Crete on two wheels

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And…. breathe! It’s been a busy season and the blog has been a bit neglected, although if you’ve been following us on Instagram or Twitter. you might have noticed that we’ve packed a lot in to summer 2018. As well as our mountain leading and wildlife guiding days here on Arran we’ve also been working for other fantastic companies across Scotland and overseas. Wally has been guiding Scottish bike tours for Wilderness Scotland, and I’ve been supervising young people on big adventures in Europe with our friends over at Adventure Expeditions. A couple of weeks ago things got a bit quieter, and we managed to shoehorn a cycling holiday in to our diary.

 My bike, fully loaded. Note: plastic pipe, psychological deterrent for angry loose farm dogs… (thankfully never needed!)

My bike, fully loaded. Note: plastic pipe, psychological deterrent for angry loose farm dogs… (thankfully never needed!)

Not just any cycling holiday either- this was the culmination of a long held dream of mine to tour by bike around the mediterranean island of Crete. Last time I was there I was an enthusiastic archaeology student, travelling with my mum in a clapped out Fiat Panda. I remember epic mountain roads and lots of dirt tracks. Fast forward nearly 25 years and Wally and I were hoping that not much has changed. Although we’ve both done a bit of bike touring, this would be our most adventurous and physically challenging trip to date, and our first real tour (rather than a wee overnight) using “bike packing” gear rather than traditional panniers and racks.

The advantage of the bike packing set up is that it concentrates the centre of gravity close to the bike where the rider sits. The bike is more stable, and in theory more aerodynamic. Because of those hills, we packed super light, and cheated slightly by treating ourselves to the luxury of rooms and dinner in tavernas every night. This decision was spot-on, as the hills were as big and steep as I remembered, and I don’t think I'd have enjoyed them as much with a tent, sleeping bag and stove on board.

 Griffon vulture

Griffon vulture

Recalling those hills, I was unsure how far we’d be able to travel so only booked our first night of accommodation, and kept the rest of our options open. This was also a great idea, as we quickly discovered that riding gravel tracks with around 1-2,000m of ascent per day, and zero training, our mileage was not going to be very impressive. We were also blessed with a heatwave when we were on the coast, which made riding up hills, hot and thirsty work. We tended to keep the days short, riding in the mornings and avoiding the worst of the afternoon heat. But those hours we did ride? My god they were brilliant. We were treated to epic views of limestone peaks, studded with olives and kermes oaks. Swarms of griffon vultures soared above us while we negotiated wild gravel roads. Occasionally, we would encounter inexplicably gorgeous, perfect tarmac. On these occasions we’d say a little prayer of gratitude to the tarmac gods, for smiling on us from time to time.

 Contemplating the descent from the Dikti mountain all the way to the sea.

Contemplating the descent from the Dikti mountain all the way to the sea.

 Hot roads around Lendas and the Asterousia Range

Hot roads around Lendas and the Asterousia Range

Our route took us over two big mountain traverses- the Dikti and Psiloritis ranges, but nothing was ever flat. Our traverse to the coast from the Lasithi plateau in the east, over the Dikti range and down to the sea was almost entirely off road. This was probably the finest day’s riding I think I have ever done. The views were astonishing, and the 1000m descent on farm tracks was surprisingly technical. Once we hit the south coast, we explored the Messara Plain and adjacent Asterousia Range. These smaller but equally impressive mountains (the highest, Kofinas Peak, is a mere 1280m), plunge precipitously down to the Libyan sea. The hills here are dry and dusty near desert.

Our second big mountain traverse took us over the shoulder of Mt Psiloritis, via the incredible Nida Plateau (1,500m). This was the most intimidating ride of the trip for me. Locals shook their head in disbelief when we said we were taking that road, but the reality was a glorious climb on smooth tarmac with precisely graded hairpins, followed by rolling rough tracks through remote valleys, before meeting more tarmac for our descent. At the end of two incredible weeks. Heraklion beckoned, and home.

 The Nida Plateau

The Nida Plateau

Review: Guppy Friend

As we develop this blog we plan to bring much more than the occasional trip report to the site. We already have a section of Top Tips for enjoying the outdoors, and this is the first of our Reviews, which we hope will include our favourite tried and tested pieces of gear, as well as new products that we think are of interest. The Guppy Friend laundry bag, which costs £25 and is available from Surfers Against Sewage, is something we've been trying for about a month, and in that time we've been getting the hang of using it, and finding out how it works. 

 The ocean, is ultimately where microfibres end up. After that... who knows?

The ocean, is ultimately where microfibres end up. After that... who knows?

What (and why?) is the Guppy Friend?

The Guppy friend is, in short, a bag designed to catch microfibres, that you put your synthetic (polyester, fleece etc) laundry in, before shoving it in the washing machine. If you've already heard of the scourge of microfibres then you may already understand why this is important, but concerns about the problem that microfibres present for our environment are only just becoming widely known.  The problem is, that tiny pieces of fibre break off our clothes every time we launder them, and are washed in to our water systems. The concern about synthetic microfibres, is that like plastic, they persist in the environment for an unknown period of time. A 2017 IUCN report in to Primary Microplastics in the Oceans, estimates that 1.5 million tons of microplastics enter the oceans every year. Of these, 34.8% come from textiles. They slosh around the oceans and rivers, picking up toxins and entering the food chain.  Some are so tiny they can even cross cell membranes.  We have no idea at this stage what this means for human health but the potential problems are scary to say the least. For those of us that live in synthetic outdoor clothing, the realisation that we may be part of the problem is worrying.  The Guppy Friend was invented by some German surfers to try and help solve the problem.  It's probably only part of the picture- but the bag is intended to catch the microfibres in the wash, and stop them from going down the drain. 

My extreme Guppy Friend test. 

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Before getting a Guppy Friend, I spoke to a few people who had already used them, and asked how they found them.  "Easy" was the common response, but also "I think it works, although I can't see any microfibres in the bag". How to tell if it works?  I decided to give it an extreme test, using an extremely old, and frankly environmentally diabolical, fleece blanket, that is so degraded, it leaves a fine mist of microfibres where ever it goes. The first problem I ran in to, is that the Guppy Friend is only supposed to be half filled when it is used.  My blanket is pretty big (its a blanket) but I decided to make an exception this time, and hoped that I wouldn't destroy my washing machine. 

 Microfibres from one wash of the blanket of doom. 

Microfibres from one wash of the blanket of doom. 

After a cool wash (as recommended by Guppy Friend), I pulled the blanket out of the bag.  It was dripping wet, the spin cycle seemed to have been completely ineffective. I've since learned that this is a consequence of overfilling the bag. A quick check around the seams revealed a horrifying amount of green fluff, all caught in the bag. Guppy Friend are keen to stress that you should never wash these away as it negates the whole point of the bag.  Put them in the bin without delay!

What next for the blanket of doom?

These recommendation above about how to dispose of fibres might help answer a burning question that I have about what to do with the offending blanket. Should I continue to use it (microfibres)? Should I bin it (and add to the landfill burden) or return it to it's hiding place at the back of our airing cupboard? I decided to ask Twitter, who preferred the out of sight, out of mind option.  For the moment, I'm hanging on to it, in case some form of redemption can be found. Creative ideas welcome...

Guppy Friend extended test.

Meanwhile, the Guppy Friend has seen a lot more normal use, and we've been getting the hang of it's little idiosyncracsies. After each wash, I run a tissue around the seams and wipe out the tiny microfibres. The main problem I have is due to the type of laundry that we generate- which is very heavy on the synthetic fibres, with lots of fleece, and technical outdoor gear. The guppy friend will only take about one set of thermals (tops and bottoms) and a light fleece.  Any more than that and it affects the spin cycle.  I've taken to putting what I think are likely to be the worst offenders in the bag, and running the rest through as normal.  I've not tried using a second bag as yet- at £25 each it's quite an investment. 

So what else can we as outdoor consumers do to prevent microfibre pollution from our laundry?  Evidence is emerging that if we wash our gear a bit less, reduce the temperature, and slow the spin cycle, we can help reduce microfibre release. Buying good quality gear is also key- cheap fleeces that pill and bobble in the wash are releasing microfibres much more quickly. If buying new, then its worth considering biodegradeable alternatives where appropriate, such as merino wool, or biosynthetics like Tencel Lyocell. 

Wintery spring

Lucy

Lucy: I've been back in the UK for a month and I have to say, it's been a bit colder than I expected!  When I left France I was longing for a bit of green and some proper Scottish spring flower after a winter of monochrome but what I got was the Minibeast from the East, and then the Easter Beast. I'm a bit disappointed to say the least!  This is me camping in the peak district last weekend, working for Adventure Expeditions.  It was cold. Very cold.  Amazing work by the young people completing their Gold Practice in these conditions! 

Anyway, today there was a lull in proceedings. Client Carole came over with her camera to enjoy some of the best of Arran's wildlife. As always, it was dramatic, but made us work hard for our sightings.  We got a soaring golden eagle having a bust up with kestrels and buzzards,  and then later a couple of otters braving the rough seas. The icing on the cake for me was a male and female hen harrier quartering the moors above the Ross Road. As usual, I failed to take any photos of the wildlife, but I did get a few of Arran looking spectacular in her wintery spring garb. Just in time to make me feel bad about heading back to France at the weekend! Adieu Arran, see you when spring is a bit more sprung. 

 

Goatfell
Glen Rosa

International Mountain Leader

 Assessor Helen Barnard and my fellow candidates. 

Assessor Helen Barnard and my fellow candidates. 

Lucy: The exciting news here for us in the French Alps is that I have passed my International Mountain Leader Award!  Its been a time consuming and often challenging process, that has taken me just under two years to complete, with two 5 day training courses and two assessments as well as a speed navigation test and months of personal consolidation.  Preparation for my final assessment was one of the ulterior motives in our relocation to France this winter. 

 A break in the clouds on Mont Chery. 

A break in the clouds on Mont Chery. 

My last assessment began in Morzine a week ago, and I joined 15 other candidates and four super professional Plas Y Brenin assessors for five days of navigation, digging in the snow, avalanche transceiver searches and nature appreciation. The assessors kept us busy, scrutinised our skills, and gave us plentiful opportunities to demonstrate our knowledge. Thank you PYB instructing staff: Helen Barnard, Mark Tennent, Helen Teasdale and Rob Spencer. 

Whilst much of the IML award involves taking the skills that I've developed as a working mountain leader and applying them in an international setting, I've also learned absolutely loads. Emergency summer rope-work at this level can be more complex, and there is an expectation that IMLs will be slick and safe in dynamic situations. My understanding of the alpine snowpack and avalanche avoidance has increased exponentially (this is a subject where there is always room for more learning), and I've deepened my understanding of the flora and fauna of Europe. The best thing is that I've also had some awesome adventures on the way. The key for me I think was having a supportive community of fellow candidates to train and practice with over the last year or so, and ample preparation time to build up my experience whilst out here in France. Huge thanks to everyone who has joined me on the journey.  

 Sub optimal conditions above the Col d'Encrenaz. 

Sub optimal conditions above the Col d'Encrenaz. 

Looking ahead, I'm excited to be going home to Scotland next week and returning to the mountains that I love the most on Arran. Nature is best for me when it's on my own patch, with birds, mammals and plants that feel like old friends.  However, I'm also blessed that this new qualification is going to bring me lots of thrilling work in Europe and the next few months are looking busy. I'm raring to go! 

La Belle Vie

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Lucy: We've settled in to life in France, and while Wally still has a while to go out here, I'm over half way through my stay. It's been a roller coaster ride of snow storms, epic weather, adventures, visiting friends and the daily routine of checking the avalanche hazard bulletins.  This is quite a job as here in Le Bourg d'Oisans, we nestle between the two forecast areas of Les Grandes Rousses, and Oisans, and have a couple more on our doorstep. Not only that but I've been travelling about, with visits to the Pelvoux for the Ecrins Ice Festival, and north towards the Beaufortain and Chamonix areas. The stack of Blue IGN maps on my desk is getting bigger and bigger, we've reached peak cheese, I'm finally starting to get the measure of la bureaucratie française.  As is usual for us, life is hectic. 

It's only four weeks now until I head back to Scotland and whilst I'm loving life out here, I'm looking forward to getting home to friends and family,  as well as hills that feel like old friends too. We are taking bookings for the Spring and I can't wait to be back beside the sea again. 

 

Extreme Weather

 Great views from the Montagne de Gresse on Saturday. 

Great views from the Montagne de Gresse on Saturday. 

Happy New Year! 2018 has been a bumpy ride out here in South East France with lots of extreme weather, heavy snow fall and Storm Eleanor, who brought avalanches, rock fall, landslides and flooding to the region, including all of the above to our valley. Being from Arran, we are used to wild conditions, but recent days have surprised everyone, including the locals. The avalanche hazard in the high mountains is still at Level 3 in the valley, and it is even higher further east. Sometimes a cafe or admin day is the best option. 

Nevertheless, we've enjoyed some excellent adventures in between the storms, and when Eleanor was at her peak, we headed south and west to Provence for a couple of days respite, cycling in the sun. I was also grateful to grab a solo day sunshine on Saturday, snowshoeing near Gresse en Vercors. 

This week my friend and colleague Cat from Reach the Peak has joined me as a partner in snowshoeing crime.  Today we were in the Vercors massif, enjoying firm snow, and watching rain fall on all the peaks around us apart from our own- St Michel, which seemed to resist the rain until we were well on our way back to Bourg. The Vercors has been a brilliant place to retreat to while the higher areas have such difficult conditions, but the snow pack is melting there, and becoming increasingly patchy.  If only we could coax some of the snow falling in the east a bit further down hill? 

 Ascending Pic Sant Michel via the Col de l'Arc. 

Ascending Pic Sant Michel via the Col de l'Arc. 

A White Christmas!

Lucy: We've heard a rumour that has travelled all the way from Scotland to le Bourg d'Oisans... Apprently there has been a White Christmas in some parts of the country... We hope that many of you have been able to get out and enjoy the snow, as we have over here. Today sadly,  it is mild and raining so we are hiding at home.  Above the house they are blasting loose rock to clear a road that was blocked in the last big storm. Tomorrow another epic snowfall is forecast.

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I've been absolutely blessed with a fantastic welcome and a great new snowshoing companion. Kirsten and I made the most of the interim good weather over the weekend in the run up to Christmas. On Saturday I was a guest of the Grenoble-Oisans sector of the Club Alpin Français on one of their regular saturday meets.  This active club enjoy a lot of Snowshoeing and Kirsten is a regular particpant. On this occasion we met on the outkirts of Grenoble and headed in convoy up to Engins, in the Vercors Massif, for a snow shoe hike up to the plateau above Sornin.

As we set off the mist hung thick in the valley and it was a dark and depressive atmosphere in the forest.  It's quite a pull up to Sornin but once above the hamlet the mist began to disperse above us, and it wasn't long before we popped out of a cloud inversion in to brilliant blue skies. We paused at a chalet to "casse le croute" and also for some transceiver/probe/shovel practice, with the wise Francis patiently coaching us all on our technique. After lunch we continued in a circuit through the woodland on the plateau before eventually descending in to the mist once more. For me, this was an excellent experience- once more I was made to feel very welcome, and I enjoyed practicing my dodgy french on the group. It was also very interesting to see "how the locals do it", and I am grateful to Francis for sharing his knowledge and experience.

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The following day Kirsten and I were a little tired! However, we managed to muster up some energy and Kirsten skillfully drove us up the steep snowy road to Villard Reymond from where we could easily access the small but steep little summit of Le Pregentil, that looms above the valley where we live. It was late afternoon, the sun was beaming at us from across the mountains, and we lingered for a long time on the summit taking it all in.

Yesterday of course was the big day, and we decided to spend the daylight hours outside, knowing that it would be the last good day for a while. Wally and Lee joined us for an ascent of La Quarlie, a 2322m summit above the village of Besse with incredible views of Le Meije. The sun beamed down on us and at times it was so hot we felt we were snowshoeing in the Caribbean not the Alps in December. The Quarlie itself is a big rounded lump, dare I say it a slog, nevertheless dwarfed by everything else around it. Again, we lingered on the summit, and the sun was setting as we raced back down to Besse so as not to miss our Christmas Dinner.

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The coming week looks a bit mixed for us out here, with bands of rain and snow coming through and topping up the mountains with their winter garb. We hope that all our friends and clients have had an enjoyable Christmas, with lots of time to spend with family, including some time outside having fun. In the closing days of 2017 we are reflecting on a busy year for us, and to looking ahead to perhaps our busiest yet to come. We would like to thank our customers for choosing to book their outdoor adventures with us and to wish them all the very best in this festive season.

Hitting the Ground Snowshoeing...

 Wally and Mikaela amongst the snow ghosts on Le Moucherotte.

Wally and Mikaela amongst the snow ghosts on Le Moucherotte.

Lucy: Its exactly a week since I joined Wally in Le Bourg d'Oisans, where we are spending the winter season. Life is a bit different here to the one I'm used to back home on Arran. It's bitterly cold outside, (rather than damp), and everything is covered in snow. Everything! Great early season conditions here in the Alps mean that the mountains are in excellent condition for snowshoeing, yet at the same time, the avalanche hazard is considerable or higher.

My job this winter is to build up my experience and fill my logbook as I work my way along the IML qualification pathway. I've hit the ground snowshoeing, literally, and already enjoyed some quality days in the mountains. Here are a few pics from the week which I hope you enjoy.

 Mikaela in the forest at Chamrousse.

Mikaela in the forest at Chamrousse.

On Monday, Wally and I met with Mikaela Toczek, who is based near Grenoble and on a similar mission to me. We headed in to the Vercors Massif, with snow falling all around us, and bagged Le Moucherotte, a small summit overlooking Grenoble. Conditions felt distinctly Scottish, with a cold breeze and rime ice all over everything.

 Roosting "igloo", probably for Black Grouse.

Roosting "igloo", probably for Black Grouse.

On Wednesday, the avalanche hazard went through the roof, with a cold northerly wind shifting the powdery snow around, so Mikaela and I headed to the forest behind the ski area at Chamrousse. There were lots of signs of nature around for us to enjoy without sticking our necks out to much. We enjoyed discovering fox tracks, mountain hare, and the roosting burrows of black grouse amongst the trees. 

Yesterday was the shortest day of the year, a time that back home on Arran,  is invariably dark and damp. My normal response is to enjoy cups of tea and cake by the fire, but yesterday I joined my new snowshoe buddy Kirsten for an exploration of the plateau and ridges above Les Signaruax. We were treated to a magical display of winter light as we emerged through a cloud inversion and in to the sunshine.  I can safely say that this is the first time that I have been sunburned on the winter soltice!

 Kirsten on the plateau above Les Signaraux.

Kirsten on the plateau above Les Signaraux.

Washing a Down Jacket

In the run up to our Alpine adventure, Wally and I spent a lot of time sorting and preparing our kit for the cold weather we hope to enjoy. This included washing and repairing our down jackets.  Care for down equipment in cold weather is very important- as important as looking after your boots or any other bit of essential gear.  Down jackets are filled with light and compressible feathers that keep you cosy by trapping warm air.  They don't like getting wet, as this makes them heavy and they loose their fluffiness, or "loft". However, dirt, grime, sweat and body oils can have the same affect over time, so every now and then they need a good careful clean. In this blog post, we will take you through the step by step process that we use, and share some pointers that we have learned along the way.

What down equipment is suitable for home cleaning?

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First of all, read the cleaning instructions on your garment care label. We strongly recommend that you DONT wash sleeping bags.  These items are too big and bulky for domestic washing machines and tumble dryers. If possible, use a professional down cleaner with experience of cleaning technical sleeping bags. Smaller items such as down jackets can be cleaned at home. What you need are the following things:

  • Specialist down detergent (available from all good gear shops)
  • Washing machine
  • Tumble dryer
  • Two tennis balls (or tumble dryer balls)
  • Time

Preparation and washing

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Make sure that you have a day or a long evening in front of the telly planned! You'll want to be on hand to ease the process along. Before washing the jacket, check that there aren't any holes where feathers can leak out. If there are, you may wish to consider repairing these with a dab of seam grip and leaving this to set overnight. Larger holes could mean that you need to put your cleaning plans on hold as these will require careful patching before laundering.

Ensure that all zips and hook and loop closures are fastened. Put the jacket in the washing machine on it's own, and wash at 30 degrees with your down cleaning agent. I prefer to turn the spin cycle down as wet feathers are heavy and spinning could damage lightweight stitching and baffles. When the washing machine has finished, your down jacket will look like a cat that has just got out of the bath. At this moment, things are a bit scary.  Did I mention that down jackets really don't like being wet?

Now the hard work begins.

Drying

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Put the jacket in the tumble dryer on low with a couple of tennis balls. You should not go far from it for the next few hours, checking on it every 20 minutes or so and giving it a gentle shake. As it dries, you will notice that there are clumps of soggy feathers and empty areas where there are none. This is where your care and attention is essential.  Take the time to shuggle and coax the down in to areas where it is needed, and with your fingers fluff the clumps gently. It's worth doing this each time you check on the jacket. The amount of time your jacket takes to dry will depend on the amount of down inside and the air permeability of the shell.  Wally's vintage first generation Gore-Tex Mountain Equipment Annapurna jacket takes a lot longer than my light weight Jottnar Fjorm.

Eventually, it will start to feel normal. Don't stop! It's still not dry yet.  I like to give a few more goes in the tumble drier until it feels fluffier and better lofted than it did before.  The final round in the drier makes all the difference.

aftercare

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Finally, to maximise the lifespan of your down jacket, be sure to store it in a dry place, where it has plenty of room to expand and loft. It's definitely not a good idea to store it for any length of time in a stuff sack, even if it is supplied with one. Hopefully with these top tips, your beloved jacket will keep you warm for years to come!

Snowy Goatfell

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Winter is off to a flying start!  On Sunday we were out on the hill with our friend Kirstie and her wee search dog Cailleag, looking for some snowy fun, and we were certainly not disappointed!

We took the steep path from Corrie, in to Coire Lan, and then up the headwall towards the bealach between North Goatfell and Mullach Buidhe. The snow lay deep, but not particularly crisp, more deep and a bit sticky... Once on the ridge the wind began to blow. We wrapped up warm, actually quite excited to feel the nip of winter after so much rain, and headed along the ridge towards Goatfell.

Stacach Nov 17a.png

We took the traverse path that avoids the rocky scramble of Stacach ridge.  This is not always the easy option as is also potentially quite tricky in snowy conditions as it lies in the lee of the ridge and can sometimes be buried in snow.  However, prevailing winds have been northerly recently and the ridge was mostly quite well scoured.  It's worth mentioning that although the deeper pillows in the sheltered bits were well bonded this time, retracing our steps is an option we always have in our minds on this route in winter.

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We reached Goatfell summit and were delighted to find another friend up there- Zabdi of Flying Fever Paragliding School (on foot for a change). Arran is a beautiful place, especially under a blanket of snow, but it's the people that really make it special.  I absolutely love this place and am going to miss home like mad this winter.  For more pics of our adventures, check out Kirstie's twitter feed.  She's a talented photographer, and her pics really do the day justice!

It's not too late to book your winter adventure on Arran.  Lucy is a qualified Winter Mountain Leader and has some availability over the next couple of weeks.  The forecast is awesome, so this is a great opportunity to see the mountains at their best!