The development of the KISU should be understood in the context of the Cairngorm plateau disaster in November 1971 when 6 people died in the storm. This had serious implications and still has an influence on outdoor education and training in the UK to this day. Griffith Pugh, the key scientific
advisor on clothing and equipment for Everest 1953, also researched better survival techniques and recommended the use of orange survival bags. These are still a BMC recommended item today and for some events e.g mountain marathons, they are mandatory items, even though participants are also carrying a 2 person tent. This idea also contributed to the development of survival equipment especially in the context of groups and their leaders; and hence the KISU.
The original weighed 1,070 g and was large enough for 6 people, plus instructor. This product was the precursor to many subsequent products bearing a variety of names, and sometimes claiming, erroneously, to be the first. 2 person bothy bags are now available at around 430g.
They are used extensively by group leaders/instructors/guides throughout the UK, and Northern Europe, but surprisingly little in alpine areas. These products are now widely available but breadth of function is perhaps not fully understood.
The original KISU had a large sleeve entrance at both ends and cords along top and bottom edges. This created a size adjustability for the number of people by drawing the lower cord around and even underneath the occupants This also increased stability and resistance to wind. The upper cords allowed the KISU to be supported on skis at each end or between trees and the backbone cord along top at centre could be drawn up to shorten the effective length.
When researching the innovative Mummery tent of the 1890’s the same idea was evident in that the users could sit inside and pull the fabric underneath them.This could serve two purposes: decreasing the size for stability and providing something to sit on. Ice axes could also be used as tent poles.
This tent was produced commercially by Benjamin Edgington until as late as the 1950’s. Edgingtons were a plc and eventually the subject of a reverse takeover by Blacks, becoming Black and Edgington for a few years before further mergers.
Ken Ledward, who was employed as a full time tester and product developer at Karrimor from 1972–8, had a key influence in the development of truly featherweight gear in the 1970s. In 1972, taking a week out of the hills, and working in the factory for a week with a sewing machine technician, he produced two full sets of gear for himself and Mike Parsons for the following year’s KIMM (2 day mountain marathon) held at St Mary’s Loch. Gear included tents, sleeping bags, jackets, overtrousers breeches and packs. Mike’s weighed just 6 ½ lbs and working on the principle that he was pint sized and older and so needed lighter gear, Ken’s was just 5 ½ lbs.
Whilst writing our gear innovation book Invisible on Everest, Mary Rose and I interviewed Ken Ledward in a broad context and to get a direct recall on his inspiration for this idea. Here is a quote from Ken’s archive notes and our interview for this period of early 70’s:
“I had read about the so called Zardsky Sac that was available to BAS staff in Antarctica. I found that it was trialled but not used and nicknamed ‘The Disaster Sac’, implying if you ever needed to use it it would have been a disaster situation. This was a tube in essence and required time to get it fitted over bodies and/or a sledge.
As an OB Instructor I carried a flysheet during final scheme trips, when checking and locating student groups who were without instructors.The great thing about the flysheet was that it could be thrown over a small student group and held down by sitting on the bottom edges. This was not ideal and so I developed the KISU, intending for it to be a DIY piece of kit. I put a draw cord in a seam around the whole of the bottom edge and had a small sleeve entrance at each end; size was to accommodate a small group or family. In cold/wet weather a group could be out of the bad conditions and in face to face contact with each other instead of trying to slide down behind some boulder for a rest /snack. The psychological advantage in itself was a boost to a cold or weary group”.
Almost every mountain rescue team and outdoor centre in UK bought the KISU and many retained their original. The idea spread from here until many tent brands were offering them. Here is a typical picture of a bothy bag being used as a lunch time stop for 4 people, in the Jotunheim Norway.