Friday, 13 May 2022

Jottnar Grim Hard Shell Jacket - Long Term Review

A hard shell waterproof jacket is one of the staple items of any outdoor kit list - especially when you operate in Scotland.  I have used a variety of waterproofs over the last 40 years, a period which has seen the development of "breathable" fabrics which have so enhanced comfort and usability of jackets.

This review is based on long-term use of the Jöttnar "Grim" hard shell jacket which was purchased in January 2021 and has been extensively and regularly used for walking, backpacking and ski touring since purchase.

Jöttnar aren't perhaps the best known outdoor brand, but have increasing visibility among mountain users, and for good reason.  The brand name sounds Nordic but Jöttnar are a small British company based in Cardiff.  The company was formed in 2013 by Steve Howarth and Tommy Kelly, two former Royal Marine Commandos who served in the Mountain Leader branch, a specialist group within the Royal Marines trained for mountain, arctic and harsh environment operations.  For more about the company's story, there's a very informative article and short video on the Jöttnar website.

The company philosophy and "house style" seems very much a reflection of the founders' background and of the Commando ethos - the kit they produce is streamlined, tough, designed-for-purpose, innovative and has fantastic attention to detail.  I heard of Jöttnar through word-of-mouth, was shown some of their kit by a friend and was veryy impressed by what I saw.

Conflict of Interest statement:  I own several items of Jöttnar clothing, all of which have been purchased at full retail price or in a limited time sale with a small reduction.  I don't have any connection with the company other than being a very satisfied customer.

Jöttnar describe the Grim as: "a fully featured hard shell technical mountain jacket. Grim protects you in the most severe conditions, without sacrificing those features which lend it versatility for all-year use".  I was looking to replace a very well-used mountain jacket which had started to delaminate and fail after several years of hard use and the Grim seemed to be a good option.

You won't find Jöttnar products in outdoor stores, the company sells directly to customers via their website.  While this does mean that you can't try on garments, the customer advice is very responsive and helpful, and there's free standard shipping on all UK orders.

The Grim, like all of  Jöttnar's full-spec hard shell jackets, is constructed using a fabric called "Skjoldr" (Shield) which is their own fabric developed in collaboration with a japanese fabric technology company.  Skjoldr is a 3-layer highly breathable 80 denier fabric with a membrane and DWR coating.  The full specification and information on this fabric are available here.  The 171gm/m2 Skjoldr used in the Grim has a fairly stiff handle and feels very robust.  I like these characteristics very much - you're left in no doubt that this is a fortress of a jacket, and the slightly stiffer fabric means that it doesn't flap madly in strong wind as lightweight fabrics tend to.

In use, the Grim has been a revelation.  Noticeably more windproof than Goretex XCR, ProShell or the eVent fabric used in kit I've recently owned, it just shrugs off weather.  The main zip has a substantial storm flap behind it (with a very well designed chin guard).  this is a feature I've always looked for in mountain jackets - 3000ft up on a Scottish hill, head down into lashing rain and half a gale is no place to be exploring the difference between "water resistant" and "waterproof"!

The pockets are positioned really well so that they don't get obstructed by rucsac hip belts or climbing harnesses.  The Grim jacket has a near-twin in the range which is the Odin which is essentially the same jacket but with chest pockets.  There's also the Hodr jacket with four pockets.  The Grim's pockets are large and the zips run faultlessly.  On one walk of several hours in truly biblical rain there was slight water ingress to the pockets, but absolutely nothing came in via the main zip.

Photo: Linda Johnston - taken in -15 Celsius weather, hence my expression!

There are pit zips under the arms to vent the jacket if required.  I've found that the breathability of the Skjoldr fabric is so good that I've very rarely got warm enough to think about using these, but they're available if needed and very easy to operate on the move. Jacket length is perfect for me, fairly short at the front but with a scoop back to protect the bum. There are hem drawcords which are snag free (i.e. not loops which could catch on gear or rocks).

A small zipped pocket is positioned on the left forearm.  This would conveniently fit a ski pass and I've used it to stow a wipe for goggles and a small laminated card with route notes.

The sleeve lengths have extra built in so that the wrist isn't exposed when reaching up (climbing/scrambling) or forward (nordic ski touring).  When I was looking at the jacket I did think that the measurements given would make the sleeves too long for me at slightly below average height, but this isn't the case at all in practice because of the design and the cuffs themselves.  these have reinforced Hypalon tabs and velcro closures at the front, and a lightly elasticated cinch underneath.  this means that the cuffs can be pulled over gloves without faffing with the velcro (which on previous jackets has had a tendency to freeze and be difficult to fasten in wet/just below zero conditions).  It's another feature of the Grim which just works.

The fit is streamlined, clean and uncluttered, but with plenty of space to layer underneath.  I'm 5ft 8ins (173cms) tall and 41in (104cm) chest and the Medium size is a perfect fit.  There's plenty of room in the shoulders to aid movement like placing axes, long reaches with walking poles or whilst ski touring.

What I can't easily show on these images is the design and cut of the jacket, which is exceptionally good and a reflection of the attention to detail and ethos of the company's founders.  Everything is there for a reason, and if it's there it adds to the jacket and is incorporated really well.  

My initial impression was that this would be a jacket I would use mainly in winter but the performance has been such that I used it right through the year on the hill in "Scottish summer" weather.  I have to really be working hard to generate even the slightest moisture inside the jacket and this soon dissipates - the Skjoldr is very, very impressive stuff and seems to this user to out-perform anything I've previously used.

Inside there's a smaller stretch chest pocket which just about takes a smartphone and a larger internat mesh "dump pocket".  This fits a pair of gloves nicely, would accommodate touring ski skins and is a great size to keep a 500ml water bottle in.  The internal taping is absolutely flawless and here too the design effort is really evident.

The hood is helmet compatible but adjustable to cinch it down.  It moves with the head faultlessly and has a very well designed stiffened and mouldable laminated peak.  This image was taken on a ski tour in very cold conditions when it really showed how protective a hood can be.

The one minor criticism I have of the Grim is that the hood can't be stowed or retained when not in use.  This means it can blow up against the back of the head if not being actually worn. A flap or retaining arrangement would be the only thing I'd change about the jacket -  it's a very small criticism though!

The Grim weighs in just over 550grams for a Medium size - not ultralight and that's a good thing as far as this user is concerned.  But neither is it heavy and the jacket rolls down neatly when not being worn.

Jöttnar jackets are all single colourways, most of which are understated (though there are some brighter options available).  I like the understated colours!  A women's version of Grim is also available.

After 15 months of very regular use in Scottish conditions hillwalking, backpacking and ski touring as well as general walking the Grim still looks like new, the DWR has remained effective and it has performed faultlessly.  Conditions of use have ranged from 20 degrees Celsius to minus 20 degrees Celsius and have included dry gales, wet gales, rain, sleet, hail, snow, ice, drizzle and freezing fog.  In all these conditions I've remained dry and comfortable when wearing the Grim.  The term "bombproof" is a little over-used, but is genuinely applicable here. Add in superb design, form and function and you get an outstanding piece of outdoor kit.  Put simply, this is the best waterproof jacket I've ever owned - in 40 years of outdoor activities.  

There's no getting away from the fact that Jöttnar products are high performance kit designed for sustained usage - and the £449 price is reflective of that.  The price was certainly a factor when I chose the Grim and it required delaying the purchase in order to save up, but I haven't regretted the outlay one little bit. 

Monday, 18 April 2022

From swimming to snowmen

 After the warmth of late march, early April saw temperatures drop dramatically in north eastern Scotland as pressure systems realigned and allowed a bitterly cold northerly airstream to establish for a run of two weeks.

In our local shop I overheard a Mum remarking that on a Sunday afternoon her toddlers had been in the paddling pool in the garden, and by Thursday morning they were building a snowman in the same garden!

The hillwalking has been good though, clear northerly air gave great views like this one from near Coilochbhar Hill showing Pressendye and some of the other Donside hills.

Wednesday, 13 April 2022

The end of a fine Fyne journey

I woke to birdsong and warm sunshine at our camp near Ardlamont Point.  We ate breakfast while enjoying the sights and sounds of the place.

Donny left earlier in his F-RIB than we did in our kayaks, he wanted to get back to the launch point at Kames at a relatively high tide which would considerably reduce the carrying distance with his boat, kit and outboard engine.  It had been great to do another trip with Donny; his film of the journey is here.

After a leisurely breakfast while waiting for the dew to dry off our tents we packed up too and got underway.  We erased all trace of the previous night's fire, which was lit below the Spring high water line.   There was remarkably little plastic washed up here; it's possible somebody has carried out a beach clean.  We scoured the length of the beach and removed the few bits of plastic bottles and a fish-farm feed bag to take away with us. This beach makes a fine camp site, it's one we'll return to in the future.

The paddle back to Kames was remarkable for the very warm and still conditions we experienced.  We sweated profusely even at a slow pace of travel - in March!  We returned to our launch site late morning and packed up - it was the end of a fine Fyne journey.

 Our journey to Inchmarnock and around lower loch Fyne had been comparatively short in distance - we travelled 64km over two half days and two full days, but had been packed with good things, the most important of which was getting out on a multi-day trip again with good friends and in a great location.  The weather had played a big part in the trip and had encouraged us to arrive at camping spots in the mid afternoon rather than cranking out distance; it was a routine which worked very well.

Ordnance Survey 1:50K Landranger maps 62 (North Kintyre and Tarbert) and 63 (Firth of Clyde) cover the area in which we paddled.  We launched from the concrete slipway at Blair's Ferry where there is parking for several cars across the road from the slip.  The slip itself was built during the Second World War for operating landing craft in preparation for the D-Day landings.  The car parking is on concrete slabs which were the vehicle muster and turning area and the imprint of the I Corps insignia can still be made out, pressed into the concrete ramp.

There are no significant tidal streams to be concerned about on this trip, but Ardlamont Point and Inchmarnock can be difficult places to paddle in strong wind, being exposed to most wind directions.  Ardlamont Point in particular can be a challenge.

Monday, 11 April 2022

An evening to savour

The Loch Fyne Light Show started with a distinct softening and warming of the light quality.  We picked up cameras to watch as the sun sank through a cloudbank over the Kintyre shore.

Donny walked to a vantage point on a nearby rock rib to take some video - you can see Donny's film about our trip on his YouTube Channel here.

I joined Donny to get a view with no rocks in the foreground and was rewarded with this lovely path of sunlight beaming across Loch Fyne.

I spent a good twenty minutes just taking it all in; the last two years have seen few trips due to Covid restrictions and work was so good just to "be" in the outdoors again, in the moment with a lovely sunset.

The sun dipped below the Kintyre hills and the sky put on a final flourish of gorgeous light....just superb.

As Donny and I wandered back over to join Raymond and Allan at our camp site the light show faded to a pastel finish, but there was one last and beautiful element to come.

After sunset the pale, ethereal light was as gorgeous as the sunset had been, though in a completely different way.  My photographic skills don't do the light quality any justice whatsoever, the softness and opacity of a calm evening.  It's this changing "Solas" (light) which really makes a day.

The temperature dropped after sunset and we got our fire, built well below the Spring high water line, lit and away.

Contained by a few big logs, it soon built a very satisfactory heat with remarkably little refuelling required due to the lack of wind.  We sat around and enjoyed after-dinner treats and the odd dram - life seemed particularly agreeable on this Fyne evening!

Saturday, 9 April 2022

A Fyne afternoon for a swim

Replete and refreshed from our second breakfast in Tarbert, we headed south down the Kintyre shore before crossing back to the Argyll shore of Loch Fyne.  Conditions remained absolutely perfect with calm water and warm sunshine - we had to keep reminding ourselves it was still March!

Close by the Argyll shore we landed on the tiny island of Sgat Mor (the name is possibly Big Skate after the fish).  We were delighted to find this tiny shell sand beach on which to take a leg-stretch.  We didn't stay long as the island is home to a colony of Great Black Backed gulls who voiced their displeasure very forcefully.

Sgat Mor has a small navigation light in a tower on the highest point, and for good reason.  It seems to have been a regular shipwreck site and even with the light has seen groundings, the latest in 1994.

Our plan for the day was to reach our intended camp site early in the afternoon so that we could take some time to just enjoy the great weather, rather than cranking out distance.  Soon after leaving Sgat Mor we arrived at a spot we'd scoped on the way past the previous day.  Donny was already there and had enjoyed a doze in the sunshine; you'll be able to see this trip in video on his Youtube site.

We soon had the tents up on a patch of turf above the beach, which was backed with colourful early Gorse and alive with birdsong.  A couple of hours were spent just relaxing, collecting firewood and airing out kit.  As is the way of things, the time slipped by really pleasantly doing, essentially, not a lot.  This is an important part of these journeys for me, when all that's necessary is to keep fed, warm and comfortable all life's other hassles and stresses can be put on hold as doing pretty much nothing takes up all my time.

Our camp looked straight across to the hills of Arran which were in a blue haze.  Strips of sea mist around the north of the island made it appear to be floating above the sea rather than rising from it.

As the afternoon wore on the warmth increased and the light took on a lovely quality.  We were all rather warm in just t-shirts and light trousers and so a swim was debated.....

Donny, Allan and I took the plunge and can report that the water was on the bracing side of refreshing, but that once immersed it was a brilliant experience.  We emerged invigorated and dried off in the warm sunshine.  Only once have I swum in the sea earlier than 25th March and that was in similar conditions in the Sound of Arisaig - in February of 2013!

 After getting dressed and cooking a dinner of  home made Spaghetti Bolognaise courtesy of Raymond, we built the fire using some larger logs to contain and reflect the heat.  The early evening light was promising something special, so we finished all our camp chores and prepared for the light-show.

Thursday, 7 April 2022

Fyne, just fine....

The morning sun on the tent woke me early at our camp on the shore of Loch Fyne.  Up and about, I made breakfast and enjoyed the sunshine on what was clearly going to be a fine Fyne day.

We left our tents up until the last minute as there was quite a bit of condensation from the cool night air, but by 0900 we were packed and ready to carry three kayaks and one F-RIB down the pebble beach to the water.

And what a morning!  Our plan was to head over to Tarbert for second breakfast and we made the 6km crossing of Loch Fyne in idyllic conditions.

To the south the Arran hills were cloud-capped - in fact they had cloud cover throughout the four days we were in the area, even when everywhere else was in bright sunshine.

We stayed on the north side of East Loch Tarbert so that we wouldn't be in the way of the ferry which sails on a very regular route to Portavadie from here.  On this beautiful morning all of the Isle of Cumbrae's passengers seemed to be sat outside to enjoy the weather and we got a cheery wave from some smaller passengers.

Tarbert is in a very strategic position and has a long history.  The name is shared with several other places and indicates a place where boats could be dragged across a narrow isthmus between to bodies of water - from the Old Norse/Gaelic "Tairbert" or draw-boat.

This Tarbert has a narrow neck of land less than 2km wide separating East and West Lochs Tarbert; being able to portage a boat here avoids the long and potentially hazardous passage around the Mull of Kintyre.  The strategic value of the tairbert was demonstrated spectacularly in 1093 when King Magnus "Barelegs" was ceded all the land on the western seaboard of Scotland which could be circumnavigated in a longship.  He sat in his longship as it was dragged from one Loch tarbert to another and so claimed the entire Kintyre peninsula!

The castle was first constructed in the 13th century, subsequently strengthened by Robert Bruce, was captured by James IV from the Lords of the Isles and last changed hands in the 17th century before falling into disuse.

Tarbert is a busy port used by fishing vessels and leisure craft as well as two ferry services.  We looked at landing near the harbour head but the receding tide had left some evil looking mud, so settled for a slip near the yacht club which also has a signboard about the Argyll Sea kayak Trail; this being a prominent stop on the trail.  You can buy shellfish direct from the processor at the top of the ferry slip, so all in all a good place to pause!

We couldn't see where Donny had landed in his F-RIB, he seemed to have disappeared.  The mystery was solved when he strolled around the harbour to meet us having blagged a berth on the best pontoon in the marina - for free - for a couple of hours stopover!

We wandered into town (don't expect a metropolis!) and settled on the excellent Cafe Ca'Dora for second breakfast.  We were just in time before breakfast serving turned to lunch serving and enjoyed an outstanding "Full Scottish" accompanied by great coffee - Cafe Ca'Dora is rated as 12/10 as a sea kayaking food destination by us!

We returned to the slipway and whilst repacking our boats took a closer look at this graceful craft beached at the top.  She's the "Freydis", a 40ft/12 metre replica Viking longship built by volunteers in Tarbert to take part in the annual Loch Fyne Viking festival.  Named after Freydis, daughter of Erik the Red and sister of Leif Erikson, who has various claims to fame in the Norse sagas as an explorer, not all of them savoury!

Sadly, Freydis has seen "better days"; some of her planks are sprung and she'd need some TLC to be seaworthy again, but what a fine Fyne vessel!

 Freydis' dragon prow is particularly impressive, carved from a single piece of wood and adorned with metal "scales" and a fearsome, I wonder what a scaled-down version of a dragon prow would look like on a sea kayak?!

Thursday, 31 March 2022

A noisy morning and a quiet day

I slept fairly well at our first camp site, but only until the first hint of light.  the clear, fluting song of a Blackbird singing solo was the start of the dawn chorus, and was a strikingly beautiful sound in the quiet dawn.  What was neither beautiful or quiet were the many geese, a Raven, a Pheasant and several Oystercatchers who joined in soon afterward, a more discordant dawn chorus would be difficult to imagine!

No matter, it was a lovely morning when we emerged from the tents, and surprisingly there was absolutely no condensation on the tents or the ground - quite unusual for this time of year.  The sunrise was a slow and stately affair, the forecast for overcast and hazy but warm conditions looked pretty accurate.  I never underestimate the privilege of waking up in places like this....we were less than 60km/40 miles from the very centre of Glasgow, Scotland's busiest and most populous city and yet we might have been in another world.

The party would split here; Douglas and Mike would head back to Portencross on the Ayrshire coast, Donny would head off to explore in his F-RIB with the possibility of joining up with us later in the day.  Raymond, Allan and I would head back north into Loch Fyne.  It had been great to catch up with everyone - I've so missed these journeys with good friends during the pandemic.

As we paddled back up the west side of Inchmarnock we were accompanied by the noisy neighbours; a flock of Canada Geese and small groups of Greylag Geese.  They allowed us to get fairly close, then splashed their way airborne in noisy indignation to land just ahead and repeat the process - why they didn't just fly around behind us I've no idea!

This was a strange day of weather; neither cold nor warm, calm with absolutely no wind, dry and with soft-focus light.  I'm sure that the conditions subconsciously affected our pace and energy - we all remarked on being a bit lethargic during the day.

At the mouth of Loch Fyne the Ardlamont buoy sat on top of its reflection, perfectly still

I'd had a very distant view of dolphins - which Donny later confirmed as Common Dolphins.  For some years a lone Common Dolphin nicknamed "Kylie" (as he frequented the Kyles of Bute) had made a permanent home near the buoy and had, it seems, been able to communicate across a species boundary with Harbour Porpoises but there was no sign of him when we paddled past.

Near to Ardlamont Point we heard a familiar high pitched chatter and looked along the cliffs to get a great view of a Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) arcing out over the water before returning to the crags - a really lovely sight.

I got quite tired paddling during the afternoon, maybe out of practice, maybe the strange weather, and took almost no photographs.  We trimmed our plans to head right up into Loch Fyne and instead headed to a beach recommended by Donny as a potential camp site.  Arriving mid afternoon after meeting up with Donny gave us plenty of time to select the best spot and to gather driftwood for our evening fire.

The wood was very dry and lit immediately, soon developing into quite a hot fire.  Purists can relax, the apparent proximity of the can of Brewdog sports recovery drink to the fire is an effect of the camera - the can (chilled in a nearby burn) was well out of range and no Brewdog was harmed during the making of this blog post.

 Dinner was Allan's excellent Venison Casserole, eaten around a fine fire (a Fyne fire?!).  All of us were tired and we headed to the tents pretty early with the promise of another fine Fyne day to come.

Wednesday, 30 March 2022

A very special induction

The third week of March promised some very fine and warm weather in Scotland.  Having studied the forecasts and checked availability we decided on a sea kayak trip over four days and three nights in the Firth of Clyde and Loch Fyne.  Allan, Raymond and I would start near Tighnabruaich in the West Kyle, Donny would launch his F-RIB from the same spot and Douglas and Mike would kayak from Portencross on the Ayrshire coast to join us for an overnight camp.

Our planning was very flexible, there was no fixed itinerary other than getting out on the water for a journey and to enjoy the fine weather.  From previous knowledge of the area we had several potential wild camp sites in mind for our first night and were able to keep in touch through the day to decide which one would work best for our varied starting points and times.

It's a fair drive from Aberdeenshire to Tighnabruaich, but Allan and I made good time and after stopping for brunch en route we were packing the boats shortly after 1pm - Raymond arrived a few minutes after us from his home near Stirling. We noted Donny's car in the parking area so he was on the water already, a message from Douglas and Mike indicated that they had set off late morning and the weather could not have been better....the plan was coming together!

We paddled south down the West Kyle of Bute and past Ardlamont Point into open water at the mouth of Loch Fyne, it was a cracking day to be on the water.

The slight breeze dropped completely as we crossed to the north end of the island of Inchmarnock - a couple of messages exchanged just as we set off had confirmed our meeting point as the south end of the island where we knew we'd get a good camp site provided that it wasn't inhabited by cattle.

We couldn't quite believe the conditions we paddled in...warm sun on the face, a heat haze and perfect reflections on mirror calm water.  All the more remarkable, conditions were due to be similar for the whole week - and the clocks hadn't even gone forward!

We landed at the shingle spit at the north end of Inchmarnock for coffee and a leg-stretch, greeted by this bright orange Seven Armed Starfish (Luidia ciliaris) which was a very neat colour match with the deck of my Cetus MV.  

"Inchmarnock" means Marnoc's Island and is named for the Celtic monk St Marnoc.  His name appears in several other place names in south west Scotland including the town of Kilmarnock.  Near where we landed a stone "cist" or burial container was excavated to reveal the remains of a Bronze Age lady buried with a jet bead necklace and a finely made dagger.  the remains were carbon dated to about 3500 BC and the lady (subsequently named the "Queen of the Inch") re-interred beneath a heavy glass pane.

Rested and refreshed, we paddled at a relaxed pace down the west side of Inchmarnock, sighting deer and a Peregrine Falcon along the cliffs.  It didn't feel like an afternoon to be rushing along.

In fact, quite the opposite, this was an afternoon to take things very easily and to enjoy the beautiful weather.

A call on the VHF radio from Douglas alerted us that we were just a few hundred metres from the beach above which we'd camp for the night.

Image courtesy of Dr Douglas Wilcox

Douglas took this wonderful panoramic image of Allan, Raymond and I just about to arrive at the camp site; I think it really sums up the day and the superb position.

From the water the position is no less superb, a gently shelving shingle and pebble beach with an area of flat turf above.  This place is sometimes frequented by the herd of Luing cattle which are grazed on Inchmarnock - this breed can be aggressive and don't make good neighbours if camping.  It's their home, so if they're around we go elsewhere to camp!

 After putting up our tents and settling in we joined Douglas, Mike and Donny for dinner around the camp fire.  this early in the Spring there was plenty of driftwood for a fire to be lit below the high water mark.  Raymond, Allan and I had each cooked a fresh meal for one night of this trip - we started this evening with a chilli con carne and rice, accompanied with a glass of red wine - no need to rough it!

This trip was significant for a couple of reasons, the first being that this was the first time we'd been out together for some time, and the first overnight trip of the year for most of us.  The second reason was that all the people on the trip apart from me are retired or semi-retired....and I was imminently to retire.  So, this was a very special induction into the club!

Sat by the fire on a lovely evening in a superb location, sharing a dram with good friends....I think I could get to like this retirement thing! 😊