Review: Osprey Mutant 38

As a fan of the Osprey range and in need of a comprehensive, yet relatively simple, mountaineering pack I opted for the Mutant 38 2nd edition. The main change for the 2nd edition was the gear loop change on the hip belt – instead of a karabiner loop for every letter of the word OSPREY on each side it was reduced to 3 karabiner loops and a general gear loop each side. This is presumably because if a climber/mountaineer has that much excess gear on the outside of their pack then they’re doing something wrong!

This pack has seen me through the last 2 years involving numerous climbing trips up and down the country, hiking in the highlands and Snowdonia, general kit haulage and my first ever ice climb – practically everything that the pack was designed for!

As with shoes and boots it is crucial to get a well fitted pack. It needs to keep you comfortable when carrying load by effectively distributing load between your shoulders and hips in an approximately 30/70 split respectively. Your pelvis is the key load bearing part of the body that distributes all the weight of the upper body down to the legs so getting as much of the pack weight on your hips is vital. The great thing about Osprey packs is that most of them come in small, medium and long back lengths, any pack will fit any body! Unfortunately I did the rookie error of selecting the medium back length which gives the full 38L, whereas I should have selected the small back length and sacrificed a couple of litres. The result is that the shoulder straps hover ever so slightly above my shoulders and creates extra movement in the pack when loaded up and moving over uneven terrain. This problem can be rectified using the adjustment straps but I’ll come to that in a bit. It is also strongly recommended to be skilled in the art of packing a rucksack and knowing where the heaviest items go. For example if a climbing rope is bunged on the top between the pack and lid then it creates an uncomfortable bow in the backpiece as the top section juts away from the back, whereas when stowed in the bottom of the pack then there’s no problem and it’s nice and comfy.

The Mutant is a very capable rucksack with plenty of useful features  to keep even the most accomplished mountain guide happy. Please bear in mind that my pack is the 2012 variation, the 2014 pack has some slight feature and material changes:

  • Chest strap with integrated whistle (whistle is upside down – annoying)
  • Ice axe retainer each side with scratch resistant pad on front
  • Floating and removable lid for expansion
  • Security pocket
  • Bladder pouch
  • Trekking/Ski pole attachments
  • Compression straps
  • Hip Belt stowable by wrapping it around pack
  • 4 Haul loops – 2 main front and back, 2 small on either side
  • Removable back ‘bivi pad’

    Strap Overlap

    Strap Overlap

Time to discuss a sticking point I have with Osprey packs – adjustment straps. Osprey love them, all over their packs! They’re just too long, and in the case of the floating lid of the mutant just plain badly thought through. The lid is set up a bit like a simple pulley system with the strap starting on the lid, through a loop on the main pack and then back up to the buckle on the lid – a great system that really lets you tighten the lid down to compress excess space. The main downside is that it directly overlaps the shoulder adjustment straps and constantly traps the buckle loosening off the shoulders. As it’s all stitched in place there is nothing that can be done about it except fish out the buckle from the tangle and yank the straps tight again after opening up the lid during a snack break or whipping out the waterproofs. With the strap length I’m still considering chopping a good amount of excess off; too many times I’ve picked up the bag whilst stood on a loose strap and tightened it right up as I chuck the bag over my shoulders

With the comfort and practicality of the pack it holds up very well. It does a good job of not trying to bunch up whatever jacket/top you’re wearing and although it doesn’t provide much airflow for a sweaty-backed person such as myself, when paired with a suitable wicking layer or good jacket such as the Paramo Velez Adventure Smock the experience becomes quite comfortable. It holds load very well and the hip belt does an excellent job of keep weight exactly where it needs to be without sliding all over the place or buckles slipping open as can happen on some brands. Bear in mind the pack offers no form of waterproof protection and so drybags are key not only keeping essentials like your sleeping bag dry but also for organising the contents of your pack.

Overall the Osprey Mutant is a great all round mountain pack that will see you through just about any adventure you can throw at it. The new model Mutant appears to have trimmed the excess and added a few extra features like a helmet retainer, ski straps and reduced weight. Well worth trying one on and be sure to ask staff about putting weight in the pack to really get a feel for it and get the sizing right.

RRP: £100
Weight: 1.6kg (Medium)

Mutant 38 on Sgurr Dearg

Mutant 38 on Sgurr Dearg

Review: Five Ten Guide Tennie

The 5.10 Guide Tennie can most commonly be found adorning the feet of outdoor based instructors all over the UK (and probably the USA too). The combination of sturdy fabrics, grippy sole unit and comfort make it a popular choice. I bought my Tennies back at the start of summer and have given them a solid working over in environments ranging from the Peaks, to Snowdonia, to the pub.

First and foremost, the important thing with all footwear is the fit: If it doesn’t fit properly then a shoe or boot will give you all sorts of problems. The Tennies fit slightly wider tapering down to an average width heel, fairly similar to Zamberlan footwear. The lacing runs all the way to the toes and so offers climbing shoe style adjustment allowing the wearer to have a uniform close fit all over. An annoyance for me is that the laces are stupidly long and when laced up still touch the ground giving the potential to step on them and send the wearer stumbling.
The Tennie offers no inbuilt arch support and has the most basic insoles, I strongly recommend sticking either your own custom insoles or something like Superfeet. I found recently that after a few long hours of pavement walking my knees and hips started suffering from the lack of arch support which resulted in my feet pronating too far and affecting correct body alignment. I went out and did a similar walk the next day with my pair of green Superfeet insoles in and the difference was immediate, no leg or knee problems at all.

The reason these shoes are so popular with instructors is that the sole unit is made of Five Ten’s grippy and hardwearing Stealth C4 rubber which is used on plenty of their climbing and approach shoe styles. It’s not much of a testament to the climbing properties of the Tennie, but I have managed VDiff grade climbs wearing them – I would have continued up the grades but the shoes are just a bit too flexible to get a solid edge or toe placement on the rock. Although that could just be me being a wuss and there are probably climbers out there who have scaled E-graded climbs wearing Guide Tennies!

Other observations I have made with the Tennie is that they did feel a bit hot during the summer months, making me wish I’d been patient and bought a pair of the canvas variations. Even when wearing light merino sport socks my feet were quite warm and sweaty during casual wear. Another is that, although the shoes fit me very well, the fabric around the heel has worn and broken through to the padding underneath. It does make me question whether or not my Tennies will endure through to next summer and beyond before they need replacing – they’re coming with me to the French Alps for this winter season and will be my everyday shoes. Finally, although they aren’t waterproof they do hold up well against wet grass and passing light showers, the high rubber last helps ensure toes are kept dry.

If you are looking for a comfortable pair of approach shoes that are just as at home on the casual walk around the town as they are doing scrambles in the mountains then it’s definitely worth tracking down a pair to try on and play with. If you’re hot-footed then I might suggest the canvas variant to save discomfort during the warmer months, but otherwise it’s a popular shoe and justifiably so. Available in a  range of colours too.

Guide Tennie Khaki

Guide Tennie Khaki

RRP: £85
Weight: 410g (Size 8)

Review: Paramo Velez Adventure Light Waterproof Smock

The Velez Adventure Light Smock (Velez) has been a core part of my inventory for coming on 18 months now. If it’s too rainy for my beloved ME Astron Hooded Jacket then the Velez is my go-to piece. Paramo has a business ethic of quality over quantity and so you probably won’t find any of their kit in chains such as Snow and Rock or Cotswolds; this also prevents price battles between competitors, good job too as the profit margins on Paramo gear are relatively low already.

When it comes to the fit of the Velez it is slightly on the looser side and will comfortably accommodate a few layers underneath. Length comes to the hips which is ideal for most body sizes and the articulated arms are well planned to allow for and uninhibited range of movement regardless of activity. The feel of the jacket is unlike anything you may have experienced with conventional plastic-based membrane jackets; as I explained in the review of the Paramo Aspira Trousers, the jacket uses fabrics instead of plastic membranes which result in waterproofing that mimics an Otter’s fur which actively wicks moisture away from the skin, pumps it through to the outer layer to be evaporated. There is no limit to the breathability as it works as hard as the wearer. A noteworthy point is that these fabrics cannot be tested for a hydro static head as with membranes due to the materials being so different. An example of this difference is that an Arc’teryx Pro Shell jacket will stop the rain on contact from entering the jacket, the Velez and other Paramo items may have a sopping wet outer material (primarily a DWR treated windstopper layer) but the active ‘pumping’ layer underneath will prevent any moisture reaching the wearer.
To round off the feel of the jacket; due to the fabrics in use the piece will feel slightly heavier and warmer to what you may expect – equivalent to wearing a thin midlayer under a hardshell – the breathability of the piece, however, will keep you comfortable whatever you may be doing.

The features for the Velez are simple yet well thought out: everything can be adjusted single handed, the zippers all move smoothly too. Double-layer lining on shoulders and either side of the spine allows for comfortable wearing of technical rucksacks. Fully adjustable, wired hood with a high collar keeps out almost everything Mother Nature can hurl at you, you can partly roll it up. Decent sized, waterproof kangaroo-style zippered pouch suitable for maps, snacks and other essentials. Being a smock, all zippers are baffled and poppered which allow for a full range of ventilation options depending on conditions. There is also a zippered hoodie-style pocket which can be access through opening up the bottom zips and is surprisingly comfortable when walking casually without a rucksack hip belt. Although nowhere states that it has a high capacity-style hood, I found that with all the toggles loosened off I could just about wear a helmet (Petzl Elios) with the hood up, which anyone climbing in the UK would appreciate.

Velez in use in Snowdonia

Velez in use in Snowdonia

I’m slightly disappoined by the muted colour choices for the current range of the Velez, I bought mine in the Butternut option which is effectively bright orange – perfect for being spotted damn near anywhere!

Having used the Velez extensively throughout England and Wales all year round it has proven itself a valuable part of my inventory. I have been drenched by rain in Snowdonia without any problems or water seepage and plenty of cold walks out and about with no hint of being cold myself.

With the Velez, and Paramo products in general, being fabric based this means that they are infinitely wash and re-proofable using appropriate products such as Nikwax Tech Wash & TX Direct. They can and do last for years on end, when they eventually reach the end of their useful life you can even send them back to Paramo for recycling.

Overall a great lighter weight bit of kit that provides peace of mind for those going at it hard outdoors wanting comfort, superior breathability, longevity and real value for money.

RRP: £210
Weight: 580g (Size M)

Review: ICE BASI 10 Week Gap Course

I have put this off for long enough now, seeing as I got back in mid March.

Between 5th January and 16th March I undertook my single most expensive venture to date: An official BASI 10 Week Gap Course through the International Centre of Excellence (ICE) situated in the world renowned French Alp resort of Val d’Isere. Starting with 65, as time went on candidates peeled off as they undertook their 4 and 6 week assessments and called it and end, resulting in a still impressive ~40 finishing the full 10 weeks.

The Course

ICE was the first provider of the BASI 10 week gap course anywhere in the world. The 3 Directors/Instructors; Dave, Mark and Rupert are the most experienced instructors BASI has to offer and can make a champion skier out of just about anyone, given enough time.
I had signed up for the part-time course which involved 5 weeks of two-half days per week, and 5 of full days. I found that I was the only person to go for the part time option in week 3, I would have appreciated being told this before starting the course so that I might have pulled the extra money together to go full time instead. I found myself skiing solo for the majority of the time which was surprisingly de-motivational as there was no genuine feedback being given on my performance or technique, I could already see others on my course overtaking my abilities within the first week of being part time. I paid 100Euros to go full time for the 7th week in order to equalise my skills with my peers ready for the final 2 weeks of solid assessment. I would recommend anyone considering this or a similar course to go full time if funds allow, if you’re already a brilliant skier then the part time course may be suited to you.

The specialist workshops provided were fantastic, whether it was a day of slalom coaching from former Winter Olympian Alain Baxter, a ski maintenance tutorial or the freestyle session everyone benefited and everyone asked for more of the same. It really opens your eyes when an instructor in his early 40’s pops a backflip out of nowhere and casually says that he likes to do one every day in order to ‘keep young’!

When it came to the assessment criteria for levels 1 and 2 the main focus for the instructors were the Central Theme (Sliding, Ploughing, Plough Turn, Plough Parallel, Parallel), short turns and long turns. These 3 ‘strands’ had to be nailed down so well that the skier can perform them without even thinking. The other 2 strands that make up the 5, bumps/moguls and variables/steeps were covered in a greater depth from the week 6 mark with the expectation from the instructors that all candidates would be practicing and racking up the mileage in those 2 strands on a near daily basis in order to be proficient enough for assessment. Natural moguls are something that must be ridden regularly in order to ski them in a controlled and proficient manner, the same goes for steep, variable terrain. This becomes abundantly obvious when we gawp at Rupert as he hammers it down a mogul field without a care in the world, looking as cool as the snow around him.

Shadowing and teaching is a key component of the course. Week 6 involved a full week of shadowing an instructor from Oxygene, one of the bigger schools in Val, and I was assigned to a ‘Bronze’ group consisting of twelve 7-11 year old kids. The overall experience of shadowing that group was rewarding and I learnt several important things such as never fall over in front of children, and it is very difficult to not swear when something goes wrong. My instructor, Massimo, was so grateful for my help I was asked to help out for another week, I checked this with the Instructors and ended up doing another week but this time shadowing adults which was a completely different experience but equally rewarding and fun.
The teaching side of things was practically continual throughout the course with everyone giving a short lesson near enough weekly, the lessons were generally on either the Central Theme, Shorts or Longs. When the Level 2 assessment kicked in the instructors upped our game and we were giving lessons on everything ranging from how to improve someones psychological capacity in skiing, through to bumps. My 3 assessed lessons for Level 2 were Shorts which didn’t go too well due to lack of planning, Plough Parallel which I got huge praise for, and Bumps which was average. Some lessons from candidates were fantastic and imaginative, others were just plain painful to go through. If you’re considering this course then I recommend having a ‘game face’ that you can put on for teaching, even if you’re shy or a bit monotone getting your game face on makes a solid improvement in your lessons.

Professionalism was a given on this course, if you showed up to a session stinking of booze, or even still drunk then you’d be given a b*****king and if it continued you’d be sent home. Being mostly 18 year old gap year kids on the course there were quite a few slap downs.

It’s worth mentioning the pass rates of the 6 and 10 week Level 2 assessments. 6 week pass rate was about a third, the 10 week was about 95%. If you can spare the extra month it is recommended to take the time and effort to perfect your skills and nail the assessment without any worries.

Snowboarding courses offered by ICE appear to be outsourced to a local ski school as none of the trainers are really boarders.

Val d’Isere

A world renowned resort with class leading conditions and slopes, there’s something for everyone in Val D. A huge selection of bars, nightclubs and restaurants will keep everyone happy, I’d recommend Blue Note for apres drinks and nibbles – if you can find it of course! A must try is the hot chocolate with Cointreau. Cafe Face is another good apres venue with beer prices starting at 2.80 at 4pm rising 20 cents every half hour, as you might guess it’s a very popular place.
Being such a busy resort the bus service is reasonably regular, I was based in La Daille just down the road from Val centre. An annoyance with the bus system was that the depot was 200m further down the road from La Daille and on a freezing night (every night) when trying to get into Val there might be 2 or even 3 buses sat in the depot instead of driving on the circuit.
The Centre Aquasportif is huge, located unter L’Olympique gondola containing a good climbing area, mostly ungraded bouldering but has 15m roped section ranging from Font 5 to 7a, a swimming pool with relax section, weights area, sauna/spa, squash courts and a cafe.
From the abundance of 5 star hotels in the town it’s safe to say that prices are a little beyond inflated to suit the local clientele, Val d’Isere boasts the most expensive Spar shop in Europe and the price of a beer ranges from 3Euros in Saloon Bar pre-apres, to 9Euros at La Folie Douce any time. Don’t make the mistake I did and go with a light bank account!

The Kit Used

From the looks and actions on near enough everyone else on the course, I think I came best prepared to deal with the weather conditions. The only times I felt cold were on the really cold days (sub -15C), main main setup was:

If it was one of those cold days then I simply swapped the Astron Jacket for the M.E Omega jacket. I trialed the Mountain Hardwear Monkey Man as a mid-layer but was simply too warm.
Everything combined and worked perfectly, I rarely felt sweaty, the wind was kept out, and smug satisfaction that everyone else was chilly in their designer brand outfits kept me going whatever the mountain weather was doing.

Highs and Lows

I can’t count the high points of the course as there were just too many, from some excellent dinners to the unobstructed views of the Mont Blanc Massif, the invasion of hot Swedish girls to the banter with the instructors. It truly was a great 2 and a half months. The conditions were some of the best people had seen in a decade, plenty of fresh powder to keep everyone very happy all the way through and had no sign of stopping even as we called an end and headed home.

The lows were few and far between, the only nagging ones that got to me were the 18 year olds on the course were mostly spoilt rich kids on their Gap Yahs, they hit the town hard a good 4 or 5 times a week and so I generally steered clear of them. Another was some of the restaurants; part of the course was 5 paid-for dinners per week, our selection consisted of Quicksilver, Morris Pub, Les Tufs and Chez Axel. The former two were fine, good selection of burgers (especially Morris) and other basic meals. The latter two were a different story, ‘Tufs’ dished up some awful dinners for the group and only really redeemed themselves once the Instructors had had a strong word with them to get their act together, a lot of people in the group asked for their meal money back and decided to fend for themselves for the remainder of the course because of Tufs. Chez Axel is a well presented, rustic style french restaurant that offers reasonably good food (especially pizzas), but has the most incompetent staff I’ve come across! The manager got incredibly angry whenever more than 4 people showed up at once requesting food, at one point hurling insults at a group that decided waiting wasn’t worth their while, I wouldn’t recommend these places at all.

Did I mention how expensive Val D is? It’s expensive.

Summary

A fantastic course run by world leading instructors situated in a top, yet pricey, resort. Patience for rich kids a bonus and ability to take onboard every morsel of advice the instructors can give you. Guaranteed conditions throughout, busy weeks such as half terms don’t do the pistes justice, go when it’s quiet.

Recommend the Pte du Montet to Tignes les Brevieres challenge – One side of the piste map to the other finishing up for an excellent meal in La Sachet.

Me on the Grande Motte

Me on the Grande Motte

Review: Rab Baltoro Gloves

My pair of Rab Baltoro Gloves were finally put through their paces this season with 10 solid weeks of skiing in Val d’Isere and they performed brilliantly. A simple softshell glove, with excellent dexterity, warmth and water repellency.

The durability of the glove surpassed my expectations, I was almost resigned to having to buy a new pair whilst in resort before leaving the UK. The rubber grips on my ski poles must have tried their best to wear away at the Pittards leather palms, but aside from some darkening of the leather and slight curling of the material at the seams there is no sign of wear.

When it came to the insulation of the gloves, they did as well as could be expected. The colder days, say below -10C, the heat retention was quite poor and I did end up with some numb fingers occassionally. For the most part though I was more than comfortable in them; wicking and breathability weren’t an issue and being a climber I do get very sweaty hands, I was comfortable in all conditions in that respect. The pile lining along the top of the wrist section was very comfortable and when paired with the drawcord closure made sure that no cold air or snow got into the gloves. 60g of Primaloft on the back of the hands was very welcome and did a great job of protecting against the windchill experienced when hammering it down the pistes

Simple features such as the karabiner loops on both middle fingers, reinforced thumb, index and middle fingers, and upper palm areas, elasticated cuffs, and a small buckle to keep them paired up are all useful and make for a well rounded all mountain glove. The only feature that let me down was the supposed flocking material on the back of the thumb, when your nose is constantly running it’s nice to give it a wipe every now and then, but when the material doesn’t particularly absorb anything it can make life that little bit less comfortable.

The materials used in these gloves, as with all Rab products, are very high quality and are manufactured to exacting standards, they won’t let you down when you need them to perform at the most crucial stage of your activity whether it be ice climbing, skiing or guiding. I would recommend investing in some good liner gloves to pair with them if you do feel the cold more. Fit is always important with gloves; too much free space results in heat and dexterity loss, and too tight, surprisingly, gives the same result.

These gloves are widely available from all good outdoor retailers so I’d recommend trying on a pair if you’re in the market for some good softshell, all mountain gloves. Colour-wise, I believe it was Henry Ford who said (paraphrased) “You can have any colour as long as it’s black”.

RRP: £50
Weight: 380g (Medium Pair)

Baltoro Gloves

Baltoro Gloves