2013 Alpine Mountaineering Equipment Advice

I know, I know – it’s only March – but we’re thinking ahead this year, with our ‘it’s nearly spring’ round up of recommended kit for the coming summer alpine season.

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ALPINE KIT REQUIREMENTS

Efficiency and speed of movement are two of the most important aspects of alpinism, so it’s no surprise that  saving weight is a big consideration for alpinists.  However, balancing this up against other important factors such as warmth, comfort, safety and performance, makes choosing gear for the alps a bewildering task.  Therefore we’ve put our heads together to flag up some of the best bits of kit currently on the market for summer alpinism, so you’ve got plenty of time to make gear decisions before the annual trip to the Alps comes around again.

SNOW AND ICE GEAR

Ice Axes

For classic Alpine Mountaineering, a good quality traditional axe is by far and away the best option.  We cannot recommend enough that you spend a little more money in order to get one with a stronger and better designed pick made for mountaineering, rather than just a hill walking axe. It should be somewhere between 55-70cm long depending on how tall you are.

Our current ‘guides favourite’ is the excellent Petzl Summit – available in 52, 59 and 66cm lengths.  The DMM Cirque is another popular well priced axe, made 100% in Wales.  Other good  lightweight axes that are  up to the job are the Grivel Airtech range.  All the models above are reasonably light, but with a good quality steel pick that is designed for mountaineering.  Although it’s tempting, avoid super lightweight axes with aluminium picks or little in the way of grip on the shaft – as they don’t work well on technical terrain, which is where you really need the security of a good ice axe…

For steeper ice and mixed climbing (couloirs, north faces etc) you’ll need a pair of specialist technical axes.  For alpinism this means a pair of all rounders suitable for mountaineering as well as pure ice climbing – Petzl Quarks or the new DMM Apex are both good options, or whatever you use in Scotland will be fine if you’ve got a pair of ice tools already.

Crampons

Currently we reckon Petzl Vasaks are the best all round mountaineering crampons on the market, so we’d recommend these for all kinds of summer alpinism, including classic north faces etc.  Why are they best? – well, everything just seems to work that bit better: they’re really easy to adjust, fit a wide variety of boots, grip and feel very secure in all conditions, the anti-ball plates work better than other designs and the metal is also harder, so they last longer.

Ice Screws

Another easy one here: Black Diamond Express ice screws are still the best around in our opinion – if in doubt, get the 19cm length.

MOUNTAINEERING BOOTS

If you want one good boot for Alpinism, Scottish Winter Climbing and  Icefall Climbing – then you can’t go far wrong with a pair of La Sportiva Nepal EVOs.  Because of their adjustable tongue, this model fits a wide variety of foot shapes very well.  In a similar vein, the Scarpa Phantom, Omega and Jorrasses models would all do the same job – each with a different feature set and construction.

If you are not planning on climbing routes with steep front pointing or delicate crampon work (eg mostly on rock, no knife edge snow crests etc) – then a lighter weight, more flexible boot may be an option.  These are good for easier snow climbs, approaching alpine rock routes and climbing on rock or  mixed ridges etc – models like the Sportiva Trango S EVO and Scarpa Charmoz are good choices in this category.  If you’ve already got a pair of fairly stiff 4 season walking boots such as Scarpa Mantas, then these would be suitable as well – though with all these boots, you need to be aware that they aren’t as warm as the fully stiffened year round mountaineering models mentioned previously, ie not a good choice for climbing Mont Blanc in cold weather etc.

CRABS AND SLINGS ETC

Quickdraws/Carabiners

If you are in the market for some new crabs or quickdraws, then check out the new DMM Alpha Light carabiners – they are a great ergo design and weigh tap all.  For trad and alpine climbing we’d recommend making up 2-3 quickdraws using open 60cm slings to complement your regular ones, so you’ve got some nice long extenders to reduce rope drag.  On the subject of slings – we also recommend you don’t buy narrow 6-8mm Dyneema slings, as knots tied in these can be impossible to undo. Buy the slightly wider 11mm Dyneema slings , or 16mm nylon ones instead.

NB There are lighter carabiners available, but non have such a high open gate strength or gate opening width as the DMM ones mentioned above – so personally I reckon the Alphas currently offer the best balance between strength, security and ease of use.

Screwgate Carabiners

DMM Phantom locking crabs are the smallest, lightest ones around and DMM Sentinels are the lightest HMS crabs.  For belaying and abseiling we recommend getting hold of a Black Diamond Gridlock screwgate to use with your belay device, as these have a captive gate device that stops the crab accidentally cross loading – several other belay crabs offer a similar system, but this one works the best.

Belay Devices

Autobloc belay devices are great time saving device in the Alps, allowing you to do several jobs at once whilst direct belaying.  The Black Diamond ATC Guide (81g) and Petzl Reverso 4 (59g) are the best ones to go for.

HARNESSES

If you’ve already got a rock climbing harness, then that’s what you’ll probably use.  Don’t worry if it hasn’t got adjustable leg loops etc – just make sure there’s enough room to wear it over a couple of extra layers.

If you are buying a harness specifically for alpinism, then light weight, comfort and simplicity are the features to look for.  Many of our guides for example use the Arcteryx M270 which is very light and extremely comfortable, with a well thought out minimalist design.

HELMETS

Look at the Petzl Meteor III or Petzl Elios depending on whether you want to go for a full foam helmet (ie lightest) or a model offering a hard shell (better rock/ice fall protection, so potentially safer on certain kinds of routes).  NB Petzl also make a visor for eye protection whilst ice climbing that fits both of these helmets.  There are lighter helmets available such as the new BD Vapor helmet – but this model has a lot more vents, that might compromise ice and stonefall protection and it’s nearly double the price for a 35g weight saving.

The other major new development however, is the Petzl Sirocco Helmet – which weighs just 165g.  These aren’t in the shops yet, but they are due out for the summer.  The design uses expanded polypropylene throughout, instead of the more usual polystyrene with a polycarbonate shell, which creates a major weight saving.  We’ve not tried these out yet, but they do look very interesting.

RUCSACS

If you are after a lightweight summit pack, look no further than the Arcteryx Cierzo 35 – we use these all the time, they only weigh 580g and are amazingly durable considering the hammering we give them.  If you want a more supportive rucsac (eg for longer hut approaches etc) then the Arcteryx Nozone 35 incorporates an innovative new back system that carries really well, but saves a lot of overall weight in the pack – they also come in 3 different back lengths, so you can always get a good fit.

CREVASSE RESCUE DEVICES

A couple of useful new gadgets to help get yourself out of a crevasse – firstly the Petzl Micro Traxion, which is a minaturised version of the popular mini traxion (the new micro model is even lighter than a Ropeman 2, but does a whole lot more) and the Mammut RescYou, which is a lightweight fully self contained pulley system – I’m keen to get my hands on one of these to see if it’s any good.  NB There has recently been a product recall on the Wildcountry Ropeman 3 – if you own one then either return it to your retailer, or direct to Wild Country for refund or replacement with one of the previous Ropeman models.

CLOTHING

Just a few thoughts here, as I could go on all night..  Clothing for alpinism needs to be light and versatile, rather than the typical ‘withstand anything’ suit of armour that you might wear in Scotland.  Temperatures can vary from well below zero, to over 30 degrees Celsius during a typical alpine day – so avoid mistakes like wearing long johns with goretex overtrousers as legwear, as this will leave you sweating like a pig on all but the coldest alpine days…  It’s much better to wear a pair of specialist mountain trousers instead and carry some lightweight overtrousers in your pack (on average, I wear overtrousers about once a month in a typical summer in the alps – though I’m pretty good at dodging the weather!)

If you want to buy a new waterproof jacket for alpine mountaineering, then look  for one made of the new Gore Active Shell Fabric – it’s lightweight, more comfortable than paclite and it’s specifically designed for high output aerobic activities – ie alpinism.  I use a variety of jackets made from active shell for skiing, climbing and cycling and I’m very impressed with all of them.

A few updates on various bits of Arc’teryx kit I’ve been using over the last year that are particularly good for summer alpinism:

  • Alpha FL Jacket – super light, minimalist shell jacket – made from the excellent new Gore Active Shell fabric.  Perfect for alpine climbing.
  • Atom LT Jacket – lightly insulated wind resistant jacket – super light weight, warm-but-not-too-warm and fully windproof.  I wear this most days leaving a hut on a chilly morning, or whenever the temperature drops, or it gets a bit windy etc – it’s light, versatile and you can chuck on over a shell jacket if necessary.
  • Gamma AR Pant – summer alpine climbing trousers – they fit just great, have pockets in all the right places, a good boot draw cord and mine are in a lightish colour that doesn’t show the dirt…
  • Atom SV Hoody – synthetic insulated jacket with a hood – makes a great spare layer for when it turns nasty.  I carry one of these all the time (in fact, I wore it this morning taking the kids to school – see!)

ROCK PROTECTION

When choosing an alpine rack, weight and versatility are important factors, as you tend to take as little kit as possible in order to move quickly (though exactly what to take always depends on the route, how well you are climbing, current conditions etc etc – so it’s never an easy decision).  Make sure you take plenty of long slings for spikes etc, but only carry specialist items like pegs on more esoteric (or north face) type outings, where you are much more likely to need them.  The following are a few pros and cons for different types of nuts and cams used in alpinism – ie what gives you maximum utility for minimum weight…

Nuts

DMM Wallnuts are better than standard Rocks in terms of placement versatility, so they’re a good choice for the Alps – however in the smaller sizes (1-6)  Wild Country Superlight Rocks are nearly half the weight of standard nuts, so another great option (they are very versatile too).  Hexs, torque nuts etc – too heavy, take cams instead!

Cams

With the latest cam designs, there’s now surprisingly little difference between single and double axle units in terms of  the overall weight for a given camming range.  Eg as part of a lightweight alpine rack, DMM Dragon Cams 1, 3 and 5 cover a range of 20-85mm  for 411g, whereas Wild Country Helium Friends in 1.5, 2.5, 3.5 cover 23-82mm for 392g – so for an extra 20g you get down to a Friend size 1 at the bottom end, with 3mm more at the top end – ie there’s not much in it, but personally I’d go for the Dragon Cams to gain a bit more range and overlap at the smaller end.

In micro cam sizes, placement flexibility and ease of use are a much bigger factor than any small differences in weight.  On this front, Black Diamond are about to launch a new range of Camalot x4’s – which are extremely well designed looking micro cams, offering many of the features of the legendary Alien Cams (for a long time considered the best, but not readily available in the Uk).  If you are looking at buying some micro cams this year, then I’d definitely wait till these hit the shops (launch date Mar/Apr 2013) before making a decision, as they look very promising.

Abseil Kit

In case you have to retreat or get yourself out of a tricky situation, it’s a good idea to always carry a few bits of abseiling kit.  This consists of a few items in a small bag in your rucsac, or on the back of your harness – typically:

  • 5-10 metres of 7mm cord (or nylon sling tape) for leaving behind on abseils.
  • a pocket knife to cut the abb cord.
  • an abolakov threader for abseiling down ice.
  • an old carabiner you don’t mind throwing away.
  • one or two maillons for leaving on abseil stations.

If you are on a big face route where retreat would mean leaving lots of gear, then having a few older nuts on your rack might also ease the pain of having to ditch them in an emergency!

ROPES

Classic Alpinism

For most kinds of classic alpine routes in the F-AD range (ie those that involve lots of moving together) it’s best to use a single 50m full weight rope.  When you take in coils on this type of terrain, it’s much easier to handle one thicker rope than two skinny half ropes (don’t be tempted to use just one skinny half rope by the way, just ‘because it’s easy’ – it’s much better to double up a 60m half rope into 2 strands and accept the odd tangle for proper security).  Any abseils on these type of routes will also set up at 25m intervals.

The odds are that if you already own a 60m sport climbing rope, then you’ll simply use that – but if you are buying a rope specifically for the Alps (or for scrambling, gully climbing and ‘classic rock’ in the uk) then a light, but sharp edge resistant 50m single rope with dry treatment is what to look for – the Beal Booster 9.7  and Beal Tiger 10  are about as good as you can get (superlight single ropes like the Beal Joker are a great way to save weight on pure snow and ice climbs, but you need to be aware that they are less durable and offer less sharp edge resistance when used as single ropes on rock).

Pitched Alpine Climbs

On harder routes that involve big sections of multipitch climbing, it’s normal to use two 50 or 60m half ropes, in order to be able to retreat or make long multipitch abseil descents.  Specialist ropes like the 8.1mm Beal Ice Line are great for pure ice climbing and long alpine ice and mixed routes, but they not so durable on big rock routes or scottish mixed terrain.

As a better all round option, we like the 8.6mm Beal Cobra and 8.5mm Mammut Genesis.  These are still very light, top quality ropes – but offer excellent handling and more all round protection and durability on rock and scottish mixed terrain.

With all ropes for alpine climbing, make sure you go for the (more expensive) versions with water repellent treatments – Golden Dry etc – as you don’t want a soaking wet or frozen rope to deal with.