'The balance between the physical and the mental leads us to a true sense of self. This is not a judgement of intellect or fitness, rather an openness to challenging ourselves in both forms of endeavour'

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Above The Snowline - A reminder about winter climbing

The forecast was solid. The temperature had dipped well below freezing. Kynan and I were in search of ice, fat runnels of the stuff that flowed tantalisingly down steep narrow gullies. Winter is the time to go forth, with ice crampons sharpened and ice axes held to attention.
We picked a valley of promise, wading waist deep through snow drifts that had somehow predicted which way we wanted to travel. Doing this for hours on end should be promoted as the next big Jenny Craig’s weight loss phenomena. By the time we had found a place to bivvy I was (a) completely poked, (b) frozen at my extremities yet overheating at my core, and (c) over it. I threw my pack down, kicked half-heartedly at a patch of snow before unfurling my sleeping mat, bivvy bag and sleeping bag. Later on came the hours of snow melting to rehydrate, and then a poor attempt at sleeping. My water bottle froze inside my sleeping bag, as did I. Spindrift blew in the small opening in my bivvy bag, thawing, dripping and then refreezing. I lay in the dark and imagined warm tropical beaches with palm trees and bikinis and pina coladas. Are we having fun yet?
Whether tramping, climbing, skiing or snowboarding, heading backcountry in winter is a serious proposition. It’s not so much a matter of trying to get above the snowline, but more about dealing with the snow coming down to meet you.
Serious yes, but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go. Despite the fact that the phrase ‘it doesn’t have to be fun to be fun’ was likely coined in the frigid depths of winter, I treasure making the most of the wee daylight hours. And through experience, luck, advice from others and some well-timed courses, I’ve slowly accumulated a self-safety checklist to use each time I conveniently forget about the ‘pleasant’ tingle that accompanies thawing fingers and toes. This is not an exhaustive list, but more a process that lets me assess the likely risk and how I can mitigate it where possible.
First off the pep talk: Mountains in winter are absolutely stunning! Plastered in snow and ice, they somehow appear grander, more majestic. All that cruddy, crumbly greywacke that adorns our Southern Alps is nicely hidden or frozen together. River levels are lower (although considerably colder). Sand-flies have gone on holiday somewhere near the equator. And huts – apart from those on the popular ski-touring routes – are empty.
So to the checklist:
  1. Wait For A Good Forecast: Tramping or climbing in winter is not like in summer only colder. While getting caught out in poor weather in summer can be, at worst, unpleasant, the same experience in winter is life-threatening. Cold kills, a fact reflected in a number of recent backcountry tragedies. Pushing on through poor weather – something often done in summer – greatly increases the risk. At the very least have knowledge of nearby huts to shelter in or, if none are in the area, carry a tent. This is not meant as a scare tactic or an over-dramatisation. While in summer I often cut corners in terms of how much kit I carry, in winter I’ve learnt to carry enough warm stuff to cope with the coming of the Second Ice Age. This is an extra safety buffer, especially in case someone twists an ankle and has to stay put in the open for a cold night or two. Check Metservice and Metview for short and long-term forecasts before you leave home. And while June can be predominantly changeable and stormy, July or August often provide prolonged windows of settled weather.
  2. Plan Your Trip: This is linked to the point above in terms of huts but also, and more importantly, relates to snow conditions. Avalanches are scary beasts! Some of this country’s top avalanche experts have been killed by avalanches, and some even while giving instruction on avalanches. So far I’ve been fortunate (touch wood), but I’ve certainly had my share of near misses. And while avalanches can occur any time of the year, winter and spring are recognised as the most risky seasons. I don’t have room in this article to explain the dos and don’ts, other than to say ‘do’ an avalanche awareness course (through the Mountain Safety Council or another suitable organisation) and ‘don’t’ cross a snow slope that you think is risky. Pick an alternative route, even if it is more difficult or prolonged. Be prepared to turn around. Transceivers, probes and shovels certainly help, but only in the 50% of accident victims that survive the initial force of an avalanche. Yet the more you practise with these tools, the more efficient you will be if/when you have to use them. Also, Avalanche.net.nz provides an updated assessment of conditions in different areas.
  3. Gear Up: Ice axes? Crampons? Snowshoes? Down jackets? Tent? Mittens? Snow goggles? Boots? The list is endless. And, as everyone knows, if you take everything you won’t leave the car park. As mentioned above, I don’t cut too many corners in my winter kit. If sleeping on snow, I carry a tent. A single skin will usually suffice, and helps to minimise weight. An inflatable sleeping mat is much warmer than closed-cell foam. Blow it up firm, so you are as insulated from the snow as possible. Take as much down as you need. I will sometimes use a Primaloft bag instead of down because it’s not completely hopeless if it gets wet. I definitely use a Primaloft jacket instead of down because it is likely to get wet! If you are considering taking crampons and ice axes then take both, not one or the other. Consider using a walking-pole with a snow basket. This means you can stand up tall while walking and your weight stays directly over your crampons. Also, your ice axe can be much shorter. The New Zealand Alpine Club, along with various other tramping clubs, offers basic snow-craft courses that teach proper crampon and ice axe technique. Steer clear of instep crampons – they are designed for flat ground and have high-risk potential, especially descending. Leave your water bladder at home – the tube will freeze. Be prepared for water sources being frozen, so carry extra gas to melt snow or ice. I often wear running shoes during the low valley approach, especially if there are river crossings. This keeps my boots dry for higher up. Finally, carry a good head torch and spare batteries. Some of my climbing mates believe the best winter bivvy kit is a head torch. If you keep moving, your body generates enough heat to stave off the cold.
  4. Pay Attention: As someone who has suffered from frostbite, I am now rather attentive to my fingers and toes. The frostbite itself isn’t that painful, but the following months spent dealing with layers of dead flesh are rather debilitating. Now I sleep with my boots to ensure they don’t freeze the next morning, along with wet clothes that need drying out. I often use Windstopper gloves to help combat wind-chill, as well as a beefier pair when playing in snow. Along with paying attention to your own needs, keep an eye on your tramping or climbing partners. Hypothermia can sneak up on everyone. Familiarise yourself with the symptoms and take appropriate courses of action before the situation becomes too serious. Be prepared to suffer from the cold, but recognise the difference between suffering and deteriorating.
  5. Make The Big Calls: Don’t commit yourself to crossing a pass or following a route at all costs. Unfavourable snow conditions can change a trip from being enjoyable to a nightmare. I remember one time making an unpopular decision to turn around when the hut we were aiming for was in sight and only a few hundred metres above us. Dusk was not far away, and the relative warmth of the hut beckoned. But we were already wading through thigh deep snow, and it would likely get worse as we gained altitude. Despite the hours of dark travel required to return to the hut we had just come from, I knew we could reach it.

Be prepared for slower travel, bigger packs and scarily short daylight hours. Spooning is an acceptable way of keeping warm – for all but the most macho of outdoor types – and don’t forget to take lots of photos to impress your friends.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Time Between Tides - article in White Horses

Light lifts night's veil from the sea like a parting of the fog. There's a decent north swell still rolling in, the remnants of Cyclone Lucy which gave the country a good slapping earlier in the week. Waves radiate towards land – the ocean's pulse, which is also my lifeblood on many a glass-sculpted, windless dawn such as this.
Today I've risen early, not just for the promise of surf, but because this is a time between times, a catching of my breath as I transition from something I've helped choose towards something with huge potential consequences that I have little or no control over. Back home, down the narrow lick of wet sand that my footprints will soon fade from, there lies a pile of bags that have been packed with particular necessity. Each item within them has been scrutinised, like it alone holds the key to my safety and that of my wife and climbing partner. The high summits of the Himalaya call to us, but it's with an edgy ear that I hear that call; to undertake an expedition like this without due consideration is an idiot's journey. We're not idiots. We leave in less than two weeks.
Like so often before, the beach and the ocean and the waves – of course the waves – become the source of my unbridling, my shucking off of mind-shackles, my confidant, my shrink. Clumps of seaweed form jumbled islands along the sand, but I barely register their random, sometimes hulking presence. My mind is fuddled with carabiners and ropes and tents and altitude sickness pills. It needs a thorough saltwater cleansing. Shelley likes to jump on the tiny teardrops attached to the kelp, which make popping noises as she stomps down. It always takes us ages to walk along the beach whenever a storm has dumped another load of un-popped seaweed.
This morning Shelley is still in bed, curled up with our two cats Tommy and George, and no doubt dreaming of ice-crusted summits. She's much tougher than I am; was born with a stubborn streak that drags her to the top of most things more often than not. I'm happy to draft along in the wake of her single-minded drive, and to make sure we have the best chance of getting down again – I'm good at the descent. Home is that way.


One of the largest clumps of seaweed nearby grunts and sighs. In the half-light, I almost crap myself. Bloody things's alive! Christ, and it's a leopard seal, a monster of a mammal that looks like its been zapped straight from Dinosaur Land. Usually they hang out in the Antarctic, sleek killers plundering cute little penguins for dinner, and harassing anything that pisses them off. This guy is a long way from home.
After a sudden wide berth of my new acquaintance, I pause. Clearly it's not threatened by my presence, and neither should it be. Built like a small tank, and with jaws and teeth set to tear and pulverise, I don't imagine it getting flustered by much at all. Who would win in a fight with a great white – even bet, I reckon. Is it a boy or a girl? Maybe a girl as it seems pretty streamlined, not that I know much about leopard seals, other than that over the years they've killed a few people – I think the last time was the drowning of a female scientist who was scuba diving under the ice. Presumably being over-friendly, the leopard seal held her down until she eventually ran out of air while being a mammal's play toy.
Obviously, death waits for us along a myriad of paths, some chosen, some as random as a twist of unluckiness. The choosing is not a death wish, rather a conscious decision about action and consequence, and even more fundamentally about the essential worth of risk in our lives. I could so easily have lost Shelley during the terrifying earthquakes that devastated Christchurch, or one of my best mates Graham under what seemed like a skip-load of falling ice a few months later. I wondered how much fight – and breath – I had left when my leg rope recently snapped in heavy surf off the coast of Otago. And our upcoming flight to Nepal is with Malaysia Airlines, a company with a solid safety record yet which somehow has managed to lose one of its planes with 239 people on board. It's funny what your mind fleetingly registers when you almost trip over an unexpected predator lurking on your home beach.
The mountain we are attempting to climb is called Anidesha Chuli by the locals, and was given the nickname White Wave by visiting westerners. From the approaching valley it looms like the last in a huge set on an outer reef bombie. The summit snow piles up in windblown flutings, with giant, blocky ice seracs guarding the approach. I've spent hours pouring over photos from the unsuccessful attempts of a previous expedition, trying to consider every 'what if'. Some times I struggle to accept that fate plays its hand and I'm better off just trying to suck it up.
The leopard seal opens one eye, sniffs the air and shuffles its sleek, powerful body further into the sand. Slowly the gloom lifts. I can see white water folding around the point further down the beach. Sweet! The swell has hung around. Here comes that warm feeling inside that I've been looking for, a wee spark of 'go get it' that helps to drag me out of bed each morning. To rise before dawn. To face the light of the coming day like it's your first and last.

Monday, June 30, 2014

MSR Hubba Hubba NX Tent - gear review

The MSR Hubba Hubba NX (the NX stands for Next Generation) is marketed as offering a number of significant improvements over the previous model of Hubba Hubba. As someone familiar with the old version, and with its strengths and weaknesses, I was intrigued to see how MSR had tweaked the design.
The main faults I found with the old version were its lack of structural integrity – due to the pole design, the bulk of the tent's stability was based on the two side peg placements – and the chance of the fly touching the inner at each end when wet or windy. These concerns have been either fixed or, at the very least, improved.
First up improvement is the weight. With a minimum weight of 1.54kg – including tent, rainfly and poles only – this is around 10% lighter than the older model. This is pretty light for a two person, non single skin, three season tent.
While a weight reduction can sometimes mean the tent is less durable or waterproof, this doesn't seem to be the case here. Fabric specifications indicate that the tent is reasonably waterproof and, if an extra groundsheet is used, quite durable, especially for the weight.
The NX also has several new features and design tweaks that make it more comfortable and more weather resistant – benefits that, together with the weight savings, combine for a vastly improved tent.
The waterproof portion of the inner sidewalls are now higher and have a short solid nylon panel that helps to block dirt and wind. The distance from the inner tent to the outer tent has also been increased at the ends, enhancing ventilation while reducing the probability that the outer tent will touch the inner tent wall when wet. There is a guypoint here for extra tensioning if required in strong winds.
I like that the vestibule doors have been redesigned for easier entry, and a new guypoint increases overall tent stability and weather resistance. The tent also now has a vent at each end, and has slightly more space inside. There are some other smaller design details, like the grommets and pole clips, that have been redesigned to save weight seemingly without reducing strength. All in all, the NX appears to offer quite an improvement over the older Hubba Hubba.
My only concern, however, remains. The double star, single pole set up is quite complicated. I would hate for the bungy cord inside to break – trying to work out how or where to fix it will not be easy. Complicated pole structures are more likely to fail than simple pole structures. The pole of the Hubba Hubba is like a huge TV aerial that takes some wrestling to get into position, and I wonder about its integrity in a storm.
Other than that, this is a pretty good tent.