Tuesday 29 March 2011

finding direction: the silva expedition 4 compass

I like a challenge me. No really, I do! Which is a good job seeing as the first product I’ve been sent to review is a compass…

Give me a tee shirt, or a pair of socks and I could prattle on all day about sweat wicking, cold weather performance, colour combinations and the like, but seriously, how do you review a compass? I mean, they’re all pretty much the same aren’t they?

Well, despite having two badly cut and bruised knees (from a mountain biking accident last week), last night I managed to persuade one of my MRT buddies to come out on a night hike with me so I could test the Silva Expedition 4, comparing it against the Recta I’ve been using for years…

Now, before I start talking about the Silva, I should just mention that of course any compass is essentially useless unless you actually know how to use it, and have the appropriate map alongside. I’m lucky enough to have been trained in the art of mountain and micro navigation by my colleagues at NEWSAR, and one thing they have taught me is that navigation doesn’t have to be complicated to allow you to be safe in the hills. The navigation ‘Bible’ is the now legendary “Mountain Navigation” by Peter Cliff – I cannot recommend reading this book more highly, honestly, it’s short, sweet and makes everything seem simple yet gives you the basics of everything you really need to know.

Ok back on track (I must apologise for my terrible puns today, I think I’m suffering chocolate withdrawal…), the Silva Expedition 4 is the compass that most people tend to think of as the mountain navigation standard – the compass against which all others are compared. Not for me though – I’ve been using a Recta DT 420 that I scavenged from my days surveying hilltop radio masts, so the Silva is new to me and I was quite interested to see whether or not I should be ditching the old Recta…


My view of the main features of the Silva Expedition 4:

  • Full baseplate including scales in mm (up to 100mm), inches (up to 2 inches), and romer scales for 1:25k, 1:50k and the new 1:40k scale Harveys/BMC maps
  • Magnifyer thingy (for reading tiny bits on maps)
  • Template cutout (for marking things on maps, in circles)
  • Sticky bumps on the bottom of the baseplate to make it less slippy when held on map surfaces (this is especially useful on slippy laminated maps)
  • Glow in the dark markers on the North facing needle, and on the north mark on the compass. There is also a glow in the dark mark on the face forward arrow (all of these supposedly make using the compass in the dark easier…)

SDC12797 Silva Expedition 4 vs. Recta DT 420 plus additional romer plate

This compass really does cover all the bases, you can do anything and everything you could sensibly need to do with it on the hill, it even comes complete with the standard red keeper cord for either hanging the compass round your neck, or more usefully threading some form of pacing beads (for keeping count when you’re pacing distances between features – something like five cord locks or beads that you move one of for every 100m you travel) onto and attaching to a jacket pocket or rucksack strap: I use a tiny carabiner for this and clip the cord to the top pocket zip of my jacket, the compass living inside the pocket when not in use. The main advantage to doing this rather than hanging the thing around your neck is that the cord is long enough to be able to use the compass without detaching it…so you can’t lose it!

The scale and romers marked on the baseplate of the Silva are truly excellent, and I’m especially pleased to see the inclusion of the 1:40k scale there (as proudly used by the OMM on their maps, according to the packaging). This is the main area where my Recta has been well and truly out-classed – my hand drawn extra markings and additional plastic romer (no 1:40k scale on the Recta, a pain as I use Harvey maps a fair bit) really are no match for the visual and ergonomic simplicity of Silva’s layout. It’s also rather nice having a full 100mm marked down the side (I only have 30mm on the Recta), and not just for mapping use – it’s surprising how often you find yourself wanting to know how long something is…The magnifyer is also pretty good, although I rarely find myself needing to use one.

So, now we know that in daylight the Silva is great – the actual compass is accurate and responsive, the baseplate is simply and usefully marked meaning you can easily read off 6 or 8 figure grid references and make quick, accurate distance measurements from either 1:25k, 1:40k, or 1:50k scale maps. But how does it fare at night?


Now here’s the thing. Glow in the dark bits. Essential for navigating at night right?

The glow in the dark bits on the Silva are vastly inferior to the fully glowed up degree ring on the Recta, and I mean vastly. There really is no comparison – one has 3 dots you line up whilst remembering they mean North, the other has a fully visible glow in the dark degree ring. However, both are next to useless unless they have been ‘charged up’ with visible light…so either the sun (daylight?) or a headtorch…

Do you really need glow in the dark bits on a compass to make it useable at night? I would argue, that in fact, you do not – after all, you need some form of light to be able to see the map, and so the same light source can be used to read the compass, often at the same time! You also [usually] need to be able to see where you’re going, at least to a degree, so even simply following a bearing is something you’re unlikely to be doing without the aid of some form or artificial light. So whilst the glow in the dark functionality of Silva’s offering really isn’t as good as that of Recta’s, I’m not sure it really matters (and the markings are actually perfectly useable).

DSCF3342 Navigating by headtorch!

So will I be swapping compasses? Yes, I think the Silva will be finding its way into my pack, primarily based on how good the baseplate and romer markings are. You’d have to go an awfully long way to really improve on this piece of kit!


For anyone interested, here is said compass from the lovely people at Webtogs: http://www.webtogs.co.uk/Silva_Expedition_4_Compass_293.html

They also sell a nice selection of other navigational marvels and accessories here, so go check it out:  http://www.webtogs.co.uk/Compasses/

Tuesday 22 March 2011

backseat drivers

What exactly is a backseat driver? Well, according to that well-known font of all knowledge, wikipedia, “A backseat driver is a vehicle passenger who is not controlling the vehicle, and seems to be uncomfortable with the skills of the driver and/or wants to tutor the driver while the driver is at the wheel.”

So what about a backseat pilot? Well, in a Pitts Special S2B (you’ll see where I’m going with this in a second), the pilot actually flies from the back seat, and if they have a numpty student or simple passenger, they sit in the front.* So I guess we could quite happily modify the wiki phrase to be: “A flying instructor is a vehicle passenger who is not controlling the vehicle [unless their student is useless and cocks up (or is being demonstrated something just before they cock up, or being shown what they should have done just after they cocked up)], and seems to be uncomfortable with the skills of the student pilot and/or wants to tutor the student while the daft idiot is at the wheel.”

I am of course the numpty student, and up until today I’ve quite happily sat in the front seat of G-SKNT and attempted to learn to fly aerobatic manoeuvres from there. The advantage to being in the front is that life is pretty simple really – you don’t have a vast number of instruments to be distracted by, and you don’t have all that many little knobs or levers to fiddle with – they’re all being dealt with by the superstar instructor in the back seat! One of the disadvantages to being in the front is that you that know at some point you’re going to be put into the back seat and expected to actually fly the damned thing…

You guessed it, today I sat in the back for the first time.

I’d already made myself feel sick by flying a variety of aerobatic manoeuvres in either a ‘quite well’, ‘slightly wonky’, ‘I think that one was ok…wasn’t it?’, or ‘meeeuuuurrrghhh………..oops!’ fashion from the front seat, when, after a period of stomach re-stabilisation, I was asked if I wanted to have a go from the back…

Silly question really.

Of course, circuits can be really boring when you know what you’re doing and are flying well. They are actually bloody terrifying when you’re presented with the concept of flying a few in a high performance aircraft of a type you’re unfamiliar with and whose propeller could very easily be buried in the tarmac if you fluff up either the take-off or the landing, and which aircraft also has zero forward visibility, extra controls you’ve never used before (or not to a great extent), and a seating arrangement that means you can’t quite reach the rudder pedals optimally (thankfully this last bit will change), oh, and both the take-off and landing procedure are completely different to anything you would ever do in a Cessna 152.

Basically, I’m not yet qualified to fly either tail-dragger type aircraft, or 'complex prop’ types, of which the Pitts is both. Not only am I learning to fly aerobatics, I’m learning to fly a Pitts Special, and today heralded the start of my actually getting to grips with this beautiful aeroplane, rather than just being a glorified passenger with a joystick. Did I enjoy flying from the pilot’s seat? Hell yes. Was it hard work? Of course! I’m learning several new skill-sets with this aeroplane, and as with any learning process, feeling when things start to ‘click’ and make sense, suddenly understanding how you need to be doing something in order for it to work properly, is one of the simplest and best experiences in life in my view, and for me the process of learning to fly aerobatics and learning to fly the Pitts is something greatly rewarding and truly special.

Off course, with the numpty being in the back seat, the wiki definition went right out of the window, as all of the discomfort and fear was shared equally between both seats!

Bring on more good flying weather!


*For anyone interested, the reason for this is to do with balancing the main chunks of weight (no offense Paul) to maintain a reasonable centre of gravity (CoG). The engine is by far the heaviest component of the aeroplane, and it sits right at the front, so the pilot sits way back in the tail to help counter this. Any passenger (in the front seat) will be much closer to the aircraft’s CoG and so their weight will have less influence on balance and weighting.

Saturday 19 March 2011

semi-urban exploration: Llanberis RAF Reserve depot (bomb store)

At a bit of a loose end yesterday following a Lyon Equipment course at Plas-y-Brenin, I found myself sat in Pete’s Eats with a cup of tea and a plate of eggs on toast, wondering what to do with the day. I quite fancied a hillwalk, but somehow couldn’t motivate myself toward anything I’d already done before, and couldn’t head anywhere new because I was somewhat lacking in the map department. I texted a couple of people, and my friend Sion headed over and met me in the cafe. After a little discussion the decision was made to go and check out the old bomb store just outside Llanberis town – now, I should just say that this place is somewhere I’d been meaning to go for a while, and so, being with someone who knew [roughly] where it was and how to get in, I was keen to head over.

Equipped with Sion’s somewhat hazy idea of how to get to the place, and several torches that we cleverly left in the car, we headed in…or at least we thought we were heading in, until we realised that we in fact were not heading in to where we wanted to be, but to somewhere else. So we headed out again. After a little wandering and some cunning use of mobile technology (Google mapping and satellite views on my phone…damned impressive), we eventually found the right section of quarry and made our way down into the depot itself.

gallery view

We wandered around some of the old access tunnels, using only the torches built into our phones (as I mentioned earlier, the proper torches were being stored in the car for safe keeping at this point), and eventually popped out through a big steel door, essentially back next to the road. The decision to retrieve the torches was then made, after which we returned to explore the main stores themselves.

SDC12621  Sion donning his headtorch before entering the main chambers

The place is huge. Truly enormous, especially when you consider the large open concrete area through which the railway bed runs was actually once also completely covered over…

If, like me, you’re interested in the history of this place, head over to Subterranea Britannica and read their article, here.


The depot was built by the Air Ministry between 1939 and 1941 for the storage of around 18,000 tons of bombs. Rather unfortunately, a mere six months after the depot was opened it suffered a catastrophic failure, where some two thirds of the roof structure collapsed under the weight of its layer of slate backfill (due to 'cost cutting’ design changes). A train of twenty seven wagons, at the time in the process of unloading, was engulfed and around 14,000 tons of bombs were buried (which actually represented around 14% of the entire RAF stock).

The collapse signalled the end of the storage of bombs underground at Llanberis, although most of the buried ordnance was recovered. The depot did remain in use for open storage of incendiaries and demolition works, and was finally closed in 1956.

The site remained active militarily for several decades, with all explosives being removed between 1969 and October 1975, by 71 Maintenance Unit EOD Flight from Royal Air Force Bicester. (Incidentally, due to the nature of the site, and the multiple pit areas used for the dumping of explosives, this exercise was one of very few that have ever required military personnel to first be trained by a Mountain Rescue Team: the various rock climbing techniques and rescue procedures taught were essential to enable members of the unit to reach much of the explosive ordnance with which they had to deal.)

SDC12623 SDC12628





The site is a fascinating place, and one I’d have loved to have seen whilst it was operational. I really must do more exploring…

Friday 18 March 2011

gear reviews for webtogs

Exciting times – I’m soon to be doing some proper gear testing and reviews on behalf of online retailer Webtogs, hence the move to the new blog template and my beginning to play around with html (check out the new tabs: they were not easy for a software numpty like me to get  configured properly) on here. A new laptop also means that there may be more changes to the blog to come as I’m likely to start getting cocky…I’m sure there will be swearing involved in the not too distant future…

Anyway, enough said for now – keep your eyes peeled for some [hopefully] entertaining gear reviews soon.

Friday 11 March 2011

rope colours

This trip has been the first major outing for my new double ropes after my old ones got rather badly damaged in an ice climbing incident back in December. 60m, 8.5mm diameter, dry-treated Edelrid Kestrels. My old ropes were the ‘standard’ Mammut Genesis that everyone seems to use, and they were of a conventional colour scheme that just worked – blue and red.

Blue and red, great! Easy to tell them apart, easy to remember which one goes on which side (always red on the left, after all red is the port colour), no worries. So what do you think crossed my mind when the Kestrels arrived?

“Oh dear god…”

‘Night’ and ‘Sahara’ are apparently the colours of these ropes according to Edelrid…

Not to worry though, my friends out here soon came to the rescue by renaming the rope colours for me:

‘Poo’ and ‘Puke’.

At first I railed against this. I do not have a ‘poo’ coloured rope for crying out loud. How could you ever shout down to your belayer “slack on poo”? I mean really…

SDC12578 The offending items in use with a Petzl Reverso 3

For a good few days I fought to maintain that the darker rope was in fact a purple colour, but then one day, stood in the bottom of the Lower Gorge, I glanced across at the pile of ropes and finally had to admit that the dark rope does indeed appear to be a sort of browny colour in certain lights. I was gutted. There really is no denying that these ropes are a gross colour combo, but really, do they have to forever be known by such vulgar names? The answer, of course, is yes.

So, now we have one brown rope, forever to be known as ‘poo’.

The orange rope is another matter altogether, it started out life simply as ‘orange’, but soon aquired the tag of ‘baby sick’ (again, thanks Dave), and has now settled down to being simply ‘puke’.

I’ve given up despairing, there is nothing I can do other than embrace the embarrassment of it all.

There is an advantage to this colour combination - it is incredibly easy to remember two simple elements: which one goes on the left when gearing up, and which one you rig to pull as standard on full length abseils:

Left and right: The lighter coloured rope, resembling either puke or pee, depending on which way you look at it, is of course rope ‘Number One’ and therefore always goes on the left.

The darker coloured rope, now widely regarded as the ‘poo’ rope, of course has to be rope ‘Number Two’, the reasoning being self-evident. It will go on the right.

Abseiling: When rigging a full length abseil, you have to tie both ropes together, and upon reaching the bottom the laborious task of pulling the ropes down becomes the next challenge. In order to make life ever-so-slightly easier, I’ve decided to standardise the way I’ll thread the ropes, ensuring that the ‘puke’ rope is the one to be pulled (knot on the ‘puke’ side of the anchor), so we will always be “pulling a sickie”…I know, I know…


On a genuine note, I’m seriously impressed with these ropes. They handle beautifully, the dry-treatment is great and they do everything a double rope should do. It’ll be interesting to see how well they hold up to the rigours of the summer rock season, but if they are as good as my old Edelrid Falcon single rope, I’m sure I’ll be more than happy.

Tuesday 8 March 2011

rjukan, day…oh forget it, I’ve lost count now

I’ve lost track of the trip day count now, apologies. Nothing of note has really happened, I had a rest day because I was feeling battered and cowardly, and we’ve been down into the Lower Gorge for a few routes.

I’m not entirely sure what’s going on, but since the avalanche all has not been well with me. Easy ice routes terrify me, especially if the ice is ‘dinner plating’ (big dinner plate sized shatter patterns that appear when the ice is struck) badly. I had a crack on one WI3 the day before yesterday and failed to finish it – I had to belay and get Dave to finish the route off for me…nightmare.

P1000198 Kate enjoying a gritty top-out

P1000205 Proving that safety glasses CAN look cool….

P1000202 Me on one of the pleasant easy Lower Gorge routes from today

Despite a less than brilliant start, today was a little better in that I actually managed to climb a couple of routes without crying…yes, it had been that bad.

Tonight is windy, air is howling round the hytte [cabin] and the trees are waving at us through the windows. I went out for a brief foray to acquire more toilet paper, a dull yet essential mission, during which I took a brief look up to the sky…the moon is bright and beautiful, and I couldn’t help but breathe a little easier as the wind tousled and caressed my hair. The valley here is a wonderful place when you can hear nothing but nature’s music.

Saturday 5 March 2011

rjukan, day 5 (avalanche)

Today was a bit of a nightmare, I don’t know what to blog, so I’ll just re-produce what I wrote in an email to a friend of mine (apologies for the typos and lack of care):

“Not sure what to blog really. I'm ok, just a few bruises. First time I've ever been avalanched, thank goodness Tom and I were both on the belay stance and the belay was good, it was quite an impact and a genuinely terrifying thing to look up and see a wall of snow heading straight down toward you! It was also the first time Dave's ever had to shout such a desperate warning! One of the first things  he said when he saw us this eve (he was in front with Ant, I bailed from the route with Tom so we just walked back to the hut), was "I'm glad you survived". Apparently it was quite spectacular - Kate watched from the bottom and Dave and Ant saw from above - Dave said they'd both prayed that we hadn't been hit (it missed them), and Kate was scared when we 'disappeared' under it as it hit us.

Anyway, all is good really, and in a twisted sort of way I'm quite pleased - we bailed, failed on the route completely yet somehow I'm just glad!

Incidentally, before the avalanche I actually got stuck...that was also a first. Genuinely, completely and utterly stuck. I'd been forced to take a different line to the others (we were climbing simultaneously) and ended up away from the main ice fall trapped on a snow field - 3 feet of loose powder over unfeatured rock slab. I managed to reach a sapling (no thicker than my thumb) that I could stand on with one foot, and had to shout over to Dave for rescue. I couldn't move up as the snow was too bad and I'd hit a blank rock band, I couldn't go back down because the climbing had been too hard and insecure to reverse, I couldn't traverse for the same reason I couldn't continue upwards, I had no gear at all, was 40m up on shitty snow that could barely hold my bodyweight and was ideally conditioned to avalanche...I genuinely thought I'd had it. For a good few minutes I thought I was going to die (and I'm not exaggerating - I was in tears in panic). Mercifully my last ditch option of abseiling off said miniscule sapling (half abseiling, half downclimbing and praying it didn’t flex far enough for the sling to come off) wasn't necessary as Dave and Ant managed to get a rope over to me so I could traverse safely back onto the ice...bloody hell was it scary, the snow was unbelievably bad, absolutely nothing solid anywhere, it was genuinely more like a swim than anything else...”

Thursday 3 March 2011

rjukan, day 3

Too tired to type today, sorry! Have some nice piccys instead:

Tjonstadbergfossen (WI4, 4 pitches)

SDC12466 SDC12472



Vemorkbrufoss Vest (WI5, 2 pitches)


P1000125 P1000127

I should say a big thanks to Ben, the new third member of our party and a far better climber than myself – so cheers Ben, let’s hope we get some more good stuff done in the next few days!

Wednesday 2 March 2011

rjukan, day 2

“Grading ice climbs has become simple for me. They are: Easy, Hard, I Can’t Climb It, or I Won’t Climb It.” – Joe Josephson

Today I’d half hoped to head for one of the routes above Rjukan Center, but an extremely poor night’s sleep led to not waking up particularly early and hence a bit of a lay in and thus a lazy breakfast before making the decision to head out to Krokan for an ‘easy’ day and a bit of conditions scoping.

Ice formations are a little different to those of the last time I was here (February 2010), and it would seem that a fair few of the routes at Krokan have not formed as well as they had on my previous visit, so unfortunately we were a little disappointed by what we found. We did however decide to have a go at a route called Gaustaspokelse, a 3 star WI4 I had previously seconded…this time I took the lead.

Thin. The route was far thinner than I’d seen it before, and despite looking pretty friendly and innocent from below, it turned out to be far steeper in the top section than I’d anticipated. In fact, the top 4 or 5 metres were actually slightly overhung…

P1000090 Looks innocent doesn’t it? (Top couple of metres out of shot)

I made a mistake.

I underestimated the route, I went into it feeling cocky – I didn’t expect the ice to be as steep as it was at the top. I expected a simple ‘hook-fest’. I expected it to be easy…this was my mistake.

I did not expect to have climbed myself into the danger zone, and yet, suddenly, there I was – back in a place I had once vowed NEVER to push myself to again. There I was, hanging on, my arms steadily weakening as the pump clock kept ticking, with no gear to safeguard me if I fell, and no strength left with which to place any...

A flash of realisation that you're going to end up in the hospital if you blow it, knowing that you ARE about to blow it...

My legs were shaking. I was bridged out between ice and rock, an island of salvation in the sea of my rising panic, but my legs were starting to shake. I was losing it.


Fear is an amazing catalyst – looking down between your legs at an ice screw placed from a ledge that now eagerly awaits the inevitable impact once you blow it, you’re picturing the fall, hearing the crunch as your body meets itself, tasting the blood in your mouth… and then suddenly you’re simply gritting your teeth and fighting. Onwards, upwards, you’re hitting hard and true, using the rush of adrenaline to push beyond the danger zone, climbing back to safety, to solace in the trees above…

Yes, it’s all a bit melodramatic, but in all honesty I did scare myself and I did come very close to blowing it on this route. It took me a good few minutes to calm down after I reached the trees and belayed Dave up to me. Being able to walk back down rather than abseil was a merciful relief as my nerves were shot and I just wanted to sit down and enjoy a nice civilised cup of tea!

Let’s see what tomorrow brings.

Tuesday 1 March 2011

rjukan, day 1

Good news! I’ve been climbing at last. Four routes to be precise…

So, Dave and I arrived in Rjukan, Norway, yesterday after an epic day of travelling (it’s a long way from Mid-Wales when you’re avoiding RyanAir…). Today was always going to have to be primarily a ‘logistics’ mission, hence this morning was spent nearly having multiple heart failures because of the sheer expense of supermarket provisions…with the exchange rate so poor, and Norway being renowned for being costly, feeding ourselves out here is proving to be a rather financially painful business. Anyway, enough of the moaning…

After our epic supermarket foray, we had a super healthy brunch of brioche and biscuits and proceeded to pack and head out to the mini-venue of Ozzimosis, just to the east of Rjukan. This place is fab when you’re used to the laborious nature of winter climbing in the UK – a 5 minute walk-in and you have several 30-35m high pure ice lines varying from simple (WI2*), to entertaining (WI3-4*), to downright scary (WI5*).

Dave started off on one of the WI3s* making it look smooth and easy, whereas my efforts in following him made it look horrendously clumsy and painful…my calfs were burning like crazy and I was swinging my axes like a rabid chimpanzee, although mercifully I did settle in to things somewhat when I led the adjacent WI3.

SDC12437 Dave enjoying himself

Of course, anyone that knows me will know that I’m slightly wonky in the brain department, and today I displayed this endearing trait by deciding that I was in fact going to lead a WI5 as my second ice route of the year…now I should point out that I have in fact not ever led WI5 before (knowingly) and spent most of my trip last year chickening out of doing so, hence when I wandered over to the base of this thing and started gearing up, Dave looked a touch ‘surprised’ shall we say…

P1000068 They do say the colour of Adrenaline is brown: me on something steep and scary

Of course, photographs never make ice routes look anywhere near as steep as they actually are, and obviously they always feel steeper than they really are too when you’re a mere mortal…

I may have had a couple of ‘moments’ during my epic lead, you know, those ‘moments’ where you think you’re losing it, get scared, lose it a little more, think you’re going to fall off and then…

…decide that you’re not going to fall off because falling on ice is likely to hurt (bad thing), and actually, if you just gather yourself together you can force yourself to breathe and remember that actually, you are more than capable of climbing this stuff.

I did it. Dave followed me up. We abseiled off. I’m an awesome story-teller…

So, there we were, my whole body slowly dissipating adrenaline, my calfs solid with cramp (front pointing is hard going), my forearms leaden, and Dave decides to do one last route before it got dark – something verging on WI3-4 so not exactly trivial. I was utterly delighted (obviously)…especially when the hot aches robbed me of my dignity as I topped out. Serves me right for being too lazy to dig out my dry gloves I suppose.

SDC12447 Dave choosing an ‘awkward bastard’ of a line to finish

Today was brilliant, I love Rjukan, I love ice climbing. Let’s hope the rest of the trip is as good as today.

*Please take my gradings with a pinch of salt, the difficulty of ice routes is highly variable and so not all of the grades I’m going to give are the same as are written in the guidebook. The grades I will quote all this week and the grades myself and Dave felt the routes warranted in the condition in which we found them.