Saturday, 22 January 2022

Equipment Review - Kahtoola Microspikes

In icy conditions the soles of walking boots and shoes are seriously compromised in terms of grip, and some form of traction is very desirable.  On steep ground or on the hill, especially in the mixed conditions typical of Scotland I use 12-point articulated crampons with stiff mountain boots but this combination is not well suited to tracks, forest roads or footpaths.

In autumn 2020 I purchased a set of Kahtoola Micropsikes to use on my regular walks when things got icy.  This review is based on regular use through winter 2020-21 which proved to be exceptionally cold and prolonged even by Aberdeenshire standards.  The Microspikes have been used in temperatures from 3 Celsius down to -20 Celsius and in underfoot conditions ranging from hard, frozen turf, iced forest fire-roads, refrozen snow, in hard, clear ice and melting ice.

The Microspikes don't require stiff or rigid soled boots which means they should fit a range of footwear (indeed many folk use them on trail running shoes).  The upper part is a shaped Thermoplastic Elastomer (TPE) harness with reinforced eyelets which is claimed to retain its elasticity down to -30 Celsius.

The Microspikes are quick and easy to fit with a little practice and don't require footwear to be removed in order to put them on and take them off.  The technique is to place the forefoot into position then use a raised tab on the rear of the harness to pull the heel into place.  I found that I was able to easily fit and remove the Microspikes on-the-go, which is useful when they may not be needed for all of a walking route.

The design of the harness holds the spikes in place nicely and there is no tendency for the footwear to slide out even on quite steep descents.  A real positive is that I haven't experienced any pressure points or "cold spots" from pressure as can happen with some crampons.  In the image above the Microspikes are being used with a walking shoe on hard ice.

In this image they are being used with a general purpose walking boot in mixed conditions with heavy frost and frozen patches of forest road.  Unlike with crampons, it's not necessary to use a "duck waddle" modification to your natural walking style when using the Microspikes, due partly to the much shorter length of the spikes compared to crampons and also because there are no front points which could catch the ground.

 The chain and harness hold the Microspikes in place very well, I've not experienced any misalignment when walking across level or rough terrain.  Sometimes with articulated crampons strapped tightly to stiff winter boots and secured with toe bail and heel fastener there can be cold spots on the feet from the pressure.  I haven't experienced any cold spots with the Microspikes as they aren't holding the foot rigid and any pressure is distributed across the harness.

So, although for mountain walking my preferred combination is and always will be stiff winter boots and 12-point articulated crampons, the Microspikes definitely bring benefit in winter walking for lower levels, making otherwise inaccessible icy paths easy to walk.  I can also see a place for them in Spring mountain walking when most of the snow is off the hills and there are just occasional patches to be crossed which don't require front-pointing technique.

The Microspikes retail for around £50 in the UK, and I think that they're very good value at that price.  If you walk regularly on icy tracks and paths, live in an area which has winter conditions most years or walk on hills with some icy patches, they're well worth considering as part of your kit.  I purchased my set from Icegripper, a main UK importer of Kahtoola products.  The Microspikes arrived quickly, and I can vouch for the customer service - the initial set sent out were the wrong size and when I informed the company the correct size were sent out before I returned the original set.

Conflict of interest statement:  I purchased my set of Microspikes at full retail price an have no connection with either Kahtoola or Icegripper other than being a satisfied customer.

Wednesday, 5 January 2022

Short day, short view

Life, work and other things meant that this blog was a little neglected during 2021.  That's not to say that I didn't manage to get out and about though, and there will be some catch-up posts coming in the next few weeks.

Just a couple of days prior to the winter solstice and there isn't much daylight here in Aberdeenshire, realistically six hours is what we get.  When Allan and Lorna and I left our homes in inland Aberdeenshire we were in bright sunshine with temperatures well below zero Celsius.....just 45 minutes drive north to the Moray Firth coast and things were a lot different; very misty conditions and the temperature a couple of degrees above freezing.  With just a light wind and a low swell we decided to set out from Cullen, paddle east to Sandend and return to Cullen.  It's an area we know very well but we took no chances with the visibility and set up a GPS in case things closed in further.

The misty conditions certainly made for an atmospheric journey through the rock stacks which are such a feature of this coast, everything seemed out of scale as towers and rocks loomed out of the mist.  We mentally ticked off known landmarks as we went and had soon warmed up from the chilly start.

The swell was low but long-period and as is typical on this coast had "sets" of two or three much larger swells at regular intervals.  Near to top of the tide this cave-arch doesn't have much headroom, so good timing is a must!

 We took lunch in the tiny harbour at Sandend before heading back around to Cullen.  The mist had started to lift a little and the swell eased to give a leisurely return leg.

An unremarkable paddle of just 13km maybe, but as usual this coast gave plenty of interest, and it was a bonus to be able to get out in our kayaks right on the cusp of the shortest day of the year.

Wednesday, 29 December 2021

An atmospheric walk on the Correen Hills

When Allan, Lorna and I made plans to meet for a walk over the Correen Hills the forecast suggested a misty start - and that's what we got.  We'd taken a hand-saw to cut away some of the branches from trees fallen during Storm Arwen and which were making progress up the forest and onto the ridge hard going - a 45 minute spell of trimming has made the route a good deal easier.

Emerging onto the ridge we had visibility of just a hundred metres or so for three quarters of the way around the broad, curving ridge.  But as we approached the path junction near Edinbanchory Hill which marks the turn towards Lord Arthur's Hill the mist began to thin and we strode on in ethereal light.

Looking across the valley of the River Don, Coiliochbhar Hill emerged from swirling mist.  This hill has given it's own wonderful misty conditions in the past.

Our pace sowed right down as we stopped frequently to watch the changing scene; ridges and hills appearing and disappearing as the mist boiled, dissipated and re-formed - the effect was quite magical.

We seemed to be in an area of relatively clear air, in each direction a thick cloudbank was evident.  Underneath everything was grey and monotone, around us the light was superb.

 We made the final pull up onto the summit of Lord Arthur's Hill in bright sunshine.  The lack of wind allowed us to sit for half an hour and enjoy the changing views in comfort - in late December!  As we went down the hill towards Tullynessle the air chilled and the mist began to re-form - but what an atmospheric walk it had been!

Saturday, 25 December 2021

 Wishing you peace, health and happiness, wherever you may be this Christmas

Thursday, 11 November 2021

Remembrance - 11th November

 In remembrance of all those men and women who have lost their lives in the service of their countries, those who still suffer the physical and mental scars of the conflicts in which they served; and those who are left with loss and grief.

"At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them"

Saturday, 23 October 2021

Leuchan, Looking

October in Scotland can have some stunningly good weather, and a warm, clear early October day was too good to miss.  Allan, Lorna and I met up in the Deeside town of Ballater for a round of a hill suggested by Lorna, and one which I hadn't previously walked.  We left the town and crossed the River Dee on the fine stone Royal Bridge and left the road to join an old track through pines and larches, the track a cushion of fallen needles dappled with sunshine.

The track climbs very steadily at an easy-to-walk angle out of the wood and takes a curving line towards a distinct notch on the skyline.  Below us (to the left in this image) a very large "parcel" of red Deer hinds moved across the grassy ground with two huge stags in attendance.  the stags were roaring repeatedly and one charged the other, sending it trotting away.  In reality one stag has absolutely no chance of keeping a group of over fifty hinds through the rut - he has his hands full!  As we climbed further we saw numerous groups of hinds marshalled by stags, the hill slope echoing to their roar.

A chat with an estate stalker who was driving down the track gave an excuse to pause on the climb and we got some really interesting insight into management on this piece of ground.  A group of clients were out with the head stalker shooting grouse, we asked whether our route would be a problem - which it wasn't.

The views were really starting to open up as we reached the skyline notch and climbed above it towards the summit of our hill, Cairn Leuchan.  On a knoll above the path, the distinctive shape of a mountain hare could be seen...but something didn't seem was stock-still.  we walked up to investigate....

..and found this fine fellow called "Leuchan" from the hill, looking fixedly across Glen Muick to the distant Lochnagar.

Leuchan appears to be made from resin or a similar construction and even has his own stone name plate.  I've come across a similar sculpture on a hill the other side of Glen Muick previously and I still have no idea who installed them - but as pieces of art in the landscape they're fine by me!

We left Leuchan, looking, to his contemplation and continued towards the summit of Cairn Leuchan.

It's a short but steep climb to the outcrop forming the summit of Cairn Leuchan.  At 700m/2297ft it's neither a high hill or on any particular list of hills, but it is a very fine viewpoint.  The object of Leuchan the Hare's gaze, Lochnagar, is very prominent and draws the eye to the south west.

To the south east is another Munro, Mount Keen, the most easterly of Scotland's 3000ft hills.  The path which leaves the traditional "Mounth" route between Deeside and Glen Mark to climb to the summit is clearly visible as a pinkish line.

After resting a while and taking in the view we headed back down to the skyline notch, passing the shooters at their lunch.  We exchanged pleasantries with the head stalker and his staff but were roundly ignored by the clients.

We intended to keep to the high ground and took a short detour onto Craig Vallich, which is a fine viewpoint above Ballater.

The final high point of the day was the 601m/1972ft Pannanich Hill, which was possibly the best viewpoint on the walk.  A wide view through the northerly arc with the glacial lochans of Loch Davan and Loch Kinord as foreground with our "home hill" of Bennachie as backdrop made a super panorama while we sat and enjoyed a coffee.

It had been a great day, with lovely weather - t-shirts on high ground in October is definitely not the norm!  The walk had a final treat for us too.....

Another hare sculpture, also looking towards Lochnagar - maybe there's a pattern here, it's an intruiging puzzle!

The descent from Pannanich Hill back down to the valley of the River Dee is very steep and hard on the knees - we felt that our ascent route had been much the better way.  Soon though the roofs of the town and the fine church tower were in view and we strolled back along more level ground through a lovely wood.

What a great day it had been, another "wee hill" which had given a route of real quality and interest - a good choice by Lorna!


Wednesday, 8 September 2021

A seasonal pleasure

September at Mountain and Sea Scotland HQ brings one of most satisfying of seasonal tasks, the storing of firewood logs to fuel our woodburner.  A big load of beech and elm from our regular supplier Ben at Treelogic arrived on a Friday, giving us the weekend to do the job.  

The first task was to sort out what would be stacked immediately and what could be split to give a variety of log sizes.  There followed an evening's work steadily moving the logs to the woodstore by wheelbarrow and starting the stacking process.  There was no hurry to do it as this load of wood isn't for use in the coming winter, it's destined to be burned in autumn and winter 2022/23.

I left the majority of the beech logs aside to be split.  As it was mainly large branch wood it would split nicely and provide smaller logs as well as making the individual logs easier to stack.  This is a job which has never seemed to be a chore to me but rather an enjoyable, even paced rhythm which is totally absorbing and almost therapeutic.

The job is made especially enjoyable because my splitting axe is a a wonderful tool.  A hand-forged large splitting axe from the small Swedish company Gransfors Bruk, it was a gift from our children a few years ago.  I have never used a tool so perfectly designed for purpose and which feels so absolutely "right" in the hands - it makes me smile every time I come to use it.

The job is finished by stacking the logs in one of our several woodstores.  This is also an absorbing job; there will be a "right" space for each log, no matter how awkwardly shaped.  In Scotland we don't usually see straight birch log firewood cut perfectly to length and diameter to form the wonderfully aesthetic stacks seen in Scandinavia, but its still possible to get a stable stack which doesn't look too much like simply a pile!

 And so, the job is done - for now.  The new load of wood is dry and perfectly burnable, but like malt whisky, firewood benefits from some additional time to mature.  Given extra months of seasoning it's possible to get wood seasoned from a dry 20% to as low as 15% moisture content even in Scotland's climate and this makes a surprising difference to the way it burns.  

In the meantime, of course, there's the satisfaction of walking past the woodstore on most days - it's tempting to build and fill "just one more" store - after all, you never know what the weather might be like next winter!

Sunday, 18 July 2021

A recovery roll on the Sound of Sleat

The final morning of our trip to Loch Hourn was the first day of May, though you wouldn't have known it from the rather chilly early morning temperature.  While the paddlers carried our boats the short distance to the water at our camp site......

.....Donny boarded "Guppy" on the other side of the reef and motored off back towards Glenelg in order to arrive at high water and enable a much easier transport of his boat up the shore.  It had been great to have Donny along on another trip - you can see the film he made on his Youtube channel here, and follow the trip in "trivision" with some stunning images on Douglas' blog here

We'd remarked the previous evening that it was strange not to have seen any Otters, particularly since this area is the setting for Gavin Maxwell's "Ring of Bright Water".  Well, we didn't need to wait long to put that right!  A nice close view of what looked to be a dog Otter moving along the shore, then heading up the rocks was a great start to the morning's paddle.

The morning was beginning to warm up too as the sun burned away early cloud on the hills; all in all it was turning out to be a fine day.

Another Otter popped up in the middle of our group with a fair sized flatfish, which it proceeded to eat, although it was aware we were around it seemed very unconcerned.  This is one of the advantages of moving in a kayak, quiet motion and a fairly low silhouette offer some stunning wildlife encounters.  Watching the Otter eat his morning snack reminded us that it had been a few hours since breakfast - and we had information about a feeding opportunity of our own!

This being Saturday morning, the Glenelg Inn were marking their recent post-lockdown opening with a bacon roll that shouldn't be missed!  The staff were amazing, batting not an eyelid at us arriving in drysuits and ordering six coffees with twelve bacon rolls.  Many paddlers practice recovery rolls towards the end of a paddling day, and we agree that this is a good thing....especially if bacon or sausage is involved......

We enjoyed the view from the Inn's garden along with our second breakfast - the Glenelg inn gets a well-deserved 12/10 rating as a sea kayaking destination!

Refreshed and refuelled, there was just a short paddle back to the beach at Bernera to end our trip.

 Our route had been 62km over two half days and two full days with three nights camping.  In terms of distance this isn't a long trip but there is a lot to explore both on the water and on land.  

Ordance Survey Landranger  1:50K sheet 33 (Loch Alsh, Glen Shiel & Loch Hourn) covers the whole area.  There are fast tidal streams near Kylerhea and at both sets of narrows in Loch Hourn.  There are no easy escapes for the majority of the route; this is truly wild country.  The mouth of Loch Hourn can offer conditions ranging from "sporting" to very challenging in certain wind and tidal conditions - a period of relatively settled conditions is best to attempt the crossing of the loch mouth or the Sound of Sleat. Loch Hourn itself is notorious for violent squalls and funnels wind from both east and west, as well as "enjoying" some of the highest rainfall totals in Scotland.  Weather will likely be changeable, and this changeability with the sudden shifts of light and colour can really enhance a trip in this area.