Be A Lightweight

November 30, 2008

The older we get the heavier we get. Luckily, balance is maintained by the fact that for each gram of weight we add to our expanding waistlines, we are able to remove a gram from our gear. Each season fabrics get lighter and lighter, redefining what’s classed as lightweight, for example, Pertex 6 was once considered the stuff to have, now it looks like Cordura when placed next to Pertex Microlight. Eventually, even the term lightweight wasn’t light enough, and so we had featherweight, followed by gossamer weight. Of course, the ideal situation is to remove weight from both our packs and our waistlines, but where would be the fun in that?

In order to strike this balance, this article gives you a four-point checklist designed to maintain this equilibrium, with five short pieces that will make you a little more of a lightweight, and hopefully give you some new ideas on how to make the most of the gear you do carry.


The aim here is to set yourself a gear weight loss plan – perhaps setting the goal of a total loss of 1.5 kilos before your next big climb. The aim is to see it as a game, and ideally, you need to form a group of mates so you can get together in a village hall once a week and weigh your racks…or maybe that’s taking it too far? Keeping a log of what gear’s been replaced with lighter gear is a good plan if you want to keep track your progress; perhaps treating yourself to a further lightweight shiny item once it’s been reached (or a big bar of chocolate maintain the balance).

Let’s take the 1.5kg of your rack first. The big question is why bother, after all, it’s only 3.3 pounds? Well first off it’s the easiest way you’ll ever lose, and just consider the difference 3.3 lbs would make to your performance down the wall? Consider it another way by trying to do your normal maximum number of pull-ups with one and a half bags of sugar on your back; it makes quite a difference.

Do you believe it’s possible? Well, let’s look at Jane’s rack for example (Jane’s actually a bloke so no one’s offended). Here’s how he gets his gold star

He replaces his 12 old DMM Tru-clip extenders (840g) with 12 Wild Country Helium Quickdraws (480g) saving 360 g. Having switched to 8.5mm ropes he replaces his ATC XP (87g) with a smaller DMM Buggette (24g) saving a further 63g. Next, he switches belay crabs from his chunky DMM Boa (99g) to a lighter DMM Sentinel HMS (54g), and while he’s at it he dumps his two trusty Clog screw gates (87g) for smaller BD Quicksilver screwgates (56g), saving a total of 111g. His 4 large Camp hex on 7mm cord (648g) are next for the boot, being replaced by 4 WC Rockcentrics (434g), a saving of 168g. Jane has three sets of small wires, so replaces his six smallest rocks (167g) with Superlight rocks (96g), giving a 71g saving. Lastly, a look at Jane’s chunky old-style WC Syncro harness reveals it weighs 800 grams, so he replaces it with the Petzl Hirundos (314g) saving a whopping 486g. The total weight saving from all this shiny new kit is 1.6 kg’s, meaning Jane’s improved his chances of that first transgender ascent all the routes in Hard Rock!


It’s easy to get into a routine of taking along the same gear every time, often focusing on making sure the big items are lightweight while forgetting the collective weight of all those small items. A good example of this is mitts, something I always throw in my rucksack when mountaineering. I’ve used a big pair of BD Mercury mitts, which are waterproof, warm and very sexy in a sort of lush leather palmed way. These mitts weigh in at 325g which is quite a weight, yet I’ve never thought much about it; no doubt preoccupied with how I could save 2 grams by shaving my arms pits (for female German climbers this may be well worthwhile). With all items of gear like this you need to ask yourself ‘how often do I actually use it?’ and ‘is that weight justifiable?’ For me, the answer was no, and so I switched over to a pair of Buffalo mitts, which are 20% cheaper, almost as warm, and 250g lighter – which is a lot of armpit hair! Take this approach with all your gear, no matter how small, and it will add up quite quickly – making a big difference at altitude, or when you just want to take some of the weight off your shoulders.


I had tea recently with one of the UK’s top adventure racers and both being gear obsessed the conversation soon turned to what gear we used. I always thought I was a lightweight climber (in more way than one) but this woman took the lightweight alpine ethos to new levels. I asked her what sleeping bag her team used when doing a race across the Himalayas a few years backs – one that I knew had been dogged by snowstorms and low temperatures. I expect that the answer would be lightweight down bags, all be it skimpy 1 season ones. “No they’d be far too heavy for a long race at altitude,” she said. “So you used survival bags instead?” I asked how grim it was suffering in a tin foil bag night after night, with all four runners cramped in a one-person tent. “No” she replied, “those are far too heavy… we used a survival blanket.” Shocked at the thought of spending even one night in near hypothermic sleep in one I asked if they’d layered them all together in order to get a little more warmth. “Oh no,” she replied, “We only had ONE to share, we just had to spoon together and shiver all night – but we won.” The moral of this storey is that as climbers we shouldn’t feel we are at the top of the pecking order when it comes to the lightweight gear ethos and suffering. There is a lot to be learnt from other sports that value going light and fast, including mountain marathon runners, adventurer racers and long-distance backpackers (yes that means walkers). Sometimes these sports produce specialist equipment that suits their needs or find a new way to use existing equipment that could be transferred across into climbing, not to mention some great ideas on nutrition and training. One such piece of gear is the tarp while another interesting new item that may be of interest to fast and light mountaineers is the amazing Balloonbed used by many multi-days mountain runners. As you can guess this is a sleeping mat for the serious weight-obsessed, replacing bubble rap (the old school favourite) with a slim sandwich of featherweight Pertex into which is inserted party balloons! The total weight is 100 grams (including some spare balloons) which are about 75% lighter than a bog-standard traditional foam mat (Karrimat). Of course, the balloons cannot be reused, and you need to treat them with respect, but at only £19 (including balloons!) it’s something that’s cheap enough to try out – even if only for the comedy value. Never the less I can imagine this coming in handy for those who are camping on snow for one or two nights, who would benefit from losing 200+ grams from their sack (if all your balloons do burst you’ve always got your rope, rucksack padding, inner boots etc as a reserve). Another piece of crossover gear is the Brasslite Turbo II-D stove (74grams/$40 which is a tiny minimalist alcohol burning stove that’s basically an ‘Akins’ Trangia, being simple, compact and perhaps a good choice for long trips where canister gas may be hard to find, yet you don’t want the weight or bulk of a multi-fuel petrol stove. One interesting aspect of these other sports is that due to the fact that much of the gear is un-commercial, there is a tradition of people modifying their own, or making new gear from scratch. You can see this reappearing in climbing also, with Steve House making his own 2 person down blanket for his amazing climb on Nanga Parbat last year, and people like Rich Cross and Al Powel constantly coming up with new tents and clothing to suit their own brand of camping. The main protagonists of this are the lightweight backpackers, who take the word lightweight to extremes (rucksacks with one shoulder strap for example!). The king of these is without doubt Ray Jardine (yes the inventor of the Friend), whose book Beyond Backpacking is a must-read for all alpinists and mountaineers. Ray has gone one step backwards from most manufacturers who dream of making gear and selling it to like-minded activists, by simply selling them the fabrics, patterns and know-how so they can sew it themselves (his 2-person Quilt could be a very good mountain bag for climbers who are using a tent or huts).


The naturalist Dr Thoreau said “simplify, simplify” which is the best mindset for any climber as the lightest gear is the gear you didn’t bring. Not having is part of an alpine mentality, do the maximum with the minimum of tools. Complexity, be it in fancy softshells, NASA designed gloves or electronic gadgets that warm your private parts are not what you should be striving towards. And as a final reminder, I give you Ralph Emerson, who said in response to Dr Thoreau’s quote “One “Simplify would have sufficed”.


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