Aarn Featherlite Freedom review

Back in October 2012 I blogged that I had bought the Aarn Featherlite Freedom backpack, but until November 2013 I didn’t really have an opportunity to take it out into the field. A good friend of mine emailed me today asking whether I had used the new pack on my Patagonia trip and that made me realise that whilst I had written about the walks themselves, I had not specifically written about the pack, so I thought I’d do that in a post now.

Previously I’ve always used my very trusty Macpac Torre pack on overnight and multiple day hikes. I bought that years ago and it seems to be indestructible. But it is also heavy and I’ve been looking for ways to lighten the load I carry and for how I carry it. The Aarn Featherlite Freedom seemed to be the answer and so in November last year the first thing was figuring out how to pack it with everything that I was going to need for the trip.

When you pack at home for a trip, you think you’ve got the configuration worked out on how everything goes into the pack, but then you get to the location, buy your gas canisters, your food and bingo, you have a new equation to work with. With the Torre I had so much space that I never really needed to give too much serious thought on what to take and often ended up bringing too much. No such luxury with the Aarn. The volume is significantly less than what I had with the Torre, so it takes thought and planning on what to take and how to pack it. Add to that adapting to new locations for water bottles, camera, snacks, sunscreen and sunglasses and it takes a few goes before you have it right. So it was good that I started out hiking in Los Glaciares on my own, which gave me the opportunity to get the hang of the pack, find the best places for all the equipment and the perfect configuration of everything.

I used two one-litre water bladders that slide neatly in the mesh pockets of the front pockets and are very easy to get out and back in. Most of the food went into the right front pocket, with first aid and camera going into the left front pocket. I particularly loved having the camera so easily accessible and not bothering me around my waist as previously. It also helped that I ditched the DSLR and opted for a Fuji X-E1. At about half the weight it was a joy to carry around and I found myself using it much more than I would have an DSLR. I found that having the drinking bladders and snacks in the front made stops really easy. Often I wouldn’t even take the pack off.

One other thing that I had to adjust to a little was the easiest way to put the pack on. There are a lot of straps and buckles and you have to find your own way around those. I would put the pack on while putting my arms through the straps, but then tuck the forearms back underneath the front pockets to secure the hip buckle, then take them out i front of the pockets to click them into place. Sounds complicated, but it wasn’t once I figured out my sequence.

After Los Glaciares I joined the group around Torres del Paine and that is when I had to figure out how to accommodate more food, given that we all had to carry substantial amounts for the 9-day trek. I solved that by putting the heavier food in the front pockets and the lighter stuff in the main compartment in the back. That initially left no space for my tent, but I had brought a dry bag for that purpose and slid the tent in there and clipped it to the top of the pack. Once we started getting through the food supplies, the tent could go back into the backpack. So that all worked fine too.

The pack stood up well in the weather conditions and everything stayed beautifully dry in it. Although I carried the same quantity of things as my fellow hikers, my pack looked smaller and felt lighter (also because a lot of my equipment is super lightweight). It also moves with the body much better and I was pleased to see that not once I did a ‘upside turtle’, which I have been known to do with the Macpac. I was also much more sure footed, which made river crossings so much easier that I was usually the first or second one across (do I hear gasps of surprise from my usual bushwalking buddies?!).

I did get a few funny looks and comments, but once people tried the pack on or saw me walk completely upright with it, they were quickly intrigued by it and asking where it was from, who manufactured it.

So to wrap this up: for me the pack receives a big tick of approval and I would only really use the Macpac again if I had to take much more than what would reasonably fit into the Aarn. I probably would try to avoid that at any cost. I better start planning another trip…

Torres del Paine – the final stretch

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The wind blows strongly all night and still is in the morning when we are packing up to leave Paine Grande. The first part today is what is known as the easiest trail in the park, but it is torture for me, my feet hobbled by blisters and other unidentified pains. I feel like I have hooves and need to walk slowly as each step is hurting. By the time we get to Campamento Italiano I know there is no point in me trying to get up into Valle Frances and that I would do better to minimise the impact on my feet today, the better to walk tomorrow, when we have to walk all the way up to Campamento Torres. The rest of them leave their packs at Italiano and head up with sandwiches and water. I have a chat with the Canadians who are in the campsite and tell me about their horror crossing of the pass and are equally horrified at the enormous distance we did to backtrack and get to the W part.

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Soon I hobble on to Refugio Los Cuernos. Mauricio predicts it will take me two hours and he is spot on. It’s a pretty walk, with great views, even if the track is rough and difficult at times. When I reach Los Cuernos I am not particularly thrilled to see that all the campsites are on platforms, which makes it notoriously difficult to set up a tent. I wrestle with mine for close to an hour and even then I’m not all that impressed with the end result, but it will have to do. I treat myself to a soda and biscuits at the Refugio and relax in the sun, chatting to a lady from New Zealand who is at the end of a long trip through South America. Just after 4pm Alex hobbles in, followed shortly by Amanda, Colleen and Mauricio. They all skip the platforms and put their tents up in tiny spaces (doable as their tents are smaller) on the ground. We then pile into the cooking area for campers and start work on the vegetable wraps for dinner. More wine is bought and it turns into another happy evening. We bump into the usual suspects from earlier in the trip and share our war stories.

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The night is a horror with howling winds and a tent that threatens to take off with me in it. Even the enormous rocks with which I’ve secured it move during the night. I don’t sleep much and by 7am I’ve had enough and pack up all my stuff before that tent really flies away. At breakfast everyone admits they have all had a horrible night with semi-flattened tents and no sleep. Shortly after 9am we are on our way to Campamento Torres. And my skipping the valley walk has paid off as I have no aches in my feet and can set a cracking pace, probably my best day of all. We are powering on and reach the shortcut to Refugio Chileno well before lunchtime. From there we walk uphill until we reach the point where two tracks converge and we start descending towards Chileno. The Refugio is located in a beautiful spot in a gorgeous valley. We reach it just on 1pm and have our sandwiches there, before we head off again after 2pm, climbing up to Campamento Torres where we set up our tents. I soak my feet in icy water again in the hope to keep them as good as what they were today. Dinner is a spectacular pasta with tomato sauce and chicken, nicely spiced and half of which goes to the English family who have also made it there. The kids wolf down our leftovers. Then we set our alarms once more for 4am to make it up to the mirador for the sunrise on the Torres.

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When the alarm sounds I get up and ready and pull on the clothes, suspecting it will be cold high up at the glacial lake. The ascent is a torture for me, it is steep and my asthma is bothering me big time and the group easily leaves me for dust. I plod on methodically and slow and eventually make it up to the rim of the moraine below which lies the glacial lake where the rest of the group is waiting for me. We settle in with warm clothes and cameras and wait for the special light effect, but as the sky is cloudy, the effect is just not there. Still, it is a beautiful spot and the light behind the Torres is still nice. After a while we head down towards camp again where we have breakfast, pack up our stuff (last time dismantling the tent!) and by 7.45am we start heading down towards Chileno. My speed of the previous day is gone and the downhill is hard on the knees, so again I move slower than the others. After we reach the junction of tracks and take the left one towards Hotel Las Torres the descent becomes really steep and a complete torture, notwithstanding the beautiful view. Eventually the ground flattens out and by 10am we walk into the hotel for coffee, then beer and pizza to celebrate the completion of our trek. At 2pm our shuttle bus arrives and in Laguna Amarga we switch to the larger buses, which must be the rankest smelling things travelling on earth at that time, filled with stinky hikers. I was wondering how bad I was smelling compared to the smells around me for the next two and a half hours, but I think I prefer not to know. Once in Puerto Natales the shower was heaven and then we all got together for a final dinner at La Picada de Carlitos where we thanked Mauricio for looking after us so well.

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The next morning we all departed on our various buses and soon I will be taking a plane to San Carlos de Bariloche for the last part of my holiday, which is meant to be the relaxing part of the holiday, with perhaps a medium walk here and there. Summing up the circuit, what I did of it, was truly spectacular and I will probably come back to do what I didn’t see this time, Glaciar Grey and Valle Frances, but probably just as the W and using refugios. I’m not sure if I want to do the pass still. Part of me wants to and part of me isn’t sure. It’s one to mull over and ponder over time.

Torres del Paine – Patagonian weather

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Snow!

I suspected the precipitation made too light a sound to be rain and the river sounded distinctly more muffled and my suspicions were confirmed when I stuck my head out of the tent. A reasonable layer of snow on the ground, given the campsite is protected by trees. Wind howling. Snow swirling. I take my stuff to the big tent where we have our meals and Mauricio’s verdict is quick: there will be no pass crossing in this weather, although he urges all of us to pack up so we are ready to go should the weather improve before lunchtime.

And so the waiting starts. Waiting, eating, trying to stay warm next to a fire that has been lit in one of the other constructions at the campsite. We talk to all the others that are in the same situation and we all bond over the fire. There is the Miami crew, the four students from the US, one of whom has his birthday this very day, Matt the British mountaineer who likes technical climbing, but is not game to try this either, the three Canadians and many more. All up probably about 30 people, all in the same position. By midday the situation improves a little, but not enough for Mauricio. Some others decide to give it a try and we have to wait for many hours to receive news via the radio that they made it. More people arrive in camp, having come up from Dickson. Our group will sleep in the big meal tent tonight so we can move faster tomorrow morning. It looks like a veritable orphanage when we lay our mats and sleeping bags out that night, not helped by the fact that the snow has turned into torrential rain, which is leaking into the tent at various points.

Not the best night, but at 5am our alarms go off and we start getting ready. Pulling my backpack up from where it sat all night I manage to pull a back muscle and yelp in pain, collapsing back into a chair. Not exactly good preparation for crossing a pass in horrible weather conditions! I breathe through the initial agony and then have to move slowly to get my stuff together. A few Brufen later and the pain dulls a bit. It has to, there is a big walk ahead of us. It is still raining and the winds are ferocious. We eat breakfast, put on all the clothes we have and head out at 6am before anyone else in the camp has even stirred. The first bit is extremely muddy and slippery, but we are still protected from the wind and make reasonable progress. Once we get to the point where we leave the tree line, the full blast do the weather. I am behind Mauricio who is leading and he has to lean heavily into the wind, not able to take another step. Five seconds later it hits me. I can barely remain standing. The others haven’t even felt the force of the wind yet. Mauricio turns around, shakes his head and motions me to retrace my steps. He deems it too dangerous to cross in these conditions, particularly given our various injuries, added to now by my back. We start the descent back to Los Perros camp, encountering various groups heading up. The first of those are the Chamonix mountain guides, who plow on. We later learn they had ropes and ice axes to take them across. Shortly afterwards we bump into Matt who is racing to catch up with the Chamonix group (he crossed roped up with them). Miami is next and then followed by many others. By 9am we are back in camp for just a quick break. Mauricio’s plan B involves us backtracking all the way to Puesto Seron today, then leaving early the next day to catch the bus at 9am from Torres, take the catamaran across to Paine Grande and hike up to Grey with day packs.

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We start descending the same way we came up two days ago, trying to make tracks as fast as we can. It is agony for me and I get increasingly slower towards the end of the two and a half hours of descent. By the time I limp into Dickson I am a mess and don’t even know that I can continue; my back is killing me. One of the guys who runs the Refugio comes out and takes my pack off, tells me to lie down in the grass, obviously already alerted to my condition. A short while later Mauricio helps me inside where i collapse on a couch. Muscle cream is administered (many days later he confesses they used a horse cream on me in the hope it would do something), I am but by the fire, another guy brings me his jacket to warm me up, I get tea in my hands and a sandwich and told to rest and relax and take my time. Not sure what they put in that bread, but after an hour and a half of rest I feel like I might just be able to tackle the remainder of the walking for that day (you will remember that it was 19Ks coming in on that second day). And somehow, miraculously, we all make it back to Puesto Seron, where we limp in at around 7.30pm that night. We are all half delirious during the last few kilometers, but we’ve made it and dinner refuels us. Later we learn that most people made it across, but in atrocious conditions. The Miami crew did turn back, but took a more gradual return than what we did, as they didn’t have the time left to do the W part.

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The next morning is far harder, we get up at 4am (not the birthday start I had envisioned!) and hurtle toward Torres to catch that shuttle bus at 9am. We miss it and the next connection with the catamaran is not until 4pm that day. We’ve all become fairly philosophical by that stage and in the end the birthday turns into quite a good day: we have beers, sandwiches and fries at the Hotel Torres where we while the time away. Later we have a snooze at the Refugio in front of the fire and before we know it, it is time to catch the shuttle bus and get to the ferry at Pudeto. Winds are still howling, but we have a great crossing to Paine Grande with beautiful views of the Cuernos (the horns) of Paine. Once we land at Paine Grande we set up our tents at this very crowded site (we are now well and truly in W territory and it shows). Erratic rock has supplied us with additional food for the last two days including two bottles of wine and that combined with the bottle I bought at the Refugio makes for a very convivial birthday dinner. Most Trekkers look at us with envy, given the fresh vegetables and the wine. I sleep like a log, which is not surprising after the events of the last few days and the amount of wine consumed.

Final part to follow.