Big Agnes Encampment – A Winter’s Tale

I’m not sure one night’s sleep should count as a review but it was certainly more than a first fondle. With me turning out to be a regular catastrophe when it comes to getting a decent night’s kip out in the mountains, I was happy to have the chance to experiment… like most of us, I’ve made mistakes with kit purchasing and it’s cost me dear. Looking at a dozen or so Big Agnes bags, my gaze fell on one that had a compressed volume pretty similar to my PHD Minim 300 and that’s a top quality down ball of fluff that weighs just over 700g with a full zip. There’s only so much you can fit in a rucksack and size matters – the Big Agnes Encampment packs small, so imagine my surprise when Ollie declares it to be synthetic! What magic is this? How could it be so small? About the only question I asked was ‘how cold will it go?’ Both the Insulated Air core mat and the bag were rated to -9c, I pounced and both items were carefully placed in The Villain.

I have a bit of a regime nowadays in winter, learnt from others and by experience.

1 – Get into bed warm. The bag will only retain heat, not create it. This has seen me doing star jumps from time to time on a lonely hilltop.

2 – Eat late. That way your body is kept busy for a few hours processing that three course meal you’ve whipped up in the Jetboil. A busy body is a warm body.

3 – Make sure your bag doesn’t touch the sides of the tent, it often can at the feet end. If it does, throw your waterproof over your tootsies, as a wet bag can make for a very miserable visit to the small hours.

But you all know this anyway – what was the Big Agnes kit like? The tent, a Vango Helium 100, was erected in howling winds, sub zero temperatures and on a fair few inches of snow. The mat came out first, 680g for a full size, 2.5 inch pad. Impressive, it contains Primaloft Eco too. I own an Exped Downmat and a Synmat  by comparison, this packed small and felt sturdy but the rating was lower at -9c and Big Agnes call it a three season pad.

The Encampment was next and I finally realised why it had packed so small – a top bag! A new experience for me then and one I would never have considered if I’d been laying down hard dollar. It was too cold for faffing about and the mat was promptly placed into the lower sleeve of the sleeping bag, bent into the tent and promptly sat upon. Time for a good nose at what turned out to be a top piece of design. The lower sleeve would take an Exped, Thermarest or any other 20in mat, so if you’ve already spent good money on what’s below your back, there’s no need to change to the Insulated Air Core from Big Agnes. The bag itself was pretty voluminous,  certainly around the chest and head, it had plenty of room to pull your knees up and this was quite novel. It dragged me back to camping holidays with my parents were sleep was attained in cotton rectangular bags. There was a built in sleeve for a pillow, Big Agnes do one but I just stuffed my waterproofs in there. It cinched up well around the neck without the usual feeling of ‘get me out of here’ and I was looking forward to clambering in it a few hours later.

I then ignored my regime and broke all the rules. I ate early, I stood around chatting and pottered to bed freezing. Idiot.

The tent was way too small, ridiculously so. Head and feet pushed against the inner and my waterproofs were being used as a pillow, I’d normally use an Exped Air pillow. It was a long cold night and I couldn’t even make a brew as the porch was far from big enough to safely use my remote stove and the internal guys were needed to keep the tent standing in what was turning out to be a bit of a hoolie. It was -5c in the tent that night. I didn’t sleep much, a norm for me, and had plenty of time to ponder the Big Agnes gear.

First the Insulated Air Core mat. I liked, it worked, it was comfy and it packed well. If I was in the market again, then I’d certainly put it on the list of options. Not as warm as my older model Synmat but I’d have bailed that night if it hadn’t been up to it’s rating, a decent piece of night time insulation.

Next the Encampment. I was happy it was synthetic, the poor thing was rather wet in the morning. Soaked in fact  and mostly at the head, due to the condensation that the Vango managed to produce, or was that me? I’m blaming the tent, hideously small and it wouldn’t have happened in my Comp. A down bag would have had me running for the van, somehow the Encampment managed to hold onto the tiny amount of heat I’d given it to play with. I was proper cold, my fault for ignoring ‘the regime’ and the night was long. The pillow sleeve was ace, the best I’ve ever used in fact and that was with wrinkly Proshell in there and not fleece. The space inside probably didn’t help with heat retention but then I’d not brought any heat into the Encampment to start with. The zips worked gratifyingly easy and the mat stayed put underneath.

I’m not going to say I had good night’s sleep because I had very little. Was I warm enough? I’m was as cold as a freeze pop. However, I happened to be exceedingly comfy and in my own tent, with food in my belly and after a hard days walk – the Encampment and the Insulated Air Core would have made for a grand place to be. The pair come in at about 2200g, a quick hunt on the interweb finds them to be reasonable in terms of pricing and I’ve never slept in a bag quite like it. It’s plusher than other top bags I’ve fondled and during those long hours, I started to wonder why they haven’t made an eVent skinned version. Who’d need a bivy bag or tent then?

An idiot camper, a tiny tent I’m still shocked by and a Scottish winter – Big Agnes got me through the night. Thank goodness it was synthetic, cheers Ollie.


Broken (by the Welsh 3000s)

Two trips across the border, two attempts at the Welsh 3000s and how two injuries happened to find common cause with a hammer called rhyolite… a coffin lid closing firmly on our ignominious failure. Bah.

Not that it mattered to me, these were training weekends and when viewed as such – let’s just say, I’m a happy mann. The legs are stronger, there’s no niggles today and I’ve learnt a huge amount in regards to nutrition for recovery and fuelling for the Ultra itself. For Chiz and Tim, I’m disappointed of course, their frustration at not finishing was obvious to see and I guess tinged with feeling like they’d let me down. 12 peaks the first time and 7 peaks yesterday, the first with a bivy on the platform of Snowdon station and the last with a scramble up to the summit of Crib Goch in the mist ridden dark. Very different routes were taken before we got onto the Glyders.

Attempt One.

The drive to Wales was horrific. Leaving work near Buckingham, I was later than I’d hoped and mistakenly thought the M40 would save me some time, but no. It then got worse. There was a jumper on the M54 – when someone else has felt so low that they’re prepared to end their life – my weekend in Wales was put into perspective. Heartbreaking for all concerned. I drove silently along the A5, with the CD player off and a deep sense of reflection, it’s been a tough few years for my family and the events earlier had brought everything back. It always saddens me that we seem to have the ability to put such dark incidents quickly away in a far corner of our mind, I’m no exception mind and life carries on but a few hours later. A quick pint in The Vanyol Arms and we made our way to the summit of Snowdon via Clogwyn station. Cold, cold, cold. A wet sleeping bag due to a leaking water bottle and temperatures below zero meant that sleep was hard to come by, my feet were numb. Very alpinesque.

Chiz heard voices at 5.30am, 3 Peaks finishers, and we headed off not long after below clear skies and under the cosh of a bitter breeze, one that wouldn’t leave us all day. It was glorious crossing Crib Goch in the breaking sunlight, heading towards the red and orange tinted shades of dawn. Neither of us had bagged the north ridge before, it’s not  unlike the main ridge and we traversed diagonally down the screes below, looking for a route across to Main Wall and the path that would take us down to the pass. Bivy kit was left in the car and the beast that is Elidir Fawr loomed above us. The Glyders were uneventful as such. I had a bad half hour of so when heading up the screes of Glyder Fawr but that’s to be expected on a mission like the Welsh 3s. Chiz was pacier downhill that me, I could shift uphill quicker but we kept a rhythm we were both happy with. I say uneventful, it seemed so at the time even tho I tweaked the left achilles coming down the side of Bristly Ridge and Chiz tweaked his knee descending the west face of Tryfan. That last incident would cost us dearly later that evening. I cooked up some instant dried pasta near Ogwen and the slog that is Pen Yr Ole Wen played with our heads as is it’s way as we ascended at a slow pace. Sitting on Llewellyn, with the end in sight but an hour or so away, Chiz called it a day. His knee was not  playing ball and if we finished all fifteen peaks, there was still the matter of returning to Ogwen to pick up my motor.

There’s always a bright side – we’d make the pub easily and a Stella or two would be mine. It was a painful hobble down to Ffynnon Llugwy for a gutted partner and I left Chiz not long after, I could retrieve the motor and pick him up, a  brisk nordic walk bringing me quickly to the Berlingo and a waiting protein shake – it was needed.

Attempt Two

An easy drive, three hours sleep and a 2.30am alarm that summoned an early rise… it couldn’t have been any different to last weekend. I love it in the hills when it’s dark, it seems a bit naughty and illicit, like sneaking out of your parents’ in the early hours as a kid. Aye, I was happy. Tim hadn’t ‘done’ mountains for a while but is a personal trainer and a member of the crack adventure race team that battered Carron Crag into submission a few weeks ago (or not) and as such, I didn’t have to concern myself with his fitness and could concentrate on my training and setting a time I would be proud off. Somewhere on the climb upwards, he managed to damage the knuckle of his big toe and failure was always but a footstep away after that. Grrr.

It was Tim’s first crossing of Crib Goch, sadly it was enshrined in cloud and whipped by whirling winds. As with the first attempt, the breeze was accompanied by freezing temperatures, rhimed up rock glistened in our eyesight and pretty is the word I’d have to use. The walk up to the trig point on Snowdon proved the point, care had to be taken to avoid a slip and we moved on swiftly, wasting no time as we ran down the railway tracks to Clogwyn Station. Now I know you’re not supposed to go anywhere near train tracks BUT it was five in the morning, there would be no trains and the track’s not electrified. With the icy conditions, it would be immensely safer than the path… go on, break those conventions. Everyone wants to be a lovable rogue don’t they? At Clogwyn Station we broke from the path/track and headed straight down to the pass. There’s a path there these days and soon we were  on our first big climb of the day. Once again Elidir Fawr flexed it’s muscles and gave Tim a slap or two, I could sense his frustration at not being able to nail the climb in the style he wanted but there’s ‘fit’ and there’s ‘hill fit’. It was something we’d talk about again over the weekend, there’s no doubting Tim would whup my ass at most fitness challenges but he’s not been in the mountains doing big days and big ascents for eighteen months or so. He shouldn’t have been hard on himself. It was the quickest I’d made it to that particular summit, four hours dead, and I was starting to dream of making last orders at the Tyn Y Coed.

The mist decended on Glyder Fawr – I’d forgotten a compass, so we made do with Tim’s wrist watch. You have to love modern technology sometimes and shortly after we found ourselves not far from the cantilever stone. Both of us complaining we needed food, we attempted to blag a woman’s packed lunch to no avail and quickly started the descent of the Bristly Ridge screes. Anyone who’s spent time with me in the hills will know that I’m slow descending, bad knees and poor footwork combine to halt any gains I make uphill. Today, it was Tim’s turn to lag behind and once down at the col, he  pulled the plug. Toe was way to painful and that was that. Seven summits in seven hours. Not the seven summits, that would need bionic legs and a plane or two. He did well to get that far and his groans this morning as he walked down to the Bryn Glo car park proclaimed his battered toe.

I’m home already, resplendent in an ache free body, even the tweaked achilles feels good as I write this. Next weekend it’s George’s turn, the Welsh 3000s once again and I sincerely hope I don’t break him too! Two woeful and wonderful weekends that included a couple of cracking breakfasts at the Moel Siabod cafe on the A5. Way better than Pete’s Eats or the Pinnacle Cafe, I’ve tasted more than a few fry-ups and I’m happy to nail my colours to the mast. Recommended.

PHD – Customer Service

PHD manufacture some damn fine down clothing and sleep systems, they hold a sale twice yearly as a norm and one of the discounted deals in September 2009 was a Minimus styled synthetic overbag. Out came the debit card and mine was purchased forthwith. It’s not been used too much since then, in a snow hole that first winter and earlier this year in Morocco. It’s always had a Minim 300 snuggled inside and generally has an easy life. So I was rather surprised when I turned it inside out last week and found the inner coming apart. Small rips all along the stitching and the synthetic lining clearly visible. Hmmm.

I considered taking it round to a tailor mate of mine but if he re-stitched it, then the inside would be slightly smaller and the same thing may happen again. No, ringing PHD seemed the wise thing to do and get them to sort it properly, expensive kit looked after properly can and should last a lifetime. The phone was answered instantly, I explained the problem and within minutes I had an email authorizing repair. Royal Mail charged me £7.50 for insured special delivery last Tuesday afternoon and on Friday, my neighbours took delivery of a freshly fixed overbag. No charge. “PHD guarantees all its products against faults in manufacture and materials for the life of the product, subject to the limitations of normal wear and tear.” I hadn’t taken any notice of that bit when purchasing.

It’s always good to be positive, it’s fantastic when you can be about a UK company, one that produces products that compare well with any from around the world and then back that up with first class customer care. Take a bow PHD.

Those Welsh 3000s… again and again and again.

Text received a minute ago from Chiz – “Stel says yes. So cu friday. Will head to hut.

So it begins. I’ve entered my first running race, The Wall, on the 23rd of June. A mere matter of 69 miles from Carlisle to Gateshead and my plan has always been to spend the month of May travelling back and forwards to Wales. The Welsh 3000s is/are big, bad and beautiful, a challenge worthy of most and there’s not many who would shrug their shoulders and smile at the thought of completing them not once but hopefully three or four times in as many weeks.

This weekend I was planning on a gentle stroll with Chiz. Scratch that. We’re aiming for 12 hours, should be doable and we’re leaving a car in both valleys. This necessitates a walk back to Tryfan , so if the weather gods deign to be polite and the glycogen stores don’t have a closing down sale… we may just keep going. An out and back. That’s not the ‘goal’ but maybe the dream. Then it’s Tim’s turn the following weekend, you may remember him as he was in the adventure race. The Wall was his idea but due to his exams I’m on my own with that one now. With him being super fit I’m hoping I can run a bit of that attempt on the highest that Wales has to offer. George, the new members secretary at NLMC, is off to Denali in June and it made perfect sense to have a training weekend with me. I feel rather privileged to have such awesome company and can only hope that I can keep up with them all. Having completed the W3000s twice in 15 days a couple of years ago, at least I know what to expect. Monster energy consumption of thousands of calories, I can’t wait!

D’ya wanna be in ma gang?

Early last year I joined North London Mountaineering Club, henceforth known as NLMC. I was never one for being part of a club. Many moons ago I watched, with nonchalant humour, as various mates joined various motorcycle clubs and bought into the easyrider dream. I continued club-less meanwhile, popping a wheelie or two  and dressed often in a suit and tie, finished with designer stubble and George Michael’s latest barnet. I guess I didn’t want to belong to a club coated in another’s preconceptions.

Anyway, NLMC. I have a membership card but no t-shirt. The club is not that organised thank goodness and in fact, one member described it as anarchic. I now know what he means, as on the face of it (the website) there appear to be very few meets and for a London based club… there’s a hell of a lot of members who neither work, play nor live in London. Intriguing.

The last two weekends, I’ve driven over to Wales for the working meet and the new member’s meet. The club is fortunate to own two properties, the cottage which is reserved for club members and their guests, plus the barn which is often rented out to various organizations. Both situated in what’s reputed to be the wettest village in Wales – Capel Curig. I enjoyed the working weekend, I finally met some of the older members of the club, which added flesh to the history that’s portrayed in the yellowing pictures hanging from the walls of the cottage. Harry, half my age and the newest member happily worked alongside Jack, Bob and George. Generations were united in a love of labour and a sense of comradeship or some such twaffle. It was work and all were glad when it was over. I’d been advised to bring my rack and ropes, David Barlow wanted to get out and yet most hadn’t even brought their harnesses with them. Anarchic as was said, yet we headed off to the dark tiers that overlook Llanberis at sometime after 3.30 on Sunday afternoon. Slate sports climbing so late? When all have a long drive back to the south east of England? I was impressed I’ll say, seeing as the weather had been very wet and harnesses were manufactured from slings. Liz (the President) climbed in walking boots. We went, we saw, we conquered. I was confused on my first climb – what exactly do you hold on to? Odd stuff but I liked more than grit. Did I really climb straight up tho?!

Weekend two saw an early start on Friday, the skylights of the cottage and barn varnished and the weather dry with sunny spells. This did not bode well for a dry weekend, Sod’s Law and all that. A can or two of Stella 4.0%, a doze in front of the log burner and finally people start to arrive. There’s a fair few new members in the throng that sit up till the early hours and plans are finalised for a trip to Holyhead Mountain. Saturday was a cracking day, the crag providing shelter from a bitter and strong wind but most unfortunately, Princess Kate didn’t bring us tea and cakes. Damn. I led my first Hard Severe, a 4c and with Harry managed a further three routes before heading back to the cottage. Oh, I had time to leg up a Moderate too and I have to say, it was nice to be off a rope. The scrambler is never far away inside.

We had a cracking chilli awaiting our arrival, a Londis carrier bag full of beer too. Saturday evening was sweet. Just the right side of intoxicated, I sat in the kitchen with Mel, John, Richard and those that wandered in for while. Life, love and broken relationships were discussed as you do after a few beers and I’m sure the world was set to rights. Meanwhile the string notes of a guitar or two echoed through from the lounge, along with much laughter and song. This club thing was alright! It was well gone 2am before I fell into my sleeping bag and the sounds of acoustic Metallica still rose through the ceiling. Sunday was wet, windy and Welsh but a few of us braved it out for a walk onto the Carnedd and as we sat perched atop a small hill, Mel turned into a goddess and produced a flask of coffee for the second time in two days. This lady rocks! The lightweight ethos I often follow in the hills may allow the odd luxury but never a Thermos, hmmm, maybe I need to re-evaluate. That, or make sure Mel’s around more often. Milky, sweet coffee never tasted so good.

Then home. NLMC feels alright now. There’s a great cross section of people, years of mountain experience and a great sense of history, certainly when in the cottage, warming your hands in front of the fire. Being a member is being a custodian of that history  – more pictures next time!