First impressions: Mountain Hardware Phantom 45

September 18th, 2013

“in this labyrinth where night is life… the Phantom 45 is there, inside my bivvy bag”

I accepted a few years ago that what I experienced in my Snug-pak Jungle Bag was more akin to feral survival than sleep (it is retired to house duty), and although I have been very impressed with the general UK hills usefulness of my MH Lamina 20 it remains a tad pudgy for ultra-light, small pack use for missions like the GR20 or the MMM. On borrowing a friend’s Phantom 32 (also Mountain Hardware) for last year’s MMM, it was quickly on my radar of possible summer sleepers.

Now, choosing your arsenal of sleeping bags is a very tricky game, and doesn’t come cheap when you want to invest in the best. What balance of temperature ranges, weights, and materials will cover the majority of situations you will encounter? As one of the ‘big 3′ items in your gear it determines much of the weight you will carry, but at the end of the day is also most responsible for keeping you alive and refreshed. Just to note, I’m normally a warm sleeper: in the house I just lie under a sheet in the summer and use a 4.5tog quilt in the winter (+ a rug if it’s freezing out).

At 1400g, the synthetic Lamina 20 excels at allowing you to jump in soaking wet and is comfortable from +7 to -7, which frankly covers all 4 seasons in our high country and takes care of that dangerous ‘cold wet’ zone we frequently are served. I decided that replicating this with down would not be in my best interests in terms of flexibility: all I would achieve is saving 600g. I reckoned that a bag that could cope with close to 0 would give me 2.5/3 season use in the UK, be ideal for hiking trips on the continent where there may be much warmer nights, and weigh as little as possible to maximise space and gram savings. A full-length zip would also add to the comfort range.

Having enjoyed a PHD Hispar for a couple of expeditions, they were my first stop for a summer bag. Excellent quality gear, but it was going to be expensive to get the features I wanted as their ultra-light bags are incredibly minimal and I need something for more than races.

The Marmot Atom was also on my list. I saw one in Jackson Sports and it had a lovely loft and was very well constructed, with probably the best zipper set-up I’ve seen on a sleeping bag. Not a bad price either, but I found mixed reviews about it’s temperature performance (rated 5 degrees) and it was a smidge heavier due to slightly more durable fabric.

The Rab Neutrino 200 couldn’t be overlooked for value and awesome colour, but was slightly heavier too and only had a half-zip.

I did consider investing in a Z-packs hoodless sleeping bag which are insanely light and easily open into a quilt for warmer nights, but the unusual design would probably not pass muster for race events like the MMM. Might still revisit this idea if I do a through-hike like the CDT.

Finally, there was the Mountain Hardware Phantom. These bags are both very light and happen to rate a few degrees lower than they are designed for. Too good to be true? Well, a lot of the reviews seemed to indicate that they were indeed very warm. I was positively boiling last year in the 32, so my attention drifted upwards to the 45… supposedly much the same as the Marmot Atom, but actually rated to about 0 (32) for the lower comfort! A double ended full-zip, good foot box, and tight hood complete the package. At a mere 530g including stuff sac, for only £180 in the sale, there was simply no reason to choose any other bag.

Phantom45

The weight quoted above is what I weighed it at on the digital scales, and the stuff sac is about the size of a DVD: a reckon a green Exped drybag would be a good substitute for more protection. I’ve since had the bag out on 2 overnighters and a 4-day trip to the Cairngorms, each time bivvying inside a Rab Survival Zone. The bag lofts really well when you get in and I have not seen any feathers poking through yet, which I’m used to expecting from most light down gear. The zip snags much less than on the Lamina, and has a good baffle. Being super light for moderate temperatures, there are no neck/shoulder baffles. This is fine, as the bag cuts in close over the shoulders with a good mummy hood: fully zipped it seals nicely around your head to stop the body heat escaping. I am just about 6ft tall and the bag is at the limit height wise… anyone taller, I would recommend the long model.

The first 2 trips were up around 13-15 degrees in very breezy locations. No bother. The 4 day was based at Glenmore campsite and ran the gammut from sticky, still rain to windy, and heavy dew. The zips were most welcome on the hot nights, but everything gets very damp in the bivvy when it is less than wide open… not an option in the rain or with thousands of midges on the hunt. The bag stayed comfortable, and dried rather well airing my friend’s tent for the day. The last night had rather a cool breeze and clear sky. It must certainly have dropped to single figures as there was a heavy dew and yet more condensation inside the bivvy (bit more than I would expect for Pertex Shield). After 3 days of running and feeling a bit ill, it’s not much of a surprise that I got a bit cool, but closing the zipper and cinching the hood stopped my heat escaping. I was just wearing a threadbare LS merino 200 top.

So far, so good. Just a few days until the MMM, then I’ll no doubt be looking to test the bag into the lower temps of late autumn. I don’t think a cool, damp bivvy will work very well, but it should be ok on those crisp nights and I think in a tent, wearing decent long base layers and feeling fresh it could well cope with a touch of frost. It may even fit inside the Lamina to extend it’s range perhaps down to -12 or so… definitely covered for anything the UK can throw at me. The last foreseeable addition to the arsenal might be a PHD combi bag/combi hispar for cold lightweight trips. A wide cut bag that is good to -5 on it’s own or would take the Phantom as an inner for -15 or beyond. Both combined would be lighter than the Lamina. I’ll keep you posted.

Run to the hills: Cairngorm trip

August 30th, 2013

Eoin, one of the other ultra-runners in work (we have 3!), was desperate to get away for a few days during his summer week. Annecy was deemed too expensive this year, so Aviemore was the second choice. Not being confident with maps yet, he invited me along as co-driver. Surprisingly, the boss allowed me off at the same time so we booked the bus, boat and trains, then negotiated the sometimes cryptic campsite price-systems to get backpacker rates for 4 nights: the plan was to set up base-camp somewhere with showers and a pub, and run out from there each day. Glenmore Forest campsite proved ideal with nice facilities and Loch Morlich right beside it for post-run leg cooling. The small shop has recently added a bar that provided a few benches for patrons and their dogs to enjoy some live folk music, decent drinks (Red Stag slips down very well), and hide from the midges.

We both went overboard with luxury, stuffing our expedition duffles with many changes of clothes, towels, food, and cooking apparatus. Sometimes it’s nice to remind yourself why you normally go lightweight… There was little lugging involved however as we transitioned smoothly from transport to transport for 11 hours. Gourmet hotdogs, pints and chocolate brownies in Glasgow broke up the journey and added an air of hedonous pre-celebration. Despite bringing 5 books, I spent the rest of the journey dozing off and randomly waking up to point out an excellent mountain bike line spotted out the window (you can’t go 5 mins without spotting something tasty).

Aviemore greets us with a sunset

We hopped off the train in the evening and stayed the night in Aviemore itself. There was no need for dinner after the feasting earlier, but we bought supplies and watched all the Harley’s rumbling in for the weekend’s “Thunder in the Glens” event. In the morning, we took our last bus up the valley to Glenmore, set up camp and finally headed off to the hills for the first run. I really struggled as we slogged straight up Cairngorm itself. The Windy Ridge proved an apt name and I’m sure Eoin was getting chilly as he kept having to wait for me: I always seem to take a few hours to get going, especially if starting straight into a climb. For all three days, the mountain tops sat in cloud, cutting off our views, but it never really rained on us, and after day one the wind died right down also. *note: do not take a compass reading near the weather station on top of Cairngorm – you will get a very false reading!

Eoin and Craig on summit of Cairngorm

Craig scrambling up a ridge

Steep, rocky descent

We dropped straight over the summit and followed the craggy ridge over some more high points, taking in some rocky scrambles at the end and dropping onto a sweet, fast trail back to the campsite. Curses! I went over on my ankle on the most easy, flat section of path. This is never good, but especially on day 1 of a running trip. I quickly resumed an easy run and the twinges loosened up. With a dip in the lake, I was thankfully good to go for the rest of the holiday. 14 miles done.

Prepping dinner in the rain.

The rain began that evening as darkness fell and I tried to do all the prep for my dinners. If it wasn’t raining, the midges were swarming. I calmly persevered, and finally enjoyed a big pot of pasta, peppers, pesto, onions and pork. With all the prep done, subsequent dinners would be much quicker. On the high side of six foot, I let Eoin have the 2-man tent to himself and bivvied. This really is my preference these days, but I admit it was muggy and damp during the wet night. It also seemed like there were thousands of midges buzzing around me when I opened my eyes and peered through my head-net into the dawn light. Can’t get much closer to nature!

Up the Lairig Ghru trail

Eoin running up the trail

Day 2 turned into the longest run. We wound our way through open forest and heather scrub up onto the Lairig Ghru. Nice steady running through beautiful landscape. Eventually the big ascent arrived, and we peeled off the path to march up Braeriach into the mist. A close grey, littered with rocks was a surreal and eerie environment. We hit the summit then aimed to cut across a flat section and wind around another edge to pick off 2 more tops. Now, despite taking the odd bearing things started to get strange and confusing. There were several ‘ah, we must be here’ moments before the final stumping when walkers we had passed earlier appeared from a side track in front of us… and we reached the summit… again. Now, this could be construed as embarrassing for someone about to do the elite class in the MMM, but I’d prefer to think of it as a good lesson for my companion… the compasses came out and stayed firmly in our palms, with bearings set. It soon became clear how, negotiating around the various terrain obstacles, could have you 90 degrees off track in a matter of minutes and be none the wiser if you didn’t stay glued to the compass. We soon used streams and a cliff edge as catching features and honed in on a steep goat track down into the next valley. Some scrambling and sliding found us emerge below the cloud at a nice waterfall leading to Loch Eanaich. After 3 hours messing about up in the clag, we welcomed the runnable trail that went on for about 5 miles. We started knocking out 8 minute miles, but a new battle with fueling was lurking just ahead. Soon we were devouring our remaining gels and bars every 10-15 minutes as we kept dropping into empty, and eventually it was a trundle down to the lake with nothing more in the bag or tank. None-the-less, a satisfying end to 27 miles of great start and end running, and a hearty lesson in navigation in the middle. Hearty dinners were ahead, with a few hours pinting and listening to Riverman Rod in the Pine Martin Bar.

Waters of Dee? Meeting just before they fall over the cliff

Glorious descent ahead

We originally had massive plans for Day 3, but I quickly agreed when Eoin suggested he’d be ”happy with 20”. Our route was easily modified by dropping the first 800m climb and selecting one-sooner valley. My energy just wasn’t there and my sore throat-turned cold had settled into a gruff cough. We missed our path up Strath Nethy until we had climbed enough above to see it snake through the boggy heath. It was clear that this is a terrible quagmire a lot of the year, but the dry summer left it firm enough to skip through. Solidity aside, it was still highly technical, and barely wide enough for a foot in places with heather scratching the shins and disturbed bees chasing us along. It was walking speed, but we’d like to think still quicker than walkers would walk it, and added to our wilderness adventure. The quiet slog was rewarded with views opening out over the saddle and we tumbled down along the lake to it’s beachy head near the famous Shelter Stone.

Strath Nethy

Trail winding up Ben MacDhui

Final descent

I bust my ankle again when a step-down gave way, but we immediately started up a steep climb and as the gradient lowered my ‘old man shuffle’ soon loosened it up once again: I am very happy with this unusual sprain-recovery technique… keep running (careful, but relaxed/symmetrical)! We exchanged pleasantries with others at the summit of Ben MacDhui, then had miles of glorious descent to finish our adventure. Eoin developed a tendon pain on the way down and as we neared the last few miles of road and track I got a stabbing shin pain (from over-poised foot on the tech descent). I think we got the most we could from our trip and our bodies were suggesting they had had enough for now… just a hint of things to be careful of: we were both ok the next day. I was happy to rest on the journey home and enjoy the views we had missed, as Scotland had a fine day of sunshine to see us off. Thanks to Ann from Minnesota for the lift into Aviemore when Scotland’s excellent transport network just failed to turn up!

100km (62 miles) run, 3600m ascent, in about 14.5 hours over 3 days. I think we covered a good 80 sq km of the national park, but know we only scratched the surface. There are so many trails, routes and variations that you could run everyday for a year and still find new things to do. We would go back in an instant.

Recovery time!

* Credit to Eoin for any of the photos I’m in!  You can see more of my photos from the trip on Flickr

WHW: reflections

June 27th, 2013

Reflecting on the race after some solid sleep, my hydration was good, my legs were good, but the food/energy supply was the weak link. I got through about 40 gels, 3 bars, half a tub of peanut butter and chocolate spread respectively, and a bowl of pasta bolognese with garlic bread slices. That’s probably close to 6000 calories during the race, not to mention the battered sausage supper 4 hrs before the start. The other 10,000 calories could have been supplied by 1kg of body fat, and they must have been because I just didn’t eat them. The energy delivery wasn’t there though. I could not sustain a run without my body freaking out. If I want to do anything over 50 miles again, I may have to look again at fat adaptation. It really didn’t work for me before, but there are some nutritionists about, like Barry Murray, who seem pretty successful themselves. It might be worth consulting to see what insights and angles they take on it. I’ll be on a healthy eating buzz over the summer anyway, so will focus on lo-carb and fat burning and see how it affects my activities.

On the other hand, maybe I could have run more but the mind or ‘central governor’ kicked in? I knew my legs were still fresh but there was nothing to drive them, and increasing tempo kept spiraling me down to a bad state of mental fog, vision problems and losing temperature control. I’m used to pushing myself, but perhaps the primitive mind sees something so long in a different way… I don’t know enough about it.

Regarding GPS, a Garmin Forerunner 305 cannot be made to work for that long. Although I strapped it to the charging unit to overcome the 13 hour battery life, it wrote over the start of the race due to limited memory. I’ve seen a guy online recorded a 30 hr flight, but I guess that has very little variation to speed, direction, altitude. A trail run has constant variation that obviously takes up space, even in Smart Data mode. It’ll not work.

Inov8 Roclite 295’s. Mostly love again for these shoes. Over wet rocks, roots, planks, and dusty gravel these puppies just grip with no questions asked. The endurance last is also nice and roomy for my wide feet so no blisters to speak of. There’s about 600km on this pair now and I appear to have worn through the material at the back of the heel. This did give me a bit of a blister eventually. This happens quite often in my shoes and normally isn’t a problem although the edges to this hole are quite pronounced. I’ll try a bit of duct tape over it to see if that keeps them serviceable. I still think I run a bit clunky in the 3 arrow sole – the whole sole slapping down at once when I mid-foot strike. My battered Merrell Trail Gloves with 1000km on them are still the shoe I run best in, even though they have zero grip except on flat surfaces. It may be interesting to try some of the new Inov8 anatomic last shoes like the Trailroc. The rough, bouldery terrain that comprises much of the WHW does batter your feet after a while, but I reckon it is just something you have to put up with. I did see some crazy cushioned shoes being used but I know I would break my ankle running in something like that. I’ll take a bit of bruising vs a serious injury.

I was also asked on a forum, “what goes through your mind to keep you going?”, and this was my answer: Basically there’s nothing going through my mind most of the time. Questioning things and thinking ahead tends to give me anxiety like the fateful Tyndrum section… “too many mind. No mind” (Last Samurai) I had to tell myself. Just make choices related to pre-arranged goals, then keep going. After the near total breakdown, my sub-23 and sub-24 hour goals were gone. All I had left was undefined ‘finish’, so once I chose to start moving again at each checkpoint all there was…was not falling over. Given that that is pretty instinctual, I didn’t have to think about anything. Occasionally, I had to ‘think’ to eat and drink, or think to look at the scenery and remember it. If pain gets worse or your condition worsens you obviously have to do something about it, but if it stays the same then you are already coping with it and can continue to do so. Of course, you can stop at any time, but as the Buddha says… desire leads to suffering… and I desired a crystal goblet for my efforts!

Finally, I noticed a tip yesterday that seemed to work for some people – take an anti-histamine tablet before the race then, when you do get bitten by the midges, the bites don’t itch and drive you crazy. One to remember!