Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Alpine Kit Essentials

It took me several years to slim my summer alpine climbing kit down to a reasonable size. In a way, I suppose the winnowing away of excess paralleled my experience as a climber. As I learned more and gained confidence I needed less. Don't cut your spoon or drill holes in your toothbrush to save weight just yet.

The "less is more" concept applies better to alpine climbing than any other climbing discipline. It still applies while rock climbing and skiing though, and I always have a chuckle when I see items strapped outside of people's already overstuffed cragging packs. You have to love (perhaps with an eye-roll) seeing people pull hammocks, crazy creek chairs and the like out of their bags at the cliff.

It seems like most of the summer alpine trips I do are from two to four days in length and involve either semi-technical or technical climbing. Certain trips involve making a base camp and then approaching the objective from the base camp, others involve full carryovers with your entire kit. Either way, the bulk and weight of the items you pack will affect the size of your alpine kit.

Bulk is public enemy #1. On cutting edge alpine routes, both bulk and weight are serious issues to contend with. Most of us aren't climbing cutting edge routes though, so we can start by reducing the bulk of our kit. As an example, it's easier to pack an entire stick of pepperoni than a large bag of potato chips. They both have a similar amount of calories. The pepperoni might even be heavier, but it's going to fit in your pack more easily.

By reducing bulk you'll also reduce the weight of your kit. Remember, a well-packed bag, even if it's heavy, is going to carry better than some frumpy towering monstrosity that catches every single branch on the approach. Items strapped outside are going to snag, fall off and get wet too.

For most trips, you should be able to pack everything into a bag that's 40-liters or smaller. Through careful packing, and forceful stuffing (no empty space inside) everything should fit. I'm going to list my alpine kit essentials below. Obviously, an objective that requires more gear (challenging rock routes) might require a bigger pack for the approach and a smaller pack on route. For the most part though, the gear below works very well.

Pack, Sleeping System, Stove, Personal Items

  • Cold Cold World Ozone with longer torso and floating lid. 35-40 liters in size. This simple pack has a bivy pad, removable lid and external tool attachments. No frills, no extra fabric or seams, and total functionality.The waist belt rides on my hips instead of above my harness line along my lower back.
  • Mountain Hardwear Phantom 32 - Only a little bigger than a one-liter water bottle and very warm. This well constructed sleeping bag is a great way to save space in your pack. Down loses its loft easily, but you're not going to freeze in most conditions, even with a damp bag.
  • Big Agnes Air Core -  Smaller than a one-liter water bottle. After a year of using this pad (about 60-70 nights last year) it's finally sprung a small leak. Of all the lightweight pads, this one is the cheapest. It's hard to justify the price of a NeoAir when it could puncture at any moment. The Air Core pad is comfortable too - I sleep better on it than on a Ridgerest or Thermarest.
  • Black Diamond Firstlight - Small, lightweight and weather resistant. If you're going out for a few days this tent will likely do the trick. You're going to get we if it really rains, but then again you're probably going home if it's raining anyways. Split between two people this is comparable to two bivy sacks and much more comfortable.
  • Jetboil - I've had good luck with the Jetboil, and use a homemade hose clamp-style hanging kit carefully inside a well-ventilated tent. One small fuel canister is generally adequate for one person for several days, and fits inside the stove. For more than one person I'll bring the 220 gram canister. I like the Jetboil and MSR fuel. Snowpeak and Primus canisters don't seem to work as well. The MSR Reactor is better in cold weather, and both the Reactor and the Jetboil are going to be more efficient than a little Snowpeak stove or MSR Pocket Rocket.
  • Platypus with top cut off - If you take an old Platypus water container and trim the top off you'll have a 1.5-2 liter folding pack bowl that you can eat and drink out of and takes up very little space. Rehydrate dry soups in it by folding and clipping it closed using a carabiner. Don't forget a long-handled spoon.
  • MSR Dromedary Bag - A 4-liter dromedary bag allows you to make less trips to your water source and carry more water just in case you camp away from water sources. When it's empty it takes up very little space. The small threaded caps on the dromedary wear out and leak, so you'll want to drink out of the tiny flip-open spout or the big opening. Bring a one-liter bottle too just in case the drom bursts or for use with hot liquids, and as a pee bottle if you need one (yes, I'll occasionally use my water bottle as a pee bottle).
  • Black Diamond Z-pole - One pole is nice to have for approaches and for crossing gentle snow slopes. BD's new Z poles are awesome - light, packable and relatively sturdy. It will fit inside my pack when I'm not using it.
  • Black Diamond Couloir Harness - Obviously, if you're doing a technical route with a technical descent you'll need a beefier harness. For most routes though, a lightweight mountaineering harness is adequate and no larger than a tennis ball.
  • 40-meter 9 mm single rope (and 5mm pull cord) (both not pictured)- You can save some weight and still make a few long rappels using a 40-meter rope and a 40-meter 5mm pull cord. Most alpine rock and ice features are shorter than 40-meters, meaning a longer rope isn't always necessary. Be careful though, if you're going to bring a short rope you need to know you can make things work.
  • Black Diamond Venom, 50 cm - I like the Venom, and use the shortest length possible. It fits inside my bag if there's space, and works reasonably well for most things. The old-style sliding Grivel pinky rest can be retrofitted if you countersink a screw at the bottom of the tool.
  • Black Diamond Sabretooth/Serac Crampon - I've used lighter crampons than these, but find that the smaller bottom points associated with lightweight crampons don't bite into mushy snow the way a full-size crampon does. Be careful fitting newmatic style crampons to softer mountain boots like the Trango S or Scarpa Charmoz. There's the tendency for the crampons to pop off during harder frontpointing with soft boots.
  • Android or Iphone - I'm a complete Android geek. If a route requires very little real navigation I might opt to leave my GPS at home, knowing that my phone has Kindle, music, camera, and backcountry navigation software installed. I bring 3 extra batteries and keep it off or in airplane mode most of the time.
  • Old Harness Bags - I keep food and all other smaller items in old harness bags, many of which have mesh so you can see items inside the bag. The Sea-To-Summit roll top waterproof bags are useful too.
  • Sunblock, TP, etc - Don't bring a full tube or roll of anything. I put my sunblock in a small, 1-2-ounce tube or nalgene container. I use a folding toothbrush and keep a travel size toothpaste tube on hand. I bring toilet paper and Wet Ones too, but make sure not to bring large amounts of these items.

A 5mm Evazote sleeping pad can make the Air Core pad a good
 option on snow


Like gear, clothing you choose for any trip is going to depend on the forecast and weather conditions for that location. Not surprisingly, the things I wear on a daily basis while guiding rock, also become integral garments in my 3-season alpine kit.

  • Patagonia Simple Guide Pant - I'm 6'1", 190, 32 waist, and I wear a medium, if that helps others when buying these pants. The simplest, most durable soft shell pants I've found, the Simple Guide pant is my go-to pant for everything from rock routes to mixed climbing and skiing.
  • Icebreaker 150 weight T-shirt - lightweight and it doesn't stink. Heavier wool layers seem to stay wet a long time, but this thin layer works well.
  • Patagonia Capilene Boxers - Cold, wet, cotton underwear might not stink but it can make you cold.
  • Outdoor Research Radiant Hybrid Hoody - Any slim fitting hoody (like the R1 also) is one of the most useful garments I own.
  • Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hoody - A nice soft shell layering piece. Great for everything but heavy rain.
  • Wild Things EP Jacket - Not sure they make this anymore, Patagonia's Nano Puff is similar. Mid-weight hooded synthetic insulation is good for keeping you warm when it's wet.
  • Outdoor Research Paladin Jacket or Axiom Jacket - A full-weather hard shell will keep you dry. Both of these work well and are simple.
  • Outdoor Research Paladin Pant - A hard shell pant that won't totally shred when you nick it with your crampons.
  • Buff - sun and wind protection for your head and neck.


Again, low bulk food is good. Breakfast is usually Starbucks Via, granola with powdered milk (mixed ahead of time), or Pop Tarts (I know, healthy!) plus some cheese. For lunch/snacking I like tortillas (they're flat to pack easily) with peanut butter (the sugary kind, which I squeeze into a heavy duty ziplock), foil packets of tuna with mayonnaise, mustard and relish packets, Gu, dark chocolate (a bar a day, dark chocolate has a higher melting point), gummy bears, blocks of parmesan cheese (less oily than warm cheddar), and hard salami. Dinner might be a freeze dried meal or instant soup plus a second course of cheese with instant mashed potatoes. Nearly all of your food for 2-3 days should fit into one harness-size sack (like the ones that come with BD or Petzl harnesses). Don't go into the supermarket hungry and you'll be better off. Over the course of two to four days you're not going to starve if you're a bit short on food.

Additions? Subtractions? Comment below if you like.

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