final walk out on the Trassey Track to reach the car.

Of the gear that was being used for the 1st time the micro spikes earned their keep but unfortunately for Marcus the seller I bought mine off hasn't any listed at present. The only problem I had was that they tended to ball up were the snow was wet.

The Montane soft shell jacket worked really well, much better than I expected, it doesn't insulate as well as my Ultrafleec jacket but I didn't need a windshirt, even if I had the Marmot Essence would have worked as it was completely dry inside when we reached the car so it must be breathable enough which is strange as my Montane Jetstream while not strictly speaking waterproof is less breathable.

As before the bamboo baselayer and North Cape Rhovyl zip neck worked fantastically, so well in fact that I'm going to order another bamboo top and North Cape zip neck.

The cooking system is better than last time as I'm now using a taller cone windshield, the 3mm closed cell cozies work as well if not better than alu bubble wrap while being lighter and the beer can pot and mug are super light.

The only gear that failed to live up to expectations were the ME G2 lite gloves, unfortunately they aren't significantly (if at all) more water resistant than my fleece gloves but don't provide as much insulation, I'd still need shell gloves if it's wet which makes them pointless in my view.

I don't know when I'll get out again but I'd like to have a wild camp in the Mournes soon, in the meantime I'm in the process of making some anti-balling plates for the crampons and I may need to make a waist belt pocket for the Alpkit Gourdon unless I get a new rucksack before then. A new rucksack is on the cards, I have one in mind which should have enough capacity for year round overnight camps or longer duration summer trips but be about half the weight of the Haglofs LIM 45, about the same weight as the Alpkit Gourdon as it happens. The LIM 45 will still be my general heavier/bulkier load carrier and if I really need to load up I'll use the Gregory Z55

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Mournes Recce

It's hard to believe but in spite of living within 100 miles of the Mournes I'd only ever been once and that was almost 2 years ago. I'm not sure why but I either stuck to the Antrim hills and moaned about the lack of height and surplus of peat bogs or went off to Scotland and cursed the fact that I had to take the ferry. I ventured down in May 08 for the 1st time and swore I'd be back but it took until this weekend to get down again.

Marcus was keen to get out again and I suggested we head down to the Mournes for a bit of a recce. I'm not an early starter so we decided to leave on Friday morning at about 9.30am, drive down and just have a bit of a hike before returning home again that evening. I'm a bit wary of having to leave the car parked up overnight so that was another reason for sussing things out 1st.

We decided to drive to Meelmore Lodge and go in by the Trassey track on the northernish side of the Mournes rather than from the south side as I'd done previously. Looking at the map and wanting to save Slieve Commedagh and Slieve Donard (the highest in N.I.) for another time Slieve Meelmore, Slieve Meelbeg and Slieve Bearnagh looked the most likely. Initially we looked at Meelmore and Meelbeg but decided instead to keep our options open by heading up to the saddle between Slieve Meelmore and Slieve Bearnagh and then depending on weather conditions and how much time we had we could turn left for Slieve Bearnagh, take in the 2 tops and return to the Trassey track by way of the Hares Gap or turn right and follow the Mourne wall to the summit of Slieve Meelmore then on to Slieve Meelbeg before dropping back down the north side to pick up the Ulster way and back to the car.

It was closer to 10.00am by the time we set off but having missed rush hour through Belfast we were parked up and ready to roll by 11.40am. The weather was better than I'd expected, there was a light breeze at low level but nothing that required a windshirt so we set off towards the Trassey track which follows the Trassey river. Rather than using the track we kept close to the shoulder of Spellack which is really a continuation of Slieve Meelmore. The cloud was low enough to keep the tops hidden but it was easy enought to see the Hares Gap and the saddle between Slieve Bearnagh and Slieve Meelmore. We didn't set much of a pace and I spend some time trying to get a few half decent shots in the rather uninspiring light.

Eventually we reached the saddle and stopped to decide what to do next. Not being able to see the tops and being unfamiliar with the area we decided that we'd take our time and simply make for the summit of Slieve Bearnagh and hope that the cloud lifted. I found the going pretty steep to be honest, much steeper than what I'm used to on the Antrim Hills but we soon reached the summit tors.

We spent some time wandering around, watching the cloud lift, the sun try to break through then closing in again. I really enjoyed it and it was a pleasant change to be on hard, stoney ground rather than the peat bogs of my local hills, in fact it reminded me of the Cairngorms.

We set off again following the Mourne wall to the secondary top of Slieve Bearnagh before dropping down to the Hares Gap. We could have followed the Trassey track at that point but I was getting hungry and wanted to try out my new cooking system so we contoured around the foot of Slieve Bearnagh to the remains of an old quarry that I'd noticed as we were walking in. The quarry made a good 'picnic area' with plenty of flat stones to set the stoves up on, as Marcus commented it was a bit of a change from trying to get them set up on grassy tussocks.

Unfortunately as is often the case in places like this people who seem unable to carry their rubbish out had left their mark by putting empty crisp packets, used teabags etc into cracks in the rock. I just don't get the mentality of people like that, they must enjoy the scenery yet it doesn't seem to register that by leaving rubbish behind they're spoiling the very thing they set out to enjoy. Lets face it, if you can carry the weight of packaging and food on the way in you can carry the weight of the packaging alone on the way out, even thinngs that are biodegradable like apple cores/banana skins should be carried out if possible as they don't exactly fade away overnight and make the area look messy.

This was my 1st real attempt at using my new cooking system and while it worked the shorter cone windshield isn't as efficient as a taller one, the closed cell foam cozies however worked well, using the alu-tape lined cozy as a means of holding the main pot also served to keep the water warm enough for coffee after I had made a soup drink and an instant pasta meal. I've since switched to a taller windshield and silicone rubber band on the pot rather than the short windshield/ti skewer and having tried it last night it does improve the performance significantly with no weight penalty.

Having been fed and watered so to speak we regained the Trassey track and made our way back down past Spellack to the Ulster Way trail and then back to the carpark at Meelmore lodge. It was 4.40pm by the time we returned so we certainly didn't break any speed records, we must have spent more time sitting around that we thought as according to the GPS our 'Time Moving' was 2.35 hours.

We were back home by about 6.30pm again having managed to miss the worst of the Belfast rush hour traffic.

Apart from my cooking gear I wasn't using anything new but Marcus had just bought a Golite Jam and was giving it a test run. Hopefully we'll get back down in the next few weeks, even if it's only for a day it'll be good but an over-night would be better as I'm sure Marcus will want to try the Golite Jam with a heavier load and I want to try my new bivvy bag and down trousers (sorry, Pants just doesn't sound right ;-))

One final thing, Quo have recently released some 1/25,000 scale maps for N.I. together with updates to the existing 1/50,000 scale ones and a new version of the software to handle it all. I bought the map covering the Mournes (£14.99) and it seems good with much more detail (obviously) and now also with gridlines which means maps printed from the program should be useable with a compass.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

New Gear, Montbell UL Down Pant & Titanium Goat Ptarmigan Bivvy Bag

Titanium Goat Ptarmigan Bivvy

I got 2 new pieces of gear this week, one bought new from the USA and one used from Canada.

The used gear was a Titanium Goat Ptarmigan Bivvy Bag with full mesh hood option. I'd mentioned on Outdoors Magic about trying to make a lightweight bivvy bag, lighter at least than my Trekmates one which is about 300g but had a private message from 'Mike fae Dundee' telling me about a Titanium Goat Ptarmigan for sale on the forums. I'd looked at the Ptarmigan bivvy in the past but the cost at $110 (including full mesh hood)plus shipping had delayed purchasing. I contacted the seller and we agreed a price, $80 including shipping.

PHD Minim 500 + Ptarmigan Bivvy

The bivvy bag arrived within a few days and even in the padded envelope felt seriously light. It's in almost perfect condition with only the small tab used to lift the mesh missing which I was aware of anyway. It's big enough for my PHD Minim 500 both length/width, the full mesh hood is in addition to the main hood and closes with a one way zipper, the main hood can be folded back under the top of the bag to keep it out of the way. The main hood has a 2 way zipper and the bag can be sealed up if required. I really only intend to use it as a sleeping bag cover under the flysheet of my Phreeranger but the mesh hood should make it possible to use the flysheet without a bug nest. It packs really small and with an Alpkit Apollo 2 A6 stuffsack weighs 205g.

Full Mesh Hood with 1-Way Zipper, Fabric Hood Folded Underneath

Fabric Hood with 2-Way Zipper

The 2nd item is a pair of Mont-Bell UL Down Pants (trousers). I had to make a choice whether to get a warmer winter bag or try to upgrade my Minim 500 but after looking at the options which included an Alpkit PD800 I opted for down trousers as they offered more versatility with no real weight penalty.

Mont-Bell UL Down Pant

The choice then came down to either the PHD Minim trousers or the Mont-Bell UL ones. The PHD ones wouldn't have fitted off the shelf and would have cost £175 inc shipping to have them made in Small with a longer leg, what clinched it was the waiting time of over a month. The Mont-Bell UL's were ordered from Oregon Mountain Community and including shipping, VAT and service charges came to £142. I suspect that the PHD ones would be warmer as they have 800EU fill power down rather than 725US but I'm pretty confidant that the Mont-Bell's will be warm enough.

Elasticated Waist, Stud and Zip Fly

Ankle Cuff Elastic

The Mont-Bells came in at 180g although they don't have pockets like the PHD ones. They have a zip fly, stud fastening waist and slightly elasticated waist drawcord, there's also a elastic drawcord at the ankle. As expected they pack down very small and should take up very little space in the Roll-Top drybag along with my sleeping bag.

They Pack Down Much Smaller.

I haven't had a chance to try either of the items yet but should hopefully be able to try them out soon.