Today we hear from James Hodgson the Senior Innovation Designer for MtnHaus. In this blog, James gives an insight into the product testing missions that the MtnHaus team goes on to test and further develop Berghaus kit.
Over to you James…
The MtnHaus product testing mission:
Between Oslo and Bergan in Norway, lies the mountain village of Finse. This beautiful area on the shore of the lake Finsevatnet in Hordaland county, Norway was to be our base for 4 days intensive product testing.
The area is famous as the training ground for both Amundsen and Captain Scott as they prepared for the Antarctic Expeditions and was a suitable location for the technology testing we planned to conduct.
The village sits at an elevation of 1,222 metres above sea level, and is only accessible by train in the winter due to the high levels of snow and frequent storms which characterise the area.
Our train had been halted, so that a rescue team could deal with a large avalanche just ahead. Outside high winds and blizzard conditions battered the carriage; sunny Oslo which we had left behind only that morning seemed a world apart.
When we finally arrived at Finse station amidst a particularly brutal storm, the tiny community seemed almost deserted. The buildings were mostly buried to the 1st floor windows in snow, and impressive cornices loomed over anything that provided shelter from the wind.
As we tried to get our bearings in the dark and heavy snowfall, it quickly became apparent that with no skis or snowshoes and 40kgs of kit each, reaching our apartment a few hundred metres away would be impossible. So now what?
Thankfully the people of Finse are well equipped! Aside the station, the main building in town is the Finse 1222 Hotel. After a little persuasion, the friendly caretaker kindly arrived with a snowmobile, luggage trailer and the shovels we would need to dig out the door to our accommodation. 2 hours after arriving we were in.
Now we know we’re in the right place
It was exactly these impressive weather conditions that had led us to Finse.
Leo Houlding and his team had been in the area for two weeks (as he is preparing to undertake a serious Antarctic expedition later in the year); they were training and testing ski-kiting setups on the nearby Hardangervidda Plateau.
Our plan: to join them with a bag (or half a dozen bags) of new tricks; the latest clothing prototypes and new fabric technologies and to test the performance and suitability in this relatively accessible, yet wild environment. It was going to be an incredible week at work!
The Antarctic cavalry (Leo & Team) later arrived with ski’s, pulks, and yet more baggage and after much faffing (a key part of any expedition experience), we were set to get started.
Baselayers were equipped with temperature and humidity sensors, pulks filled with the latest samples and we made our way down to our test base on the edge of the lake.
Norway was full of surprises and our test centre was the first of many.
The hotel had kindly agreed to let us use their hut on the frozen lakeshore as a base. This was no ordinary hut however, as it was an exact replica of the Hut (Framheim) that Roald Amundsen built for his successful historic trip to the South Pole in 1911, complete with the traditional equipment and even a (stuffed) husky from the trip – famously one of very few that made it back.
What an incredible tribute to polar exploration history and a fantastic place for us to design the latest generation of expedition gear. We filled this traditional base with the latest equipment including thermal imagery cameras and sophisticated monitoring equipment and set to work.
Let the kit testing begin…
The objective for the first couple of days was highly controlled, quantitive testing and for this consistency is key. Each athlete repeats 20 minute laps at controlled exertion, in the same clothing design with only one technology or fabric variable at a time.
Sensors inside the layering system constantly give us readouts of heat, absolute and relative humidity. This data combined with images and video captured on thermal imaging cameras allows us to understand how the clothing performs and draw highly accurate comparisons between variations.
The athletes dug deep, put on their tunes and set off into the cold, over and over again, 20,000 pieces of data were captured per day and perceptions, thoughts and qualitive feedback documented for comparison.
It’s a boring job but don’t feel sorry for them – much better than being stuck in an office! A couple of days of great quality results and research later and we excitedly prepared for the real fun of the trip.
Day 3. Ski touring
We awake to blue skies and -23c. The apartment is full of excitement and a flurry of activity. Bags are packed and repacked, hearty breakfasts eaten and far too much coffee consumed!
For the next two days we’re off ski touring in the nearby mountains and glacial terrain and the weather looks perfect! The fact that most of us had never been on Nordic skis until 2 days ago and couldn’t yet really turn or stop wasn’t going to get in our way! We were raring to go and looking forward to putting our kit through its paces ourselves.
We set off across the lake we knew way too well by now and made good progress making fresh tracks away from the last of the small town’s cabins and into the most incredible winter-wonderland. Not a soul was in sight and as we settled into our rhythm we were awed by the stunning unspoilt landscape.
Eventually we reached the end of the first valley and started climbing. In Arctic conditions, sweat is the enemy, if you overheat and get your clothing wet; when you stop you get dangerously cold incredibly quickly. As we set out we each made a few minor tweaks to our kit choices but generally we found the new kit behaving extremely well!
Having seen the results of the last few days scientific testing most people had chosen pretty wisely! My selection was our latest Hyper 100 jacket with a new (top secret) development ultra light insulation layer underneath.
It is staggering just how breathable and thermally efficient the latest fabric technologies are; minus 20 degrees plus windchill and I stayed comfortable in and out of the shade in upper layers which weighed less than 300g combined!
What an environment for product testing
We survived our first proper downhill on the Nordic skis, although we definitely won no style points in the process! Now we were crossing the bottom of a massive glacier and the incredible ice formations were captivating.
The scenery got better and better with every km we covered. Eventually we caught our first glimpse of our destination for the evening, a small remote hut belonging to one of Leo’s friends. It was too small for all of us to sleep in, but we had been told of its wood burning stove and thoughts turned to food, fire and the bottle full of single malt we had brought for the occasion.
A 1000m ascent was all that was left and we slowly skinned our way up towards the hut. The wind and was picking up again and we were keen to get the tents pitched in the last of the light and before the forecast snows return.
That evening was spent remarking on the beauty of the day and endlessly discussing kit, what worked, what didn’t and the never ending next ideas. As the whiskey disappeared so did the team, one by one to our super warm expedition sleeping bags and snow covered tents.
The second day of ski touring is about to begin (along with some troubling weather conditions)
We woke to light snow and strong winds. Carefully packed down the tents with a lot of help from our French athlete and one-man machine Jean.
Over a freeze dried breakfast we checked out the forecast which wasn’t great. Reluctantly we decided our preferred route back to Finse was probably overly ambitious for the expected stormy conditions and traced our route from the previous day back. It was still awesome fun though and the amateurs were starting to get to grips with the cross country skis, having a great time and for the most part staying vertical.
We made good progress and as we got ever closer to Finse, the weather really started to close in and rapidly became tricky but great testing conditions. Attempts were made to cover any remaining exposed skin and extremities started to feel cold as soon as the pace slowed.
In high winds and really cold snowy conditions, every imperfection or niggle with the kit is magnified, limited dexterity and patience tested. It was great to reaffirm the importance of each detail and is always a valuable experience and reminder of why we sweat the small stuff. The best kit after all is the stuff that just works; you only notice the stuff that doesn’t.
All good things come to an end.
The next 24 hours involved a few celebratory drinks, yet more geeky gear talk about the ‘next big things’, copious amounts of packing, some hungover interviews and we even squeezed in a dog sled ride whilst waiting for our train. Then before we knew it we were back in Oslo, overdressed and underwhelmed by the warm city environment.
What an amazing week, one of the best of my career and a reminder of why we love what we do. I will definitely be back to the Hardangervidda, but first I need a big kite….