The Bear and the Bow.

Joycee’s left a Pot Noodle right in front of the kettle. It’s like some kind of bizarre test, will he/won’t he, no he won’t. Not yet. I’ll wait, I can do that, surprise is a dish best served after stirring and standing for a few minutes and then deciding if you should use a new fork as the one you stirred it with originally just looks a little unsavoury now.

I’d promised Holly I’d do this and after a year we finally found a Schleich Grizzly Bear in the Sentry Box toy shop just of Byres Road the other day. So today, I made holes in its back, ground off some fur, scarred it, broke it’s jaw, half blinded it and stuck spears, swords and arrows in its back (which I might add are exactly placed and formed like those in Disney’s pre-production drawings, down to the wound binding on the big spear, OCD, me?) before painting it in an assortment of dark and evil tones. We now have a Mor’du figure.

I’ve still to finish the painting, but I thought I’d make a record of the wee fella in case Disney have me killed before I complete it.


Brunton Ember Solar Charger Review

I don’t get a lot of tech gear in to review, for one I don’t really like using it in the outdoors, I don’t feel the need to programme anything to enhance my mountain experience and to be honest I don’t like reading instructions that are more than a couple of paragraphs. So when the Brunton Ember appeared I went “Ah…” I read the simple instructions and went “Ahhhh….”
It’s been in my pack or in the car since, here’s why.

90g for the charger and 14g for the wee cable, not a helluva lot and it all packs away no problem with dimensions at a little over 2″ x 3″ and around the thickness of a slice of bread. It’s a tough wee bugger too, metal (stainless steel I think?) chassis and so far scratchproof plastic faces. It’s also rated as being water resistant, but I will not be risking a test of that.,
On one side we have the solar panel, rated at 100mA and on the the other side is a button and some indicator lights.
The little red light comes on when it’s charging with the four blue lights showing you where the battery charge is at, either by a short press of the button or when you switch it on with a long press where the “on” icon to the right lights green when you’re charging your device. Simple. Thank you.

The supplied cable fits both my iPod and my Sony Xperia phone and will also fit anything with that big Apple connector and mini and micro UBS connections. The cable has a neat pull and flip 3-in-1 connector on one end and a regular USB on the other. The Ember has two connectors on its base, one for when it’s charging your device, and one for when the USB end is plugged into something else (me it’s the laptop or the lighter socket in the car) and you’re quick-charging the Ember for a trip. I like the flexibility and again the simplicity, I took to this wee thing right away.

Now as much as I say I don’t like tech kit on trips, that’s just outdoor tech, for entertainment I say yes. My iPod is a long time saver of my sanity and my smartphone has become vital since I got it last November. I take a lot of photies on it and staying in comms with home is more important than ever these days with Joycee and I being away from home so much the past few months and me wanting to keep up with regular stuff like reading Holly a bedtime story. On a battery-eating smartphone that stuff leaves you flashing empty, but the Ember has been saving the day.

I’ve found it can save the day from a full charge around twice, and I’m going to be very unscientific about this whole area as monitoring just how fast the Ember charges from solar input alone has too many variables and how quickly it charges my devices is even harder to monitor. You can see the percentage points on your devoice battery clicking up when you’re using the Ember to charge it and I can charge a low powered phone from a full Ember battery twice, exact figures? No thanks, I’m looking at the view or the map. But, I feel I can rely on it and not worry about keeping the Ember full, which is partly why I don’t mind carrying it: useful but not intrusive.
In good sunlight the Ember does charge quickly, in low light it simmers away, the wee red lights lets you know when it’s working. Magic.

The battery storage is 2800mA which is plenty for me, way more than my phone battery and because the Ember’s not a finite resource, you can top it up on the move, you can have almost constant power replenishment as long as your not tweeting a photo of yourself every ten paces. Which no outdoor folk do of course.

It’s actually hard to review the Ember as its all so simple, it does what it’s supposed to, it’s light and I like it as it fits in perfectly with what I need right now. The cable will need looking after, moving parts etc, but pack it well and it’s all good. Definitely recommended.
It’ll be interesting to see how it fares in winter, so I’ll come back to it then after a year of charging and discharging, see how it does in a sub zero tent.

Mammut Jura Sleeping Bag and Air Pillow Review

Top end kit maker Mammut have been making some exclusives for GoOutdoors. I’ve got the Jura Sleeping Bag and Air Pillow on test and they’ve been out about the past couple of months, here’s some thoughts on them.

Some years ago Mammut bought Ajungilak who made excellent sleeping bags and these new bags still bear that brand name. Ajungilak synthetic bags served me well over the years and I was pleased to see that quality and functionality remaining in the design of the Jura.
The way the Jura is put together is spot on, the construction is very neat and tidy. The format is a slim mummy shape, in fact I found it very slim indeed around the chest and shoulders. Length is good, plus-six footers will get in here just fine, but better if they’re triathletes than pie eaters or weight lifters.
The hood is excellent, roomy and deep with an external drawcord which is easy enough to adjust and keeps clear of your face. The hood cinches in well, I can get my winter friendly porthole above my head if needs be.

At the other end the footbox is excellent, roomy, well-shaped and fat with insulation. The insulation is own-brand MTI 13, a polyester fill which is double layered here to give the Jura a rating of -5DegC comfort which seems about right to me, I’ve been properly warm in the Jura around zero with just boxers on. The fill is soft and pleasant to sleep in, regular down users shouldn’t feel like they’re roughing it here at all.
The shell fabrics are Silky TX inside, a soft-feel nylon and Performance TX outside, a heavier grade nylon with a decent water, or I should say coffee and soup, repellence. It’s a good fabric for condensation prone tents, I’ve had the foot end pretty damp and it dries off quickly and of course the fill is synthetic, so there were no worries about getting damp anyway.

The main zip is okay, an anti-snag strip does its best and it runs as smooth as you’d expect, another inch of width on the shoulders and I’d have been in and out the Jura like a, er, rat out of an aquaduct? It’s late, I may change that analogy later. The zip is double ended and I have had me feet cooled by opening up the bottom while I was cozy at the other end.

The Jura’s a nice bag, I’ve enjoyed using it, but whether or not it’s the bag for you will come down to two things, price and weight and plotting those two variable on the graph of personal outdoor joy. GoOutdoors have this selling at £140/£125-with the fan club card which all seems ever more sensible as down prices continue to rise hysterically, but the Jura is 1765g, 90g of which is stuffsack and that’s a presence in your rucksack that’s hard to ignore. It compresses down a bit, but synthetic insulation is what it is, you can’t have it all -cheap/durable/light – pick two.
The Jura was perfect for a base camping trip where I left the gear at 500m and headed off to the peaks next day, the materials make for a worry free night in the rain and the construction is excellent. A wee bit wider at the shoulders and I’d be completely happy, but you’re not me so it’s got to be worth a look.

I like pillows at camp, a stuffsack full of clothes just isn’t the same, but it’s got to be light so the Mammut Air Pillow has been been my new best friend.

The outdoor trade is depressing devoid of humour and levity and Mammut buck that trend here. The Jura bag above has “Sleep Well/Sov Godt” on the easy to grip zip tag (Hmm, probably should have mentioned that in the review) which is nice as it’s an unnecessary embellishment, as is the text on the Air Pillow above “Warning; This product may cause drowsiness”. Magic.
That text is on the valve through which a couple of big lungfuls give you a nice soft pillow for the night. To deflate you flip open the cap and stick a finger into the little flap inside to open it and squeeze the air out. Simple.
It’s light, 39g apparently, could be right, you can barely feel it in your hand, so there’s no need to weigh it. It’s small too, which is a good thing because it fits neatly inside sleeping bag hoods, as long as they have good hoods. I’ve had the pillow in three or four different bags now and it’s been great, it stays put and the curved bottom edge fits into your neck just nice.

I was talking recently about camp comfort and little things that make your night better can’t be overestimated, be it a book, music, chocolate or a pillow. This is a great wee thing, a tenner with your GoOutdoors fan club card or £15 without. Here’s something you don’t hear me say often, if this one bursts, I’ll buy another.


13 is #1

Black Sabbath’s new album “13” is #1 in the UK charts, 43 years after their last number one with the Paranoid album in 1970.

I had mixed feelings right up until I heard it streaming on iTunes a few days before it was released where I sat cross-legged, hunched over my laptop with my earphones on. It was an emotional experience, it was new an old at the same time, the thrill of anticipation mixed with flashes back to days, places and faces long past. I never realised just how much music and Sabbath in particular had bookmarked my memories.

The CD was something else again, the liner notes a joy to read, the artwork simple and real, a wicker sculpture was burned in a field and the discs are a pair of Vertigo swirls, like the middles cut out of my 70’s Sabbath albums.
Nostalgia only goes so far, the music had to stand up by itself, and after a week of constant play, it’s something of a relief that it’s still standing.

It opens with End of the Beginning which is probably just what I wanted to hear – pure early Sabbath. Was it written to sound that way? Cynics would say yes, but then what else are they going to write? You are what you are, it would be more contrived to try and sound different. God is Dead? was the single and at nearly nine minutes long (only a few seconds longer than it’s predecessor) it’s not trying very hard to be accessible. Bless then for that.
Loner swings, Zeitgeist floats and Age of Reason grinds. The changes of mood are many, as are changes of tempo, 13 is always inventive and it feels like that’s as much down to producer Rick Rubin as it is to the band. Sabbath needed Rubin, to keep them under control, to push them back out of it and to make them work. The playing is all the better for it.
Ozzy is trying so hard, reaching as far as he can with a voice that has no high notes left to give with inventive phrasing that makes a mockery of the monotone mumblings of his last half dozen solo albums.
Geezer has written a set of lyrics that are a joy to read, he’s a clever bugger, and his virtuoso bass playing is an edgy, rumbling presence through the album and it’s deservedly high in the mix.
Iommi plays better here than he’s done since the early 80’s, everything that inspired my to pick up the guitar as a teenager comes out again and again and grabs me as hard as it did back then. Damaged Soul is a blues grind with Iommi playing off the cuff licks and solos and it stuns me every time I listen to it, his guard is down, it’s not note perfect, and Rubin must have fought for this raw version of it. I love it, even the production feel on this is different, it’s just, I dunno. Best song on the album? Maybe.

The bonus tracks are okay, I’m glad they’re on a separate disc, the album closes with church bells and rain, just as the first album opened back in’70 and extra tracks on disc one after that retro outro wouldn’t have worked. The songs have a different feel anyway, more contemporary maybe, more straight metal, more Ozzy solo style even? The 8 tracks on disc one are a fine rounded body of work as they are.
I reckon rock bands should only record vinyl length albums anyway, too much padding on CD’s, there’s inspired song writing and then there’s writing enough music to fill a CD so you don’t get complaints about lack of value.

Will I still be listening to it in a year? I hope so, I find myself singing some of the tunes, good riffs, good hooks and it’s heavy too. Not all detuned and multilayered guitar though, it’s an attitude or an ambiance, it’s what Sabbath had, have, naturally and everyone else has to try and engineer.

13 is a great album, better still it doesn’t disgrace the band or embarrass old blokes like me. #1, bloody marvelous.


Health and Safety Gone Mad (Max).

The new Post Office delivery operative robot is an interesting mix of retro chic and post apocalyptic industrial anarchism.
As much as I like the reintroduction of the name G.P.O (I wonder if they’ll bring back Busby too?) I’m not sure this new dog and ned retardant safety equipment will meet the approval of customers. I can see the android postie getting as far as “I’ve got a registered letter Mrs McPie, could you…” before a sweeping brush is broken across its head and shrieks of terror uttered from across the threshold.
I like the real posties and it’s not just because I’m getting old and reactionary, if they can replace that fine body of folks with mindless automatons, then are any of us really safe whatever our occupations?

Loan Ranger

It’s amazing what you don’t see or notice even when you know something like the back of your hand. I had a day of newness mixed in with the familiar in the Lang Craigs in the Kilpatricks.

I’m now all properly signed up, risk assessed and equipped as a volunteer ranger. There’s a lot to do in the Lang Craigs, I’ll be places I don’t usually go and I’ll be regularly inspecting six miles of fence, fitness shall once again be mine.
There’s mix of wildlife, some rare and secret, some exciting, some undesirable and some with a carry-oot in a poly bag. I shall be watching them all.

The loan reference? A Scots word which kinds fits the bill: narrow access to a field.

What’s my password again?

Where to begin? Never been up and down this wee country as much as I have these past few weeks, on mountains, under mountains and no where near mountains.
All good though, there’s diverse results to report from it all including a coming-soon feature in Trail mag (featuring something of a return to my old “this looks like a good idea” trips) and a painted mural at Lochaber High School.

Not written so much on here though, or indeed looked at the place, it just kills my phone battery. In fact, that’s a sore point. My and a photographer were in the outback for a couple of days and my phone battery died. Except that apparently it saves just enough power to sound your alarms, so at 0745 it went and then after the five minutes snooze period. Then in another five minutes and another and another… I couldn’t silence it, there was no power to the screen or buttons. I wrapped it in a sock and then in my down jacket at the bottom of my pack so we didn’t go insane. The irony is that the sun shone the whole time and the Brunton solar charger than had come in for test was sitting in the motor. Bloody hell.

So much gear to talk about, all of it needing washed. I’m watching some tick bites for activity as well, I’m liking the current fading.
The big news is 13, Black Sabbath’s new album. I like it, which I’m surprised about, and grateful too since I’d pre-ordered the card busting limited edition box set. Plus denim jeans are 140 years old. All this and more coming soon.

I was a guest on BBC Scotland’s Out Of Doors last week, which is still up here. Up at 5, on at half 6 and had a fine time in the Loch Lomond sunshine as swimmers swam past and birds swooped past taking as many midges as they could, bless them.
More local stuff tomorrow, I’ll be in the Kilpatricks as a fully logo-ed ranger, come and say hello.
Then what, Kintail again I think?