Sunday, 25 September 2016

Top 10 bits of kit for cold skiing & camping

Apologies for the radio silence here at offpisteskiing HQ, August and September have been busy to say the least!

An update on off piste coaching and adventures courses with spaces still available will follow shortly, but in the meantime I wanted to share my 'top 10' bits of kit for cold camping and skiing - featuring some equipment that really made life pleasant in Baffin Island this spring!

1. KosyBoot Pro

OK so the KosyBoot Pro neoprene overboots aren't necessarily the most aesthetically pleasing bit of kit, but as anyone who has put their feet into boot shells which have spent the last 12 hours at -30C will agree anything that helps get your boots up to a workable temperature is worth its weight in gold. 30 minutes with these neoprene overboots on, at the same time as a quick blast with a pair of Lenz Heat Socks (see below) made the transition from camp gear & Baffin boots into ski gear almost a pleisure! (Almost)

2. Lenz Heat Socks

I was initially a bit concerned about big days out in these, as the heating element fibres that run under the sole of the foot give these socks a thicker and stiffer feel than my usual choice of sock, but in practice they were comfortable even on the really big days, and the benefit of having a constant gentle heat from under the sole made a big difference to foot warmth during the trip. I used the Heat Sock 1.0 paired with the Lithium pack 1800 rechargeable battery. These will definitely be coming out of the cupboard for cold days in the Alps this coming winter, though the 1200 battery pack would probably be better as a bit lighter and lower profile (no need for such big capacity for day hits in the Alps...).

Ross about to feel 'the glow' deep in Gibbs Fiord, Baffin Island
Photo ©RossHewittCollection

3. Brynje Super Thermo mesh thermals

A massive revelation for me last winter was the use of mesh base layers - whether for warm or cold (or inbetween) environments these are probably my new favourite piece of kit. Moisture in base layers can be a real problem in cold climates, enhancing the rapid cooling that can happen when you are transitioning from a hard work activity (like boot-packing up a 1200m couloir) to a less intense form of exercise (skiing down). The Brynje Super Thermo base tops and 3/4 length bottoms worked brilliantly for this - combined with a zipped layer over the top they allow for really easy venting and temperature control when hard at work, draw any moisture away from the body and into the mid-layers, and are super-warm as soon as you zip up the layers on top. Being synthetic they do have the unfortunate downside of getting really (really) smelly, after week 1 in the tent they smelled bad even to me... but that is the trade off for the functionality!

Brynje kit is available in the UK from the very helpful folks at If it was good enough for the Sir Edmund Hilary on the 1953 Everest expedition it is probably worth considering..!

*Note: images of me modelling Brynje mesh thermals have all been destroyed for the sake of public decency! - I wouldn't want to put anyone off their tea :-) *

4. Salomon X-LAB and Soulquest midlayers

Layering of clothes for Baffin took quite a bit of thought, but I was really happy with a combination of the Salomon Soulquest BC Insulated Mid and S-LAB XAlp Down jackets - the Soulquest is a great combination of fleece and Pertex, giving both warmth and breathability, ideal as a thermal layer on the way up. I have never been a big fan of hoods generally (apart from winter climbing in Scotland and the odd really snowy day in the Alps), but the stretchy hood on the Soulquest was absolutely brilliant, like putting on or removing an extra layer on the upper body in terms of the warmth boost or extra cooling effect.

The Soulquest Mid in its element:
Photo ©RossHewittPhotography

The S-LAB XAlp Down jacket was another top bit of clothing - so light and packable, with a really good insulating capacity - perfect for beating the chill while transitioning at the top of couloirs or as we dropped back into the 'freezer effect' on the fiords. This is likely to remain a go-to for cold days in the Alps!

5. Exped Downmat 9

On a 4 week expedition if you don't sleep well then physical and mental fatigue sets in very quickly and you might as well head home. The Exped 9 LW was possibly the best single individual piece of kit I took to Baffin Island as I don't think I have ever slept so consistently well in a tent. 9 cms of air with a down filling, a ribbed construction stopping the sleeping bag sliding off the side - the schnozzel bag inflation is ridiculously effective... and it all packs down into a small and lightweight package - way more compact than my previous 'cold camping' Thermarest. If you are heading anywhere seriously cold then you need one of these in your life. * Note: in Baffin I used the Downmat 9 over a Thermarest Z-rest foam mat - extra protection and warmth but also as a back-up in case of a major technical problem with the Downmat.

6. Stove board

Camping in -20/-30C temperatures, survival depends on being able to melt snow - whether it is for tea, soup, porridge, freeze-dried meals, or simply to drink, no water = no energy. A stove with a fuel pre-heat loop is an absolute essential - MSR XGKs were our stove of choice, but a detail not to be missed out on is having a solid base to run the stoves on. There is plenty of detail online with some pretty sophisticated base boards with extra insulation, elasticated loops to hold the stove/bottle in place etc etc, but we kept it simple and scavenged 2 pieces of ply in Clyde River.

Here Chipie demonstrates the stove board whilst smoking up a treat - 'barbecued sausage Gibbs Fiord style':

7. Crate from Northern Stores!

Camping on the frozen fiords of Baffin Island presents an extra challenge or two compared to normal snow camping. Whereas on a glacier generally you have unlimited amounts of snow to 'furnish' your living space - tables, chairs, toilets etc in the fiords on Baffin there is often only a bvery thin layer of snow on top of the ice. Possibilites for construction are much more limited unless you get some windy days and can create some 'accumulation zones' for windblown snow. Before we left Clyde River we managed to scavenge some crates from the Northern Store and these made life way more comfortable at base camp... If you have no limits cash-wise it would definitely be worth bringing in some folding camp chairs, but given the cost of extra bags on the flight up to CLyde River (which was eye wateringly expensive as it was) we were happy to compromise.

8. Salomon MTN LAB boots

This isn't really a 'cold skiing' specific item, but I continue to be amazed by how good these boots are. What particularly impressed me in Baffin was how steady the flex pattern remained even in sustained cold. Despite the temperatures, and in spite of the minimalist material thickness of some parts of the boot my feet stayed warm the whole time - with a morning boost from the Lenz socks and Neoprene overboots as above - though the KosyBoots stayed in camp pretty much every day.

The MTN LABs doing their stuff in 'Better than Polar Star' couloir:
Photo ©RossHewittPhotography

9. Beard!

A tricky proposition for some of the expeditioning population out there I know, but a bit of facial hair growth is definitely a bonus in terms of keeping the chill off your face - plus you get to work on your 'Scott of the Antartic' look too! Not to be underestimated - in retrospect I should have started growing it way sooner than I did!

Ross here working on his 'snowbeard' look:

10. Baffin boots

Last but by all means not least, the mighty mighty Baffin Boots. Probably the single best item on this list along with the Exped Downmat. Forget Sorel (sorry Sorel) or anything else - the locals all wear Baffin boots and they deal with far colder conditions mid-winter than we had (the readings from the Clyde River airport weather station show seriously cold figures mid-winter!) - honey-combed mid-soles, high on the lower leg, so so comfy and so so warm - a real pleasure to get into after a day's skiing. Given how much time is spent at base camp on a trip like this having warm comfortable feet is an absolute must.

Evan and Jomie modelling their boots on the skidoo ride in:

11. Eyemaks

Just outside the top 10 but an essential for Arctic camping. If like me you only sleep well in a dark room then being able to shut out the 24-hour daylight will help with getting proper rest. I doubled mine up with a Buff or warm hat on the cold nights.

So there you have it - my top 10 (11) useful bits of kit from Baffin Island - obviously every cold camping/skiing destination will have its own particularities but some of these items are absolute keepers for any cold trip...

Thursday, 7 July 2016

2017 dates coming up:

Dates for our 2017 off piste skiing and ski touring courses and adventures are starting to firm up in the calendar.

Steep Vanoise - yes, it's back (of course it's back!) - once again based out of Brides-les-Bains with easy access to the 3 Valleys resorts, Paradiski, Valmorel and more this is 5 days of steep skiing with coaching 'on the hoof'. In 2016 we scored all-time conditions - check out the pictures here!

Lofoten - once again we will be returning to the magical Lofoten Islands for 3 separate weeks of ski touring adventures.
1 - 8 April will be boat-based on the amazing Skydancer,
8 - 15 April and 15 - 22 April will both be land-based at Lofoten Ski Lodge

Check out this year's fun

Maurienne Valley Steep Coaching and Adventures will be running Sunday to Sunday this year, from 5 - 12 March based in Termignon, with Bonneval-sur-Arc, Val Cenis, Valfrejus, La Norma, Aussois and many many more close at hand. Last year's report is here.

Also in the diary:

Freeride Serre Chevalier : 18 - 25 March

Off Piste Perfection Tarentaise Explorer : 4 - 11 February

For more details of these courses or to enquire about other dates please get in touch!

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Salomon MTN LAB boot and ski review

As followers of this blog may have noticed, this winter I have been skiing on/in lots of Salomon gear (thanks to those nice people at Salomon UK!).

So its about time for a bit of a review of the kit I have been using...

Photo © Ross Hewitt

Reviewer details:
Weight 82kg (-ish), height 1,90m
Boot size 28.0
Skier type: professional skier since 1995 (fully certified BASI Instructor / Diplome d'Etat Ski Alpin)
Previous boots: Dynafit Titan, Dunafit Mercury, Tecnica Cochise Pro 130
Previous skis: Volkl Gotama, Whitedot Ranger Carbonlite, Whitedot Director Carbonlite

MTN LAB boots:

Following my initial review, these boots have absolutely proven their worth throughout this winter season. They are a cut above any other touring boot I have had on my feet.
They may not be the lightest boot on the market at ~1.7Kg per foot in the 28.0, but in terms of the weight to skiability ratio there is no contest.
Initially I was concerned about the 2-buckle system and whether there would be enough to work with to hold the heel back into the pocket properly but there is very little problem with heel lift (one of big complaints with lighter weight 2 clip boots has always been heel lift - particularly in heavier snow). It is fair to say that thanks to the powerstrap this does behave more like a 3-clip boot...
Another point of interest for me was the material covering the toe box, but this has proven both durable and very effective at keeping moisture out.

In terms of skiability the MTN LABs have happily driven the MTN LAB skis (115mm underfoot) and the MTN Explore 95, along with a variety of other skis, in all sorts of snow conditions and have been more than capable of driving them both at high speeds and slowly. Flex is extremely progressive and smooth, but stiff enough to deal with bumps/rough terrain at speed. I have been switching between the stock liners and an Intuition Pro Tour (in preparation for Baffin Island where a closed-cell foam liner was a must) and have been equally happy in both.

Cuff movement is very good giving free and easy ankle movement for skinning/boot-packing or climbing. The boots have also stood up well to 4 1/2 months of almost daily abuse:

In short if these boots fit your feet then I cannot recommend them highly enough - I have tried many boots over the last few years and these have come closer than anything to being the 'holy grail'!


I have been skiing the 184cm length MTN LAB ski extensively this winter - it quickly became my go to ski for anything barring really firm conditions:

Courchevel powder heaven 15 Jan 2016 from Simon Christy on Vimeo.

The skis have a 115mm waist width and a nominal turn radius of 24m. Profile is a gentle traditional camber, with a subtle tip rocker in the front 1/3 of the ski (this is my non-scientific 'eyeball' measurement description...). My understanding is that Andreas Fransson had a large hand in designing this ski, and his tastes in ski were obviously similar to mine as this combination works perfectly for so many situations...

These skis are so much fun in anything soft, easy to pivot in tight spots, but stable at speed in big curves. On firmer snow torsional rigidity is good, giving good grip when needed. The progressive tip rocker is great for keeping the skis floating in deep snow, and smoothing out chopped up snow without being excessive and flapping around like an angry salmon. Overall the combination of camber/rocker is well balanced meaning the ski will skid very effectively and smoothly, making speed control on steep ground very easy.

Weighing in at just over 1,8 kg per ski then paired with a lightweight binding these make a perfect 'wide touring' ski.

Night skiing from Simon Christy on Vimeo.

Still to come: reviews of MTN Explore 95 ski, Soulquest LAB jacket and pants, XMax Photochromatic goggles...

Monday, 13 June 2016

Baffin Island - Skiing the Ancient Hallways - part 2

On our trip to Gibbs Fjord we skied pretty much every one of the 21 days we spent on the ice - with 24 hour daylight if the weather is bad in the morning it may well be good come evening time... We skied 18 previously unrecorded lines up to 1300m high, along with repeats of 2 lines skied by a French team in 2014. No point in describing them all - suffice to say it mostly involved skinning across a flat fjord, booting up a couloir, and skiing back down again... So I have tried to pick out some highlights and other interesting points from this trip:

Melting snow - don't let anyone tell you any different, on a trip like this huge amounts of time are spent melting snow - every meal, every hot drink - wake up in the morning, get all your warm kit on, get over to the 'kitchen' and get the stove on. Get back from skiing - get the stove on. Fill thermoses for the night/morning - get the stove on... When it is -20C this all takes some time so patience is an essential ingredient for a trip like this!

Mind you, the views from the kitchen window weren't too bad:

Meanwhile, Ross & Ev scope out a line:

The revelation of the trip for me was kite-skiing. I had always sworn I would never get involved with kites having lost 2 friends to kite-surfing accidents in the mid 00's, but on the flat sea ice of the fjords they were a brilliant way to travel when the winds were playing ball - 5km cross-fjord in 8 minutes? Oh go on then!

Temperatures weren't as cold as Ross had experienced on his previous trip - we probably hit -20 or so during the first week, then gradually milder. Still glad to have plenty of warm kit... Neoprene overboots didn't get as much use as planned but were great for getting boots up to 'working temperature' before heading out (not my choice of colour...).

As soon as the wind blew every bit of skin needed to be covered though:

Opening ziplock bags with big mitts proved to be a challenge too far!

Most of our hot meals were freeze-dried - for fuel efficiency we had to avoid anything that might need washing up. Chipie is a chef though, so of course he came up with some high class improvised meals - Arctic MSR-grilled hot dogs:

Oh and the skiing, let's not forget the skiing...:

Monday, 30 May 2016

Baffin Island - skiing the ancient hallways - part 1

Baffin Island has been high on my 'bucket list' ever since I read an article by Andrew McLean on a trip he made in 2002 when he and Brad Barlage made over a dozen first descents in the Sam Ford Fjord and Walker Arm area, including now uber-classics like Polar Star couloir. Ross Hewitt and I had batted about the idea of a trip here for some time and it all came together for a trip in spring 2014. Unfortunately this also coincided with the arrival of my second child the previous autumn, and the timing simply was not good so I had to pass on that trip. I had resigned myself to having missed the chance as there are so many factors that go in to putting together a team for this kind of trip: a) partners capable of skiing the terrain, b) partners with a) and also capable of surviving on sea ice in -25/-30C temperatures, c) partners with a) and b) also with sufficient funds (this is an eye-wateringly expensive trip...), d) partners with a), b) and c) who have enough free time in April/May, e) partners with a), b), c) and d) who I would want to spend 3,5 weeks in a small tent on the sea ice with... etc etc

Fortunately Ross came back from the 2014 trip massively enthused to return, so 2016 was blocked in the diary and we started planning. The team was completed by Evan Cameron an NZ-based Scot and long-time climbing/skiing buddy of Ross's, and my buddy Stephen 'Chipie' Windross a Tarentaise-based roving skier and adventurer.

4 men and a whole lot of bags...

Iqaluit - probably the brightest airport in the world?

An omen...:

Clyde River airport 10 minutes after the plane has gone - best do lots of networking on the flight in otherwise it is a long walk into town...:

Big rabbits round here...:

The man the myth the legend - 75-year old Ilkoo still hunts and fishes and despite putting on a Yoda-like 'front' with a walking stick around town is still sprightly and hard as nails...

Chipie checking out our wildlife protection:

Skidoo and qumatik loaded and ready to go - possibly the most uncomfortable 14 hours I have ever spent - bumping across pressure ridges in the sea ice with very little padding...:

'I'm a livin' in a box' - Chipie & I in our 'kennel' on qumatik #2:

Polar bear gloves - warmer than a warm thing...:

Polar bear tracks - mother and cubs:

14 interminable hours later:

The views are 'alright' at 2 am:

Day 1: a late start after a long day, but blue skies were too good to waste - time to get busy!:

Today's target - the line to the right of the big cliffs - 1200m up to 50ยบ:

Goin' up:

And coming down...


Perfect cold snow for steep skiing:


Heading for the exit door:

1000m rock walls above:

Back down into the freezer - cold air pools on the fjord so most days we climbed into warmer air and then skied back down into coldness again...:

Powder down to the fjord:

More to follow at some point...