Warm Hands In The Cold

Although I generally run warm, I get cold hands. So I’ve always invested in really good quality, winter gloves intended for ice climbing. But even then, if there’s ice forming on the outside of the glove my hands turn into useless bunches of sausages. And of course if I want to do anything that takes more dexterity, like taking a picture, I have to take them off and struggle, sometimes for several minutes, to get them back on.

But no more.

I had been thinking about using some kind of mitt system when I heard the interview that Bob Cartwright did with Judy Armstrong after she’d completed more than 4000 miles of Alpine walking last summer. She said that a pair of liner gloves, a pair of mitts and a pair of mitt shells were good enough for her all the way to -18 C.

So I got hold of a pair of XXL Buffalo DP Mitts from Needle Sports (yes that’s eXtra eXtra Large). At £20 including postage they’re very reasonably priced.

It’s been a revelation. My hands have been warmer this winter than they ever have been. Despite having many a cold day on the hill, including blundering about in a blizzard on the Cairngorm Plateau, my hands have never turned into useless Wall’s bangers. They have been cold at times, particularly when holding the metal head of the axe in wind-chill of -25 C, but never to the point of numbness.

I wear them over a pair of North Face Power Stretch liner gloves. Synthetic gloves are definitely warmer than silk once they get wet. From experimenting using a liner plus Buffalo mitt on one hand and just a mitt on the other, the liner mitt combination does keep my hands warmer.

I also did what was suggested on the Needle Sports site and attached a piece of shock cord to the mitts that I loop over my wrists so that I can whip them off, drop them, do whatever I need to do and pop them back on. The shock cord is a must-have as far as I’m concerned.

The mitts are sized rather conservatively so err on the side of being too large. I find the XLs will just fit my hands with no liner gloves but with liners they’re rather constrictive.

I also carry another pair of XLs mitts (one size down from what I intend to wear) since if you’re wandering in the winter mountains, losing a glove could mean serious problems very quickly. It’s hard to keep a hand in a pocket if you need it to hold an axe. I used to carry a pair of Dachsteins but they weigh in at 176gms whereas the XLs Buffalo mitts are only 80gms.

Which brings me on to another big benefit – the weight. Not only are the mitts cheaper, warmer when it’s freezing, warmer even when wet, easier to get on, far easier to wash and dry when compared to a membrane lined glove – they’re much lighter.

Including about six or eight grams of shock cord, the XLs are only 80gms and the XXLs 100gms. The North Face Power Stretch liner gloves are 46gms for the XL and 42 for the LB’s XS (not the lightest models, they have a suede section between thumb and forefinger to take wear from ski or walking poles).

For most walking, spare gloves aren’t essential so without them the mitt/liner combo comes to only 146gms.

Comparing that with 234gms for a pair of XL Rab Ice Gauntlets means an 88gm saving or a 184gms saving if you include spares.

To be honest, if they were actually 88gms heavier than the gauntlets I’d still use them since they simply work so much better all round.

Kahtoola Crampons And Bionic Legs

Snowdonia -19-20 April2008-small

LB, Chris and I caught the last of the snow this weekend in Snowdonia. At least I expect it to be the last of the snow we catch but I’ve expected it to end for the last couple of weekends away and it just keeps on coming.

We did a nice route up across Carnedd Dafydd but were beaten back from the ridge leading to Carnedd Llewelyn by a fifty mile an hour blast of snow that occasionally hit sixty-five (according to the Kestrel). We dropped into the cwm and camped at the foot of the Black Ladders. It was beautiful with the brilliant snow covering parts of the black rock forming the massive amphitheatre of Cwmglas Mawr.

Sunday saw the usual long slog out of a cwm. This time all the way to the top of Carnedd Llewelyn and back along the ridge to Dafydd. With the wind doing the same sort of speeds as the day before.

But what of the bionic legs?

Chris has super-human, bionic legs. He out-walks everybody. Whenever you walk with him, he disappears off into the distance and sits on a rock waiting for half an hour whilst everyone else catches up. Except for this time. This time we were ahead of Chris at almost every step. We couldn’t understand it.

We asked a couple of times if he was okay and he said he was fine but just finding it heavy going. It took a while to realize that of course Chris was wearing full winter boots, a B2 crampon fitting. Whereas we were carrying Kahtoola crampons and therefore we are able to wear lighter footwear. Mid-height approach shoes in my case and summer leather boots for LB.

So although we never actually had the crampons out, we didn’t need to carry as much weight in the pack. Also, critically, we had very little weight on our feet compared to Chris. And post-holing your way up the side of Llewelyn in those boots is just plain painful.

Intuitively it’s obvious, but to see such a graphic demonstration of the enormous difference that lightweight footwear really does make was very interesting (and quite gratifying, after spending the money!).

We just have to make sure Chris doesn’t get any for next season…

My headtorch just crashed…

Peak District- Feb 2008 -15-small

I’ve become fairly used to having to “reboot” things for which a reboot was inconceivable a few years ago; TVs, video recorders, phones, cameras. But as of this weekend it appears that I can add headtorches to the list.

In a dark tent in Snowdonia at the weekend I tried to switch on my Petzl Tikka Plus and it switched itself straight back off.

There was a very slight pause, during which it stayed on long enough to indicate that it had registered the button properly. But then it just switched itself off again.

I tried it again and again with the same result.

Eventually I held the button down in frustration. At which point it “strobed”, not in the normal on/off repeated pattern that it does if you press the on button four times, but like an eighties disco.

I left it a second. Tried it again, and it worked.

Back to normal: One press; full beam, repeated presses cycling through dim, dimmer, flash and back to full beam again.

It should be happy enough. I recently replaced the alkaline batteries (not the lithiums that Petzl don’t recommend) and it has no visible damage other than some general scuffing. It hadn’t even had a chance to get damp at that point.

But that’s just a head torch. The idea of fully relying on something far more complex than that in the hills, like GPS for example, isn’t one I fancy at all.

The Care and Feeding of Platypi

Frosted tents at -10C - Peak District-Feb2008-1

As a relatively recent convert to hydration systems, or platypi (it seems Platypus is to hydration what in British English, Hoover is to vacuum cleaner) I’ve had to learn how to look after them when they are not being lumped about in my pack.

It might sound strange that they need any “looking after” at all, but they do. Or else you end up sucking mildew flavoured water through a black spotted tube.

The usual handy hint to prevent that is simply to store them in a freezer. But in a small kitchen, with a very small freezer, the food has to get first priority. So no freezing for our platypi except in-use on the hill (for which a neoprene cover, that covers the bite-valve, combined with blowing back into the bag, works very well for preventing a freeze-up even at minus-a-lot Celsius).

So I’ve got in to a very simple routine for making sure they stay mould free:

When you get home, fill the bladder with really hot water from the tap. Not from a kettle. It might work, I’ve not tried it, but I have a feeling that boiling water would damage the bag (anyone know different?). But use very hot water never the less.

Hold the bag above the sink and squeeze the bite valve until a lot of really hot water has had a chance to clean out the tube. It needs to run for a good ten seconds I reckon, since the first run through the pipe will cool by the time it gets to the bite valve.

Then drain it out and shake out the excess drops of water.

The last trick relies on having a bite valve that will pop off easily, or at least dissemble without too much of a struggle (like the Source variety – whose bite-valves I favour) and a bag that opens at the opposite end from the tube (like a Platypus Big Zip or Source Widepac): Remove or dissemble the valve to get a good airflow up the tube, stick the tube out of a window (perhaps a second floor window, in case you forget its open and leave the house!) and prop open the bag with something.

The breeze blowing through the window will get pushed up the tube, and usually dries the bag in a few hours even on a still day.

With a bone-dry bag, there’s nowhere for the black mould to grow – and you get a happy, healthy platy.

The White Box Alcohol Stove. Good enough for two in the cold.

Brecon Beacons - Feb 2008-11  

I’ve been experimenting with alcohol stoves for a little while and to be honest, of the four I’ve tried, only one puts out enough heat for two people’s food: The White Box

Named for the white box that it comes in, it’s a very simple and robust little stove. There’s plenty of information about them on the Internet already so I’ll concentrate on how efficient they are and how I’ve been able to use mine down to -10 Celsius (14F). It’s often said that you can’t use an alcohol stove in freezing conditions, but with a little care, you can.

I’ve wanted to replace my old faithful MSR Whisperlite Internationale with a lightweight alcohol stove for a while but to be honest I’ve so many other things going on, I don’t have time to fiddle around making my own. Besides, from what I’d read, unless you get your design and build dead right, they can be rather inefficient. So I thought I’d buy a couple from people who make them all the time.

I tried a beautifully made Penny Stove from The AC Aircraft Company (Bill doesn’t seem to show them on his site now for some reason). But the heat output never managed to boil the 900 ml (about two pints) of water I want to use for porridge + tea in the morning or rehydrating buckwheat pasta + soup in the evening.

I then tried a Sith from Tinny at MiniBull Designs (his blog is always fascinating). It struggled to maintain enough heat in the presence of a cold pan of water to even stay alight. Tinny and I never did get to the bottom of this – it may be that “normal” methylated spirits in the UK haven’t got as high an alcohol content as something like Heet in the USA (I am just guessing here – anyone know for sure?). Even holding the pan above the stove a couple of centimetres never allowed the water to boil before the fuel ran dry.

So I ordered an Atomic from him. And with its pot-stand it managed to pack enough of a punch to get the water hot, but still not boiling.

At this point I gave up for a while. But listening to Bob on one of his podcasts singing the praises of the White Box made me decide that it was worth one last go.

And I’m very glad I did. The White Box is very small, tough and light; 68gms. 30 for the stove, 10 for the aluminium square it stands on and 28 for the wind-shield.

Critically, it can boil my required amount of 900ml of water in about nine minutes from sparking up to rolling boil. Slower than the MSR, but a lot less dangerous for cooking in the porch of a tent.

I’ve cooked in the porch with the MSR, but no matter how much the rain was falling and the wind blowing, I’ve always sparked up with the door wide open and only zipped back up once it’s settled to it’s usual fearsome jet of blue flame. LB has had to hold on to the sides of the tent to stop wind damage caused by leaving it wide open in a hooley a couple of times. (I know I could light it outside and carry it inside carefully – but where’s the fun in that?)

Brecon Beacons - Feb 2008-9 Great – so it works and it boils lots of water. But how do you get it working in the cold?

The critical point is to make sure that both the alcohol and the stove itself are warm by keeping them within one thin layer of your skin for about ten minutes.

I keep the alcohol in a small MiniBull Fuel Bottle (the AG fuel bottles that Winwood stock look very similar). It’s important to have a small amount so it’s easy to heat.

When I wake up, I grab the bottle from the tent pocket I put it in the night before and stuff it inside the sleeping bag but outside the silk liner. At -10C that’s a bit of a wake-up call but with a quick fumble you can keep it away from you whilst it warms-through enough to allow it to come closer to your skin.

Once I’ve got most of the cooking stuff together, but before I fill the pan with water and get out the porridge, I throw the stove itself inside the sleeping bag to let it warm-through as well. It doesn’t take as long since it’s a small hunk of aluminium.

In the evening it’s similar, keep it between your down jacket and your t-shirt. Though when wearing a 260 weight Icebreaker long sleeved T (expensive – but worth every penny) I have to finish by keeping it right next to the skin. Otherwise the merino just wouldn’t let it warm up enough.

Once you’re completely ready to start cooking, pan filled and fire-steel waiting, whip them both out, fill the stove and spark up.

Then, hold the pan of water (or ice slush if you have it) a couple of centimetres above the flame. That way you’re letting the stove prime as usual whilst also “priming” the pan of cold water. Otherwise, even though the stove might have blossomed to its beautiful chrysanthemum of flame, the cold pan can suck the life out of it.

Nine minutes or less later, a couple of pints of boiling water enthusiastically fills your porch with steam.