24 September 2014

From Pico do Areeiro to Pico Ruívo - PR 1 - The new route

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the trail between the two highest peaks in Madeira is open, since last April, for traffic, following the repairs that took place after the landslide. Today, six months after the conclusion of the work, the opinions regarding its effectiveness diverge, being most of the hikers skeptic about the durability of the chosen option: the construction of a whole new section of the trail, instead of repairing the damaged one. Many believe the new route will not survive the Winter season approaching and the consequent worsening weather conditions. Time will tell.
Regardless of the decision's technical questionability, the fact is this was a strenuous work for a group of construction workers, since all the materials, due to the remoteness of the location, had to be carried by human portage, including an eighty-kilograms generator.
The photos below, taken one day before the official public opening, gives us a vision of the structures built in-situ to surpass the terrain obstacles.
Picture above:
On the afternoon of the last working day, a team of surveyors and construction workers retreat from the newly-finished trail and head on to Achada do Teixeira, ending an intervention that lasted nearly four months.
All photos taken with Nikon D40X and cheap Nikkor 18-55mm DX kit lens. Post-processing of the NEF to TIFF converted files in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.

20 September 2014

Tamrac Adventure 10 backpack

The Adventure 10 is a mixed hiking and photography backpack from Tamrac. This means that, contrary to the traditional photo backpacks, which only function is to carry and protect photographic equipment, this particular pack includes in its design an additional separated top compartment suitable for the transportation of items normally needed by nature excursionists, e.g. additional pieces of clothing, food, hiking equipment, etc.
This versatility makes it the right photography backpack for any hike that takes you farther from the parking lot, giving you a higher autonomy in anything that exceeds a morning or a afternoon walk.
I'm growing rather fond of my Tamrac Adventure 10 nowadays. Why? Well, in Summer time, here in Madeira, there isn't much we need in the hills except a couple of boots in our feet, a hat, a t-shirt or a polartec fleece and a pair of shorts. For food you carry a couple of power bars or snacks and for drinking you just need a filled up 1 liter water bottle. That's all. During that gentle season, my favorite photographic pack is the trusty Lowepro Inverse 200 AW belt pack. It has plenty of room for a Pro (D)SLR, together with a couple of lenses and a flash, and can also carry the needed food and drink.
In the Winter season, now starting, it's another story. The weather becomes unpredictable in Madeira's highest peaks and trails. The natural excessive humidity in the air, the sudden rain showers, the stronger winds and the low atmospheric temperatures, all conspire to change a peaceful walk in the hills into a living hypotermic hell in a very short notice. In those moments the difference between panic and self-control is proper equipment and preparation.
For the actual preparation you have to start working months before. You have to know your trade. And being an experienced hiker, as in all human activities and endeavors, requires commitment, dedication and time. Grouping the necessary equipment is easier. You don't need to be a PhD for that. You just need to follow a check-list taken from the web. Using it properly, however, requires you to reread the above paragraph.
Well, the first piece of equipment for us nature photographers of the Northern Hemisphere facing the arrival of Winter might as well be this dual-purpose backpack, that will allow us to carry, besides photo gear, all the other items to make our walks in the wilderness a bit more comfortable. A rain poncho or a Gore-Tex jacket, a all-weather cover for the backpack itself, additional dry clothes, a flash light, a mobile phone, a compass and charts or a portable GPS - don't forget a whistle and a signaling mirror - are all items that I stow religiously on the Tamrac's top compartment.
If I can find a negative detail on the Tamrac Adventure 10, this is, without doubt, its harness, back padding and straps system. These are quite simple and - it doesn't really matter how much you try to adjust them - you'll have a hard time trying to equilibrate the pack on your shoulders and back. Not nearly in the same league as the Lowepros. But for the luxury of an internal aluminium frame, you have to be prepared to pay twice the price. As in many things, you get what you pay for. Zippers are also far from perfect, being a little stiff and the opening of the top compartment could be better engineered. Besides that, this particular pack doesn't bring an all-weather cover. So, if you are planning hikes in rainy conditions, you better buy one on the E-Bay, from the many Chinese sellers out there. Four or five Euros should do the trick.
The 17' laptop compartment (visible here, near the back padding) is a must, and, due to that, this backpack quickly became my all-around carry-on air travel bag, allowing me to bring on the cabin all the valuable photographic and personal items that, otherwise, I'd have to send to the hold.
Two mesh pockets on either side allow for a small tripod transport or a water bottle. Along the pack's body and straps there are several points for connection of accessories of the M.A.S and S.A.S lines, also compatible with several accessories from other makers.
Bottom line: if you want a dual photo backpack that does the job, without damaging excessively your bank account, you will not make a mistake. The Adventure 10 is a reliable piece of equipment, with plenty of load capacity, without the bells and whistles that characterize more expensive options. However, if these bells and whistles are important for your needs, you should look nearby, on the higher specialized Lowepro competition.

13 September 2014

Levada dos Cedros - P.R. 14

The Levada dos Cedros has one of the most handsome sources in all the Madeira's levadas. However, as strange as it may seem, this path is not as visited as its nearest neighbours, in Rabaçal valley. Hidden deep in Fanal, this hike is, nevertheless, a pleasurable one, taking you deep into the Laurissilva forest.
The departure point to Levada dos Cedros source, nearby the ER 209 (Regional Road).
Departure position:
Lat:   32º49'33"N
Long: 017º09'29"W
Altitude: 870 mts
Source (arrival) position:
Lat:    32º47'57"N
Long: 017º08?39"W
Altitude: 910 mts
Distance: 5.4 kms
Time:       aprox. 1h30m
The round hike (from departure to departure) will take you about three hours on the trail and nearly eleven kilometres of walking.
Wooden bridge in Levada dos Cedros...
The always luxurious vegetation is a constant presence, as we proceed deeper into the Laurissilva, heading to the source of the levada.
The remote and luxuriant source of Levada dos Cedros, deep inside the primeval forest of Fanal. A well-kept Garden of Eden, rightfully deserving a visit and the 5.5 kms long approach march.
Pictures made with Nikon D40X with Nikkor 18-55mm kit lens and Nikon Coolpix P7100. Tripod Sirui T005 for the last picture.
Post-processing of the converted Nikon NEF Raw to TIFF files in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, ver. 4.1.

05 September 2014

The North Face Dhaulagiri II GTX - The perfect all-around hiking boot?

Ask any hiker which part of the equipment he values the most and the vast majority of them will mention the boots.
The reason for that choice is, we all know, quite simple:
Hiking, naturally, presupposes walking and for that you need your feet. Without adequate protection, they won't take you far.
In the end, as in many options in life, choosing the right hiking shoes is a matter of personal taste and always subjective.
Furthermore, if we try to separate and classify things by makers and nationality, we all get more confused in the process. We could argue that the best shoemakers are Italians. An in a way we may be right. Therefore, in terms of quality (at least), we could expect a good quality product, if bought from an Italian company. Brands like Scarpa, La Sportiva, Asolo, Crispi or Garmont - to name a few - became over the decades synonymous of quality handcrafting.
However, when, nowadays, we check their tongues, we hardly get surprised to see that these shoes are not made in Europe anymore.
So much for the European production and quality, if there is still any.
Increasing our doubts, instead of calming us, the market is now being invaded by shoes made by companies that, until recent times, had no tradition whatsoever in the shoe-making industry.
Millet, The North Face, Karrimor or Salewa are just a few, among several companies, that are presently diversifying their catalogs and including in them lines of shoes and mountains boots.
Seeing a clothing company designing shoes should gives us the same peace of mind we would get from a luxury automobile company attempting the construction of jet engines, right? Well, as the latter proved, there is nothing wrong with that.
Today I have the proof of that. Three years ago, while looking for a pair of all-around hiking boots suitable for the Madeira environment and wouldn't destroy my wallet, I gave a moment of attention to the North Face Dhaulagiri II GTX. I had a few guiding lines of what I thought the right hiking boot for Madeira should be: light construction, preferably in a mixed of leather and synthetic materials, hence breathable and simultaneously waterproof (meaning a Gore-Tex membrane), a rubberized toe cap and Vibram rubber sole. I discarded the full-leather construction because, in my opinion, although being clearly the best in impermeability, they are too hot for the Madeira gentle climate. The handful of days per year we have in the island's highest mountains sub-zero temperatures and snow that could justify an all-leather boot are not enough to justify walking with the feet soaked in perspiration the rest of the time. They are also harder to maintain, requiring more complex care.
Having previously used hiking shoes from The North Face and being quite happy with them, I decided to give their boots a try.
First of all, I've noticed that they were with a very large discount. Which isn't always a good sign. Second, the opinions on the web were not that unanimous. Some were saying the boots were great, the others said they were amongst the worst. Well, all I can is to give you, also, my two cents worth on the subject.
And from day one I couldn't be happier with the choice I've made. The boots fitted my feet like gloves. Wearing a 7.5 UK size on the hiking shoes, I choose to buy their boots in 8 UK - half size bigger. I do not regret the decision. The feet are more free inside the boot, without excessive play. No blisters to account for.
The North Face Dhaulagiri II GTX hiking boots. These boots from The North Face ended up being a good surprise, lasting more than two years, after continuous use and abuse in the mountains of Madeira. 86 UK Pounds well spent.
The worn out Vibram soles of the Dhaulagiris. After two years of continuous use, this was, not surprisingly, the first component to collapse. A second (new) pair is already at home. To replace them.

Shoe-making of another era.
Twenty-six years ago, when I embraced mountaineering, we could notice an informed mountaineer (not necessarily a good one!) by the boots he or she wore. Contrary to the present diversity, during those days mountain footwear was categorized for their specific use: low mountain, medium mountain and high mountain. There were almost no hiking shoes (people used tennis shoes for all uses that did not require a stronger footwear) and the modern and so popular approach shoes - a mix between light hiking shoes and rock climbing shoes - were yet to be invented.
In those days, a pair of good quality mountain boots - according to the books - had to have the following characteristics: a Vibram sole, full leather construction (with leather preferably of three millimeters thickness), the minimum of seams on the upper body (meaning using the minimum of leather pieces for the whole boot), the sewing of the sole should be made with a double (preferably triple) seam and the shaft should be high enough to protect the ankle movement.
The rubber soles should be flexible for low mountain use, semi-flexible for medium mountain (suitable for use with strap crampons) and rigid for high-mountain (recommended for use with automatic crampons).
Regardless of their final use, these boots were more or less built with the same technical quality. And we expected them to live a lifetime.
My Dachstein medium mountain boots, reaching now a quarter of a century, have already many hundreds of kilometers of mountain trails under their (original) soles. They just need to be washed once at home, left to dry in the shadow and then greased with Dubbin.
So far, they lasted for twenty five years. And since I don't use them quite so often anymore, with the same proper care, they will probably outlive me.
Well, those days are gone. Except a few high quality models, no shoemaker makes a boot or a shoe to last. The ergonomy in the products, propelled by a better knowledge of body mechanics, evolved, as the technicality of the materials used. But the durability was compromised on the process. For instance, where once you had a flat or straight Vibram sole glued to the insole (allowing for replacement), you now have the same Vibram material on a vulcanized sole with a sinuous and exotic profile, irreplaceable. 

Why am I telling you all of this?
Well, because if you are a little bit complicated - just like me - you still expect, presently, to buy a pair of mountain boots that lasts for your entire career among the peaks.
Forget it. Mountain footwear is becoming more and more similar to any other consumption product. It is supposed to have a lifespan of a couple of years and then you send it into the dumpster. As Sam Rockwell wisely pointed out in Iron Man 2: "Don't get so attached to things, learn to let go!". You just have to accept this as an actual fact, expect the equipment to perform faultlessly during its entire lifetime and move on to another one in the nearby future.

So, as long as you admit this - the temporary and finite condition of any present good - any mountain footwear that you buy today should give you miles of pleasant hikes in the nature. As long as it fits your feet.