Queyras Snowshoeing

I booked a trip with Exodus this winter to go try snoeshoeing with a fabulous mountain guide (Marjolaine - normally based in Briancon) in a highly recommended region of France. The Queyras Regional park is a good snowshoe destination having a series of 'reasonably sized' mountains, but nothing quite as massive (or steep) as the Ecrins to the NW. The trip was called the 'Southern Alps Snowshoe trek', I presume because Exodus don't believe many brits have heard of the Queyras (which is probably true...). 

I started by getting the train from Grenoble to Montdauphin, then catching a taxi up to the tiny hamlet of Montbardon. I did try to find a bus from the train station, but there was only one a day, and luckily as I was waiting to see if there was any taxis available to pickup stray passengers (I hadn't booked) I managed to find one to share that was going in the right direction.

Snowshoes, hiking poles, shovel, avalanche probe and beacon were provided (although I really should have remembered to take my own hiking pole - I hate twist lock poles).

As typical for Exodus treks, the first hike was a simple one up to the Fontanie Plateau, mostly in the clouds at the top, although it cleared for a few minutes from time to time. 10km, 830m climb.

The second day took us back up (via a different route)  over the Fontanie ridge into our second valley to Molines-en-Queyras. 12km, 880m up and 700m down.

View down to Molines-en-Queyras

On the third day we were expecting more blue skies and a big climb to the Guardiole de l'Alp. We got it - sun all of the way and a 12km, 1100m climb. In our case much of the snow had been blown from the SW aspect of the mountain, so as we got to the last 25% we stashed the snowshoes and summited in hiking boots.

I've been experimenting with the new Ricoh Theta S, so this is a 360 video captured during the hike. If you play this on your mobile you should be able to move the phone to view all around, or drop it into a Google Cardboard to be able to look in all directions. Apologies for the shakiness...  the camera was on a selfie stick above my head for most of the time.

The 4th planned snowshoe day was up to Crete du Curlet, to get some good views from the ridge, then back down to the gite in Saint-Veran. 9.2km, 760m ascent.

On the 5th day we were supposed to rest... Hmm... but I didn't fancy trying skiing for the first on some pretty frozen ground, so along with one of the other chaps on the trek we planned a route up the valley past a small chapel, aiming for the Refuge de la Blanche. I had originally planned a route alongside the river, but after consulting with our guide we took a higher route up the valley side, with much better views. Without the constraints of the large group, and with the great soft directional light I we spent a bit more time taking photographs on the way up.

Getting up to the top of the valley was awesome - some of the best views of the week, although the wind was howling across the plateau as we approached the refuge (which thankfully was still open for lunch at around 1pm). After lunch we took the longer route back to explore more of the valley, and approached the boarder with Italy, then turned back, taking the low path. We ended up walking 21.3km with a climb of 1,015m

The last day started along a similar route to the previous day up from Saint Veran, aiming for Col du Longet just to the SE of the Pic de Chaterau Renard. This trek was designed to take us back to the final gite in Molines en Queyras. As on our previous peak, much of the snow had been blown from the SE face of the mountin, but there was plenty of it built up on the far side of the mountain for the descent. It was also a pretty long day - 19.5km, 830m up and 1125m down.

I was taking the odd image with my new Theta S 360 panoramic camera during the trip, which I've geotagged and uploaded to round.me - embedded below.  Photos are captured at a much higher resolution than videos, so take a look below, or look for the same in the round.me app to see it in all of it's full glory on your phone or in a viewer such as Google Cardboard.

I was planning to get the bus back to the train station, but managed to pick up a bug on my last day and wasn't feeling at all good, so our guide dropped me off on her way back to Briancon - Thanks Marjolaine!

How to use Pebble for HRM and save to SportTracks

Since acquiring my Pebble watch, I've been looking for a solution to allow me to see heart-rate and elevation gain on my watch, whilst also recording the track and heart-rate for upload to SportTracks.  

I like SportTracks because they have both an excellent desktop app, and a more recently developed html5 responsive mobile website at sporttracks.mobi (however they don't yet have a mobile app as such.  Both services sync in the background - so you can use either to enter or view data. The second reason I love SportTracks is that they seem to be much more open about letting you have your data than any of the other players - which is important as I don't want to get locked into one service for ever...

There are dozens of fitness apps out there that sync data to the cloud service, but only one of the big-players (RunKeeper) currently has a pebble app, and from what I can tell they don't consider heart-rate data (or anything else interesting) important enough to push to the watch.

So RunKeeper is a dud for me.

3 free months of RunKeeper Elite if you connect your pebble to the runkeeper app before 21 April

3 free months of RunKeeper Elite if you connect your pebble to the runkeeper app before 21 April

My favourite sports tracker app Endomondo gave encouraging signs that they were considering integration around a year ago, but have so far failed to respond to the user community's requests (this is one of the top 3) to do the work.  Endomondo have also recently broken the link between them and the excellent 3rd party sync service tapiriik.  

Endomondo... it's been great, but you're just not listening & responding to your users...

Ok - so on to my solution. It is a touch convoluted, but it does seem to work, and give you the additional benefit of ensuring that your data is available for use with whatever service turns up in the future.  The key element missing until now for this was the first configurable Pebble app that provides HRM data in a configurable manner.

Step 1 - Get a Bluetooth heart rate monitor strap.  I have the Zephyr HxM, but MyTracks also works with the Polar Bluetooth HRM.

Step 2 - Google MyTracks is a Google open source project and provides the android GPS and HRM capture. Under recording I set default track name to Date + location, and set the sensor type to connect to your HRM.  Under Advanced, check the box to allow other apps to access MyTracks data.

Google MyTracks app

Google MyTracks app

Step 3 - Install Pebble MyTracks Beta from the Google Play Store or Pebble appstore, and through the settings on the device configure which fields you want to see where on the watch.  I have Heart Rate at the top, then Distance & Total time on the left, with Current elevation & Total elevation gain on the right.

Step 4 - Install and configure DropSync to monitor a folder on your phone - MyTracks/tcx to upload then delete to a folder on your dropbox (I use GPS/Tracks).

Step 5 - Sign up for sporttracks.mobi (or for a free trial)

Step 6 - Connect both Dropbox and SportTracks through the sync service tapiriik so that at least data from Dropbox flows into SportTracks.  You can connect other services too if you use them, and don't forget to pay the $2/year fee for automated sync!  I think you can restrict tapiriik to just pulling data from the apps/tapiriik folder - but then you'll need to configure DropSync to upload files here in step 4.

Finally - go for a run!  You'll need to turn on MyTracks which should display the Pebble MyTracks app on your Pebble, connect your bluetooth HRM, then start recording.

Once complete, stop recording, then on the results page hit menu/Export, and select External Storage... as TCX to /MyTracks/tcx.  This is the only manual step you'll need to take.

From there, DropSync will take care of uploading the trace to Dropbox (once you've connected to WiFi), then tapiriik will push it into SportTracks.mobi (and if you also use the desktop app it will use SportTrack's cloudsync to bring it down to your desktop app next time you open it.)

Yes... ok - so that was a touch convoluted, but let me know in the comments below if you've got a better idea! 

The 4 best sandals for the trail in the heat

It has been some time since I spent much of the summer in sandals, but with the recent hot weather and a planned summer trip to Japan, I'm back in the market.

To set the context, the last two pairs I owned were a simple leather Teva pair, and a Keen pair with leather over a neoprene and toe guard (similar to the Newport below). Looking at them vs my current hiking boots and insoles, I notice they're very flat with virtually no insole support perhaps explaining why I never felt comfortable in them. Whilst the leather Teva looks good, the buckle and straps over the top of my foot rub, with nothing to pad them (unless I wear socks :) which of course I never do. The Keen toe box does protect from stubbing ouch moments; however when I've used these on the trail I've regularly found small rocks finding their way in which is almost as annoying as the stubbed toe.  After a couple of hours in the Keen ones, the heel strap rubs and irritates the back of my foot. Neither have particularly grippy soles, again making them fine for city use, but not good for trail hiking.

After a quick search of the current state of the market, I've narrowed the options down to one of 4, of which I think the Keen Arroyo II or ECCO Yucatan will be the winners for me.

What do you think?  Let me know in the comments.  

21st July: Post updated after trying on the latter three in the Mountain View REI in California.

Vibram FiveFingers TrekSport Multisport Sandals

Vibram FiveFingers TrekSport Multisport Sandals

Vibram FiveFingers TrekSport Multisport sandals - 3.9*

These are obviously not your regular sandals, but they do look interesting in terms of providing a good balance between protection, comfort, while giving you an almost bare-foot experience.

Note that there are 2 versions of the TrekSport MultiSport - the original one with a mesh top and velcro strap, and the more recent one above. The sole looks similar across both.  The new one wasn't available to test in REI at the time of this review.

Reviews give them 3.8* on REI and 4.0* on Amazon. More reviews: PaleoRunner


Keen Newport Sandals

Keen Newport Sandals

Keen Newport Sandal - 4.6*

These look very similar to my existing Keen sandals, have a neoprene inner, and the solid toe protection, but increase the arch protection. They could be an option, however look like they'll still suffer from the trapped stone problem.

After trying them on, I wasn't too impressed. They suffer from the same issues as the previous generation (although with a better insole). The increased surface area and toe box provides greater protection, however makes the sandal feel more like a shoe with ventilation than a sandal. The laces were elasticated offering some give when tightened.

Reviews rank them at 4.6 REI and 4.5 Amazon

Keen Arroyo II

Keen Arroyo II

Keen Arroyo II - 4.3*

Next up is the 2nd generation of Keen Arroyo. This looks great from a comfort and grip point of view with a soft lining and solid looking grip. They also appear to have more stone protection than some of the other Keen sandals; however of course the increased material reduces the airflow so making them more like trainers than open sandals.

I like the fact that as you tighten the laces at the front they tug on a strap that goes round the back of the heel, helping to seat your foot properly in the sandal.  I have a paid of Boa trainers that use this technique, and it does seem to offer a slight improvement over the regular attachment method.

In the shop, I noticed that the lacing system used a traditional cord rather than elastic, which I think I prefer, however I couldn't manage to tighten them comfortably and make use of the loop around the back to adjust the heel. It always felt a little loose - which is probably a good thing given the potential for rubbing.  

I also found that they suffer from the 'like a shoe with holes in' clammy feeling in a hot shoe shop, when worn without socks.  

One substantial advantage for those with a high or low arch is that the insole is removable - so you can swap it out for a more substantial one better suited to your foot shape.

REI reviewers give them 3.6*, whereas Amazon reviews are better at 4.4*, and shoes.com 4.9*. Backpacking review give them a good review.

ECCO Yucatan Sandals

ECCO Yucatan Sandals

ECCO Yucatan Sandals - 4.6*

I love ECCO shoes - as I've found them to be the most comfortable for my feet (and I don't think I'm alone), so when I spotted that they now make sandals, I took a closer look.  They have the respectable look of my Teva leather sandals, but with the addition of a neoprene inner for comfort.  Arch support looks to be present, and the review comments appear to confirm it is good.

These were like a breath of fresh air compared to the others on this page, with a lot more open space for air-flow, and no toe box to trap stones. The front strap offers a small amount of adjustment, but isn't a fully adjustable strap as on the top and back. 

I couldn't identify any area of discomfort that might start rubbing, and even if I did get this on the back of my foot, the adjustable nature of the back strap would allow me to slacken this off. 

Overall - they look good, feel comfortable, appear well made, and are my pick for the best trail sandals on the market today.   I bought a pair.

Rankings on REI are 4.3*Amazon 4.7*, ECCO.com 4.7*

The joy of a twitter search for Chartreuse

I just love the surreal mixture of messages you get on twitter in response to a search query. I have a search-column configured in hootsuite to give me the results of a search for “Grenoble OR Chartreuse OR Belledonne OR Vercors OR Alps -Bieber”.  

I get all the news about Grenoble, along with weather alerts, and notifications of when the peasants are revolting in Villeneuve; along with discussions on the best cocktails using Chartreuse; what people are buying in the color Chartreuse; something technical about ALPS which I still don’t understand; and occasionally people enjoying the mountains that surround my home in Grenoble.