The perfect alpine sack
08 November 2008
Note: Many of these articles are very old, and although the technical information is still relevant the equipment mentioned may not be (for example a Stormy cooker was state of that art in 1995, but not in 2021).
In order to understand what features the perfect Alpine rucksack must possess, we must first understand what we actually want because ‘Alpine climbing’ can mean many things. Alpine climbing should not be confused with ‘Alpine Style’ as this is more often than not heavyweight, describing the transplantation of the Alpine ethos (ground up, on sight) to a route that does not appear to lend itself to this approach (Greater Ranges). Alpine climbing is climbing with an absolute minimum of equipment, often replacing gear with experience, toughness and stamina — the user gambling that the speed gained from leaving equipment behind will make its use unnecessary — yet able to cope if this isn’t quite how it pans out.
Alpine climbing can be roughly broken down into four main types:
Climbs that can be termed as high treks, penetrating into mountain ranges using glaciers and climbing mountains by moderate snow lines. Examples, the classic routes up the giants of the Alps.
Climbing multi-pitch routes off glaciers, requiring both long and short approaches, multi or single day outings. Examples: North Face of the Dru, Geneva Pillar on the Eiger, Cassin on Piz Badile.
The same as Rock but ascending via ice. Examples: North Face of the Courtes, North Face of the Tour Rond, Shroud on the Jorasses.
Climbs that involve a little bit — or a lot — of everything. Examples: 1938 Route on the Eiger North Face, Croz Spur on the Jorasses, Dru Couloir. So when asking yourself the question of what is the best Alpine ’sack for you, you firstly, have to ask ‘what sort of Alpine climbing do I do?’
Manufacturers are constantly trying to come up with the ‘ultimate’ Alpine climbing ’sack, unfortunately, they often seem to fail to grasp what is actually required and, perhaps more importantly, what is NOT needed.
* The main problem with designing the ultimate Alpine ’sack is that the two primary design criteria — featherweight indestructibility — are conflicting.
* The designers who come up with the goods are the ones who can find the perfect balance between the two — or in extreme cases sacrifice one totally for the other.
* To begin with you need to know what type of rucksack you’ll need for your Alpine discipline:
Flexible capacity (extendible lid). Able to cope with a week’s supplies, lightweight bivvy gear, storm clothing and sometimes a tent (45 to 65 litres depending on the quality (pack size/weight) of your gear). The ’sack needs to balance low weight with comfort (toughness is not critical) with long days of carrying loads over great distances often in situations where a stable ’sack is crucial. This kind of low technical/high endurance climbing needs a modern ‘Adventure Racing’ approach rather than the typical ‘camping’ approach.
Rock-climbing requires a slimline, stable pack that won’t restrict movement. A 15 to 50-litre sack (size depending on the length of route) made from tough fabric and featuring a harness that holds the ’sack close and stable to the body without restricting movement in any way. Two haul loops are a good idea, as well as a double base and removable lid. If the route is particularly hard, just one ’sack can be taken and carried by the second, hauled if it proves too hard to carry while seconding. Weight is important if you’re pushing it but if you’re engaged in lots of chimneying and hauling then it must be balanced with toughness.
Ice-climbing usually requires a very fast approach, racing the conditions and the dawn to get up the route in time. Weight is very critical, with toughness less so. Again this kind of climbing is best approached in an ‘adventure racing’ state of mind minimizing the weight of everything to aid your sprint up the route.
A mixed climbing ’sack must be able to cope with all the terrain above requiring the balancing of several important qualities. It must be tough yet lightweight. It must carry heavy loads on the approach yet feel unrestrictive and unbulky when climbing. Size-wise it must have the capacity to carry big loads of hardware, bivvy gear and food to the route, yet can be cinched down once half-packed. This ‘sack can be seen as the Alpine all-rounder — tough, 45 to 50 litres, slimline suspension, the type of ’sack most Alpine climbers buy.
Low weight and simplicity
* The weight of your gear is always important, but when climbing at altitude, or when climbing at your limit, doubly so. Minimizing your load is the primary goal of the Alpinist because this is one of the easiest ways to maximize speed, allowing you to move faster in a potentially hostile environment.
* The difference between a light ’sack and a heavy ’sack can be over two kilos so the rucksack is one of the best places to dump some weight.
* Low weight is best achieved firstly by reducing any extraneous features of the pack. Many rucksack designs are given a huge ‘wish’ list of what a ’sack should have and then set about incorporating all these things into the design. Shovel pockets, ice-axe tubes, crampon bags, daisy chains, everything we see as being sexy and improving the chance that the ’sack will sell in the shop.
We are tricked into believing that the heavily featured pack will make our lives easier, where the case is actually the opposite. The best Alpine ’sacks should have a minimum of straps, patches and gadgets. Don’t worry about losing these bits as you will be served far better by less rather than more, further still a minimalist ’sack should be cheaper. A good example of this is the Arcteryx NoZone, which on the shelf is actually a pretty bad Alpine ’sack, being heavy and over-designed (very North American). It’s only when you remove all the crap and gadgets attached (lid, hip belt, shovel panel, frame sheet) that you discover one of the best ’sacks buried beneath. Many climbers I know are forced to butcher their ’sacks (often halving the weight) in order to achieve the type of weight they’re looking for.
The current, super tough, all-around Alpine sacks (Macpac Pursuit, ME Diamond, Karrimor Alpinist Lite, Osprey Ether, TNF MG45) weigh around 35 grams a litre (1.6 to 2 kilos for a 50-litre sack). This weight translates into very good build quality, excellent materials and a very solid carry and they are the current benchmark Alpine ’sacks. Yet I think perceptions are about to change, especially with the arrival of the Crux and GoLite sacks, with the weight falling to 22 grams per litre for the Crux AK50 (1.08kg) and a staggering 9 grams per litre for the GoLite Gust (560 grams). The Crux ’sack achieves this by an obsessive eye to detail retaining a good back and tough Kevlar materials and in my mind becoming the new benchmark in this balance between strength and weight. The GoLite Gust on the other hand achieves this insanely low weight by basically being nothing more than a bag with straps on and is dependent on the user understanding its limitations and having gear equally as light to go inside. Strangely enough the Gust seems as tough as the rest — standing up to far more abuse than you’d imagine.
For my money, the best ’sack is the Pod Black Ice, which combines both the old and the new in one bombproof design. Weighing in at 2kgs (37grams per litre) it is constructed from the toughest materials, has bags of reinforcing and a suspension solid enough to carry even the heaviest loads and has every feature you’d want. Yet the best thing about it is that you can strip the thing down to around 1kg (18 grams per litre) making it incredibly adaptable and able to overcome the Alpine ’sacks impossible design criteria. I know it must seem that I’m always flying the Pod flag in this mag, but it never ceases to amaze me one guy can get it right so often when the multi-million pound companies, with their high paid designers, are so often wide of the mark.
An Alpine ’sack does not necessarily have to be called an Alpine ’sack. It may be taking it too far but I once heard a story about my hero Stevie Haston climbing a route in the Alps with a plastic bag tied to his back (he was sponsored by the Co-Op at the time). But it makes sense that if low weight is your number one priority then you should seek out the lightest ’sacks even if they aren’t necessarily designed for Alpine climbing.
The explosion of Adventure Racing (more a marketing tool than an actual reality I reckon), has led to several featherweight sacks that are perfect for Alpine climbing. For several years I’ve been using a 300 gram Lowe Alpine Elite Runner which with a capacity of 27 litres is big enough for most Alpine routes if your gear is compact. And although made from flimsy-looking nylon has stood up to a fair amount of hammer.
These ’sacks are also great for fast-moving Alpine shenanigans as their suspension is designed for runners and so is very stable and low bulk. The Karrimor KIMM AR 35 is another good model, along with the really nice Berghaus 64Zero (30 litres, bit heavy though at 640 grams). Salomon, GoLite and Haglofs also make potential cross-over running ’sacks. I tend not to slag anything off in this column but the North Face Velocity gets a special mention for being a featherweight adventure sack that weighs in at 1,100 grams heavier than the Lowe sack.
If we ignore the back system then the most important feature your ’sack should have is a shock cord ‘Crampon’ system. This allows you to carry crampons, axes, ski poles, sleeping mats and just about anything, simply (no straps to buckle) and securely. If your rucksack doesn’t have one see how easy it is to rig one up.
A pocket is very important, allowing you to have easy access to gear that can’t be carried in your clothing (headtorch, batteries, snacks etc).
Side compression straps (long enough to take a mat without needing unbuckling) or a way of rigging straps is useful and these should be used to carry axes rather than old school axe loops (cut them off if you’ve got ’em). This way the weight is closer to the body, aiding stability, and with practice, you can pull the axe out without removing the ’sack — potentially a lifesaver. A haul loop is very important as this is your primary attachment point when securing it at stances or for hauling. If you’re attempting harder routes where hauling may be a real possibility then try and get (or rig up) a ’sack with two hauling points.
On rock and mixed routes a rucksack needs to be able to handle a great deal of punishment — carrying heavy loads to the climb, exposure to abrasive rock, hauling and general ’sack destructiveness. The actual weight of the material is not actually all that critical in the short term, with many lightweight ’sacks standing up surprisingly well to this kind of hammer. The main focus has to be on major seams and stress points, where straps are sewn into the body of the ’sack. If thought isn’t put into the ’sack you can end up with shoulder straps ripping out, or major seams coming adrift. The actual weight of the fabric is also less important than people imagine when it comes to the overall weight of the ’sack as this comes more from the tape, zips and gadgets sewn into it.
In the long term, heavier weight fabrics are far better though, mainly because they are stronger and will maintain this strength when they have been zapped with a few seasons UVA, thin ripstop nylon will save grams, but will soon fall below the necessary strengths required in a climbing ’sack once it’s spent a few seasons in the Alps. If low weight is your overriding aim then you need to be aware that this is gained at the expense of the longevity of your sack.
Try on the ’sack in a few different sizes, as you would an ordinary walking rucksack, making sure the shop fill it with some substantial weight first. See how easy it is to extend its capacity if overloaded, stow axes (can you get at them) and attach your sleeping mat. Take your Alpine harness and see how it feels with the harness on. Can you get at your gear still? Have a boulder around and see how restrictive it feels. Finally, make sure it’s a nice colour so it shows up in photos.
An Alpine ’sack must provide enough support and comfort to carry relatively heavy loads from the road head to the climb, yet be unobtrusive and minimalist while climbing. Generally the lighter the ’sack the more basic the back system. This requires very careful packing and understanding that you’re going to suffer now for less weight and frills later on the climb. On the other hand, you may have a real load monster that allows you to transport the kitchen sink (perhaps you’re helping out the guardian of some hut?) but is willing to put up with that extra kilo, bulky hip belt and thick shoulder straps for that bit of comfort. For most of us, the perfect back system lies somewhere between these camps.
The ’sacks that allow removal of the belt and frame sheet allow the user to have their cake and eat it (Pod, Arcteryx). If you’re looking at a bare-bones system make sure the foam is solid and offers good load-bearing qualities — not mistaking poor quality design and materials as inevitable drawbacks of a lightweight harness.
As usual, I’m not going to force-feed you with the ultimate Alpine ’sack because, as I’ve said, it comes down to your interpretation of what you need for your Alpine climbing. Any old ’sack will do, and there are dozens of good models out there, plus a lot of all right ones. The trick is to find the best for you and hope you might have a few more ideas on what ’sack that might be.