Let There Be (LED) Light
Ever since some bright spark (oops!) had the idea of strapping a light to your head to free your hands everyone has used headtorches. For a long time it was ye olde Petzl zoom that lit the way (oops again!) but the advent of LED (light emitting diode) technology has revolutionised hands free lighting.
LEDs are brilliant because they provide excellent light output combined with massive battery life. My original halogen zoom used to last about 4 hours on one set of batteries but with LEDS you can expect nearer 50! LEDs are also very reliable and will last for years, which means you don’t need to carry a spare bulb. For a while I used The Petzl Myolite 3 that combined LED’s with a standard halogen bulb but now I’ve completely switched to LED’s and haven’t missed the halogen option at all.
I’ve been a big fan of Petzl lighting ever since the zoom and currently use three of their lamps that I think are brilliant. If you are choosing a new headtorch have a read and it might help your choice. I’ve also included some cautionary tales to highlight how important carrying a reliable torch can be!
It had been raining all morning in Chamonix but by lunchtime it was dry. Cal, Phill, Ali and I were really keen to climb so we headed up to Praz Torrent to climb a nice 3 Pitcher a friend had recommended. The walk up was longer than we thought but we got there, racked up and set off. Everything took that bit longer than expected and it didn’t help when the mountaineering instructor (mentioning no names) in the group took a wrong turn and headed up a gully when he should have traversed right! Anyway, we got to the top safely but later than planned (the truth is there was no plan!) and found an abseil point down a scary looking gully. The descent was a nightmare with loose rock and scary ab points (I remember one abseil that was off a piece of tape that looked like car seat belt that had been hand stitched!) and we only reached the ground as darkness fell. We quickly sorted the gear and by then it was absolutely pitch black. Guess what. No torch in the whole group! So we spent the next five hours inching our way down the path with Phill at the front feeling his way with a trekking pole and the rest of us holding on behind him in a long can-can style snake! At least it was too dark for anyone to see us.
Petzl Tikka XP
I have been using this torch for about 3 years and it is my favourite. Good light output, lightweight, comfortable and with all the features you need. This torch has a single high output LED and the lamp and battery compartment are together in one unit. It’s powered by 3 AAA batteries (they are the same as the batteries in my emergency GPS meaning I have spares for either unit if needed). Petzl give the battery duration as 120 hours on low output but by that stage you would only have a very weak beam (this torch isn’t regulated). To give you an indication of the remaining battery power there is a flashing indicator on the side of the case that changes colour when your batteries are 70% then 90% discharged. The beam is either a spot or, by pulling across a sliding lens, the beam changes to a diffused beam more suited to map reading, cooking or reading your latest bestseller. I thought this sliding lens might be prone to damage but it’s proved very durable and it also helps to protect the main LED when stored in a rucksack. The torch has 3 light output levels (high, medium and low) and a flashing light. It also has a 20 second super high output boost feature that provides a super bright beam of 50 metres. This is great for picking out terrain features or the next abseil station. The batteries are easy to change and the case is very water resistant (but not waterproof). Everything is controlled via 2 little rubber buttons on the top of the case. They are protected by a plastic lip but these little switches can be hard to operate when wearing thick gloves. Its weight with batteries is 95 grams and expect to pay around £35.
My friend Paul told a story of a new Torridon mixed route adventure that took rather longer than planned. They had run out of daylight before they had run out of route and were finishing the line with their single headtorch when it started to die. They pressed on (not much choice really!) but their poor little torch really had had its day. Well this small hiccup wasn’t going to stop these two. They used their mobile phone display to remove the torch batteries and warmed them up enough to give them a bit more power, carried on climbing and repeated the process until they topped out. Useful things in emergencies those mobiles! I never did ask him how they got down the descent path!
In many ways this brilliant torch is the big brother of the Tikka XP. It has all the same options and operates via similar slightly fiddly buttons on top of the case. I tend to use this when I know I will be doing a lot of night time activity such as for night navigation or nighttime running. It has a separate battery compartment that sits at the back of your head (you can get a version with a longer lead and a battery pack that can be kept in your pocket if you are expecting very cold conditions and want to protect your batteries). It uses AA batteries and Petzl give output times of 170 hours on its low output setting. It has a detachable top strap that goes over your head to stop the torch slipping down and I tend to leave this attached all the time as it’s quite fiddly to remove. The light output for this torch is better than the Tikka-XP with a high output of 45 metres and 65 metres from the boost feature. Weight is 175 grams with batteries and expect to pay about £45.
Alan and I were really pushing the boundaries (or should I say our boundaries). It was our first alpine season, our second route (Mont Blanc had been our first!) and we were on the Frendo Spur. Nowadays it’s usual to blast it in a long day but we had bivvied half way and were still caught out some distance from the top having decided (for some unknown reason) to climb the upper rock rognon rather than the usual ice finish. It was now getting late but no problem, we pulled our trusty Petzl Zooms from our sacs and persevered. Unfortunately for me, my trusty light decided to stop being quite so trusty and suddenly went out as I followed Alan up a particularly scary pitch. I was perched on tiny holds in the blackness and suddenly felt very scared. I waited for a minute or two hoping to develop some night vision but waiting simply gave me more time to get scared. Then as I leant forward to rest my head I accidentally tapped my torch on the rock and ding – there was light! A few moves later it happened again. But no matter. Tap. Light. Move. Tap. Light. Move. 358 taps later we got to the Midi Telepherique station for an uncomfortable bivvy. Next morning I was straight into Snell Sports in Chamonix for a new torch!
Now for something completely different! There was information out about this torch for quite a while before it hit the shelves and, being a bit of a gear freak (although I prefer the term ‘gear connoisseur’), I had a pre-placed order well in advance. When the tiny package arrived in the post I thought I had been sent the wrong one in error. Make no mistake – this torch is very small and very light (27 grams including batteries). It comes with a very handy hard protective case with a belt loop (although if carrying this on a route where I don’t have a rucksack I tend to wear it around my neck under my clothes). You can also blutack a spare set of batteries in the bottom of the case if you want but one set of batteries burns for 35 hours on maximum power so you might not bother (that is about 3 nights after all!). It has 3 white and 1 red LED set in a protective recess and a sliding on off switch allows you to switch between low or maximum light intensities plus white or red flashing strobes. The case is waterproof to 1metre and there is a clever little tool on the headband strap to release the battery case cover. The headstrap is thin but comfortable and has a cord grip style quick release on the back. This means the torch can be worn not only around your head but also your wrist or, infact, any convenient body part - depending on your activity! It also has a neat wire clip so the unit can be clipped to a tent flap, pocket, map or such like. The head unit tilts on a handy ball and socket type swivel so it can be set at any angle. The E+lite uses little CR2032 lithium coin style batteries that are easily available and have a brilliant shelf life of 10 years so this little beauty can be left in the rucksack pocket or emergency kit for years. Now, that’s all good but this torch could be a real let down if it didn’t actually perform – but it does. With a maximum beam of 19 metres there is easily enough light to walk on paths, map read or find belay stances in the dark. I’ve been using this a lot since I got it and I am very impressed by the output. At about £20 this torch is a bargain and now there is certainly no excuse not to have a torch with you!
You can find loads more information on all these torches at the excellent petzl website.