Comfort, the Páramo perspective

January 23, 2021

Euan 2020 Jan 14 copyThis is a two-part post.  Today I want to establish the context by talking about comfort and related factors such as resilience in the context of walking in good and bad weather conditions.  Tomorrow I will extend that learning into an update of how I see resilience from a sense-making perspective, pulling together material from scattered posts over the last decade.  So this post is more anecdotal, with some key lessons, tomorrows more structured and generic in nature.

The most controversial aspect of the discussion in most online hiking groups is the question of what gear to buy.  Ask for recommendations as to the best trekking poles and you will be inundated with suggestions; then the competing camps will move into open conflict.  The answer on that one by the way is Black Diamond, carbon fiber shafts, and cork handles.  Such arguments then continue onto the hills with bonding moments as you meet someone who has made the same choices as you.  It happens in all walks of life, you can’t help but feel sorry for someone with a Canon, when you are carrying a Nikon for example.  Over the course of 2020 I have been walking regularly with Paul and Brenda in South Wales, and one notable weekend in the Lake District.  It is no understatement that they have helped keep me sane during these times of Covid.  But friendship aside Paul and I (Brenda has more sense than to engage) disagree on a range of issues of which the use of satellite navigation devices is one.  My general view in the domain of navigation is to follow the little blue dot on the iWatch which is taking a feed from the truly wonderful ViewRanger app on the iPhone with a robust Garmin Montana in the rucksack as a backup.  Yes, I have a map and compass and know how to use them, but that is the third layer.  Paul on the other hand works from not only a map but also printed google earth maps (high resolution) and is constantly taking bearings.  I sometimes think his idea of heaven is a night navigation course without any equipment in which he is taught to feel his way through the soles of bare feet to gain a true harmony with nature.

The other main source of conflict is what to wear.  Paul, having grown up in the near-tropical, gentle, and undemanding terrain of the Gower Peninsula seeks the comfort of the waterproof membrane at the heart of his Gore-Tex jacket.  Those of us bred in the mountains of North Wales, a harsh unforgiving environment that breeds resilience into the soul and strength into the will, tend to a range of Páramo jackets and base layers.  These work by actively moving liquid water away from the skin and have two layers – the pump liner and a water repellent outer. They also have the advantage that they carry on pumping water away even if they are torn on barbed wire or bramble bushes, encounters with which are common when Paul has planned the route. He has a liking for cairns, glacial moraines, and old farm buildings and this involves multiple diversions over trackless wastelands.  He is however knowledgeable on the subject and learning so I am told should always be won through great pain.  Páramo also has the advantage that I can also wash them in a Nikwax liquid that restores water repellency to the outer layer.  The approach means a design that allows so many zips that I can go from full lockdown to survive a blizzard to a highly aerated state when it gets hot, all without constantly stopping to change layers.

This is an ongoing debate between those of us who are clearly in the right and in a state of righteousness, and those who have fallen into a state of grievous sin and error.  the argument bubbled up three days ago when an obviously deranged gear reviewer in Trail Magazine came out in favour of Gore-Tex and Paul sent me an email suggesting that he had been proved right but that “To be fair the Paramo keeps you toasty warm as long as it doesn’t rain for longer than 4 hours, so ideal for the older walker out for a stroll. Shows how stoical Dave is that he didn’t complain once on our last 8 hour walk in freezing rain in Mynyddoedd Duon”.  I responded in kind and we appealed to Iwan, who had brought us together in the first place, for judgment on the matter.  Iwan was born in the North of Wales but grew up with Paul in the South. He is now confined by Covid to the flatlands of Toronto, discovering first hand the full nature of Hiraeth, another of those untranslatable Welsh words to go with Cynefin.  Despite this, or possibly because of it, Iwan is a man of stout heart and good judgment as evidenced by his chapter in the Cynefin Book.  Anyone who designates me a National Treasure has got to have something going for them.  His preference on layering was silk, wool then cotton and he argued thus:

I’m generally following the adage of our Army boys
“Skin is waterproof”
And thus the primary role of clothing is to retain heat insulation and wool, even when wet does this quite well.
This logic then puts me closer to the Snowden camp me thinks.
Incidentally I was thinking of you boys yesterday when I heard the word comfort and how it summed the two of you perfectly.
The modern definition encompasses warm and cosy.  Definitely you Paul.
But the original definition was closer to, “give me strength to endure” which is about as Snowdenian a definition as you could find!

I can also attest to the truth of the need for strength to endure and will talk more about that in the context of making visions into reality tomorrow.  But endurance is a part of loving the hills and for that, I have two Euan stories to recount.   Scottish Euan, so-called in conversation to distinguish him from the Welsh Iwan already mentioned, took the above picture of the pair of us on the 14th January last year.  My trepanning the previous month meant I was not allowed to drive and I was going stir crazy so he picked me up from home and we headed for the hills; I  am blessed with good friends and both Euan & Iwan along with Paul and Brenda are among the best.  The problem was it was wet which, is an understatement but having decided to go we went anyway.  The Cat’s Back is one of my favorite ridge walks in the Black Mountains if not the whole of South Wales but the day saw dense clinging mud underfoot and driving rain from the start.   The plan had been to get to Hay Bluff and then look at options and we made it, not without difficulty over the Black Hill and got close to the Welsh Border when we both looked at each other and mutually made the decision that it was time to abandon ship, or rather abandon the hillside before we needed a ship.   I knew there was a pony path that would take us to the valley and shelter and so we headed down.  Now there was a side benefit here in that this is a delightful path following Olchon River from its source through a series of waterfalls, it was good to discover it.  Little did I know that with Covid coming and Wales in Lockdown, Paul, Brenda, and myself would find nine different routes, several featuring said pony path,  around this valley which is the only part of the Black Mountains to be in England and thus accessible to us.

Now we were less willing to turn back on the 31st March 2018.  Euan had joined me for the final three days of my 67-day trek around and through Wales and I was determined that the final day would be on the 1st April, my 64th Birthday when Iwan and my sister were also joining for the final section to the coast.  On the 30th we had managed wonderful ridge walk over the Arans from Llanuwchllyn at the western end of Llyn Tegid to Dinas Mawddwy.  The 31st involved no major peaks but was designed to get us to the A487 which would be the starting point for the final day’s walk over the full length of the Cadair Idris ridge to the coast.  I’d always seen it as an easy stage but it turned into one of the two really difficult days.  The other by the way was a walk without any mountains along the River Dee, but I was hit by a Blizzard and I had to stop the walk early at Chirk as I was starting to feel the early signs of exposure having plunged thigh-deep through the snow into semi-frozen water pools (not puddles) for the final four hours.  That also had a silver lining as replanning the walk meant I added the Berwyn’s to create a full day for the following stage and I am grateful for that.  So the 30th was wonderful and my birthday walk was truly wonderful with the mountains covered in fresh snow with bright sun.  Add good companions and a meal at Cross Foxes to complete what had been a mammoth four-year project, averaging 19 miles a day and you can’t ask for more.  But the 31st was something else.  It all started well with the ascent to Feel Dinas and then the walk around Craig Maesglase that I had long admired from the A470 on multiple trips to and from my parent’s house in Moelfre.  Indeed we started to talk about a return as the hills which sit to the south of the A470 and an unfrequented delight.  I’m planning a pub to pub walk to repeat the last three days as soon as things open up again.  To be honest I have a lot of walks that involve three to five days stopping at a pub each night and carrying all that I need both here, the Lake District, and also for the completion of the South West Coastal path.  In case anyone is interested I am keeping a lot of notes on these walks for a Walking through Diabetes book I want to write next year when duties allow.

But back to the walk, yes it started well but then the weather deteriorated.  Snow, or its more terrible cousin sleet swept in and visibility dropped to near zero.  The track moved from enjoyable hill sidetracks to seemingly never-ending peat bogs.  We had to divert frequently to bypass flooding as we came over Cribin Mawr.  Just when we thought things were going to get easier the near-vertical ascent to Waun-oer which would have been an easy jaunt in summer turning into a slithering, one step forwards two steps back nightmare before we hit easier times on Mynydd Ceiswyn and a rocky well-marked path to the lay-by where we had left one car.  As we descended, much relieved knowing that our skeletons would not be discovered in some future age at the bottom of a peat hag, I mentioned to Euan that at times I had thought about suggesting we abandon it, but the thought of not completing on the penultimate day of the project had been just too much.  In return, he confessed that he had been thinking the same way and had started to develop a theme about not going for walks with obsessive Welshmen in inclement weather with said Welshman intent on achieving some artificial goal.  I think he said it much better than that (and is welcome to add the proper phrasing to the comments section), and it was a sobering thought.  Yes, I’m glad we did it, and we got the benefits of the snow the next day.  But if I had been on my own, or if we had both been more sensible then the planned exit route on a  good track to the main road at Ochr y Bwlch might have made more sense.  I’ve been foolish in similar ways a few times in the past.  Two descents from Bwlch Tryfan in the dark without a head torch, a slipped patella on Rannoch Moor, and a few others including the Red Dawn on Tryfan incident.

But we were well equipped, mountain boots, gaiters, and of course full Páramo from head to feet, and we endured.  We were also experienced and carrying the necessities to survive overnight if needed; so we were prepared in the event that things went wrong.  There are a lot of lessons about resilience and the nature of comfort to be learned from this, and from other mountain trips, but I want to draw those out in tomorrow’s post.


The banner picture is from one of the Saltmarsh at the Plum Island Wildlife Refuge by Russ Seidel used under a Creative Commons License, use is a 1240 by 450 px selection from the original.


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