Monday 27 June 2011

don’t you just hate it when…

I hate asking people for money, I really do. Probably stems from the way I was brought up – part of a very poor family but with a whole lot of pride. Sure, we couldn’t afford any of the things other families could, like holidays abroad, fancy clothes or a big TV, but we did have pride – we were not charity cases and asking for money was very much frowned upon. Even as a teenager, if I wanted something, I had to find my own way to pay for it – asking mum or dad for money just wasn’t cool. Hence my getting into the world of engineering at the age of 16…but I digress.

Basically, this is a plea for help. Not for myself though - yes I’m critically skint, having lost most things I owned back in January’s house fire and now also having lost virtually all hope of any reasonable kind of insurance payout. We’ll just have to survive without a sofa or any chairs for a while longer (or until I find some more work!). This isn’t a plea for help for myself (cries of ‘but how can you afford to fly aerobatics if you’re struggling so much’ aren’t what I need right now – the answer to that question is actually really devastatingly simple: I can’t and my dreams are slowly dying as a result. But none of this is relevant and I’m not after sympathy). I don’t beg for money for myself, not for any reason, it’s just not my style.

I am however willing to beg for help on behalf of an organisation that has come to mean more to me than I’m likely to be able to express with any deal of eloquence.

Mountain Rescue Teams within the UK are groups of like-minded people, all willing and eager to give of themselves in order to help others. Now, whilst it may sound completely self-less, I can assure you it isn’t. The next time you meet a team member, ask them why they do it – there will be a whole plethora of reasons. Speaking for myself though, I choose to be a part of a team of people with whom I feel safe, that I trust and that I enjoy working and playing with. Life as a team member is a life of training and working, fighting energy reserves and pushing yourself to achieve things that feel worthwhile. In short it’s great.

Training for me has been eye-opening in many ways, getting to know so many different people with such varied skill sets – we have master navigators, climbers and rope work specialists, doctors, paramedics, police officers, dog handlers, carpenters, plumbers, outdoor instructors, teachers, athletes, engineers, IT workers…I could go on – each and every walk of life has elements that transfer across through people’s personalities into Search and Rescue work, and each and every person knows and does different things that we can all learn from at times. A team is a huge resource of skills and enthusiasm, and a truly fantastic environment to train and learn in.

Since joining I have learned to navigate properly, I’ve learned how to assemble and use a stretcher on a vertical crag face, I’ve learned how to take care of an injured casualty, how to search for someone missing from home, and how to remain positive in the face of extreme tiredness and adversity. For me joining a Mountain Rescue team was an entirely selfish thing to do – I thought I’d be able to get a whole lot out of it and become a more capable mountaineer, and I have!

We are volunteers. We fund-raise in order to remain operational. We pay to be a part of our own team.

We have a laugh and enjoy ourselves. We learn from each other and become better people for it. We do this as a hobby.

We go out in the middle of the night searching for people missing from home, people despondent and people lost on the hills. We recover the bodies of those who lose their lives in difficult places and situations. We head out in the middle of the working day to come to the aid of climbers and mountain bikers who fall and lay bleeding in need of help. We work with the RAF and the Air Ambulance to get people to help when they need it – and when things are too bad for the helicopters to do their work, we will be there to carry you. We are where the buck stops, and we love it.

So any of you reading this, I apologise for you being on the receiving end of ‘yet another link begging for sponsorship for yet another ‘good cause’. I realise that money is tight for everyone and that there are a million and one different charities all begging for cash and vying to be deemed worthy of a donation. However I don’t apologise for asking – please help keep my team operating this year, help us to remain there for you 24 hours a day, 365 days a year whether you’re a climber, walker, biker or just someone living in our area.

Support us by supporting me as I’m stupid enough to be running this year in the Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon next weekend – I’m not fit, I’m not a fell runner, but I am keen, stupid and willing to give everything I can for the North East Wales Search and Rescue team – both operationally and through participating in these mad events.

Donation link here (I will love you forever if you give a few quid!):

Thursday 16 June 2011

what it’s all about

Helping people. That really is what it’s all about.

No-one has a ‘right to rescue’, and yet that’s what we do. It’s what we train for, week in, week out. It’s what we groan about when the texts come through, but once we’re out we just work. We go, we fight our own bodies heading onwards, moving upwards, moving, carrying, fighting the temperature and the terrain, finding ourselves exactly where we should be, where we’ve trained to be.

We laugh at each other, poking fun at one another over fitness, pack size, loads carried, complaints made, clothing worn, food eaten. We are a team. This is what we do.

Last night’s callout was the typical type of long-winded tough search that we as a team are so used to – acres of woodland, marsh, thick foliage and fallen trees. Hours of searching, focussing and hoping we’ll find something before dark. Of course darkness still comes, and out come the torches – each team member lit by headlamp and powerful hand held search torches, illuminating the same terrain, still tramping through the sort of woodland you only ever hear about in fantasy stories – woods and wasteground full of thick flesh ripping brambles, deep, stinking, boot sucking marsh, branches impaling us from the big knurled trees towering overhead – trees that are home to the night birds that startle and scream as we move beneath them, in turn startling us, granting us a new audible clarity of the pace of our own hearts.

Long hours spent in the field, constantly observing, shouting out for those for whom we are looking. Sounds occasionally fill the air – shouts for the missing person, radio chatter between callsigns I can never remember, banter and insults being thrown between comrades and the all important voices of concern calling out to make sure we’re all still together and won’t end up also hunting for one of our own.

Tonight’s callout was in stark contrast to that of the night before – a climber had fallen and was in need of rescue. A known quantity, someone needing to be helped. We are a team, this is what we do.

Hauling ourselves up the hillsides, helmets on as we traverse beneath loose crags and terraced scree slopes, carrying everything we need to care for and evacuate our casualty. You never hear a complaint when people are working – the banter stops, everyone does exactly what needs to be done. When it really matters we are seamless, we come together like clockwork. The casualty is laughing as we work around her, making sure everything is done right and that everyone is safe.

Smoke flares are lit and the helicopter circles then comes in. We all cower beneath the crags, a few members shielding the casualty as the downdraft sweeps over us, all of the equipment neatly piled out of the way. Eyes glance occasionally upwards through the hurricane as the big yellow beast hovers over us, the winchman heading down to begin the evacuation.

After a while they’re gone and everything is suddenly quiet. There is no helicopter, there is no casualty, it is just us. Still focussed we gather the equipment, each item silently taken up, and together we walk back to our normal lives.

Last night’s search:

Pictures from tonight’s rescue:


We are volunteers. We receive no funding – everything it costs to keep our Rescue Team out on the hill, in the towns and on the moors, comes to us through our own efforts at fundraising. It isn’t easy. Our hardest days are often those days we spend out manning stalls, shaking buckets, talking to people and just trying to raise the awareness of the public that so often need us.

I spend my time with the team out on the hill on the ‘frontline’, working and battling to do what we do, the work that we train for, but I also work behind the scenes along with a good many of our members, simply helping to keep the team running every day. My role is minimal, I’m not going to pretend otherwise – I spend my time coordinating and working with, designing, testing, repairing and maintaining all things radio and communication related, because it’s what I’m paid to know and to do in my professional life. Our radios are critical to allowing us to work and communicate efficiently, safely and securely. My role just helps keep the lines of communication working for us as a live Rescue unit, and yet it involves many hours of work in the ‘downtime’ – and my hours are far, far less than those of the Team Leaders’, the Secretary, the Training and the Equipment Officer to name but a few. None of this is paid and yet it still costs.

I hate fundraising. I’d far rather be out on the hill for 12 hours than to spend 2 hours on the street with a bucket begging people for loose change – so I’m taking a slightly different approach. This year I’m hurting myself!

In October I will be running the Snowdonia Marathon in aid of NEWSAR, but in the meantime my major efforts are focussed on the Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon, which is taking place on the first weekend of July. I will be running this with a very good friend of mine, Matt Knight, despite neither of us being fell runners.

We are both training hard, spending hours sweating, swearing and occasionally bleeding as we try to become fit enough to run our race. We’re also both spending wads of our own money on entry fees and equipment to allow us to compete (although our soul aim is simply not to finish last!).

This race for me is a personal challenge, but also a means to raise awareness and funds for the team with which I serve – please help us out and give a couple of quid via the link below and on the side of the page here – it really does all help.

Monday 13 June 2011

snug as a bug: the western mountaineering ultralite sleeping bag

in a very expensive sleeping bag.

Normally, I’d resent the idea of having to pay for a product that someone is wanting me to go out of my way test and then spend hours writing a review of. In some cases however, chipping in toward being given something truly special really is worth it, even if you are as tight as I am (Scottish blood? Sorry Dad…)
Back before January’s life changing house fire, I had a choice of two sleeping bags that I could use – one a lovely Marmot Pinnacle, given to me by the man who designed it (it’s a long story that I’ll only tell if you manage to catch me in the pub and buy me a pint), and the other an Alpkit Pipedream 400 I’d bought to use on Alpine climbs because it was light and packed down tiny. I’ve also used all manner of cheapo Sleeping bags over the years, but absolutely nothing I’ve ever used has come close to comparing to the new love of my life – the Western Mountaineering Ultralite.
The quality of this bag really does merit a better testing than I can really give it at this time of year – it yearns to be taken out in the cold of the autumn and winter. Camping in the snow, all snuggled up inside, surrounded by a gorgeous cocoon of stupendously lofty down? Definitely what the Ultralite is begging me for. Unfortunately in that regard, we are currently in what counts as the British summer, but of course, being in Wales means that actually, the ‘summer’ weather can be pretty atrocious and at night it can still get pretty cold. The bag has now had what I consider to be a semi-reasonable testing in areas as varied as my attempt at riding the Trans-Cambrian way (where it sat taking up very little room in the bottom of my riding rucksack), to just sleeping outside the house in a bivi bag as I was watching the owl babies learning to fly, to tent camping on a very cold night near the summit of Cadair Berwyn, amongst others. I’d still like to come back to this review once the bag has seen some winter or Alpine action, but for now here is my review.
Spec list
Currently (12/06/2011) £323.99 from Webtogs unless you’re a short-arse like me, in which case they will let you have one of the Short length ones for £314.99.
  • 454g of 850+ fill high loft down (425g in the Short one)
  • 3D down baffle behind zip
  • Full down collar
  • 5 inch loft from finest goose down filling
Tech Details
  • Short length weight: 790g
  • Standard length weight: 820g
  • Long length weight: 870g
Temperature Rating
  • 20°F / -7°C Now, this is the controversial one, and I’ve simply quoted what W.M. have quoted on their website. I will comment later on about just how warm I think this thing really is and where/when I’d be most happy to use it (my own ‘real world’ opinion, as temperature ratings of sleeping bags really are pretty unhelpful in all honesty).

For a little background information, I actually spent last Friday up with the guys at Beyond Hope – the UK importer for Western Mountaineering (amongst other brands), admittedly on unrelated business, but, I did have the opportunity to have a proper discussion about W.M. bags, their construction techniques, the quality of the down they use, the testing they do, and why people rave about them. I’m not going to go into everything on here, but one thing I will mention is that the quoted 850+ fill-power down used in all of the W.M. bags, may actually be more like what we usually know as 900 fill-power – of the same quality as the very best stuff that manufacturers like PHD use (for anyone unfamiliar with the name PHD, go look them up – they are the home of UK made custom sleeping bags, jackets and other insulating products of the highest quality and practically much an institution in Climbing and Ultralight circles. My comparing W.M. with PHD is nothing but a massive compliment to both companies).

Field testing, always a hardship. Keep your eyes open for the review of the Nemo mat I’m lying on here later on too…
W.M. have produced a fantastic page on their website outlining the features of their sleeping bags that really deserve to be noticed, which makes my life easy as I can just direct you to the link and then simply comment on the elements that I really liked and feel I should draw attention to.
“You look like a worm! A giant, blue, poofy, snuggly worm!” I think I’ll take that as a compliment…
The important stuff and my opinions
  • Loft. The first thing you notice about the Ultralite, the moment you pull it out of it’s fluorescent green cotton storage bag (yes, I did say fluorescent green), is just how much it lofts, instantly. In all honesty I’ve never seen a bag quite like this, even after it had been crammed into a stuff bag for a couple of days, upon pulling it out in a matter of mere seconds it will have re-lofted back to being possibly the snuggliest thing I’ve ever seen.
  • Weight. It’s light. Really light. And it packs small. This bag is made from some of the highest quality down money can buy, and some of the lightest, most down-proof fabrics you can find. The warmth-to-weight ratio of this thing is simply phenomenal. If anyone can find me a bag to beat this in terms of warmth-to-weight, please let me know as I’d absolutely love to see it. This will be my go-to bag for pretty much everything now, all year round. Admittedly, in the depths of winter I’ll probably need to be layered up inside it (being a girl who suffers the cold), but for 95% of what most people would consider ‘three season’ use I’d be more than happy in this (and I’ll use it in all four seasons).
  • Fabric. W.M. also use a fabric that is impressively down-proof. Normally with a down bag, you open it up and inside you’ll inevitably see a few bits of rogue down floating around having leached through the fabric or the seams. There are far less escapees in this bag than with any other I’ve seen (Marmot, Alpkit, Rab, Mountain Equipment…). 
    The fabric feels absolutely gorgeous next to the skin, it is positively luxurious.
  • Zip. It’s the little things that can often make or break a product, and in this case the way W.M. have presented the zip issue is nothing short of ‘shout out loud’ refreshing. Not only do you get a zip with a tag on each side (rather than one that you have to slide round to get it inside and never seems to start on the side that you want it), but they’ve laminated a strip of the fabric each side of the zip, stiffening it, thereby preventing the fabric from being pulled into the zip. Stick and snag free zippage! The bag is almost worth the price-tag for this simple feature alone in my opinion.
  • Construction. There is some clever stuff going on here with what Western Mountaineering call a ‘Differential Cut’ in the main body of the bag:
    “Its purpose is to give the inner shell a smaller circumference than the outer shell. This eliminates extra fabric inside the bag that could lead to cold spots. All of our mummy bags are differentially cut to promote proper lofting and to protect against down compression when knees or elbows push against the inner fabric.”
    They also build in what they then call a ‘Reverse Differential Cut’ in the hood of the bag:
    “Our hoods are cut so that the inside of the hood is made with a larger piece of fabric than the outside. This creates a hood with loose down filled fabric which surrounds your head. That way you can can enjoy warm insulation around your head and face without having to cinch the hood tight. Also, the extra fabric can be adjusted to create a down filled ruff or bill across your forehead.”
    Both of these work – cold spots are much reduced around joints when you stretch and move, compared with a more conventional bag construction, and the hood is indeed wonderfully snuggly without necessarily having to do up the drawcord (which is something I absolutely hate having to do – having a small circle to breath through and a cord pressing into my face really doesn’t feel great).
In short, I think this sleeping bag is one of the best and nicest pieces of outdoor kit I own. It’s not something I would ever have considered buying had I not been offered the testing gig as it’s a cut above my normal sort of price operating range, even for high level equipment. However, now that I’ve experienced what the top end actually buys you, I’m not sure I’d ever feel happy buying a ‘lesser’ bag now. The quality of design and construction is impeccable, I have found absolutely nothing whatsoever to criticize in this sleeping bag (and you all know by now that I’m particularly anal about things that annoy me or are what I consider to be sub-standard).
It’s light, incredibly warm, supremely comfortable, fits me like a dream (I could wear layers inside if I wanted to) and actually makes me want to find excuses to use it. The simple genius of the reinforced zip strips mean the zip hasn’t even bugged me by getting stuck as they inevitably do normally. The draft tube that covers the zip is squishy and lovely (so basically it’s full of down and actually really works), as is the neck baffle. The foot has extra down in it so I’ve managed to even get away with not needing my socks on inside it (a first!). The drawcords work, the storage and stuff bags are adequate (although I choose to transport the Ultralite inside a lightweight roll-top dry bag to protect it), and it isn’t even a bad colour!
The only down-side is the >£300 price tag, but in all honesty, with the amount of care, attention to detail and the level of component and construction quality there is just no way I can argue that the cost should be less – this bag is worth every penny. It’s available in three different lengths and anyone of a slightly broader build than me could also look at the Western Mountaineering Alpinelite, which is essentially the same bag as the Ultralite, just with a wider cut!

The link bit
Other down sleeping bags, including others from Western Mountaineering:
Western Mountaineering’s homepage:

Monday 6 June 2011

by the mountains and by the sea

are where you’ll find me.

I’ve wanted to fly to Caernarfon ever since I first started learning to fly – a trip over the mountains and over the sea was always going to be something special. This weekend I found myself with a four-seater aircraft, two keen passengers and 2.5 hours of ‘Pilot-in-Command’ time to make up, so the decision was made to finally make that special journey.

From Shobdon we chose a route over the Cambrian mountains and the wilds of Mid-Wales, across to the coast at Aberystwyth and then up, past Cadair Idris, the Rhinogs and Snowdonia, with miles of deep turquoise sea glistening off our left wingtip until we crossed the Lleyn Peninsula and reached the Menai Strait. We floated down into Caernarfon Airport for a well earned cup of tea and an ice-cream in the sunshine as we contemplated where to choose for our route back.


One of the Elan Valley dams and reservoir in the heart of the Cambrian Mountains

The journey home was to be a near heart-breaker. The mountains are buried deep in my heart and soul, without them I wouldn’t be the same person I am now, and the chance to experience them from such a unique vantage point – at the controls and in command of an aeroplane, with the total freedom of the skies to take me wherever and to whatever perspective I could best dream of, was something truly special.

We climbed out of Caernarfon, over the bay and the crystal sea, circling back across our haven runways and out, up, ever climbing, striving to pull ourselves onwards to be able to reach above Snowdon’s halo.


Looking back and toward our mountains

It was as we were still climbing over Llanberis and Llyn Peris, that I began to become quietly concerned. Snowdon had a layer of cloud providing a ceiling beyond which we could not go, and which wasn’t high enough for us to safely cross her flanks. I began to worry that we would have to head back, missing out the mountain crossing I was craving.

Looking onwards the weather had changed and we no longer had the clarity of vision that we’d been blessed with earlier in the day, and we could no longer cross via our planned route. A diversion was in order as I hoped that my intuition would be right, that we’d get through to be able to safely descend below the gloom. We headed successfully around the murk and over the Carneddau to then follow the A5 past Tryfan and the Glyders, over the base of Ogwen Mountain Rescue and onward to Betwys-y-Coed before heading back onto our planned course across to Bala and Llyn Tegid, then Lake Vyrnwy and on down across Shropshire on our way back home.


Tryfan through the haze


Two of my dreams laid out before me, hand in hand, the mountains as I am in flight


The photograph may not be much, but this is the memory of a distant Snowdon on my wingtip, with Mother Nature’s grace drawing her silhouette before us

We had no real trouble finding our way home, flying over the counties and hills that form my home, back into more familiar territory and a waiting runway. The weather allowed us through, despite having changed from a clear blue sky into an unsettling grey murk beneath which we had to pass before reaching safety on the ground.

All three of us enjoyed the day, both Matt and Phil taking the controls for a while so that I could just enjoy the surroundings, and they could experience a small part of what flying means to me.

I would just like to say a big thank you to Matt for the use of his photographs here, his patience and his enthusiasm. Oh, and thank you to Phil for generally putting up with me.