When Is Heavy Too Heavy?

Can being prepared for any eventuality and worst-case scenario be the cause of problems out on the hill?

The answer is simple. When you struggle to keep moving at a consistent and reasonable pace, when you drain your energy resources, when it’s near impossible to physically lift your rucksack by yourself, then you know you’ve got a problem. Something’s wrong.

We’ve all done it: put together that expedition rucksack that weighs a tonne. Even though you’ve gone through the contents with a fine-tooth comb and reluctantly evicted all ‘luxury’ items surplus to requirements, exchanged heavier clothes for lighter options and used that time-honoured backpackers’ trick of cutting off the handle of your toothbrush in an effort to minimise the load.  But what happens when everything that remains still seems essential and non-negotiable?

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Looking N from White Bridge

Last week our aim was to take in both Beinn Bhrotain and Monadh Mor from Linn of Dee, which meant a long approach on the flat before we started climbing.  The conditions weren’t great. Strong south-westerlies, up to 50 mph, but mild enough (at glen level, temperatures around 6C) that the recent snow had melted at lower levels… meaning that the already boggy approach to Carn Cloich-mhuilinn (941m) was totally and completely saturated. My rucksack was a) ridiculously heavy and b) very uncomfortable, constantly listing over to one side, no matter what I did in order to straighten it. As soon as we started to climb, my speed dropped off the radar. Between 750m and 950m the winds were brutal and my rucksack (only 40L, but a ‘tall and narrow’ 40L) started to act almost like a sail. Towards the summit of Carn Cloich-mhuilinn I was virtually crawling to avoid being knocked off my feet – not a great angle at which to be when having to support my hefty backpack.  Once over the other side, and indeed all the way up to Beinn Bhrotain (1157m) itself, the wind wasn’t so much of an issue. I toiled up the snow fields to the summit (footage of conditions up there supplied!)

At this point it was getting dark and we decided against carrying on to Monadh Mor. The wind was even worse on the return over Carn Cloich-mhuilinn, which meant I was physically knocked off my feet a couple of times. By this stage, I was really tiring. Even reviving myself with energy-high food wasn’t helping. I had one speed and that was SLOW. I negotiated the very dreadful boggy area (heather bashing at this stage of the day was worse than no fun at all), onto the path, finally admitting defeat about 3km before the car park and grudgingly offloading a few items to Iain.

Out of curiosity, back at home my rucksack was put on the scales. 13.7kg. Without food. Now for some people this may have been no problem, but when you’re not that tall or well built, 13.7kg plus is a tall order. The recommended weight for a summer expedition pack should be around 12kg. Yes, I can lift 20kg bags of horse feed and move them without too much trouble, but sustaining 13.7kg on your back for an intended-fast-moving ten hour mountain day is a somewhat different matter. But just how did my rucksack end up being 13.7kg?  There were two main reasons.

  1. This sounds obvious: weighty items.
  • The rucksack itself (empty) weighed in at 1850g.
  • Ice axe (583g), crampons (approx. 850g) and blizzard bag (385g) all add to the weight – but must be carried.  The blizzard bag is slightly heavier than an ordinary survival bag, but with a warmth rating of 3 tog, it is worth carrying that extra 100g or so.
  • First aid kit. It would be nice to be prepared for ‘saving the world’ and to have every last item that might make the difference, BUT this was a personal hill day, I wasn’t guiding, and therefore the size of the first aid kit needed to reflect this.
  • The amount of liquid I was carrying wasn’t huge (around 1 L), but the flask would have added to the weight. However, I find it impossible to drink ice cold beverages, so for me a flask is a necessity in winter. Non-negotiable.
  • I was carrying my waterproof layer at first – a Paramo layer that weighed 840g. Paramo make fantastic garments, far more breathable than Gore-tex and ideally suited to UK conditions. They take some getting used to and I tend to use mine not just as waterproof layer, but for insulation too, so this requires a different approach to using Gore-tex as the hard shell. The downside is that Paramos are heavy and bulky.  You often hear that Paramo has to be worn and not carried, and for good reason. Maybe my layering system needs to be re-thought to ensure that I’m wearing my shell from the start.
  1. All those smaller ‘useful’ items really add up:
  • Insulated trousers (295g). Yes, these turn a miserable night out in a bivvy bag into something decidedly less miserable, or are a great help if one has to sit around for any lengthy periods (e.g., in an injury situation or if benighted on the hill, for whatever reason)…but then I’m sure there are many items which would be nice to have, just in case…
  • Hand and headwear: there was an reason for every item (ooops, was that really 14 pairs of gloves and mittens?) and an obvious situation in which they might be required…and each weighs so little…but all these little things add up. If I had been spending a day climbing, where handwear was going to be regularly soaked through and I was going to be spending longish periods of time not moving, then the more gloves and mitts the better. This just wasn’t that type of day. 6-7 pairs of handwear, carefully selected for purpose (thick outer gloves, liner gloves, mitts etc.) would have been sufficient.
  • Three headtorches. Yes, I needed my main headtorch for a good 4 hours of this trip. But I had a spare in the top pocket, then my small emergency one in my first aid kit. I was out with someone who also had a back up. We could have managed if either or both main headtorches had suffered non-battery related failure.
  • Batteries. The mantra is ‘always carry spare batteries’. But batteries weigh a surprising amount. For a start there was no need for a dedicated set of spare batteries for each and every device carried. Checking the batteries before going out on each trip, having one back up set and/or being prepared to swap between devices if necessary may be a strategy for me to adopt (making sure, of course that all my devices will take the same battery!)
  • Smartphone and basic mobile. The smartphone packs a punch in terms of weight when compared to my old mobile.  My basic little Nokia is going to be far better for making emergency calls  (the only reason that I carry a phone in the mountains) in hideous conditions (the thought of trying to use that touch screen in 60mph wind speeds and driving snow doesn’t bear thinking about), so why am I carrying two (especially when my smartphone has no mapping software or GPS functionality – yes, you’ve probably guessed, it’s a ‘budget’ smartphone)? Of course, a second phone is a very good idea as backup  …. you can see the dilemma here…

I could go on, but you get the idea. If anything, the photo at the top of this post best tells the sorry tale of a day that turned out to be far tougher than it needed to be.

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Toiling up the snowfields on Beinn Bhrotain

Moral of the story: where possible select lighter options, match amount/type of gear to the type of day (e.g., distance, terrain, weather and temperature), but without compromising safety. It looks as though that my winter rucksack will have to be re-packed in accordance with the type of day every time that I go out. The weight of my rucksack plus contents has certainly been an issue in winters gone by, but the day that I’ve just described went beyond the pale in terms of the misery that it caused me. A shorter day in terms of distance and objective and being prepared to move at a slower pace because of the weight would have made much more sense.  However, when your nearest mountain range invariably demands a huge walk-in before you reach the foot of your hill, a mega-day will always be the result – particularly in winter.  There’s nothing for it: for the next few months I’ll just have to get up earlier and drive to hills that are easily and directly accessible from the road (but, nonetheless, with a lighter load!).

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