Articles - Alpine Climber: Difficile & Beyond. Chapter 6 - Alpine Gear
by Martin Moran and Bruce Goodlad
If you remember Mark Twight’s book Extreme Alpinism: Climbing Light, Fast and High, his message was to keep your gear to a minimum and climb as fast as you can. This obviously works for him and it can also work for you. If you keep your equipment to a minimum and choose some of the lightest gear available you’ll find that you’re able to climb harder and faster, no matter what level of route you are planning.
The light approach should be adopted throughout your set-up, from individual karabiners, to rucksacks and boots. Think about your intended route and only pack things that are appropriate. Why carry a duvet jacket when the weather forecast is perfect, and you are climbing a snow route in good condition, which should only take 4 hours to summit from the hut. If you are going out in marginal conditions then you obviously have to beef up your gear accordingly. If you are planning to bivi before or during a route, keep the weight down as well, even if you are not going to climb with it all on your back you will still have to carry it into the mountains. Being able to climb fast is not just about having the lightest gear, but having comfortable breathable clothing in a versatile system.
The heart of any rack is the snap gate karabiner. Individually they don’t weigh much, but as most people will carry about 20 of them in a basic rack you can save a lot of weight in this area. The lightest full sized krab about at the moment is the DMM Spectre 33g £7.50 and the Wild Country Helium 33g £6.99, 20 of which will weigh in at 660g. Compare that to 20 standard solid gate krabs at 49g, a total of 980g, and you have a saving of 320g. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but it is an indication of how a few grams here and there suddenly end up as kilos. If you don’t mind a smaller sized krab then the CAMP Nano 28g £6.50 is worth a look, as is the new Black Diamond Oz 28g £7.50. DMM have just released the Phantom 26g, which has anopen-gate strength of 9kn, that’s 520g for 20! If you don’t want to spend so much money, the Electron Wire from Zero G is 39g and only costs £4.50. When looking at the rest of your rack, screw gates are incredibly heavy. The DMM Shadow £10.99 at 52g is the lightest one I could find at a sensible size.
Protection wires are also much lighter than ever before. If you are planning a route that may need the odd wire then look at Wild Country Superlight Rocks. The new standard Rocks are also superb, but my favourite is still the DMM Wallnut, due to its versatility of placement. When it comes to cams the lightest I have found are the Metolius Ultralight Power Cams, but my personal favourite is the DMM 4CU unit with its extendable sling, meaning you don’t need an extender on each unit.
Choose the thinnest you think you can get away with; a skinny single will do for most routes that don’t require abseiling. Have a look at the Mammut Revolution or the Serenity, which is the lightest single rope on the market. The Beal Joker is also worth considering and the Edelrid Live Wire 8mm is one of the nicest half ropes I have used. If you use a skinny rope make sure you use an appropriate belay device. My current favourite is the Black Diamond ATC Guide, which can be used as a magic plate or as a normal belay device. The Wild Country VC Pro is also superb and the DMM Bugette is super-light and doesn’t tangle the rope.
Loads of weight can be saved in the rucksack department. You may need to strip your sac down to save weight but if I can’t leave the valley with a rucksack weighing about 1kg then I will look elsewhere. Most Alpine routes can be climbed with a 45L sac, but you can often get away with 35L.
One of the lightest sacs I have found is the Jam2 from GoLite. At 51L and only 600g it’s a great find, surprisingly robust and good on the hill. From PODSacs the Thin Ice weighs about 1kg and is a big feeling 45+10L. A great small sack is the Black Diamond RPM 26L (500g stripped), and is perfect for technical routes. If you want something really robust the Crux AK30 is great at 700g and £80. And last, but most definitely not least, Lowe Alpine’s new 40-litre Crag Attack keeps it simple and durable, with all the features you need in a streamlined design weighing just 1kg.
If you are going to spend a night out it will be much warmer and far more enjoyable(?) if you can get out of the wind. The simplest option is a group shelter where you can share warmth. Terra Nova produce a range of sizes, which should be kept in your sac at all times while in the mountains, just in case you do get caught out. However, if you’re after a bit more protection, then a breathable waterproof bivi bag is what you need. Rab produce a range in eVENT Exchange Lite fabric, which allows air through the fabric so it doesn’t feel so claustrophobic inside. The range include the Alpine Bivi at 630g, which is really light and simple, and the Ranger Bivi 570g which has a tapered shape and side walls for internal comfort.
A sleeping mat can make all the difference to comfort and warmth and a foam mat is the only realistic option. If sleeping before a route, one of the light Thermarests from the Prolite series is superb. Having hot food and drink can make any miserable bivi seem much better. The JetBoil (£65) is the most efficient system I have used and comes complete with a pan, and the MSR Pocket Rocket (85g) is the lightest and smallest stove that I have used. If you have the space a lightweight sleeping bag will always be warmer than a duvet jacket. Something like the PHD Minimus is awesome and seems to weigh nothing in your pack.
A thin pair of gloves like the Marmot Spring glove is perfect for most uses, but if going high or if it’s cold, take something a bit beefier in the sac. At the height of summer a pair of leather gardening gloves is a cheap and durable alternative.
As mentioned earlier, a versatile system of lightweight, comfortable, breathable clothing helps you move rapidly, without stopping to add or remove garments. It is worth seeking out gear that is specifically designed for alpinism. As an example, Lowe Alpine’s Ice Light jacket is one of their most technical shell garments and has been around long enough to gain classic status. Both the men’s and women’s versions feature 3-ply Gore-tex XCR fabric, micro-taped seams for extra light weight and breathability, a great hood and the simplest and most effective ‘reach-high’ panel design I’ve seen, all weighing in at just 495g. Julie-Ann Clyma rates this as her favourite alpine shell, and you can see why. Soft shell potentially offers the most flexible outer layer for summer alpinism, and there’s a lot of choice out there. If the forecast is good then soft shell gives all the performance you need, although you might want the insurance of an ultra-light waterproof in our sack in case it all goes pear-shaped. My preference is for lighter, non-insulated, non- membrane fabrics such as Schoeller for summer ascents – Lowe Alpine’s well established Multi Pitch Jacket uses their Stormweave fabric, similar to Schoeller. Its formed fit and simple design have made this a firm favourite. Legwear tells a similar story. No one wants to struggle in and out of shell pants every day. You need trousers that cope with sub-zero morning starts, slogging up the approach, the odd shower and several weeks jammed in granite cracks. Again, Lowe Alpine has some great designs such as their Sierra Lite Pant, which uses Stormweave fabric to give a classic alpine garment at just 430g. There are loads of freedom-inducing design tweaks built in, plus side pockets, a guidebook-sized thigh pocket and harness-friendly waist.
For summer alpine insulation that’ll last a lifetime, you can’t do much better than Polartec Power Stretch. This legendary fabric is light in weight, wicks moisture (so you can use it in winter as a base layer), and stretches like crazy. There are several different versions of Power Stretch these days and Lowe Alpine uses the most durable nylon-faced Power Stretch fabrics in its standard and lightweight versions – check out the options to ensure you get full usage season by season. One fairly novel design that’s unique to Lowe is the Warm Zone Ninja Hoody. This is an alpine piece where the fabric is seamlessly zoned to give insulation where it’s needed most. The result is a specialised, technical mid-layer that’s breathable and lightweight with a close-fitting hood, cuff thumbholes that keep your pulse point warm at full stretch, and suede palms for grip. I’m sure I don’t need to preach the benefits of a good base layer fabric. The ability to shift sweat away from your body is obvious after an arduous approach. There are many options available today using both natural and synthetic fabrics; whichever you go for I’d just keep it simple with a long-sleeved design, you can always pull the sleeves up if you’re hot! Dryflo fabrics have been improved with better performance and an anti-pong treatment – the Dual Fibre Dryflo Zipneck probably fits the bill best. So, having shelled out on a top, don’t forget to get wicking underwear too – you know it makes sense!
There have been a lot of changes in alpine boots since the first lightweight, technical leather designs regained the initiative from plastic boots. Today’s advanced materials applied to alpine footwear have revolutionized matters, with great all-rounders such as Asolo’s Peak, using lightweight components to give advanced shock absorption and stiffening – plus a Gore-tex lining – weighing just 880g.
…and finally socks! Not a subject many consider important but a big alpine day is hard on the feet, and the right socks will make all the difference. Do not wear cotton – it’s the same principle as wicking base layer – and go for designs that use loop stitches on the inside. What happens is that the loops move with your foot and the outside of the sock moves with your boot, meaning they absorb the shear forces that create friction and blisters. In my experience socks that contain fibres such as acrylic, Coolmax or similar, wick moisture best – Thorlo socks seem to tick all the boxes, and they’re indestructible. Remember the heaviest thing in your sac is the gear you don’t use; the only thing that weighs nothing is nothing.
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