A Very Human Race

Climbing, mountaineering and mountain marathons are usually what we’re thinking of when coming up with our gear. But frankly, if ever there was an activity where low weight and tiny bundles come in handy, it would be a 1700km bike race through the mountains of Kyrgyzstan.

Bike Laden Crop

Not exactly roomy, is it?

That’s how we heard about the Silk Road Mountain Race: the folks at podia.cc got in touch, as a couple of their number, Max and Justin, were taking it on. And they needed some gear.

Now, luggage for an adventure bike needs to be trim and minimal: the traditional tourer’s layout of big, fat, rear-mounted panniers unweights the front end, causing the bike to sway around when standing up to climb (and the Silk Road features 26,000m of that, on questionable surfaces), so frame-mounted bags and low-slung front panniers are de rigeur. And that means whatever you’re taking, it can’t be very big. It can’t be too heavy either: gearing is one thing, but it’s not magic. You’ve still got to get yourself and a laden bike up a mountain with your legs.

Max Wafer Tent

“Thank you for keeping us warm! There were many jealous faces when we had our PHD kit on!”

So, we sorted them out with Wafer gear. It certainly sits comfortably in the “can’t be very big” and “can’t be too heavy” categories. In fact, if you’re going to take a full frame camera and attendant lenses, it weighs basically nothing by comparison!

We had a look at the race while we were making these arrangements and we have to say, it looks really rather spectacular, and more than just a little jealousy-inducing. Max opined that he was “not sure if this country is better explored during a ‘race’ or at leisure. Maybe I will have to go back again?” which sounded a little more our style…though there are those of a racing bent here at PHD Towers, so never say never.

In the end, Max’s musings turned out to be quite prophetic. It quickly became apparent that the experience of Kyrgyzstan was far too good to waste by – literally – racing through it.

“…we withdrew after Check Point 1. We were already 24hrs behind schedule after enjoying our surroundings too much.”

And really, we can’t argue with that.

It wasn’t just the surroundings themselves though, it was the people who inhabit them:

 “I read before about Nomadic people’s hospitality, but until you experience it you can’t understand how amazing it is. They have so little but would happily share anything they had.

We stayed with a shepherd for a night in his yurt and joined a family reunion picnic!”

Shepherd

Maybe they ‘dropped out’ of the race…or maybe they found something more important than racing.

Really?!

Apparently so, yes:

“Descending down a mountain at 10pm in the pitch dark we were making slow progress. Unaided by the freezing cold river crossings. Just as our morale was hitting a low point we saw a flashing light in the distance. A shepherd approaches us and makes the universal sleep sign with two hands next to his cheek and points to his yurt. We couldn’t have been happier.”

No, you don’t run away from that to chase a finish line. Priorities duly updated, they set about enjoying Kyrgyzstan at a more sedate pace.

Unfortunately, after deciding to take a more leisurely approach, they both ended up getting sick! The rest of the week was spent doing a bit more cycling and generally trying to get themselves better, which is a real shame, but despite being unwell, despite pulling out of the race, a trip filled with the experiences they had must surely count as a success. Max certainly seems to think so…

“I can’t recommend this country enough to all who enjoy a good adventure outdoors!”

Check, Check and Check Again

Lenin Summit (crop)

Lenin Summit. Ben’s the one in the down suit (though the other guy looks like he could do with one).

When we have an idea for a piece of kit, we design and make it (obviously), and then (also obviously), we need to make sure it was actually a good idea.

When we first came up with our Expedition Double Suit, we were well aware of why it was needed: big mountains mean a big range of temperatures, but a one-piece suit strapped down under a harness pretty much scuppers any chance of adjusting your layers. So our add-a-layer, lose-a-layer, keep-your-harness-on idea was sound, but of course, we needed someone to take it out and make sure we’d got it right.

Much as we’d like to hang a Gone Climbin’ sign on the door and nip across to the Himalayas for some product testing, we had to concede that we were better letting someone else do it.

One such person was Ben Kane, who took the prototype to Manaslu and gave us some invaluable info about the conditions, about what he did, and about how the suit behaved. Along with performance data from other testers, we were able to develop a suit which was – after all – a good idea!

A really important part of the testing though is that it never stops. We don’t have a warehouse full of stock, which means we can keep tweaking and poking things as and when we have new ideas…but whenever we do that, we need to check them again.

Ben was intending to climb Dhaulagiri (which would have been ideal), but unfortunately that had to be called off…but he still went climbing. And he still took the suit.

A summit of Kyrgyzstan’s Lenin Peak (and an attempt on Khan Tengri) produced plenty of facts and figures about what he wore, at what height, for how long and how it performed – both on its own, as part of a Sleep System and by comparison to our other gear. For example

“I started in the inner suit on summit day (from 6100m) at about 3am, and climbed until just after dawn when the wind picked up, donned the over jacket and was cosy until the summit at 11am. Not long after on the descent I removed the over jacket and kept the inner on all the way back to Camp 3 at 6100m.”

And plenty more detail, which we shan’t trouble you with here.

All that detail is then picked over and considered, bit by tiny little bit: people use our gear in places where the weather could kill you in minutes, so we need to know how it behaves!

It should be no great surprise that we test our gear before it becomes available, but when Ben sent us his latest photos, we thought we’d mention a little bit about how it’s done.

Another way that it’s done, of course, is through the medium of everyone who uses our gear telling us about it…so keep the stories coming!

Lenin summit plateau 3

“Why do you make them with red patches?” Well, how easy would he be to spot if we didn’t?

First ascents in Kyrgyzstan’s Djenghi-Djer

dundurWe were approached, a little while ago, by a chap called Will Rowland, who wanted to talk about sleeping bags. Nothing too unusual in that: as you might imagine, people ask us about sleeping bags pretty much every day! This stuck in our minds though, thanks to an old family connection.

Decades ago, when Pete Hutchinson Designs was still simply Pete Hutchinson and his designs, Pete made a sleeping bag for Clive Rowland, an accomplished mountaineer who’s known for (among many other things) saving the lives of the seriously injured Doug Scott and Chris Bonington on the Ogre in 1977. Will, as it turns out, is Clive’s son, and figured that if it was good enough for his Dad, it was good enough for him.

The apple, as it turns out, has not fallen far from the tree: Will appears to be a pretty adventurous climber too…

He wanted to chat about sleeping bags as he was one of a team who were heading to Kyrgyzstan, looking for unclimbed peaks. It may seem that there is nowhere new left to explore: everywhere’s been visited and every mountain climbed, surely? Well, not quite. There are still a few regions hidden away, where climbers’ eyes light up at the prospect of being the first to set foot on a new summit.

In August 2016, the remote Kyrgyz range of the Djenghi-Djer was visited for the first time by a climbing expedition; they put up a number of first-ascents, and noted that there were many more for future teams to explore. And that’s exactly what Will and his friends had decided to do.

After few conversations about what they’d need (and what they may be likely to need for future trips), the team decided on Hispar 500 and 600 bags. One of the 500s was shelled in waterproof HS2 fabric, to put up with the sort of cold, wet conditions normally more associated with arctic exploration, so we’ll hopefully have another expedition to keep an eye on in future!

For now though, the team look to be having a great time out in the Djenghi-Djer. If you’d like to see what they’re up to, you can check out their blog, and see the latest updates on Facebook.