The North Face's flagship alpine shell, the Meru Jacket, has an awesome pedigree - Designed by Conrad Anker, Renan Ozturk and Jimmy Chin for their successful return to the Shark's Tooth on Meru and worn by Andy Houseman on the 6th ascent of the Slovak Direct on Denali it has real potential to be a top end performer. It'll be in my bag for Ama Dablam next month and then get a good hammering in Scotland this winter but here's my initial thoughts on what looks a very smart piece of clothing before a long term test in the next few months.
As an advocate of soft shell or windproofs for the majority of conditions my waterproofs usually stay in my bag. Luckily the Lake District weather has obliged over the last few days and I've been wearing this jacket almost constantly. As expected I've stayed pretty much dry, however when the sun did make a brief appearance the Gore Active shell wasn't far off soft shells levels of breathability and comfort and I was able to forget I was wearing a waterproof.
Many manufacturers will tell you that they don't like pit zips but fashion over function means that they have to include them in their high performance jackets to be able to sell them. Unfortunately they add weight, complexity, are a weak point and personally I find they don't work. Your waterproof should be your final bombproof layer against the elements. Full marks to TNF for going against the grain and keeping the jacket simple and watertight - or so I thought!
They've replaced one weakness with another bigger one by including chest pockets with a mesh back to aid venting. This makes the jacket lighter and more breathable but means you will get wet if you are using the pockets. They are also only closed by weather resistant zips which aren't backed or covered by a storm flap so although I've not had any problems so far, there is the potential for driving rain to force it's way through. The main zip has a bit more protection with a small internal guard.
Many American designed waterproof jackets struggle in the windy UK conditions for want of a wired hood. The reinforced peak on the Meru is probably one of the better non wired hood I've used. It'll be very interesting to see how it copes with a Scottish hooligan this winter. It's also one of the few hoods I've tried which is actually helmet compatible.
The grippy rubber on the waist and shoulders is designed to prevent wear but also helps prevent your rucksack and climbing harness moving around. An interesting innovation as I have a couple of rucksacks that definitely slide off my waterproof clad shoulders as soon as I start climbing. I'm not a fan of chest straps, finding them restrictive, so this idea has a lot of potential...
Initial thoughts are that this is going to be a very good lightweight winter climbing and alpine shell. The potential problem with the chest pockets won't be an issue in alpine conditions so the real test will be in Scotland. The fit and styling are excellent and it has very clean and simple lines. Areas of wear are reinforced with tougher Active Shell and I get the feeling it'll be a lot tougher than it's weight would suggest.
Today I've been out with a group of managers from Outward Bound Eskdale. None of them had explored the Wasdale valley before so we trekked up to Sty Head Tarn between the showers. From the MRT box we picked up the Gable traverse path which leads below Kern Knotts to the iconic landmark of Napes Needle. Threading the Needle was tricky in the damp conditions but with everyone safely over we continued the adventure by climbing behind the Sphinx as well. A fairly direct descent brougght us back to the Wasdale Head Inn in order to sample some of the local ale.
I had the pleasure of summiting Everest in 2011 with Dawa, an amazing climber, Sherpa and human being. Tragically he was killed in the huge avalanche that destroyed Camp 3 on Manaslu on the 24th September. A vastly experienced mountaineer and ridiculously strong Sherpa he had summited Everest six times working with clients from Adventure Peaks. At the time of his death he was working with a French team hoping to make the first ski descent without oxygen. Rest in peace Dawa. The mountains will be a sadder place without you. Our thoughts are with your family and friends.
This weekend the majority of the ITACE team made the long drive north for a training weekend in the Lake District. The wet and windy weather of the last few weeks had given way to blue skies and sunshine - perfect conditions to train for an Antarctic crossing although we suspect Ian was happy with a dose of sunshine as he's heading south with Ran Fiennes in a couple of months for a winter Antarctic traverse as part of the Coldest Journey expedition.
Saturday saw us walking into Borrowdale over the top of Walla Crag. After an 'important meeting' at Shepherds Cafe we spent the afternoon hanging around on some string looking at crevasse rescue and abseiling. The midges eventually drove us away and we found our way up to Millican Dalton's cave in the dark for a bivi. The following morning we shouldered our loads for the climb over Cat Bells and down into Newlands Valley. Our final activity was a descent of Stoneycroft Ghyll which provided plenty of fun and a few bruises!
Discussions on the best strategy for the next navigation leg
I've just returned from the Peak District where I was running a Navigation course for the BMC as part of their club training program. Saturday dawned bright and sunny and we spent the day experimenting with the tools of the trade on the moors above Froggatt Edge. Overhead bracken meant that we got plenty of practice navigating in limited visability. Unable to dent the groups enthusiasm we were then out again after dark looking for some very small features before navigating successfully to the pub. Day two was a lot greyer as we wandered around on Eyam Moor. The days plan was to focus on contour recognition and overall stategies using the most appropriate tool for the leg. Overall a very successful course and we felt a real sense of pride as only one member of the group turned the wrong way as she drove away!
The next course is running in Coniston on the 27th - 28th April 2013. Please contact Martin Kocsis at the BMC is you would like to come along and improve your navigation. firstname.lastname@example.org
The weather had eventually dried out so for the final day Jude, Sue and I headed to Shepherds Crag to get as much climbing as possible. There were still patches of damp rock but we managed to climb Eve (VS), Ardus (HS) and finished on the classic Little Chamonix (VD) leaving them to make the long drive home with very tired arms!
Looking towards Little Langdale over Cathedral Quarry
Another soggy day in the Lake District although with an improving forecast. This mornings driving rain followed us to the slate quarries which lie to the north of Coniston. They offer plenty of entertainment when the weather is more suited to kayaking. Cathedral Quarry has a number of old mining tunnels which give an interesting and impressive approach to a 40m abseil down a undercut wall. We used this to experiment with using a prussick for self protection and safeguarding from below. We also had a quick controlled trundling session to clear a series of stacked blocks from the wall just below the top on the right hand exit. The day finished with a self rescue workshop which looked at tying off the belay, escaping the system and hauling.
Rain, wind, hail, sunshine and repeat, paying special attention to all those walkers still attired in shorts! We were slightly better dressed as we headed up Grisedale and the classic Pinnacle Ridge. Heavy showers were sweeping across from the west but there was just enough sun and a drying wind to allow us to make an uneventful ascent. Overall the friction was pretty good with just the occasional greasy foot hold to focus the mind. Full marks to Sue for innovative use of a nut key to hook the top edge of the suspended slab which was just out of reach! We extended our day by traversing over Fairfield for a late lunch in the Priest Hole before descending the long Hartsop Above How ridge.
It has been suggested that MIC stands for 'meet in cafe' or 'must ingest coffee!'. Both correct today as we retreated from Borrowdale in the face of driving rain. A few hours later we were back and braved the elements to head up Comb Gill, everyone's favorite location for climbing in the ming. However we weren't heading for the classic Corvous, which we'd climbed in similar conditions last year, but for Dove Nest Crag on the opposite side of the valley. This promised an interesting Diff and a couple of scrambles on a unique cliff. A large landslide has created a playground of chimneys and tunnels among a series of stacked blocks. It is still potentially unstable and the caving aspect should be avoided but the face and chimney routes provide plenty of entertainment. We started up Outside Route, a 75m Diff. The first pitch proved harder than anything on Corvous so we diverted on to the Attic Cave scramble which wriggled and twisted through some very impressive scenery to the obvious cave. We descended by the same route and squelched our way back to the car.
As for the pigs in the title. Well a very surreal moment where we were ambushed by two large Gloucester Old Spots as we crossed the first field on the normal Corvous path. An unusual sight in the Lakeland fells but they were friendly enough, just wanting a quick scratch between the ears!
This week I'm out on the crags after some more Classic Rock ticks. Jude & Sue efforts are gathering pace and today we opted to return to Gimmer to complete its trilogy of routes. Rain and high winds were forecast for the afternoon but an early-ish start and a quick walk in in the sunshine allowed us to enjoy dry but greasy rock on Bracket & Slab (S). However for the first time in 16 years of instructing I managed to take a wee tumble while working. A foot slip exiting the infamous Amen Corner had me bouncing of the ledge below and coming to rest ten foot lower. Nothing hurt except my pride so plenty of jokes at my expense for the rest of the day. We topped out in good style as the sky darkened before an abseil descent and a quick scoot back to the ODG as the rain started.
Race founder Catherine Poletti addressing the crowds
An eventful year for the UTMB with the races significantly effected by poor weather for the third year in a row. The late change of the route meant that the challenge for the competitors was very different being only two thirds of the distance and ascent of the actual UTMB. For the leading athletes this would equate to a night race arriving back in Chamonix on Saturday morning. However only one percent of the nearly 2500 runners who'd registered opted not to race the new course.
UTMB 2012 winner Francois d'Haene
2012 UTMB Champion & 5 time winner Lizzie Hawker
The UTMB 2012 podium
Every athlete involved in the UTMB has a story to tell, a fact recognised by the organisers in their press conferences and which is very much part of their ethos. In a truly international competition there were eight countries
represented in the top 10 competitors from the from both the mens and womens races.
The North Face athletes were having an interesting day at the office. Seb Chaigneau was always going to have a challenging event. Just 6 weeks ago he suffered a badly cut knee in a fall which required 25 stiches. Early on last night he fell again and cut the other knee. By argientiere his vision had deteriated to such an extent that he was packed off to hospital to get checked out. The good news is he's all fine
Zigor Iturrieta was running well when again a fall at Contamine in the tricky conditions robbed him of the chance of being competitive. In the spirit of the event he opted to walk the rest of the course finishing well down the order but having had an adventure as the organisers had promised.
Lizzie Hawker at the awards ceromony
The day belonged to 'Queen Lizzie' who received the biggest cheer of the day as she stepped onto the stage to receive her cowbell for her fifth UTMB win. Earlier she'd look almost embarrassed as she explained she wasn't one hundred percent fit having battled injury this season. Nevertheless she was 16th overall, the first time a women has featured in the top twenty. Asked about her motivation to go for a 6th title the phrases top ten and course record were mentioned.
There are three others events in the UTMB festival of ultra running. The longest is the PTL or La Petite Trotte a Leon. This multi day experience for teams packs in 290km and 22,000m of climbing. They'd been blessed with good conditions earlier in the week but this weekends weather system had laid down 40cm of snow at the Col de la Seine. Thinking outside the box a herd of cows were driven over the pass to create a track for a few of the teams!
Dawa Sherpa facing the press
The TDS (Sur la Traces des Ducs de Savoiewas) won by the legendary Dawa Sherpa, winner of the very first UTMB and still the holder of the fastest time. Like the CCC but slightly harder this race also starts in Courmayeur but heads clockwise around the Mont Blanc massif to finish in Chamonix after 114km and 7150m of ascent.
Tofol Bernat (in white) leading the CCC field through Courmayeur
The CCC (Courmayeur - Champex - Chamonix) race featured many of the North Face UK Sales and PR team putting minds, bodies and kit to the test. The climb over the Col Grand Ferret in deep snow in very cold but windless conditions was certainly a memorable challenge. The course had been slightly shortened missing out the first and last climbs but this doesn't detract from the herculean effort of Tofol Bernat who raced back to Chamonix in under nine hours. His reward - the amazing experience of rounding the final corner and coming face to face with the whole UTMB field cheering him home, something that even twenty four hours later left him visibly moved.
A amazing event to be part of and it may have planted a small seed in my mind! Huge thanks to the team at North Face for the invitation to follow Jez Bragg and for a very memorable night out in the rain watching thousands of runners go through the experience of the UTMB. I hope the ladies at Geneva airport who were having a little competition counting the blue gillets, which were awarded to all finishers, realise what they really mean to thousands of runners.
A grey and cold Saturday has dawned in Chamonix with the cloud base even lower. In the half light Francois d'Haene loped across the line to a decisive UTMB victory, half an hour up on second placed Jonas Buud. A further 16 minutes back was Michael Foote who had made up a huge number of places in the last few kilometers. It was only after he crossed the line that he realised he'd achieved 3rd! In a great gesture Francois returned down the course to applaud a few CCC competitors he'd overtaken in his sprint finish.
Winner of the 2012 UTMB Francois d'Haene
Jonas Buud crosses the line in second place
Jonas Buud very happy with his performance
Michael Foote finding out he's on the podium
The story of the day belongs to Lizzie Hawker who has now won the race 5 times. After an indifferent season due to injury she felt the shortened course played into her hands and enjoyed a comfortable victory in 12:32:13 placing 16th overall despite not being fully fit. Comparing this time to her predicted splits on the origional UTMB route she'd still have been in the lead somewhere on the Col Grand Ferret struggling through deep snow! An amazing level of motivation to keep coming back to such a demanding event and perform at this level.
The indomitable Lizzie Hawker crossing the line
Facing the media with a smile!
Alongside the leading UTMB finishers, the CCC competitors continued to stream across the line, many overcome with emotion after having battled with the conditions for nearly 24 hours.