Undulating snow on the Vercors Plateau (French Alps)

Panic in november. No freezing. No snow. Ski resorts in full frantic. Xmass holidays are coming. Hyperventilation! But when people were losing all hope in climate, big fat “high pressure” momma left the continent and made way for northwesterly runs smashing in moisture into the Alps, providing 2m of snow by the time the turkeys were filled. Whew! Winter saved. Get the snow shoes of stable. Ready for some powder blues.

Mont Aiguille

Mont Aiguille

With a winter traverse of arctic Sarek scheduled for end March, we wanted to do some more field tests of our winter gear: pulka, snow shoes, Therm-A-Rest NeoAir All-Season,… and yeah, testing the tarping business on stable winter conditions. Que?

So on the last week of the diverse year 2011 we spent on the Western Alps’ finest balcony: the undulating Vercors. Set upon a limestone plateau in the Rhône-Alpes region of southeastern France, the Vercors plateau extends into the Western Alps, catching the first moisture before it hits the main ridges and high summits of the main Alps more to the west.

Surrounded by high cliffs whatever the side you approach it, you will need to enter the plateau trough deep gorges or tight passes. The Vercors plateaus generally run north-south at around 1400m altitude, is rather woody (esp.pines, it reminds us a lot on northern Scandinavia) with intermediate vast, windswept spaces. It’s real danger however lies in the large network of karst cracks permeable to water making it a desert in summer and a “crevasse-hidden glacier” in winter.

Winter bivaouc with view on the Mont Aiguille (2087m)

Winter bivaouc with view on the Mont Aiguille (2087m)

On the north side of the plateau, easy accesbile from the city of Grenoble, you will find some ski-stations, where it’s less interesting for the “wilderness”-hiker. To the south-east, the plateau is protected in the Parc Naturel Régional du Vercors, only dotted with some very basic shelters, providing some refuge for when it gets erratic on the plateau. And when nasty weather hits in, then it can howl badly, so come prepared, summer or winter! In winter it’s a paradise for snow shoeing, cross-country skiing and even pulling a pulk. No experience so far in summer, but water scarce seems to be the bottleneck in this season.

The trip report is put in a short movie, so I will not talk too much about the tour in detail, it takes 6 minutes of your valuable time:

Gear field tests:

Altough not as such use for short trips and especially if it is not too cold (like it was on the first night), we wanted to test the vapor barrier line technique in our sleeping bag.

So this was the winter set-up, from skin towards open skies:

– base layer
AMK Heatsheets Emergency Bivvy Sleeping Bag (VBL-layer, to prevent body vaporation to get into the down sleeping bag)
Valandre Classic 900 down sleeping bag (-7°C comfort temperature)
Rab Survival Zone Bivy Bag (external bivy bag)
MSR Twing Tarp

This was the winter sleeping set up, which worked only well when temperaturs reached -7°C and lower. One night it was barely freezing, and we were litteraly boiling eggs. Result, half way night we woke up in a puddle of sweat (collected in the VBL) and had to ditch the VBL and base layer. This will be our setup for Sarek, but we will bring along a heavy winter tent for frantic nights… to be continued.

Winter tarping  under the Milky way

Winter tarping under the Milky way

Back in november in Switserland we did’nt come to testing our new Therm-A-Rest NeoAir All-Season (R4.9) sleeping pad. This was payback time, immediatly in winter! We used to haul with the bulky and heavy Prolite Plus (R3.8). Unlike the prolite plus, a self inflating matress, the neo air has to be inflated completely manually. The store away serves as inflate-bag, but this just doesn’t work. So ditch it, and use your bare lungs. It warms you up. But leaves you with some hyperventilation 🙂

When you lay upon the matress, at first it will feel cold and the squeezing metallic sound of the inner fabric bothers you. After a couple of minutes the technology unfolds: the inside warmth reflection reliefs! How nice is that! On a surplus it’s more comfartable sleeping then the “hard” prolites. Are we happy with this quite light product: you bet yes!

Jump!

Jump!

Windy and Undulating Vercors

Windy and Undulating Vercors

Before we forget: a happy new year to you all and thanx for passing by this blog.

2012 promises to be an adventurous year with loads of things coming up. We are especially and eagerly awaiting a new member of our family: the Alpacka unrigged explorer PACKRAFT! Our adventures will no longer be limited to mountains, fields and forrests, but will be extended onto open waters.

So more coming up on that shortly!

For more pictures from this trip, please visit our online album!

Cheers
S+K

Gear – The Tarping Business (a MSR Twing field review)

As late bloomers in all things (ultra)light, we only tried tarping since last summer. After some tests in our garden, we went tarping last summer in Iceland and Greenland. Tarping in the arctic? In always-horrible-wind-swept Iceland? Are you nuts? In wicked-and-unpredictable-wild Greenland? Oh, go take a break and please reconsider your “stupid” idea… People labeled us “loco”/”screw loose”…

MSR Twing Tarp with custom adapted bug net,  Tasilap kua Valley, East-Greenland

MSR Twing Tarp with custom adapted bug net, Tasilap kua Valley, East-Greenland

In our quest to reduce the weight of the big 3 we wanted to test what a tarp would mean as a shelter in 3-season conditions, even in the “treeless” arctic. Part of the decision to go tarping is practical (go lighter) and part philosophical (being more close to nature). Still we were quite uncertain on how a tarp could possibly replace the safe heaven of a tent, especially when it would go erratic out there.

While we were initially interested in getting the MLD Trailstar, we found a 1/2 discounted MSR Twing Tarp from a dutch wholesaler, who had it on display for a couple of days at a tent show. Tschitsching for a tarp which would otherwise cost easily 250 euros fresh from the shop!

Freestanding, it covers a huge area (6 sqm!) to be pitched with 2 walking poles (the MLD Trailstar only needs one pole!). Because of this size, you lose a bit of flexibility that you actually want to achieve with a tarp, a disadvantage of most 2-person tarps I reckon. On the other hand, the size adds to comfort. It’s a palace for 2 persons to sleep under, and still roomy for having an outdoor cooking party of 4 to 6 persons. Handy on group trips in rainy/windy environments. There are a lot of discussions on what the difference is between a tarp and a tarp-tent, well i would put this “tarp” somewhere in between the tarp and tarp-tent. … Here we go for another round on tarptent battling around the camp fire 😉

4000gr expedition tent Outside Mountain Equipment NOVA (left) and 850gr MSR Twing Tarp (right), Llinera-valley, East-Greenland

4000gr expedition tent Outside Mountain Equipment NOVA (left) and 850gr MSR Twing Tarp (right), Llinera-valley, East-Greenland

We still have to play with different possible pitches, but the standard pitch (with all stakes in the soil) is a storm pitch: the rear and side panels secured to the ground. The rear side has to be put against the wind if don’t want to wake up without a roof. With the guy lines you can however leave open vents from 5 – 20cm to the soil (you can put rocks on the panels on stormy conditions to close it completely). The front of the tarp stays open (ventilation!), but if you remove the front pole, you could find a pitch to completely shut off the surroundings. The hardest wind we’ve encountered was something around 15m/s, while bivouacing on a ridge. The wind would then pound against the back, causing the front pannel to shake with high frequency, but nothing that would let you out of your sleep (if you put earplugs in ;-)). So is it bomb proof? Probably… but still to be tested in more harsh conditions.

Is it waterproof? The tarp comes seamsealed from the manufacturer. We had some downpoors (not longer then 1 hour) and stayed bone dry!

On clear, windstill and cold nights (min. -5C min), we had negligible condensation on the ceiling of the tarp. The down sleeping bags, we kept condensation free with Rab Bivy Suvival Zone, a perfect humidity and wind barrier! We never had any form of moisture on the sleeping bags by morning!

In Greenland, we had a lot of flying, crittering friends around: midges and mosquitoes (even in windy weather). On the last gasp of setting of for the trip we found a CarePlus mosquito net on the attic (from previous trips to the tropics) and stripped it to its essentials. With some acrobatics and stones we could easily secure the bug net under the tarp.

MSR Twing Tarp with custom stripped bug net, Tasilap kua Valley, East-Greenland

MSR Twing Tarp with custom stripped bug net, Tasilap kua Valley, East-Greenland

So we set off to the Arctic with nothing but a tarp and we must admit it went very well with the tarp, not to say extremely well and we really liked it a lot to be so close to nature when dreaming away in our sleeping bags while the ice bergs would tuff by. We had mostly friendly weather… But as Martin Rye mentioned some years ago in his blog, the choice between tarp or tent should not always be taken too lightly (what’s in a word).

Altough our recent experience in Iceland and Greenland proved that tarping above the treeline could be quite hassle free (if the weather cooperates ), we still have our doubts for future “monster” hikes we plan to make in Lapland and Patagonia. What if the weather really gets nasty for multiple days and we are in the middle of the wilderness (above the tree line), days away from civiilization, would it not be “safer” in for example a Hillberg Nallo? The mental battle still goes on…

To finish, I would like to quote Joery Truyen’s opinion on this issue:

I think a lot of people often choose an uncomfortable bivouac spot just because ONE, they just don’t know how to recognize the signs that tell you there is a storm coming and TWO, when the wind is blowing many people just don’t seem to be aware where they can find the most sheltered places in complex terrain. If you don’t want to develop these skills and don’t like to spend the effort, I think you will more often risk uncomfortable nights under your tarp in places above tree line. At the end hiking succesfully with lightweight material is all about developing the appropriate skills and knowing the limitations of your gear and yourself.

Leaving the tarp for a side exploration, Fjallabak Nature Reserve, Iceland

Leaving the tarp for a side exploration, Fjallabak Nature Reserve, Iceland

Specs in this field test

MSR Twing Tarp 850gr (300gr heavier then the MLD Trailstar!)
Stakes + bag 80gr
RAB Survival ZoneBivy Bag 300gr
Careplus stripped down mosquito net 350gr
6sqm simply shiny plastic ground sheet 80gr.