Monday, 10 November 2014

Equipment Review - Crux AK70 rucsack

The Crux AK70 is marketed as a large mountaineering rucsack suitable for climbs in the Greater Ranges. Crux’s sister company Lightwave market a range of rucsacks aimed at trekking and backpacking, but the simplicity and design features of the AK70 make this sac suitable for backpacking as much as alpine climbing.

 I’ve owned the AK70 for four years during which time it has been used for multiday backpacking trips in all seasons, weathers and over a range of terrain. I should state at this point that I purchased the rucsack at very slightly less than retail price through a climbing shop discount, and have no connection with Crux at all.


The first thing that is noticeable about the AK70 is its clean, uncluttered design, a big plus for me.  There are none of the bells and whistles, attachments or multiple access points prominent in some designs.  When filled with gear the sac has a clean profile and is almost a throwback in being a classic top-loading single compartment rucsack.

The fabric is a Kevlar/Cordura weave which is light but incredibly tough.  The AK70 has survived frequent brushes with Cairngorm granite and Hebridean gabbro with ease, in fact almost without a scratch.  The base is double layer and is looks as if it will survive just about anything.  Although I pack using multiple small drybags inside any rucsack, I haven’t had any problems with water ingress despite all-day use in some really foul weather.  The body of the sac is a single piece of fabric sewn to the moulded back panel so there are a minimum of seams.  Attachment points for the compression straps and ice axe loops are welded to the fabric and seem capable of resisting considerable stress.  Crux point out that the fabric used in their AK range is twice the weight of fabrics used in competing products and therefore much more robust and yet their rucsacs weigh less than rival products due to the minimalist design.  The AK70 weighs in at a pretty light 1630 grams and feels lighter than it appears.

The lid of the sack is “floating” and can be extended to accommodate extra bulky loads or even removed completely (though I can’t envisage me needing to do that).  There are external and internal lid pockets, the outer has a water resistant zip with a useful zip-pull, the external lid pocket is cavernous and fits map, hat, gloves, snacks etc with plenty of room to spare. There is a compression strap across the top of the sac which sits under the lid for securing bulky items such as a rope.

Down the sides of the rucsack are further compression straps in a zigzag configuration which work extremely well to reduce volume when the sac isn’t fully packed.  There are also stretch wand pockets at each side of the base and simple but strong tape gear loops.  The wand pockets could be used for storing snacks or small items but I’ve found them most useful for securing the sharp tips of walking poles whilst traversing steep or broken ground.

Crux take pride in having developed a carrying system which is simple to the point of being Spartan – and when purchasing the sac this was the one doubt in my mind; would it be comfortable when carrying a load? 
Although pared-down to basics, the design and functionality shine through; a great deal of thought has been put into the back and harness.  .  Inside the body of the sac are a 8mm T6 alloy tube frame and a 12mm titanium centre stay, both removable, with a combined weight of just 65 grams.

The back panel is a large moulded panel with the maker’s name recessed into it (the only logo on the sack apart from a small woven one on the lid).  The back panel comes in three sizes, Crux recommend Size 1 for women and smaller men, Size 2 for average sized men and Size 3 for taller men.  At 1.75 metres I fall into the average range but actually found the smaller Size 1 back a better fit.  The back panel sits fully against the back, giving a large contact area for stability and bringing the centre of gravity closer to the wearer.  This would suggest that the Crux would be sweatier to carry than other rucsacks – but since I run pretty hot and generate a lot of heat anyway I haven’t found it to be noticeably sweatier than other backpacking sacs.  The stability from carrying the load close is really quite noticeable; on rough ground or in high wind the sac feels nailed onto one’s back, there is none of the unsteady feeling of a rucsack pulling in its own direction or sliding about when moving across rough ground.  There’s another advantage to the minimalist back panel, it doesn’t absorb water like open-cell foam padding.  This absorption can add noticeable weight to more complex back systems in wet weather.

Intelligent and functional design is also to the fore in the hipbelt, made of 40mm webbing with low profile hip fins.  The arrangement for tightening the waist belt is absolutely ingenious, it also prevents any loose straps around the waistbelt area – vital in a sac designed for mountaineering.  The belt itself is a continuous piece of webbing which wraps around the back beneath the back panel so that strain is transferred to the frame. The fin pads sit comfortably on the hips and support the majority of the load in a comfortable way.
The top tension straps are also continuous retained loops which pull off the frame rater than a row of stitching.  They give good adjustment to either haul in or slacken off the top of the load to suit and again have no loose straps to lash the face.

In use I’ve found the Crux AK70 to be a well-designed, simple but very comfortable rucsack.  Although not primarily designed for backpacking it does the job superbly well.  The quality of material used and the functional design make it stand out, the simplicity and understated features just do the job and do it well.  In hot conditions the back may be a little more sweaty than some other sacs with chimneys, vents and the like, but the trade off in terms of stability and light weight are, to my mind, well worthwhile. I can carry a 20kg load in comfort for long days whether on estate track, hill path or on rough trackless ground.  It is pretty much waterproof and incredibly tough yet weighs a lot less than most backpacking sacs.  The 70 litre capacity is well enough for the great majority of trips, and all of the capacity is usable space.

Is there anything I’d change?  Well, yes, a couple of minor things.  There’s no exit point for a drinking tube on the sac, so the hose has to exit at the drawcord.  A small flap near the front of the sack would be useful to avoid an awkward routing of the hose.  Also (and this really is nit-picking) it would have been useful to have loops for attaching elastic shock-cord to stow crampons on the back of the sac.  It’s relatively easy to add these and I do tie in some shock-cord for this purpose in winter, but some loops would be useful.
The version of the AK70 I own is a second generation model, first introduced in 2007.  A third generation model is due in 2015 and seems likely to feature all-welded construction and new Kevlar fabric claimed to be even lighter and tougher than the present material.

The quality of material, construction and attention to detail on the AK70 don’t make it the least expensive rucsac around, but I feel that you do get what you pay for here. There are much lighter rucsacs around from the “ultralight” manufacturers which have become popular in recent years, but the Crux requires no compromises in packing to compensate for flimsy construction and looks as if it will outlast ultralight several times over.

 If you’re looking for a high-quality, lightweight backpacking rucsack with a minimum of frills which will stand up to hard use then the Crux AK70 is very well worth a look.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Old Keig stone circle

The north east of Scotland is rich in ancient monuments, standing stones, circles, hillforts and castles.  The most enigmatic, mysterious and impressive are the perhaps the stone circles - voices from our past in stone.

Aberdeenshire has the highest concentration of stone circles anywhere in mainland Britain, many of which are of a unique design found nowhere outside an area bounded by the rivers Don and Deveron - the Recumbent Stone Circles. There are several recumbent circles within a few kilometres of the house, and on a raw and grey spring day we made a short drive to see one circle which we'd not previously visited at Old Keig.

Set on a ridge with views over the Howe of Alford, the circle now sits within a shelter belt of beech and pine trees.  The site was built up to make a level platform for the circle, now bounded by a much more modern drystone dyke.  Excavations have revealed that the interior of the circle had a bank of stones and a central cairn bounded by a semi circle of kerb stones; this was a complex construction.  Dated to the Neolithic, remains of pottery and burnt bones have been found buried near the central cairn.

The characteristic recumbent with its two flankers remain, but only a few of the orthostats which would have formed a circle diminishing in height are still intact.

Massive and impressive, the big stones have a subtle geometric pattern common to every one of the recumbent style circles.  The recumbent itself is misaligned with the circumference of the circle by 15 degrees, tracing an arc-axis towards the centre, making the "circle" a subtle spiral.

This is the view from the centre of the circle looking directly over the recumbent.  The alignment of these  monoliths is very significant - they were arranged with astonishing precision.  The recumbent brackets 27 degrees of arc when viewed from the centre of the circle and the midwinter sun sets directly over the middle of the stone.

This is impressive enough, but there's more.  The celestial phenomenon of lunar standstill occurs every 18.6 years and the circle is aligned to it - the midsummer moonset at the major standstill sets precisely over the left edge of the recumbent in the angle formed by the left flanker while the midsummer moonset at the minor standstill sets precisely over the right hand edge of the flanker in the angle formed by the right flanker.  This is surely not coincidence; I have to believe that this astonishingly accurate positioning was by design.

Old Keig's circle is 20 metres in diameter and is noted for the size of the recumbent - the largest of any of this style of circle.  It's a huge block of sillimanite gneiss and the rock type is significant because it wasn't quarried locally.

This gigantic block was quarried from somewhere in the valley of the River Don - some 10 kilometres from the site.  It was worked to make a completely level top face while the bottom of the stone was worked into a "keel" shape to better sit in the ground.

Then this enormous stone measuring 5 metres long by two metres wide by two metres deep and weighing 53 tons was dragged 10 kilometres to this site - the last kilometre up a slope of 1:14 gradient.  The work involved must have been staggering. 

The flankers are carefully placed against the recumbent - the small rocks under the edge are believed to have been positioned much later.

It's only when one considers the work and care which went into this and so many other circles that the true import of what stands here becomes a little clearer.

Far from being primitive savages, the folk who designed and made these circles in the Neolithic - the Stone Age - must have practiced agriculture; only a settled population could have undertaken such a huge project.  Some of them at least must have been able to perform complex observations and mathematical equations in order to work out the positioning and the subtle geometric arrangements.  They must have been a sophisticated enough folk to be able to organise labour (whether voluntary or forced we'll never know) and to use tools, ropes, levers and all the rest in order to move and position huge stones. They must also have been numerous enough to move the stones; it's been estimated that at least 100 people would have been required - or a combination of people and oxen.  As the circles are comparatively closely spaced there must also have been numerous similar communities.

And they must have had time.  The agriculture practiced must have allowed sufficient margins of time to create monuments such as circles and standing stones.

The purpose of the circles remains something of a mystery; were they observatories, places of worship, places of sacrifice even?  Were they used by an exclusive elite or were they a communal statement of the sense of place of the society which made them? Certainly they were places of power, and of powerful symbolism - they remain that to this day.  There is an indefinable presence among the circles and stones - an echo down thousands of years, a sense of mystery and wonder.  In this, the circle builders were spectacularly successful.

We came away from the Old Keig circle with renewed wonder and admiration for what these folk achieved - and maybe that too was part of the purpose of the circles.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Last of the summer

The Moray Firth has some great stretches of rocky coast cut with channels, outcrops, stacks and arches - it's a super area to paddle and always seems fresh and different.  As this would be the last day of paddling for a good while I was glad of the calm weather which made for a very relaxing day.

A sandy bay near to Portsoy with crystal clear water gave some great reflections as I paddled through.... find one of the hidden arches.  Narrow and in any kind of swell very committing, it's one of several concealed delights on the stretch between Portsoy and Findochty.  Difficult to spot from most angles, it's worth looking out for on the Portsoy side of the West Head (Redhythe Point).

At the West Head itself are a series of channels which cut through the end of the headland and can provide some fun, but are more often than not too full of swell for me to attempt.  Today all was calm and I was able to paddle the medium-sized one.....

.....and the narrowest of the three which is only just over shoulder width at its narrowest.  Even in calm conditions the water rises and falls quite markedly in here!

On the way back to Whitehills I stopped for a leisurely second lunch, deliberately taking my time and enjoying the warm sunshine.

 The next time I paddle here it will be deep winter, kayaking opportunities snatched in brief calm days between storms.  There will be bitter cold and fleeting daylight on days when going out on the hill or kayaking - mountain or sea - bring much greater challenges together with the frustrations, rewards and stark beauty of a northern winter.

It can't come soon enough for me!

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Under escort

On a day of perfect summer weather I set out from the tiny harbour at Whitehills for what would be my last day of kayaking prior to a four month spell at work.  There are two harbours at Whitehills, a large one built originally for fishing vessels and now the largest leisure craft harbour in the Moray Firth, and this very small one which served Blackpots brick works which operated between 1786 and 1971 and produced clay pipes and tiles along with bricks.  Part of the works occupied the ground which is now an outstanding children's play park, the rest of the site is occupied by a caravan park.  Brick fragments can still be found on the beach next to the harbour.

My plan was very simple, a few hours rockhopping west past Portsoy, then return to Whitehills with no specific goal other than to enjoy the weather and the paddling.  Rockhopping on the stretch of coast immediately west of Whitehills can sometimes be difficult, the rock here is jagged black stuff running out to sea in sharp ridges which can easily damage a boat.  There is variety though, the small headland of Stakes Ness is a large tilted bedding plane - an interesting place in a big swell!

About half way to Portsoy is a beach of pale sand which would make an ideal spot to stop for a while except for one small thing; actually many large things.....   This beach is much favoured by Atlantic Grey Seals, in part because access by land is not so easy.  I could see seals hauled out on the beach itself and the surrounding rocks so headed well out in order not to cause any disturbance.  Despite giving the beach a wide berth I was spotted and a group of seals crashed into the water to investigate me more closely.

Several of the seals surfaced nearby and did the characteristic thing of throwing themselves sideways as they dived again, making big splashes.  One young bull was, however, determined to make an impression and made a couple of fast runs towards me before surfacing and snorting noisily.  Grey Seals(Halichoerus grypus) are Britain's largest carnivore and bulls can reach well over 3 metres in length and weigh over 300 kg - they deserve respect.  The cows give birth from September to November and the bulls can be very territorial.  The young bull wasn't the biggest of the seals present, but persisted in trailing me, on one occasion he crashed into the water close enough behind for me to be splashed and to smell his breath.  Although I didn't feel threatened at any stage, it was abundantly clear that I was being escorted off his patch; as soon as I passed the rocks at the far end of the beach he pulled alongside, gave one last snort and disappeared.

A little farther on is another sandy beach, this one not favoured by the seals - a much better luncheon spot!

Monday, 4 August 2014

Colours and caves - an Angus cruise

After lunch at Auchmithie we did some calculations and decided that we'd not have time to complete our original intention of paddling up to Lunan Bay before returning to Arbroath. The interest and quality of the coast we'd travelled along is such that any journey here in good conditions will take much longer than anticipated - and this is a good thing!

We settled on going a few kilometres further north to Prail Castle before turning back which would give us an unhurried return leg.

The bold headland of Prail Castle is another fort site; in fact there are no fewer than five fort sites to explore between Arbroath and the headland forming the south end of Lunan Bay, a remarkable concentration.

For sea kayakers there's additional interest too. The headland is pierced by two through-caves, both of which can be paddled at higher states of the tide.  Another cave?!   Oh, go on then.......  :o)

As we made our way through the larger of the two arches, we realised that we weren't alone - there was plenty of activity on the pebble beach beyond.

A flock of what appeared to be Soay sheep were feeding and resting on the shore.  They moved off in a purposeful manner as we approached, rising as one and walking steadily rather than running. It's intriguing to speculate whether the inhabitants of the various forts might have kept sheep of a very similar type here thousands of years ago.

The headland of Prail Castle curves slightly nortwards from the shore and in winter must receive very little sunlight.  On this bright and sunny summer day the quality of light in the cool shadow was quite beautiful - aquamarine water and deep red rock made a striking combination.

The through-caves wouldn't be at all obvious if approaching from the north, passing through the smaller cave looks like a bit of a vanishing trick from this direction.  Prail Castle was a great turning point for our day's paddle; it would have been difficult to top.  We now had the run back to Arbroath in warm sunshine and calm sea to enjoy....

There's a perception that the North Sea is predominantly grey and a bit uninteresting, but this couldn't be further from the truth.  Our boats slid through brilliantly clear water and over the most beautifully coloured pebbles........

....and yes, this really is the North Sea!  We all commented on what an effortless paddle the return journey was.  We stopped to investigate a couple of the caves we'd not seen on the way out as we enjoyed the cruise back to Arbroath.....

....along this wonderfully coloured coastline..... complete a great day on the water under the Bell Rock Signal Tower which until 1955 was the shore infrastructure for the Bell Rock lighthouse, and is now a museum.

The Angus coast is a real unsung gem.  I'm really grateful to Duncan and Joan for highlighting the superb sea kayaking available here.  Also, now that the Pesda Press guide to the North and East coasts of Scotland has been published (this section is included) more paddlers will discover the secret!