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It was meant to be elsewhere. Foinaven in fact. But it wasn’t. Plans change, deadlines shift, people have stuff to do. In between the banter, a vague plan was formed: Mount Keen, pick a day and the other details would take care of themselves.
The day in question was a Saturday and we were to meet at Gus’s gaff at lunchtime-ish. That’s almost military precision for us. Saturday morning are busy times, dancing lessons, rainbows and errands, so I got home at 11am and started packing. Last minute or just-in-time? A box was filled with random outdoor accoutrements and I scooted away, only to have to stop at the end of the drive and run back into the house to get some trousers.
A short drive later I was at Chez Gus with coffee in hand. Very civilised. I heard and felt a low rumble, like someone was driving a panzer up the street. Petesy had arrived. The retro pickup disgorged a box full of kit and we loaded up the van. Further cuppas were had, and then we hit the road. To Asda, about 500 metres away. Supplies were gathered, only the lightest and most essential provisions: wine, cheese, porridge, wine, pastries, wine, sweeties. You know that proverb that says it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey? It’s actually about the food on the journey. Fully laden we set off north east, in search of mountains.
We screeched to a halt in Edzell, for we had spotted something important: the last coffee shop before our destination. Petesy has an inbuilt radar for these things.Twenty minutes later and fully cuppa-and-sconed, we perused the checked shirts, tourist trinkets and hunter wellies. The highlight was the kilt socks, available in a dashing purple and a snip at £85. And you thought your hiking socks were expensive.
The last stretch of road up Glen Esk was short and we pulled into the icy car park at the same time as the darkness. Packs were stapped to capacity and then in Gus’s case had skis and boots stuck on top. We were off.
The landrover track up Glen Mark was covered in compressed snow and ice, and there was a constant smirr being blown across the headtorch beams. The snow coverage off the path was patchy in the extreme, surprising for the time of year. I’d expected to be snow plodding the whole way. We made steady progress, crossing a snowbridge over a burn and dodging the sections of ice with meltwater below. At this stage it occurred to me that we could introduce a new unit of distance measurement; the babybel. This unit would be based on the number of small cheeses consumed by Petesy per hour. After about 3 babybels we reached the Queens Well, which we could just make out by torchlight a little way off the track. Mark cottage was empty (but available for rent) and we started up the track beside the ladder burn.
There was much peching and panting, winter packs are heavy and in Gus’s case made worse by carrying ski gubbins. Eventually it paid off as we passed through the zig zag and onto the broad ridge, the snow was more consistent and Gus could don skis. He skinned up as we plodded.
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We’d spotted a relatively flattish section on the map at around 750m and made for that; legs were tiring, it was getting late and there was still much to do. The wind was steady and fairly cold. We pitched the tents and constructed some small snow dykes to keep the worst of the wind at bay. Dinner was hastily prepared and consumed. Gus produced a plastic bottle containing 1.5l of red wine, which he started to heat on the stove. Warm Malbec Sir? Luxury camping indeed. Extra points awarded for carting that up the hill, as if he didn’t have enough to carry.
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Lights were seen approaching up the ladder burn, so Gus and I set out to meet them. It was the other Gus, along with his buddy Eamonn, come to join the party and making good time despite ski gear to carry. A pair of Aktos were pitched and the fellowship was complete. Wine and banter flowed. The lingering cloud showed signs of breaking up, perhaps the morning would be clear. After a load of wine, chat and probably more cheese, we turned in, hopeful of more delights to come.
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I crashed out quickly, and then was woken abruptly, firstly by the wind and then again by another sound. The grouse had started. The bastard grouse.
They cawed and chutted and arked. They squawked and pukked and orked. At some points seemingly about ten feet from my head. I couldn’t raise the energy to get out of the depths of my bag to look out. Then something had a good rummage about just outside the tent. Every so often I’d drop off only to be roused by another loud call from the little gits. Sometime around 3am the wind died off completely and it became still. I could have taken some star photos, but sleep took priority. I dozed on and off, with only the wee feathered terrors for entertainment until my brain registered a change in the light. I checked the watch, it was 45 mins until dawn, time to head out for a look. The sky was a wash of purples and deep oranges and browns. The day was fast approaching.
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Breakfast was consumed in between taking photos and general wandering about and absorbing of the atmosphere. Heads popped out of tents and we gathered to form a plan. Petesy and I would wander up to the summit of Keen, those with planks would follow on and survey the best opportunities for some lengthy downhill runs. We left the camp in place, and thus unencumbered set off up the hill. The track was wide and well maintained, with decent long sections of well consolidated snow. We make quick progress. We could see the skiers following on further below and tried to direct them to the best snow we could from our advantage of altitude. The summit was beautifully rimed and had spectacular views of Lochnagar,  the central Cairngorm and across to Bennachie, Clachnaben and the skyscrapers of Aberdeen.
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We hung about snapping photos and shortly the line of skiers appeared, carrying their planks up the bouldery final section.
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 The east slope looked good, skis would be used on the descent. Petesy and I headed down towards camp to get the best view of the action on the snowy expanse. We stumbled across a beautifully carved boulder, looking like it had always been there. Intricate work, did someone do it on site or did they carve the rock and then install it? Either way, it was either one of these mountain art installations that seem to be popping up, or more likely a memorial stone. Did someone have their ashes scattered here? I can think of worse places to while away eternity.
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Mount Keen
Sitting in the sun on a rock looking out over the snow clad mountains, knowing that back at camp there was hot food and a cuppa. Joy.
The skiers hove into view, having made an wee traverse across from below the summit. They set off down the eastern expanse at a fine pace, carving turns down and then traversing across back to camp. We wandered behind, frightening ptarmigans and grouse, which were utterly silent now. Little swines.
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Lunch was had and camp was struck, with the skiers heading off to investigate the snow packed gully and the walkers heading down the trail. We watched as the two Guses and Eamonn scudded down the gully, occasionally whooping as they were surprised by icy bits.
We met up at the zig zags and started the walk back to the van. The queens well was more visible this time. I still wouldn’t drink from it mind. The miles back to the car were sped by admiring the sun-kissed views.
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We reconvened back at the coffee shop. Strangely, no-one had bought the socks.
  • February 14, 2015 - 10:38 pm

    Martin Rye - Some cracking photos you have shared there. Looked a fine night out. Lets hope its one of many for you this year.

  • February 16, 2015 - 7:55 pm

    MT - Thanks Martin. Here’s hoping there’s a few more like that!

It’s a rare event to have an outdoor trade show in Scotland, so the Reliable Outdoor Kit show is a significant point of note for the calendar. The great thing about these shows is that you get to see some of the gear from lesser-known brands, or should I say lesser-stocked. With the slow death of the specialist independent outdoor retailer in Scotland over the last decade, the choice is limited to say the least, and the buyers at Tiso et al like to tell you what you as the consumer should want. Mostly in black or brown. Well there’s a whole world of gear out there, only a fraction of which you’ll see on the shelves, and a lot of it does what the big brand stuff does, but sometimes better and at a lower price. Some of it is very innovative and downright great, so it pays to get to know what’s out there. With the proliferation of online shopping, the world really is your oyster, but how do you get to know about it?

Most of these shows are trade only, so you’re unlikely to get to see this kit and if the buyers don’t pick it up you won’t see it on any shelves either, unless you’re a regular at the few remaining independents in England. So how to bridge that gap? Well sites like this are a good place to start. There’s an army of people doing what I do, new media isn’t new any more and the reader numbers prove it. Let’s head to Ratho and check it out.

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First up is a wee gem from Nordisk. How about a sleeping bag rated at 5 degrees with a synthetic fill that only weighs 500g? The Oscar attracted at lot of attention at Outdoor in Friedrichshaven, and rightly so.  Synthetic fills are easier to handle in Scottish summers, but generally a fair bit heavier than down so it’s definitely worth a look. Couple it with the Nordisk Telemark tent and your damp conditions ‘big three’ weight just took a nose dive and the wee compression system keeps the pack size down too. Awesome. I’m keen to take this for a spin.

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WildClimb is an Italian/Romanian producer of climbing shoes, distributed here in the UK by Troll. These look well made with a good range across all skill levels and very competitive in terms of pricing.

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Also from Troll, TerraPeak rucksacks are new and definitely aggressive in terms of pricing. It looks like an interesting range with some good material choices and features.

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Climbing Technology were showing off their climbing hardware. You’ll likely be familiar with the Click Up belay device, well they have a new device, the Be Up which looks to be of interest to guides and mountaineers for a light and compact auto-locking device. Yours for only 26 quid. Beats a GriGri any day.

The winter kit range is definitely worth a look, the Agile Plus Ice Axe caught my eye at 315g for £50 and the Pro Light crampons look tasty too.

Want to kit yourself out with a rack for not a lot of bucks? This is a good place to start.

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Talking of Troll as I did earlier, fans of the Omni Pants will be happy to see the Omni smock which packs down into it’s pocket and clips on your harness. Windproof, water resistant, 225g for £50. Ideal for summer nights cragging. Also it’s Troll. Tradition maintained.

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CAMP are a family company from Italy who have a centenary Neve axe with a special price which I think you’ll like and the rather splendid X-Gyro leash system with wee rotators to stop you getting tangled up. I like this. Watch out for the Matik belay device too. Smart design and well thought through to avoid the problems other such devices have. I reckon it’ll become standard issue at walls and youth groups.

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Suprabeam focuses on headtorches that just do the job. A single light, no faff, no unnecessary features. Interesting.

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The lightweight microspikes market has been flooded with copies from China, all more or less the same as each other, but here’s something of interest from Snowline, the Chainsen Pro which has 1cm long teeth at 360g and Chainsen Light, which has decent spikes at 240g for a size large. They also come in purple:)

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Sierra Designs had mostly passed me by so far, but looking closer reveals some very innovative sleeping bags. How about the Mobile Mummy, with wee arm ports and footbox that you can pop your feet out of. Moving about at camp without having to get out of your bag? Oh yes. Their Backcountry Quilt looks awesome too. The clothing range took me by surprise and I’ll be trying to sort out some review kit so I can go into it in more depth.

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KoziKidz showed me some of the upcoming goodies for the kids. They still corner the market on proper outdoor kit for small people. Base layers and insulated jackets with Elk on them.  Proper softshell is coming in the shape of the cunningly named Softshell jacket , along with the lovely Smidig insulation piece which comes with it’s own stuff sack just like a grown up puffa jacket. Love this kit, almost as much as my kids do. Also, orange owls. My only disappointment is that they don’t make it in big people sizes.

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Viking Footwear is another brand I’m not entirely familiar with, so it was nice to have a wee tour of the range with Donald and Frances. It looks like there’s a fair bit to pay attention to, with thermal boots for the kids and some innovative trail and approach shoes, along with mountain boots. I’ll be trying to line up some reviews of these for you later.

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Water2go is a nice wee solution for those who want water filtration but really can’t be bothered with faff. Dead simple with bottle that’ll go in the dishwasher. Solutions for lazy people are good. I tend not to use filtration in the highlands, but if I’m heading south I might have to take it for a spin before I contract sheepitis.

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Paramo you most certainly will be familiar with. Too hot and too heavy is the feedback some give me, others will say it’s the best solution to a Scottish winter ever invented. You decide. What you might be surprised with is the Enduro layering duo where they separate the fleece and windproof to give better control of layers and hence temperature without changing the fundamental principle. The fleece breathes well on it’s own, the windproof on it’s own is good wind protection, couple them for the full Paramo experience. The vents line up between the two so you can make the best use of them which is smart design and maybe the solution to many people’s thermal issues.

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I did bump into Gus which was nice, and he gave me a tour of the Wigwam range. It deserves a post of it’s own, so that’ll follow soon.

Last up is Silverpoint who piqued my interest with some well specced torches at very decent prices. I’ve got one in on test, so I’ll give you the low down shortly.

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There were a few others I’d like to have seen, but alas time was short and conversation was long. I’ve got a fair bit of review kit on the way, so I’ll keep you updated in progress.

ROK on.

  • January 28, 2015 - 7:35 am

    Hendrik - My son has used Viking Thermo boots this winter and liked them a lot. Give more freedom of movement as the other pair of little booties we had last winter. We just bought a 2nd pair a couple of sizes larger for next winter, so we rate them well =)

  • January 28, 2015 - 7:36 am

    Hendrik - My son uses Viking Thermo boots this winter and liked them a lot. Give more freedom of movement as the other pair of little booties we had last winter. We just bought a 2nd pair a couple of sizes larger for next winter, so we rate them well =)

  • January 29, 2015 - 2:04 pm

    MT - Cheers Hendrik, good to know.

  • February 17, 2015 - 8:48 am

    Werner Koch - Hi, nice comment on snowline spikes.
    Regarding copies from China, please be aware out there that all types of anti-slip devices are registered as PPE (personal protective equipment) category II and require a CE certification to be sold in the EU.
    Find out more on snowline products, which are all CE certfied and approved by TUeV Germany: http://www.kochalpin.at/en/brands/snowline/
    Werner

Aye, I’ve been busy, it’s always the same at this time of year and so this place goes a bit quiet. The snow’s arrived in decent amounts now and I’ll shall be heading off to play in it with a fair bit of shiny new gear from Arc’teryx, MSR, Rab and Montane, to name but a few. Stay tuned for more write-ups from the white stuff.

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