Our intentions were simple.. snowshoe in to the base of an ice climb, climb some ice, stand around in the cold then shoe back out. In the process we would get hot and sweaty, shed layers, get cold and put the layers back on. If it was a nice evening we might even set up a bivy. Well it didn't turn out like that, notice how the whole world seems to be going crazy right now? 40 degrees in Australia, -40 in Canada, and the Alps.. well they were doing well to drop below freezing. Ice falls that should have been towering over us had been reduced to pools of icy water, there was no snow below 1600 metres; we would have been better off sport climbing in the valley. Working with these exceptional conditions we were going to have to improvise a range of activities if we were going to test our kit and get some nice pics for the album.
Filium down pullover
This sample was filled to the brim with 300 grams of 650+ fill power down, and boy was it hot. The production model better have less down or I am going to have my sweat pores surgically removed. I used it snowshoeing along the Fournel valley, it was light and small enough to carry instead of a fleece. The steep sided valley does not get much sun in the winter so it was good to have something toasty warm to pull on when we stopped for lunch. The design is a pullover, or a smock if you like. The front zip is half length so you can show off your chest in all its glory and there are another two zips on each side over the hips. These make it possible to put the jacket on over your head and aid ventilation when you are striding out past the point of no return. The hand warmer pockets are found inside the jacket, you just unzip the two way side zips and slip your hands in there. The outer fabric is the same as we have used on the Fantom but without the special AlpFilm that makes the Fantom fabric water resistant. By the time it is finished it should be a great lightweight pullover to bung on in a chilly evening and more suitable for active pursuits.
We were high up in the Freissinieres valley, at least the snow had made it here. It has to be admitted we were not exactly roughing it. A minibus had brought us up to enjoy the 'bivouac' an outdoor gathering rounding off the weeks ice climbing programme. It seemed silly not to make the most of the extra carrying capacity so I stuffed an AD900 in my Gourdon 25 and.. well not much else! Unlike Jerry who had no less than 3 sleeping mats I went with a single Fat Airic under my arm, lucky we only had to walk for 5 mins from the drop off point to the bivouac. After some 'animations' we were each given an Orisako mug. It was a cruel blow to be so close to the Vin Chaud and suddenly to be asked to solve a Krypton Factor challenge. The idea of the bivy, and in fact the festival as a whole was to promote safety whilst ice climbing, but the most danger we were in was the spontaneous combustion of 200 down jackets slowly rotating around the fire. At some point the generator ran out of fuel, the lights went out, the DJ packed away his vinyls and it was time for bed. I spent some time trying to slide my Fat Airic inside my bivy bag.. why inside the bivy bag? because it reduces the amount of moisture freezing itself to the mat during the night, a frozen inflatable mat is a right pain to roll up. Of course I had to give up, it was just to fat! Fortunately the sleeping bag did fit, then came the difficult manouver of getting out of clothes and into the bivy without filling it with snow. It requires balance, cunning and patience but once in you can gaze up at the stars with rosy cheeks and listen to the ice falls breaking off during the night. Temperatures will not have dropped below -5 so it was a comfortable, if somewhat short nights kip. It was probably ideal conditions for the vapour permeable coating on the bivy bag and although some condensation had frozen to the outside it was dry inside.
We used this drybag on a number of occasions from snowboarding in damp conditions to snowshoeing under clear blue skies. Obviously a real bonus is that where ever you put your Gourdon you know that everything inside will stay dry! Its main disadvantage is the lack of straps to attach trekking poles, snowshoes or even an axe. Of course the bag is a duffle, it is designed to be simple and every extra feature will result in price creep. It will be interesting to see how we can take the bag forward, maintaining its simplicity but making it more suitability for specific activities.
Fantom down jacket
All ready shipping, the Fantom marks a progression in the Alpkit down range towards a more technical down insulated jacket. The fit is trimmer, it features a sewn in hood and will suit the more dynamic mountain enthusiasts who get their kicks by confronting more extreme situations. We had put our names down to join the free dry tooling course run by Petzl and the diciest situation we got ourselves into was crossing an iced up plank over the river to the dry tooling venue. As a belay jacket the hood is important, it fits well over a helmet and the wired brim can be used to shape the hood. The big chest pockets are easy to access with gloved hands when you want to tuck up and reduce your external surface area. The outer fabric felt solid, ok it is no suit of armour but at least you don't feel like you are wearing a teabag. Ditching our Goretex jackets we headed into the backcountry. With boards strapped to our backs, legs working overtime and our arms trying to keep to the pace we were comfortably warm in only a lightweight thermal. We followed the ski de fond track from Le Laus on the Col d’Isoard through the forests, and up onto the col below Arpelin. If the weather turned bad we knew that the Fantom would shed the snow well enough, and once up we could put it on to keep warm while we ate lunch. The pure white Fantom was strictly limited edition. We were scared to take it out of its wrapping for the glare. Once on the slopes even the snow looked grey, not a jacket to be skiing in a white out. After the shoot it went straight back in to its plastic wrapping, a striking if not totally practical colour.