Alpine Climbing gear
November 12, 2008
Alpine climbing requires the minimum amount of gear, combined with the maximum amount of effort, in order to achieve success. Due to the fact that gear is kept to such a minimum, it’s vital that what you have is as good as it can be. If you’ve never been to the Alps it’s hard to know what to expect, with most climbers having a view that is far too extreme, leaving them staggering around glaciers blinking in sweat-soaked Buffalo. It’s also very easy to base your gear choices on old information, when times have changed and what people wear has moved on. This article is designed to give an overview of what’s needed for both the new Alpine climber and the experienced climber who wants some new ideas and is written with a bias towards classic Alpine climbing.
ALPINE MOUNTAINEERING BOOTS
Choosing a perfect Alpine mountaineering boot can be tough, but if you’re to maximise your performance and comfort in the mountains you have to get it right. An ill-fitting boot will disable you faster than a Delhi roadside curry when forced to do long marches to and from the mountains, with a typical Alpine day often requiring the user to cover long distances, leaving your feet looking like you’ve stepped on a landmine if they don’t fit, prematurely ending your long-awaited holiday.
You should also make sure your boots are fit for the intended task, as inappropriate boots can be dangerous to both yourself and your partner(s) and can do far more damage to you than just bloody blisters. An Alpinist is often forced to move across the potentially hazardous technical ground without belays (moving together), totally relying on themselves, their partners and their gear to provide the security necessary to carry out this operation without falling. If you find yourself moving together on a 50° ice slope above a 2,000ft drop with boots that curl up and bend like flip-flops or soles that feel like they’ve been blasted with WD-40 when scrambling across wet rock, you can find yourself in a world of undreamt-of fear - or worse. For this reason make sure your boots, or the boots’ manufacturer, have a good mountain pedigree that you can trust so that when they say their boot is designed for Alpine climbing you know it is.
Luckily the modern Alpine climber has a dizzying array of boots to choice from, with most stores carrying at least two or three boots suitable for Alpine climbing. When choosing a boot you must be aware of everything you wish to achieve while wearing it, making sure it fulfils all the criteria necessary for what you wish to use - namely one boot that has the ability to do the job of several.
Here are the main points to look at when buying a boot, set out in order of importance:
WALKING COMFORT AND SUPPORT
Firstly you need a boot that you can walk in, allowing you to cover any type of ground comfortably while keeping foot fatigue and damage to a minimum, especially to the toes, heels and ankle tendons. When fitting, this walking boot aspect should be your first priority, with climbing performance coming second, as you won’t be doing any climbing if you can’t walk comfortably to your climb. Make sure your heels feel solidly held in the boot and your toes don’t hit the end when stamping downhill (buy your boots from a shop with a boot ramp). When approaching a route you will generally leave the ankle lacing undone in order to limit ankle bruising and swollen tendon problems (always a sign of a newbie), doing the boots up once you get to the meat of the day. It always worth getting plenty of days out peak bashing in the UK in your new boots before a trip to the Alps so that your feet and boots can get used to each other and let you understand how to fine-tune the fit to different terrain
A SOLID PLATFORM
Your boot must provide you with a solid base with which to move around the mountains, being rigid and stable enough to cope with four-season terrain without having to resort to crampons as soon as snow is encountered. What this means is that your sole and uppers should be your first line of defence when crossing steep ground (rock, névé or grass) and provide a stable edge to kick in or edge. A softer boot can be used on a lot of terrain if coupled with a crampon (walking boots, waterproof approach shoes, Doctor Martins etc), but this only leads to a false sense of security. All B3 boots should fulfil these criteria.
Your boots should be up to the climatic conditions you will encounter, being waterproof for wet snow and Alpine rainstorms and warm enough to keep your toes intact on Alpine starts, yet not too hot so your feet boil and blister. Nearly all B3 Alpine boots are totally weatherproof and with good proofing they should remain that way. Warmth wise this is down to the fit and the experience of the user (see last issue’s piece on warm boots for ideas), but a bit of forethought should see most users able to get good warmth out of their boots. All boots are hot, with breathability being pretty minimal in all cases, but leather boots are definitely cooler than plastic and foam, not only because they don’t hold as much heat but also because they’re lighter and more flexible.
SNOW & ICE PERFORMANCE
If you’ve covered the three criteria above you should have a solid, well-fitting and warm boot B3 boot enabling you to tackle any snow and ice you may encounter. This can range from vertical (or overhanging) ice pitches to sustained front pointing up thousands of feet of névé. Firstly check their crampon compatibility, which should be fine. Next check the ankle flexibility and support. Many people mistakenly think that a good ice boot should lock your ankles tight like a ski boot - well they shouldn’t. Unlike dedicated pure ice-climbing boots an Alpine climber needs to employ the full gamut of French technique in order to minimize fatigue and increase security (check out Jeff Lowe’s Ice World for techniques). This requires a boot that can provide support for pure front pointing, not being sloppy which is tiring and dangerous and ankle flexibility in order to angle or splay your feet so as to use maximise the traction of your side points and use your bones rather than your muscles to take the strain of sustained climbing. If your boots are too stiff at the ankle you’ll find side-stepping (i.e. one foot front-pointing while one sidesteps), very painful and uncomfortable. Fit wise you should have plenty of room at the toe anyway having fitted the boot for walking, but check your feet are kept in place by giving a wall a few good kicks to check your toes aren’t going to suffer.
You can rock-climb in anything, but a well-fitted boot with a good sole unit and last will allow you to climb close to your free standard on the right terrain (not slab climbing). In order to fulfil the role of front pointing and walking the boot may be slightly larger than you’d want, but this can be remedied if you’re after a tighter fit by adding an extra sock once you get to your route (good for ice routes as well). If you don’t want to cramp your toes then cut them out of the sock. When trying your boots have a play around on a wall to see how well you can climb in them, checking out inside edges, the heels and the rigidity of the edge of the toe (very soft rubber will creep). Sticky rands are very useful both to protect the boot and for foot jams (as long as you can get them out again).
It may seem odd that weight comes so low on the list but this is because function and fit have to come before weight and this is one of the only pieces of equipment where low weight does not necessarily translate into higher performance. Saying that, if you can find a boot that does everything listed above yet weighs very little then buy it. Carbon fibres and advanced plastics and synthetic fabrics are increasingly being used to great effect in Alpine footwear but don’t be beguiled by the scales, your boots have to be right no matter the weight.
It used to be said that a pair of boots should cost about a week’s wages, but times have changed (I don’t think a London plumber could find boots that expensive) and so it’s assumed that a good pair of modern boots should cost around £200. This may sound like a lot to some, but if you break this down into ‘cost per wear’ then a quality boot that fits well will soon seem like good value - and a cheap boot that isn’t worn is not such a bargain.
I can attest to this method working as only the other week my wife bought some very expensive Prada shoes, which although looking like they’d been run up using scraps of mouse leather cost more than a pair of Himalayan double boots. Once I came too, I immediately used this ‘cost per wear’ system in order to make myself feel better about the cost and lo and behold after a couple of weeks of me wearing them in bed their cost did come down to double figures.
Another way of looking at the price you need to pay for an Alpine boot also involves expensive shoes, namely the ‘f**k me’ factor, a phrase coined by Germaine Greer for women who wear high heel shoes, which should be modified to the reaction you should receive from non-climbers when disclosing the cost of your new boots. At the end of the day £200 or more is cheap considering what you get.
If you follow this advice and shop at a good store with plenty of choices and listen to the staff’s advice, then you should get a boot that’s almost there. After a couple of weeks of breaking them in (a good way to get fit as well) both you and the boots should be ready for action.
SAVING YOUR FEET FROM YOUR NEW BOOTS
Many Alpinists are climbers and as such, they have an aversity to walking, which can often translate to foot problems when their dainty soft feet are forced to march them into the hills. This is also a potential problem for those who like walking but are not able to walk regularly, or are unused to four-season boots.
The problem with these boots is that because they are stiff there is always the problem of heel lift when forced to walk long distances, as locking down is not always an option. The best way to combat this is to do a bit of preventive heel protection. Firstly, put layers of thin micropore tape on your heels and then cover this in duct tape. This protects your heels better than anything on the market, with the slick duct tape reducing friction to a minimum. If you suffer from shin bite then you can do a similar thing to the front of your ankles, although shaving them (yes shaving them) and remembering not to crank up your boots too tight should solve this problem. Be vigilant and sort out problems as soon as you feel them coming on (ankle bruising for example), as another couple of hundred yards could do enough damage to leave you unable to wear your boots for months. Always carry anti-inflammatories to take at the end of the day if you feel your tendons are slightly inflamed.
One other tip is to take along a lightweight pair of running shoes to wear on the approach, which although this means you have to carry your boots on your back, is far less fatiguing on your feet and faster (you don’t have to run). If you’re heading out the way you came in you can also hide your trainers in a plastic bag and pick them up on the way out - which is worth it just too see your mates’ faces as you take off your heavy boots.
Rock boot selection depends on the route choice but most climbers go for a comfy boot or shoe that they can wear a thin sock with and wear all day. One good tip is to wear a pair of thick socks with the toes cut out as leg warmers (you will look daft). These will keep your feet warmer as they’ll keep your ankles insulated and keep snow and grit out of your boots. The best thing is when you’re belaying you can pull the socks down over your feet to keep them warm.
SOCKS & BITS
Wear what you’re used to, remember that you need a wicking sock (not cotton) next to your skin. If you’re planning on being out for several days take a spare pair of socks in a plastic bag. It’s worth taking a spare lace and having a small pair of scissors and some blister gear in your first aid kit. A tiny plastic bottle with Tea Tree oil in it can also be useful for extended trips to deal with infections and foot rot caused by hot sweaty feet.
A good pair of Alpine crampons are crampons you don’t even know you’ve got on. They should be lightweight and compact when stored in your ‘sack. They should be easy to put on and totally reliable. They should be as resistant to balling up as possible through their design yet be able to be fitted with an anti-balling plate.
To my mind the best Alpine crampons are trad 12-pointers using the hybrid strap and heel clip system (Grivel G12 Newmatic, DMM Aguille, Charlet Super S12, BD Sabretooth clip, Camp XLC), which I think are far superior to step-ins for 99% of climbers, being faster and more reliable than a front wire bail. Some form of anti ball plate should be fitted, either a dedicated model or something home-made using good old duct tape.
Crampons to avoid are technical models (Rambos, Terminators etc), which even when fitted with anti ball plates can still prove worrying and are best employed just for pure ice-climbing, rather than general Alpine climbing. Although a fairly redundant piece of a gear a light crampon bag (Troll, Grivel, BD) is worth having so as to reduce the chance of snagging tourists on cable cars and public transport.
Get a breathable gaiter that is tough, trim and has a front closure that allows you to adjust your laces without having to take them off. Short gaiters are also very popular and can be very effective if used with modern Alpine pants, being less hot to wear yet still keeping crap out of your boots. Gaiters are also very useful in that they cover the hooks on your boots, stopping laces snagging and tripping you up when your ankles are unlaced.
Get the best helmet you can afford and wear it until you’re far from danger (don’t take if off as soon as you get back on the glacier). Soft polystyrene helmets are great for Alpine climbing as they are lighter and in some cases cooler than rigid helmets, but they will only provide first strike protection in most cases - not good if you’re pinballing down 1,000ft of mountain. Rigid helmets provide more protection but are slightly heavier, but this is offset by infinitely more protection. The choice is yours. Whatever your choice make sure you can fit a headtorch on or under it and avoid dark, heat-absorbing colours if possible.
SUNGLASSES & GOGGLES
Sunglasses with a high level of protection are a must, a weird-looking nose guard is probably worth looking stupid for. It may be worth carrying a cheap second pair between two just in case someone drops or breaks theirs. If you wear glasses then you can get prescription sunglasses, although personally I’ve gone down the route of daily disposable contact lenses which make things a lot easier for only a little bit of hassle.
Some people take goggles but I think they’re a waste of space 99.99% of the time (although they can act as emergency glasses). One compromise I’ve been using is a pair of children’s goggles, which are cheap, tiny and don’t steam up because they’re closer fitting and, yes, you do look pretty stupid but if you need them you won’t mind.
Buy the highest factor you can and don’t forget to keep putting it on
HEAD PROTECTION - SUN
It may sound daft worrying about the sun if you’ve never been to the Alps, but you’ve often got as much chance of heat stroke as hypothermia. A baseball cap is a great idea as this can be worn to keep the sun of your head and also keep the spindrift out of your eyes in a storm. Normal sun hats aren’t any use, as they can’t be worn under a helmet. A hanky is another Alpine staple, used French Foreign Legion style under your hat to keep the sun off your neck, or you can just sew some thin material to the back of your hat (or Velcro it on if you’re feeling handy). With sunglasses, a hat and a hanky protecting your neck and ears you’re much more comfortable and less exposed to heat fatigue and, what’s more, you’ll sweat less and be a great deal more comfortable too
HEAD PROTECTION - COLD
A powerstretch balaclava is all that you should need, giving you the option to use it as a hat, neck gaiter or… balaclava if needs be. If you’re expecting stormy weather then throw in a neck gaiter as this can be used with the balaclava to protect the face.
Leather-palmed Schoeller or Polartec Powershield gloves are now the standard Alpine glove, providing a very high level of protection from the elements without sacrificing too much dexterity, with North Face, BD and Mountain Hardwear making the best examples at the moment. Powerstrech gloves make a great back up and camp gloves, as they dry fast and are far warmer when damp than ‘thinny’ gloves due to their fabric construction.
For cold conditions, there are several options, but personally, I’d stay away from heavy and bulky gauntlet gloves for Alpine climbing, preferring instead to get maximum warmth from a lighter but warmer pile mitt, using it to extend the range of the gloves above, as this would be cheaper, lighter and more compact (Buffalo, Montane, Terra Nova, BD).
One other glove that is common on the Continent is the plain leather glove which although providing limited protection from the cold does protect the hand from wear and tear (ropes, rough rock, abseils) and is worth experimenting with, if for no other reason than it makes you look like a guide (without the charm though). Although many will scoff a small tube of Nivea hand cream may come in handy for an extended trip, stopping your skin from drying out and cracking.
Having an altimeter watch is a great way of checking both your altitude and, more importantly, what the weather’s doing, plus you’ll need something to tell you it’s time to get up (put it on the drawcord of your sleeping bag so you can hear it).
The Alpinist requires an incredibly adaptable clothing system. It must insulate and protect against extreme cold, shedding snow and rain and provide a barrier against wind, yet be lightweight, compact and breathable enough not to hinder high aerobic activity while being tough enough to stand up to rough wear. On top of all that it must protect the user from the burning sun and be bright and trendy for photographs. Of course, all these things are hard to achieve in one system and so, as in many facets of Alpinism, the user must add that extra percentage of toughness and improvisation in order to make it work (i.e. suffer).
Layering is the key for Alpine climbing, with single-layer clothing not being adaptable enough by itself, giving the user the ability to adapt their gear to the conditions they find. For clarity, I’ve decided to break down the clothing system into the following groups rather than the standard shells, fleeces etc.
Yes, I hate to be conventional but the primary layer worn next to the skin should be a lightweight high wick top and bottom. People still get confused by this layer calling it thermal where, in fact, their thermal properties lie in their ability to keep dry and wick moisture off your skin and are actually equally as good in hot weather as cold. Apart from wicking moisture off the skin this layer also protects the user from sunburn and replaces the cotton T-shirt in your wardrobe. When buying think about what features you want. Sleeves are warmer than a T-shirt design, plus they can protect your arms against abrasion when rock-climbing, or be rolled up when unwanted and a zipped collar can be useful, used to cool off or zipped up to stay warm. A baggier fit will be cooler than a skintight top due to convection and don’t go for super dark colours as these will be hotter than lighter colours.
For the legs, you can wear your base layer ‘long johns’ like leggings and because your legs are mainly muscle and bone it’s surprising what temperature you can get by just by wearing this layer on your legs. Also, don’t forget wicking pants. On the subject of pants, it may be worth using lightweight breathable shorts (Pertex for example), as underwear as they are windproof and can be worn on the approaches and descents.
FABRIC EXAMPLES: Lowe Dryflo, Icebreaker, Polartec Powerdry, Patagonia Capeline, Coolmax, Vaporwick.
This is your primary do it all layer, worn when it’s too cold to wear just your base layer and used for everything up to full storm conditions. These items comprise your primary microclimate, providing enough insulation to stay warm when active in cold conditions, but breathable enough for warmer conditions or high aerobic activity. A high degree of water resistance and windproofing is required in these layers in order to minimize the reliance on waterproof shells and to keep wet snow and showers out and maintain your micro climate in blustery weather. This layer may comprise of several different pieces and modern thin ‘soft shell’ pieces make good components of the system as they squeeze more performance for their weight than plain fleece and windproof layers. When buying the outer layers of this system try and find a top that has a hood, as this greatly decreases the reliance on your storm layer and also increases your protection with very little weight.
FABRIC EXAMPLES: Gore Windstopper, Polartec Powershield, Schoeller Dryskin Extreme, Gore N2S, Powerstretch, shelled polyester, Pertex, Schoeller Dynamic.
Legwear needs to fulfil the same roles as body wear but with less emphasis on insulation. This layer usually comprises a pair of heavy weight trousers which can be layered over your base layer for cold conditions. These trousers need to be water-resistant, windproof and quick-drying and tough and flexible enough to climb in. Clothing like Ron Hill tracksters are staple Alpine pants, along with baggier more windproof nylon or polycotton trousers (Troll trousers, Patagonia Baggies etc). One of the best pants on the market is the classic Alpine Schoeller pant, a fabric custom-made for Alpine climbing. Although expensive these trousers will last at least a lifetime and are close to being bulletproof.
FABRIC EXAMPLES: Schoeller Dynamic, Pertex Equilibrium, Pertex, Stretchlite, Brushed Polyester.
This comprises your main defence against bad weather and unlike UK conditions this is really only used as an emergency outfit, with your action layer doing the majority of the work needed to stay comfortable. Unless you’re spending months in the Alps go for the lightest most compact shell you can afford. Modern fabrics like Gore Paclite and lightweight PU fabrics have halved the weight of Alpine shells over the last five years, giving you breathable shells that can be literally folded up and put in a pocket, yet provide full protection.
Above: Berghaus Paclite Smock (left) and the Rab Photon (right), a perfect booster layer
When choosing your shell gear go for simplicity and sacrifice the bells and whistles for weight. Try and get a jacket that fits well and is trim with all your clothes on, allowing you to see your feet and achieve good arm movement and arm lift (does the jacket pull out of your harness when you raise your arms?). Don’t expect a huge wired hood on this type of jacket. This shouldn’t be a problem as this is the Alps not Scotland and your baseball cap should do the same job as a wired hood. Two high pockets for gloves, penknife, should be fine and the lack of a map pocket should not be viewed as too serious a problem. If you want somewhere to stick your guidebook then you won’t be into lightweight gear anyway (that’s what photocopiers are for).
This is the jacket you bivvy in, wear on really cold days or when hanging around and is your insurance against the cold. In the past this was usually a light down jacket (400 to 900 grams), but modern synthetic fills have produced some tops that are more robust, that can be used in stormy conditions and are, therefore, worth the extra weight. Don’t be tempted to lug up a huge down jacket ‘just in case’, as although you will find it toaster 5% of the time, the cost will be the dead weight of it in your ‘sack for the other 95%.
FILL EXAMPLES: Good quality down (600/750 fill power), synthetics like Powerloft, Polarguard 3D, Microloft.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Here’s an example of a typical layered-up Alpinist using several brands of gear. This set up should be warm enough when worn together for typical cold Alpine nights and when stripped down for hot approaches.
TOP: Icebreaker long body fit long-sleeved zip neck (base), Lowe Alpine Powerstretch top (active) insulation), Cloudveil Ice Flow jacket (active insulation/protection), Montane Superfly Jacket (storm), Rab Photon (booster).
LEGS: Patagonia Ridge Runner shorts (base), Lowe Driflo (base), Mountain Hardwear Pack pant (active), Berghaus Paclite pants (storm). ON YOUR BACK RUCKSACK
Get the lightest ‘sack you think you can get away with as this is one area where you can really save some serious weight with ‘sacks ranging from 400 grams to two kilograms. The downside of this is that a light ‘sack will only last a few seasons, whereas a heavier one will last for years. The question comes down to how serious you are about getting the weight down and how rough the routes are you want to climb (a simple one kilogram Cordura sack is a good compromise). Size-wise it depends on how compact your gear is and what length routes you like and can be anything between 30 litres to 50 litres. When choosing a ‘sack go for a model that features an extendible lid, as this may be crucial for sticking all your clothes and boots in on the approach.
EXAMPLES: Macpac Pursuit and 35 AMP, Pod Cragsack or Black Ice, Crux AK50, GoLite Gust, ME Solitude 40+, Lowe Fitzroy, TNF Prophet 45.
Hugely dependent on the route so here are three examples:
Take a bothy bag big enough for everyone and make sure you have a square of foam to sit on. A large metal (MSR, Snow Peak) or alloy pan (Trangia) with a micro gas stove and 100 cartridges, plus a lighter, tin foil lid and windshield is worth taking along on any trip into the mountains as this combined with the bothy can make a grim night even quite pleasurable. Stuff some Cupasoups and Oxos into the pan and stick the whole lot in a bag (it should be pretty light). Make sure you have enough food to last the day and into the night and it’s always good to carry something in your ‘sack that you know you won’t eat unless it’s an emergency, like a block of marzipan, Halvah or malt loaf.
If you’re not sure if you’ll make it then take more gas (a 200 canister) and some nice food and a bivvy bag and a spare layer to wear inside the bothy bag. Insulated bivvy bags like the Blizzard bag, or even their Blizzard Jacket (a disposable reflective duvet) may be a great addition to your emergency bivvy kit, as they weigh almost nothing but seriously increase your comfort and protection.
If you’re hard you can just follow my advice as with the semi-planned bivvy, otherwise take along a bigger pan and a cup each if you want to melt more water and hydrate and a light sleeping bag and a _ mat to sleep on and bivvy bag. If you’re using a lightweight synthetic you could forego the added weight of a bivvy bag and just use your bothy bag instead.
A good headtorch is vital and I highly recommend a combo LED and halogen set up (Petzl, Lucido, BD), as this means you don’t need to carry big heavy spare flat batteries as one set will last you the whole trip. A hydration bag fitted to your ‘sack is also a piece of gear all Alpinists should have, along with a pair of lightweight walking poles, map and compass and a mobile phone (get your mates to text you the weather from home).
Get the lightest harness you can and make sure it will fit over all your clothes and your base layer alone, otherwise, you could have a problem. The actual design depends on what type of Alpine climbing you want to do, as rock-climbing dictates a fully specified harness (four gear loops etc), whereas classic Alpine climbing needs only the bare minimum of features. Make sure you always have at least two prusik loops on your harness and consider a Wild Country Ropeman if trying anything moderately difficult.
Get an axe or axes appropriate to the type of climbing you plan on doing. It’s no good having a pair of monster leashless M11 mixed tools if you’re walking up to the Monch, just as it’s not good climbing The Spider with your dad’s hickory walking axe. A good compromise is a lightweight tool that will both arrest a slip and provide enough security on steep ground.
Again this is really dependent on your chosen route, but if you’re not sure, keep the weight of your rack to a minimum, taking only enough to make yourself safe. Alpinism depends primarily on self-security and confidence, not placing a runner every metre. If you’re on a big Alpine face and you feel you’ve not got enough gear it may be better to try something easier where running it out for speed doesn’t seem so alarming. Take long ice screws over short, as the ice/névé may not be as dense as in winter. Having the gear to back off is important so always have several metres of 5mm cord, a penknife to strip old abseil slings from fixed belays and an ice threader for V threads.
Yes, you’ve guessed it… get the lightest ropes you can. Although twin ropes (7.5mm) are becoming more popular for UK climbers it’s still best to stick with double ropes (8mm to 8.5mm), as these can offer more protection if used single and are far more useful when you return to the UK. Buy dry-coated (or Superdry as it’s called) ropes and don’t expect them to still be fully water-resistant if you’ve had them for three years before you take them to the Alps. Lengthwise 50m ropes are lighter, but once you’re used to 60s it can be hard returning to the loss of that extra 10 m. If you’re only climbing on a single rope then there are several great, thin, lightweight singles on the market (9.5mm-9.7mm), which can take some of the burden off your shoulders.
Well, that’s it, a brief round-up of the gear needed for anyone who wants to have a go at this Alpine lark. Alpine climbing is not about gear and so there isn’t a great deal required, but it’s worth making sure what you do have works and, if you have the money, is the best there is. And if you can’t quite manage to fund everything you need then go anyway as being underequipped is really all part of the fun.
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