Thursday 25 February 2010

gear we like, part 2: belay jackets (and duvets)


I get cold very easily. I’m not sure why, but compared with many of my climbing partners I really do suffer the cold, so for me a piece of kit that can stave off the chills and yet not cause any encumberment when I’m climbing is going to be high on my list of favourite items, and to this end I own two such items – primarily known as belay jackets.

The principle is simple, I want something that isn’t going to get in the way when I’m climbing (so something that I don’t actually wear to climb, but can quickly and easily put on at belays and rest stops, the times when you actually get cold – hence the term ‘belay jacket’), is super warm and goes on on top of everything else I am wearing. There are a vast range of products on the market nowadays that can fulfil the belay jacket type role, and I’m not going to get into the who’s who and what’s what of it all, I will simply talk about the garments I own and have used (extensively).

Firstly, once we’ve gotten into the concept of a jacket you can just throw on over the top of everything else (the last thing you want is to have to take off your shell, put on your new insulation layer and then put your shell back on – this is a faff and a great way of getting even colder, and if it’s snowing or raining, a great way of getting everything else wet!), we get to the question of ‘what type of insulation is best?’, with the two options basically being down or synthetic.


  • Super warm (if you buy something with high quality, high fill down)
  • Very high warmth to weight ratio
  • Very small pack size
  • Next to useless when the down gets wet (saturated down loses something like 90% of its insulating capability, but most jackets nowadays have a water-resistant outer of some description to try to prevent this)
  • Can spew feathers everywhere if damaged.


  • Hard-wearing (and no feathers to come out if you rip the outer material)
  • Retains most of its insulating properties even when wet
  • Less packable and a lower warmth to weight ratio than down

I’ve probably missed a few point from my lists, but I shall summarise my view of the two types of insulation: down is best when you need to be as small and light as possible, it is also much warmer than synthetic (or should I say, my down jacket (Rab Neutrino Endurance) is much warmer than my synthetic one (Rab Belay Jacket)), but not so good if you anticipate things being particularly cruddy and wet, i.e. when Scottish winter climbing.

My Rab Belay Jacket has been used on many occasions in Scotland and has been a real god-send – it’s big enough and slick enough to literally yank out of the bag and throw on in a matter of seconds – minimal faff. It has good pockets to stick gloves and snacks in, and a huge hood to fit easily over a helmet – the zip also does up to above your nose, essentially sealing you into a cocoon against the elements. Superb. I have even climbed in it when it has been really cold (I also wore it on my ascent of Mont Blanc where it performed admirably).

My super lovely, snuggly, sexy purple Rab Neutrino down jacket is a fairly new aquisition and as such got its first real testing (other than cragging in North Wales and the Peak District) on my recent trip to Norway, and I must say it was fabulous. Ok so ice climbing isn’t exactly the driest of activities (but with it being permanently sub-zero out there the typically British type dampness was not a problem for the most part), with some icefalls still running water in places, but its water resistant Pertex shell meant that the down stayed dry and the jacket stayed snuggly warm. It packs down to be really rather tiny considering its impressive performance (and yes, it does actually pack smaller and is lighter than my synthetic Belay Jacket, despite being massively warmer).

So in short, a belay jacket is something I heartily recommend to anyone heading out climbing in cold or wintery conditions. Oh, and down jackets are pretty much essential if you want to look cool when out bouldering in winter (don’t forget the beanie hat!).

Monday 22 February 2010

rjukan 2010, week 2

Our second week in Rjukan included ascents of a couple of the longer routes in the area along with a number of other shorter routes (including an unexpected gem in the Lower Gorge called Swiss Army – a WI4/5 depending on which line you take up it).

I’m going to use this post to focus on what were (for me) the two big routes – Tjønstadbergfossen and Trappfoss. I will admit now that I didn’t think Tjønstad really warranted the grade it is given of WI4, its only maybe WI3+ at most, although you could make it harder if you wanted to – it is a huge wide icefall above Rjukan town itself, and one of the few we did with a 20-30min walk-in (admittedly it only took that long because I’m slow and unfit when it comes to walking uphill with a sack full of gear and ropes!). Trappfoss was an altogether more serious route for us, probable due in no small part to the conditions in which we chose to climb it (I say we, but I wasn’t all that keen myself actually – the amount of snow that had settled on it during the week’s flurries didn’t exactly look great, so I blame Patrick for what became one of the most serious and scary ascents I’ve done so far).

Tjonstadbergfossen, Rjukan Centre, WI4(?):

We had great fun on this one, climbing in parallel with a pair of Irish climbers we met at the base of the route (and part of a group we kept running into for the rest of the week!). Ok so most of it probably wasn’t much harder than WI2/3, with only one real steep pitch, but the ice was a touch rotten most of the way due to the fact that this icefall is south facing and catches the sun during the afternoon.


Some great views back down to the town from the belay stances!


The final pitch isn’t always in condition according to the guidebook, but it was for us. Probably only WI2 or WI3 at most but with some rather lengthy run-outs and curtains of hanging icicles to avoid (and pray they don’t fall on you), this pitch was just good fun and of course landed you at the top of the route – always the best place to be!


Swiss Army, Lower Gorge, WI4/5:

Ok so this was another single pitch-er but a real gem that we both enjoyed. I need to say thank you to Patrick for letting me take this one, even though he’d spotted it earlier in the trip and wanted to do it himself. I had been feeling rather cruddy that day and needed a mental boost – and this was it. Great fun and in great nick, the guidebook only gives this route 2 stars but I’d definitely give it 3 – a wonderful steep icefall start, followed by an easy ledge system then some entertaining iced up slabs and short stepped falls. This route packed a whole load of different climbing experiences into one short pitch – brilliant.


The trip finale: Trappfoss, Upper Gorge, WI4:

This route has been on both mine and Patrick’s wish lists since we first laid eyes on it last year – a huge frozen waterfall about half way along the Upper Gorge, Trappfoss can’t help but catch any climber’s eye should they glance its way. The first picture I’ve included here is a view of it from across the other side of the gorge (actually from right next to the route Svingfoss) – Trappfoss is the huge fall in the centre of the picture, with the altogether harder proposition of Juvsøyla (WI6) to its left. I should also mention that this picture was taken before we had an additional 4-6inches of snowfall…


This next picture is me at the end of the first pitch, and just before the start of the main icefall, you can see just how much snow had settled on the route, and believe me it did not make things any easier, far from it. It hardly looks like a pitch of climbing I’ve just done does it? More like a wander up an easy angled snow ramp yes? No. That pitch was 4 inches of loose sugary powder over hard ice, and whilst it wasn’t particularly steep (although steeper than it looks here), it was a real calf killer! At this point we had thought that a second short pitch would land Patrick on a good ledge on the right hand side of the icefall and should only have taken 10 minutes or so, but unfortunately we were wrong. As I stood there belaying off of a cruddy old Abalakov and a dodgy ice screw, I didn’t bother putting on my down jacket (despite it being –10 degrees or so), simply because we had both thought it would be a short ‘filler’ pitch to gain a better stance. Wrong. Patrick led an epic and scary powdery, slushy rotten traverse that took rather a long time (big respect on that traverse though – the ice on the crux was completely rotten and unprotectable!).

To cut a long story short, I began to think I was going to freeze to death on that belay (ok so maybe an overstatement, but remember – I have suffered the effects of severe hypothermia before and was beginning to worry about it happening again). I did eventually decide to put my lovely duvet jacket on (major faff to do, hence not bothering before this point), but by this time I was too cold for it to be of much use. This meant that when it was my turn to follow the pitch I was incredibly cold and miserable, and about to suffer the worst bout of hot aches I have ever had (I really didn’t know it could even be that painful – I was in tears, twice – once for each hand). Also, I should mention that I don’t like traverses. I’m not keen on leading them but for some reason I’m even less keen on seconding them, and this was a doozy. Unprotected, slushy, rotten ice over a big drop. The ice was so bad in places your picks and crampon points just sliced through it. A real ‘big balls’ lead if ever I’d seen one!


Ok so the horrendous traverse over (us both wondering why we hadn’t just taken the steep wall direct – of course the reason for this was that we’d become disorientated and had thought we were heading for a stance that didn’t exist!), I was cold, miserable and my hands were burning like I’d just dipped them in acid. Of course I led next. I couldn’t bear the thought of having to stand at that belay and freeze again, so despite the next pitch being the steep one (no pictures I’m afraid), I took it. After all, the ice looked better and there was no way it could be as bad and rotten as the stuff we’d just come up, could it?

Well you can guess can’t you? It was sh*t. The ice was either brittle and sugary, wet and barely more solid than a slush puppy, or covered in a foot of powder. The steep (WI4) section was some of the worst ice I’ve ever climbed on – each axe placement had to be carefully cleared and tested, the screws I placed would probably have pulled out by hand, and despite the great level of care I was taking (whilst muttering to myself: “rule number one*, rule number one”), I still managed to rip a couple of axe placements. Oddly though I didn’t panic or gibber at all – I was in a real zen like state where everything moved slowly and in control, where even the explosive force of an axe pick ripping during testing hardly even shook or surprised me.

Once the steep bit was over things looked like they would improve as I reached a system of ledges leading to the top – sadly that foot of powder lying on top of everything meant that the ice beneath was either mush or would shatter, and that was only once you had dug down through it, or chosen to swim up it (I kid you not – had I not had so many protective layers on I would have ended up with snow in my bra and pants).

Ok enough of the melodrama – obviously neither of us fell off or froze, in fact here we are, looking very relieved at the top after I’d managed to pull 120m of completely frozen ropes through the belay device with Patrick on the end:


I must say though, although our ascent of Trappfoss ranks as one of the worst ice climbing experiences I’ve ever had, it is also likely to be one of the most memorable, and a performance that I am truly proud of. See, most of the time I’m a real wuss, and can turn into a gibbering wreck for no reason when things are perfectly safe (hell I even have days where I wuss out of things on a top rope for goodness sake, and I’m not just talking ice here), but when things get really serious I know I can pull it out of the bag – everything just came together that day and I was a true cool headed climber.

*Rule number one of ice climbing: do NOT fall off.

rjukan 2010, week 1

11:30pm, Saturday night, I finally get home after the mammoth journey back from Norway  (I will use this opportunity here to advertise the advantages of having a loving and caring husband who offers to pick you up from Heathrow and drive you all the way home to Wales, rather than having to go through the rigmarole of the tube and then the trains back whilst carrying a serious amount of kit in two huge bags – the journey down TO the airport had not been a whole lot of fun if I’m honest. So thank you hun, really!)

A few things have happened/may start to happen since I’ve been away, and I may write a bit about these in future, but for now I shall concentrate on my trip reports. Now, 2 weeks of climbing is quite alot to write about and could get quite boring and tedious, so I’ve decided to split my writing into two ‘week summaries’, just focusing on the highlights really, and including some nice pictures (some taken by me, and some taken by my partner Patrick – I have to mention this so he doesn’t moan about picture credits!).













Week 1 mostly consisted of having fun on single pitch routes of between WI3-WI5, the photos I’ve included are a selection from Krokan (the routes Jomfrua WI4 and Topp WI5), the Lower Gorge (route LP-Plata WI3) and Svingfoss WI4, a route that simply could not have a shorted walk-in (you can see the road on the right hand side beneath me).

I must say, for me one of the best things about Rjukan is how easily accessible the routes are – the longest walk-in we made during the 2 weeks was no more than 20-30 minutes along a major footpath, many of the routes are reachable in 5-15 minutes, with Svingfoss being possibly the shortest walk-in at a whole 5 seconds (or as long as it takes you to cross the road). Of course, the old equation comes into play – the shorter the walk-in, the more popular the route, and of course with ice routes, the more hacked about they will be. That said I think for pure fun, Svingfoss may well have been my favourite route – we actually went back to it a second time and re-lead it before setting a toprope on the very steepest line it had to offer (which probably went at WI5), so I could so some subjective axe testing (more to come on that).

Thursday 4 February 2010

gear we like, part 1: helmets

I’ve been trying to come up with some new ideas for the blog, to keep things fresh and interesting, but sadly have yet to have any real inspiration. As such I’ve had a little think about the blog entries I’ve made that have proven the most popular and useful (ok admittedly I have no real way of knowing which have been most popular, my only means of measuring this is by looking at the number of comments I’ve been receiving. Anyway…), and in my mind, certainly amongst the portion of my readership composed of climbers, the gear reviews, experiments, advice and general witterings seem to have been most popular. Hence, I am beginning a little mini-series, on simple pieces of equipment I have an irrational attachment to.

So here goes, part one of Lauren’s, ‘gear we like’ column.

  • Helmets.

Ok I really had to start with this one didn’t I? I mean, this is one incredibly simple piece of gear that may actually have saved my life on occasion (read back over my little rant for a re-cap of one little story).

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Now, I’m not going to be specific about which model of helmet I like better than another (although the particular model to which I am hugely grateful was a Petzl Meteor III that sadly now lives on the shelf of horrors, waiting for me to decide whether or not to send it back to Lyon for them to consider its dent!). To be honest, pretty much any helmet designed for climbing will be brilliant at protecting your noggin. (For the record, I am now the proud owner of a very swanky black Grivel Salamander, sorry Petzl, but none of your hard plastic shelled helmets fit my head properly!!)

I should probably mention that the falling ice incident isn’t the only brush I’ve had with head injury, and as such I am probably more inclined to be what some might consider to be ‘overly paranoid’ about helmet wearing. See, my poor skull still hasn’t completely recovered from my alpine incident, leading me to now believe that perhaps the rock did indeed produce a minor hairline fracture…ho hum!

Ok so helmets in winter really are a no-brainer (err, excuse the rather inverted pun there…err…). Falling ice, snow and occasionally gear are all part and parcel of the winter experience, so really you’d have to be pretty silly not to wear a helmet! Summer (aka simple rock climbing – be it in Summer/Autumn/Spring or even Winter on occasion) climbing is a different matter – whether or not you choose to wear a helmet whilst bolt clipping in Kalymnos or climbing easy grit routes in the Peak District or Yorkshire is a matter of personal choice. I’m not going to get into the whole helmet debate on here as a) it is insanely tedious, and even though I’m a bit anal about helmets there are still times when I choose not to wear one, and b) if you really want to get into the helmet discussion, the best place to go is UKC where it has been done to death, multiple times.

So there we have it, gear we like: the humble climbing hard hat!"