Winter’s Last Stand

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Spring didn’t quite make it to Llanwrtyd Wells this weekend…

While Saturday morning started fine, the rain had begun to fall by the time the last pair, Gary Tompsett and Phil Hodgkiss left Llanwrtyd Wells. The weatherman was right for a change, which was something of a pity as the few days preceding the event were really nice while I was putting checkpoints out. You should have been treated to views like those below

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View from Checkpoint 23

Cwm y Rhaiadr (Checkpoint 2)

Instead, the rain got progressively harder and the trail conditions got all the more difficult. A few dropped out, but I was pleased to see so many make it to the overnight camp. The rain continued to fall into the night, before the clouds cleared and the temperature dropped to freezing.

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I was relieved to see the second day dawn beneath a predominantly blue sky to reward those who had endured a difficult and cold night under canvas. Apart from the odd hail storm, giving the hint that winter hasn’t quite left us behind, riders were at least able to get a feel for how spectacular this area and the trails that criss-cross it are.

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Well done to everyone who made it back in one piece. Maybe see you at another event – either as a competitor or perhaps a planner…

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Look after the grams…

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…and the kilo’s look after themselves.

I’ve accumulated a good few pieces of kit towards the Sub 4kg project now.

Stoves

There’s a lot of choice in this department. I started off with an MSR Pocket Rocket (83g) which ran off a gas canister (about 150g, part used). My Snowpeak Ti pan (105g) could be considered something of a luxury compared to a foil tray from the curry house, but it makes cooking a bit more straightforward. An MSR Ti spork tipped the scales at 16g, bringing the total weight of my cooking gear to 354g. Using gas, this is pretty light and to save any weight I needed to look at an alternative source of fuel.

Meths stoves are the obvious choice here, solid fuel stoves don’t quite have the punch to bring your water to the boil quickly. Things have moved on from the trangia, and there’s a vast array of websites with instructions on making your own pepsi-can stoves. Fortunately for me, there are also companies that have taken the hard work out of it and have refined the design in the process. Whitebox and Vargo are two brands that are at the head of the game. I plumped for the Vargo Triad in the end as it’s better suited to small pans with its vertically orientated jets, and its all-titanium construction keeps the weight to a modest 23g. To maximise efficiency, I made a wind shield out of some special silver bubblewrap which added a further 18g and doubles as a pot cosy. It boiled 400ml of water in about 6 minutes and kept it at a rolling boil for a further 25 minutes on just 30ml of fuel. I concluded I needed about 60ml of meths to have sufficient fuel to cook for two days, which weighs 63g in its little nalgene bottle. Without really looking for one, I found a good light and cheap replacement for my Ti spork: the Light My Fire Spork weighs only 10g and costs £2.00. The final component is the pan, which if I’m not comprising on it being a proper pan, doesn’t leave me many choices as the Snowpeak is light for its size. I concluded I need a capacity of only 550ml to cook either a pack of noodles or a pack of smash, and I have my eye upon a such a pan that only weighs 65g. This would bring my cooking gear down to only 179g, which is a saving of nearly 50% and considerably less bulk.

Rucksacs

The hunt for a lightweight rucksac was more difficult than I expected. Most manufacturers (Karrimor, Salomon and others) seem satisfied that 500-600g represents a lightweight bag. For at least the last ten years, I’ve had a PB Walsh rucksac that weighed 400g – sadly rather tired and no longer available. With the exception of the paper thin Gossamer Gear Whisper bag weighing 108g, sub-400g gram bags seemed very hard to come by. A solution came via a British company, Inov8, who produce a range of bags for adventure racing. While most of them weigh over 500g, their 20 litre pack tipped the scales at only 330g. By trimming the straps to the correct length and disposing of the external bungee cord I got it down to 309g. What impressed me, besides the weight was the number of features: two hip pockets, mesh lower sections for stuffing kit in, waterproof zip, compression straps and quality construction throughout. Well thought out shoulder straps and waist belt are also comfy without contributing too much to the weight. Top marks.

Sleeping Mats and Bags

For the last few Polaris events I’ve used a Balloon Bed as a sleeping mat. Weighing less than 100g and packing down to next to nothing (which it needs to if you only have a 20 litre pack), it’s saves you both weight and space. Opinion is divided on their performance though. Some people don’t like them, but others – me included – think they’re great. The Mark II has performed better for me than the Mark I, with less popping over the course of the night. Tipping the scales at 200-odd grams less than a Thermarest and about 50g less than my severely cut-down foam pad, it’s a must for this project. Now, if I could just get the hang of inflating the balloon with my mouth and not the pump, I could save myself a further 18g for nothing!

For the sleeping bag, I use a Rab Quantum 200, which I won for my efforts at the infamous Leyburn Polaris in Spring 2004. Its OK in all but the coldest conditions, though I do normally wear some thin layers and a hat to boost its performance a bit. It weighs only 508g stuffed into a Granite Gear Air Bag.

Tents

I’m still using my Terranova Laserlite at the moment. Weighing 1108g, there is good scope here to take over 300g off with a Laser Photon, which is currently on my wishlist.So, my Polaris bag is currently tipping the scales at just under 4500g.

Next time I’ll review clothing and sundry items, and maybe a tent…

Finishing Touches

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Once again, I’m not quite sure where the last month has gone. My weekly pilgrimages to Llanwrtyd Wells were interrupted by a cough that just about everyone else I knew had already, so it was going to my turn eventually. The cough cleared and I was able to get back out with renewed enthusiasm to liberate yet more bits of trail for the event.

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This enthusiasm was driven in part by a new bike: Cotic Soda. Though the transition to this lively hardtail from the Nicolai will take some getting used to. So far, it’s been great fun to ride and I’ve had a pretty wide grin at the bottom of some favourite descents :)

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The rain finally eased and the sun nearly shone last weekend when Gary Tompsett came over to see how the finishing touches were going towards the event. If you’ve come here via the Polaris Newsletter, you’ll know that everything is in place for what I hope will be an excellent challenge. For me, perhaps for the first time in probably 4 months, I can finally sit back (albeit briefly) until the end of next week. Then all I have to do it put out the checkpoint boxes… See you at the event ;)

The Right Way Around

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The cat is out of the bag now. The intended location of Spring Polaris will be Llanwrtyd Wells, and the event planner is none other than, erm, me. Though the location of the event is kept quiet until a few weeks before hand, clues were threaded through this blog in the riding stories I have told. This will be my second Polaris as a planner, the first being an uncharacteristically warm and sunny weekend in the Brecon Beacons in March 2005.

The thermometer said minus-nine on Sunday morning as I wheeled my bike out of the garage. A cloudless sky heralded the promise of a good days riding, not least for the fact we were bound for Llanwrtyd Wells with the aim of correcting a few wrongs. A couple of weeks back, Al and me planned a challenging and slightly exploratory route through a load of trails neither of us were familiar with. We found ourselves pushing our way up several long sections of bridleway, all the time thinking “We should be coming down this…”. They weren’t entirely without reward of course, as we enjoyed some eye-watering descents on the other side, like this one:

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The first long climb of the day through the forest afforded spectacular views across the Irfon Valley, over the Sennybridge Range and beyond to the Brecon Beacons. Soon, we left the bright sunshine and disappeared back into the trees to find the target at the end of our gravelly ascent. The bridleway turned out to be a surprisingly technical descent with short sections of exposed rock making line choice critical. Eventually the path opened up enough for it to become a full on blast down through trees. We re-emerged in the valley bottom, which was still thick with frost, and began our climb out again.

That was very much the flavour for the rest of the day – fireroad climbing beneath crisp blue skies, followed by exiting and nicely technical bridleway descents threaded through trees and over rocks. Over 60km and 2200m of climbing later, we arrived back at the van with four excellent descents under our belts, this time completed the right way around.

Sub Four

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Five is something of a nice round number, and I was quite pleased when I finally achieved it. Four, on the other hand requires a good deal of thought, research and a little bit of compromise.

What am I talking about? The weight of a pack of kit for a Polaris Challenge.

If you’re not familiar with the Polaris Challenge, its two days of MTB orienteering with a wilderness camp. You have to carry all your gear with you for both days for up to 12 hours of riding and be completely self-sufficent. The event has been around for years, and is probably the route of my competitive interest in mountain bikes (not least for the fact it not all about fitness). I’ve done over 15 in total, with a 2nd and 4th place being my most creditable placings. I’ve also organised one, and I have another in the pipeline this Spring.

Anyway, I digress. After a casual comment on the PC forum, I looked hard at my 5 kg kit list starting to think of ways to save weight. Cutting the weight of something you depend upon for survival by as much as 20% will take some doing, but having spent a bit of time researching various lightweight camping equipment websites and blogs, there are no shortage of ideas out there. Hopefully next time I jump on my bike with a rucksac stuffed with tent, sleeping bag, stove, food, spare clothes and all the other mandatory bits of kit required for the event, it won’t weigh any more than 4 kg, less than 9 lbs.

As I acquire these various pieces of kit, I’ll post up more details…

Rain or Shine

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I should have know better when the weather man said “light rain”. It’d been pouring down all week, but I thought “Light rain? That’ll do, beats heavy rain any day of the week”. So I chucked the bike into the van and off I went towards Rhaeadr. I hadn’t been riding long before Light Rain had brought along some friends and I found myself riding in the company of a lot of water. There’s a trail on the route that has a number of stream crossings. Getting your feet wet is expected under normal circumstances but last weekend it was something else. I’ve never seen the river so swollen, so much in fact that it had overflowed onto the trail on some sections. Fording them was impossible, as I tested the depth with a fence post to discover the edges were waist deep… If I wanted to get that wet, I’d have gone swimming. After a bit of a bog-hop and a sneaky bit of footpath that probably hadn’t seen any feet in a good while, I was back onto the fireroad and back to comparative safety.

 


Yesterday was another story all together. I picked Al up in the morning and we headed out to Abergwesyn to ride Doethie Valley. A cool breeze made us think twice about leaving the waterproofs behind, but it wasn’t long before we’d shed the extra layer and found ourselves riding beneath a bright sky. I’ve always done Doethie Valley via the track over from Soar y Mynydd, but the bridleway past Nant-llwyd provides a stunning entrance into the valley where you can see a couple of miles of sinuous singletrack stretching out in front of you.

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Alan descending into Doethie Valley

There was still plenty of water about from the deluge of the weeks that have gone before us, but trails were a delight to ride – the sort of trails you can just keep coming back to and never get tired of, whatever the weather.

Not So Hidden Gems

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It’s always a joy to discover a new bit of trail in an area you thought you knew. The Real Ale Wobble a couple of weeks ago takes you through a couple of woods I manage, and through a bit of Wales I (should) know like the back of my hand. After a lengthy climb on fire road, and with the rain getting heavier we were looking for short cuts to the first ale stop. A last minute change of heart saw us stick to the planned route across an exposed piece of moor. It looked pretty unexciting at first, and the rain feeling all the more sharp in the wind wasn’t helping. Eventually the sinuous line through the heather brought us to the top of a steep tricky grassy descent before joining a superbly fast and slightly off-camber bridleway. The slippy conditions commanded your attention all the way down. A real gem, hidden in plain view.

 

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Now, if this rain would just ease up a bit, I’ll get myself back out to Abergwesyn and ride all the other trails I thought I knew but haven’t actually ridden…