Saturday, 22 October 2011

Gore-Tex Bloggers Summit

Saturday morning we all appeared at the breakfast tables looking far from fresh. Mainly due to a lack of sleep and the consumption of German beers the night before. After breakfast we all headed outside to the coach where we were hit by a wall of very cold air, frost on the cars and freezing fog. Luckily the fog soon lifted to make way for perfect blue skies and sunshine yet again. The views from the coach window were stunning as we made our way to Gore's offices near Feldkirchen-Westerham. Myriad fields and trees backed by a horizon of jagged Bavarian Alpine peaks. Each village as pretty as the next with classic alpine style housing and each with its own majestic Bavarian style church.

Gore-Tex Bloggers Summit at Gindelalm in the Bavarian Alps

Gore are a huge company with an annual revenue of over three billion dollars. However as we entered their impressive offices we could have been forgiven for thinking we had entered the offices of a small local cottage industry. The staff who are all active fans of the great outdoors were friendly, helpful and positive. They were all clearly happy in their jobs and you could tell they worked as a close knit community in a open team driven working environment. We were surprised to find that most of their staff don't even get given job titles as they see everyone in their company as being equally as important as any other. The reception area has many awards on the walls that the company has received internationally for being a great place to work. Every member of staff we spoke to gets outdoors regularly and jumps at the opportunity to get involved with the company's many promotional and community events.

Gore offices in Feldkirchen-Westerham

We were welcomed to the offices and introduced to the members of staff that would be spending the day with us. Amongst them was Timm Smith, Gore's product development specialist who helped design the new Active Shell product. The introduction was given in an open area where there were examples of new jackets from many of the top brands that are creating garments using the new Active Shell material. There was also a huge sculpture on one wall of a close up of a Gore-Tex membrane magnified. After the introductions we were given a presentation and talk about the history of Gore and its products. I was surprised to see that Gore are also involved quite heavily in other industries including electronics, medical, emergency services, musical equipment and even the space industry. After the company presentation they gave us a an eye opening demo of how well a Gore-Tex Expanded Polytetrafluoroethylene based membrane, or ePTFE membrane for short, can work at moving warm moisture vapours from our bodies. Firstly they showed the difference between standard non-breathable materials and the breathable ePTFE membrane. They gave us a glove cut of normal plastic material and one of the ePTFE membrane. The hand in the plastic material began to sweat badly after only a few minutes yet the other hand in the membrane glove was completely dry and very comfortable. They then asked for a volunteer so Dave stood up and volunteered. I have to admit, the presence of a bucket of cold water put me off volunteering.

Tom & Dave with their Gore-Tex membrane demo gloves

For the second demo they asked Dave to put his bare hand in the cold water to soak it wet. They then asked him to put his wet hand inside the membrane glove and put his hand in glove into the bucket of cold water. We couldn't really figure out why they had asked him to do this. Then after five minutes they pulled Dave's hand out of the bucket and asked him to take his hand out of the membrane glove. Much to our surprise Dave's hand was now completely dry. What was then explained to us was that as the water on Dave's hand got warmer against his skin in the glove, it turned to moisture vapour, which the clever membrane allows to escape through its tiny holes. Thus keeping Dave's hand dry and comfortable. It was an excellent example of moisture control which is key to the breathability of their products. They also had a demo machine that showed steam coming from below the membrane and passing through it.

Dave putting his hand in a bucket of cold water

I have to say that the term breathability is not something I have ever really believed in until this weekend. I walk very hot and sweaty so I was physically the ideal testing candidate for any claims of breathability and mentally too as I have not found many products I would say work for me on the hills when I am working hard. For the next few hours the bloggers were split in to two groups. My group headed to another room where Timm Smith, Gore's product development specialist who helped design the new Active Shell product, was going to give us a presentation on Comfort Science. I have to say I learned more about outdoor clothing in the hours spent with Timm and in the testing labs than I think I have ever known before. Timm who in his spare time is also a climber and outdoor enthusiast, was brilliant, he answered all our questions extensively and opened our eyes to how membrane based waterproof and windproof products technically work. He made us look at the three layer system as not just a line of linear layers but side on and three dimensional. This helped me to understand that three layer Gore-Tex membranes use a combination of a DWR ( durable water repellent ) protected closely woven outer layer for the first line of waterproof defence, followed by the membrane which not only acts as the secondary waterproof layer but more importantly moves the moisture out, followed by the soft inner layer that protects the membrane and helps hold moisture and distribute it before the membrane moves it out. I have to admit I had always thought of DWR based materials and membrane based materials as being two separate technologies generally. What Timm showed us was that the three layer system combines them and they all work together.

Timm Smith, designer of the new Active Shell membrane

One question I put to Timm was how does the membrane move the moisture through the outer layer if it is covered in a DWR. Timm explained that the outer layer is a closely woven fabric but when magnified you could see it does have tiny openings. These openings are not completely blocked by the DWR. Instead the DWR coats the surface facing sides of the threads, so that moisture droplets just drip off the closely woven and none absorbing surface. These tiny openings allow the warm evaporating moisture coming through the membrane to leave the garment. Timm went on to explain the importance of moisture control in products like Active Shell. The Active Shell range has been designed by Gore primarily for fast and lightweight users. The range is more geared towards runners, cyclists and lightweight adventurers. It compromises ruggedness and durability for breathability and lightweight. These are sacrifices those users are more than happy to make and Gore have done well to recognise that and come up with an amazing product. They are trying to get this message out to potential buyers and were great at listening to our ideas on how they could achieve that by means of education through retailers, online material and labelling in shops.

Examples of Active Shell jackets on the market

We had lunch and sat with bloggers from around Europe, networking and exchanging thoughts on what we had seen so far. Dave set about asking a few of the bloggers why they felt bloggers from different countries don't tend to talk to each other much. It seemed that the German blogs in particular preferred to be more technical and to the point whereas the British blogs were more about personal experiences and opinion. The other obvious difference being the language barrier, this could of course be dealt with on blogs by giving the option to translate the blog or using browser translator plugins like those built in to Chrome. We also got a chance to speak to one of Gore's branding chiefs Tom Bugg who was over from America. Dave was keen to make his point about people seeing Gore-Tex as just Gore-Tex, not the three or four types of Gore-Tex that are now on the market. Each type of Gore-Tex is specifically designed and fit for its specialised purpose, I agree with Dave when he says that most people in the UK still don't realise this. Tom assured us he would take this opinion away with him. It does seem that this problem is something which it looks like Gore are now trying to resolve and Tom did say watch this space.

Gore-Tex testing labs in Feldkirchen-Westerham, Germany

After lunch my group were taken to the test lab area. This test lab had now moved to a different location so was no longer in use. Instead what they have done is left everything in place and created an educational lab environment where they can show the likes of us how things are done. The lab experience gave me a huge respect for the companies technical integrity. Gore-Tex based products carry the Gore-Tex guarantee "Guaranteed to keep you dry". When you consider that the final product is actually created by the brand and not Gore-Tex themselves this is a brave guarantee to make and keep. However after seeing the lab tests I now know how they can keep that guarantee. We asked about the guarantee and how they carry the promise through. They told us that every contact made via the guarantee system is dealt with personally and is followed through until the user is satisfied. The products are sometimes fixed and if required are replaced. Sometimes customer education is all that is required or a reapplication of the DWR.

Example of a fabric that failed colour tests

The way that Gore-Tex works is that the brands such as Berghaus, The North Face, Mammut, Haglofs etc will provide Gore with a test sample of the outer fabric they want to use. Gore then make a sample of what would be the finished three layer product by bonding their inner layer and the membrane layer to the outer layer provided by the brand. This test product is then put through incredibly stringent tests, of which there are over a hundred. If the product fails to work for whatever reason then the brand must provide a more suitable outer fabric. Gore protect their excellent reputation for quality this way. Gore claims that "Products engineered with Gore-Tex fabrics are durable, water and wind proof combined with optimised breathability." It came as no surprise then to find that all of the tests had at lest one of these four criteria in mind. One question asked was if Gore also tested its products against its main competitors such as Event, Paramo, Polartec and the brands own inventions. They said they do also test against competitors both in the lab and outdoors in real life situations.

The Gore-Tex Water Tower

One of the tests is to wash the product for over five hundred hours. This prompted another interesting question to the lab specialists which was, how was it best to wash your Gore-Tex garment. The answer given was to wash in a washing machine but without fabric conditioner, then when the garment is still slightly damp apply a DWR via spray to only the outer layer of the garment, then tumble dry. We asked why a spray and not a wash in DWR treatment, which I have always used. The answer was actually fairly obvious, you don't want to apply DWR to the inner layer or the membrane as it will block it and therefore stop moisture from evaporating and destroy the effectiveness of the three layer system. Blatantly obvious I suppose but to this day I have always used the wash in Graingers type DWR treatment, I won't be doing so any longer on my membrane based waterproofs. The breathability tests are not only done by Gore but also by a recognised external testing labs. The waterproof tests are done to ISO 811 standards. Once the final product has passed all the strict tests, the material is bonded by Gore. They then provide the final fabric on rolls to the brands and they manufacture the final product into a clothing garment. Gore do work very closely with their brands and make sure that the brands staff are skilled up and capable of handling their products. Seem welding is one skill required for example. After the labs they showed us the Water Tower where they simulate various weather conditions for both testing and fault finding. There was also a Wind Stopper tunnel for testing windproof garment.

The forest walk to Gindelalm

A final presentation was given by Timm Smith on Active Shell, which I will talk about in detail on a separate post in the future as there is easily enough to fit on a full post including my own experiences with the test garment they have given me. They wanted us to test for ourselves an Active Shell jacket, so they organised a cracking short ascent in the Bavarian Alps. So after the Active Shell presentation we all gathered our belongings and headed out to the coach. The weather was now absolutely glorious. It is no exaggeration to say that in three days over in Germany I didn't see a single cloud. After another lovely drive we arrived at a car park in a forest. The coach had to do a very interesting three point turn before he left us. We all kitted up and looked like a right bunch all wearing the exact same jacket. On looking German hikers were somewhat bemused. We were soon joined by Benedikt Bohm, a Gore athlete and the best known Extreme Ski Mountaineer in the world and now father and Managing Director of the ski mountaineer gear manufacturer Dynafit. We walked a fairly steep and winding five kilometres through an enchanting forest. At one point where the path crosses a stream, I stood photographing the view upstream from the bridge and watched in amusement a Black Squirrel run down one side of the valley, crossed a log over the stream then run up the other side. Unfortunately I had left the main group of walkers at this point so couldn't point it out to anyone.

Benedikt Bohm at our table in the Gindelalm restaurant

We reached the top of the ascent at the Bavarian alpine hut of Gindelalm. One of three huts situated at an altitude of 1242m between Schliersee and Tegernsee in the saddle between the mountain and the Auer Gindelalmschneid. I checked my back at this point and found that my base layer was completely dry on my back, in the last decade I don't think I have ever had a dry back after a hill walk, so the Active Shell had passed its first test with flying colours, I even took a photo just to prove it. The sun was just going down and the view towards the higher Alps was stunning. It was pretty cold so we all crept inside the cosy warm hut for a final presentation, this one by Benedikt who had carried his presentation kit up in a rucksack. It was a brilliant presentation, some of the adventures he'd had were just mind blowing and totally over whelming. Stories of seeing people die in the death zone, coming close to it himself at times contrasted with some stunning photographs of himself and his mountaineering buddies stood on top of the the highest mountains in the world. Benedikt was rather popular with the females it has to be said. The girls were very smitten by the rugged yet well groomed blond German athlete. After his presentation he sat with us at our table to eat. The food was delicious and the beer went down well. It was great having Benedikt on our table and he was asked many questions about his adventures and received a lot of attention from the girls. If there was one theme from Benedikt's presentation it was will power, he constantly used the term and looking at where he had been and what he had achieved it was no surprise that he though it to be the most important factor in his achievements.

Fiona & Sylvain in Munich

After the meal and drinks we were all asked to go outside as we had to now descend back through the forest by moonlight. Most people had brought head torches but we were also provided with fun real flame torches which really added to the atmosphere. The descent was trouble free. Obviously handing out fire torches to thirty beer and wine drinking walkers and telling them to descend a steep winding forest path for an hour in the dark isn't the smartest idea, but it went well. We got back on the coach after putting out the flame torches and headed back to the hotel. Most of us too tired to even consider having another beer. The following morning we said our goodbyes to the many people we had met and got on the coach which took us back to the airport. We had several hours to kill again so Tom, Fiona, Sylvain and Myself headed into Munich for what was my second flying visit this weekend. We looked around the beautiful city then settled down at a typical continental cafe and had delicious bread, wine and pasta. After sitting in the sun we headed back to the Airport and went our separate ways home. It is impossible to describe how good this weekend was. I feel like I was treated like royalty by Gore but also with huge respect. They have not only educated us more than we could possibly have imagined but at the same time listened to our views and taken on board what we had to say. I would like to thank Gore and Massklusive for giving me such an amazing opportunity. A big thank you to the other three UK bloggers Dave Mycroft, Fiona Russell and Tom Evans who I spent the most time with over the weekend, there is nothing better than decent like minded people. I still can't believe how much we laughed at weekend as we all got on so well. Anna McNamara who works in Marketing Communications for Gore in the UK at their Livingstone offices looked after us the whole weekend and soon became part of the gang. So thanks to those people but also to all the staff from Gore and of course the bloggers and journalists from around Europe. Fantastic weekend I won't forget in a hurry!

I have uploaded all of my photos from the weekend here.

There is also an official Gore-Tex Flickr album here.

Bloggers who attended this event...

Dave Mycroft
Tom Evans
Fiona Russell
Sylvain Bazin
Gregory Herlez
Alexander Bardu
Jens Nordmann
Steve Auch
Sven Linckels
David Schaffler
Sebastian & Rike Bonner
Christian Forjahn
Uli Strelzing
Axel Jansen
Thomas Hubner
Marcel Naumann
Markus Vaas & Veit Schumacher
Federico Casnati & Rafaela Zingler
Julio Fernandez & Juliana Aristizabel

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Gore-Tex Bloggers Summit first day in Munich

It has been a great first day in sunny Munich at the Gore-Tex Bloggers Summit. I set the alarm clock last night for 5am knowing it would not be easy getting up at such an early hour. The only benefit of getting up that early is that I can get revenge on the cat, who usually wakes me in the early hours everyday. So being cruel I crept down stairs and gave her a shock and wake her up.

I stupidly decided to update my iPhone and iPad to iOS 5 before this trip which wasn't the best idea as it meant spending the last two nights loading all my content back on as I wanted it for the trip. Despite that taking up my time I still just about managed to pack in time the night before and kept things to a minimum. The only consideration was a few warm clothes as the forecast temperatures are below freezing for the next few days. I left behind around half the kit I had originally planned on taking.

Taxi arrived at 5:15am as booked. The airport was extremely busy and full of noisy holiday makers and stag parties, just what you need when you are half awake, a bunch of drunken chavs shouting. I grabbed myself a bite too eat then queued up at the boarding gate where I was soon joined by Dave Mycroft from who I already know and would be spending the next few days with. Manchester was grim but as soon as the plane had raced down the runway and burst through the clouds we were in the most heavenly surroundings lit by a morning sunrise.

Flying is something that fascinates me, I find it hard to comprehend how incredible it actually is for us to be able to fly as we do. As well as spotting geographical landmarks out of the window I was also watching the excellent 127 Hours movie on my iPad which was a great, until the moment when he cuts off his arm, that bit I just could not watch! The flight was a breeze and Lufthansa was quite a refreshing change to some of the cheaper airlines i have been on recently.

The weather in Germany for today and the next few days is blue skies and sunshine. Crossing Germany from north to south was a real eye opener, so many trees and so much open farmland. As the plane approached Munich and lost altitude I could make out a long line of dark mountain peaks reaching high in to the sky, some higher than the plane. It was of course the Alps and they were looking awesome. Most of them had patches of snow on them. There were many pretty villages with churches and castles dotted around the countryside near Munich as we came in to land and a surprising amount of Solar farms.

We landed and got through the airport very quickly as neither Dave or myself had any luggage other than our rucksacks which we had packed light. We had several hours to kill at the airport as the shuttle bus that would take us to our hotel was not due for another five hours. We sat at a cafe outside the airport and had a long chat about outdoor gear and other geeky outdoor related subjects then decided to hop on a train and head in to the city.

Everywhere including the airport, the train station and the city streets were incredible clean and free of litter. No queues anywhere, efficient transport, trouble free efficiency in every aspect of every thing we had to deal with. These German traits I had been told of but had never been to Germany before to experience. Marienplatz was our destination which is the main square in the centre of the city. We had a look around a fantastic old building in the platz then headed along a street to find somewhere to eat and drink. We found a well priced bakery come cafe that had a good beer and well priced food.

We soaked up the sunshine and watched the people of Munich go about their normal daily lives. The citizens of Munich seem to be a very civilised, polite, calm and relaxed bunch. After sitting in the sun for a while we made our wayback to the airport, after getting a little lost and confused in the multi level train station. Back at the airport we tried to find Fiona and Tom, fellow UK bloggers who had flown from Edinburgh on a later flight. We eventually met up with them at the meeting point where the shuttle bus awaited our arrival. At the shuttle bus we also met around a dozen other bloggers from other parts of Europe and the Gore-Tex team themselves. The coach took us to our hotel in Miesbach, a good hour south of Munich.

On route as we got closer to the hotel we also got closer to the mountains, which looked absolutely stunning. At the hotel we were treated to a Gore-Tex goodie bag containing a test jacket of the new Gore-Tex Active Shell. I was given a large, despite most of my clothes these days being medium. However it was a good job as the jacket is an active close fitting. First impressions, simply by examining the jacket and materials, are very positive. The jacket packs down to nothing, the material is very comfortable, even next to the skin and it is unbelievably light in weight.

When we booked in to our rooms at the hotel i realised they had me down as Bassnett, Jamie Frau! Last time I looked i am sure I was a man! Dinner tonight was an excellent buffet. We sat with the many representatives from Gore and spoke to a few bloggers from around the continent. It was great to meet up with the German bloggers and hear their perspective on blogging. Tomorrow after breakfast we are being whisked away to Gore's testing labs to be shown how they test and design their products which is going to be a real eye opener and a fantastic experience. After that we are heading in to the Bavarian Alps for a hike to a restaurant where there will be a special presentation by record breaking extreme ski mountaineer Benedikt Bohm. Following the meal and presentation we will be descending back down the mountain by head torch before heading back to the hotel.

Here are a few of the photos taken today...