"Life is brought down to the basics: if you are warm, regular, healthy, not thirsty or hungry, then you are not on a mountain... Climbing at altitude is like hitting your head against a brick wall - it's great when you stop."

Chris Darwin

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In search of a perfect pack

Credit: Ari Paulin, (c) (c) 2010 Ari Paulin, licensed under: (c) 2010 Ari Paulin.

I need to find a alpine climbing pack for trips where I need to carry a tent, sleeping bag, pad and few days worth of food on top of all the gear needed for technical climbing in mixed alpine terrain.

My approach is to take as small a pack as possible so that it will be easy to carry while on the climb as possible. For this goal, I am willing to compromise during the approach by overpacking and attaching gear outside if necessary. I figure the size that is just large enough would be around 40 liters.

Other than the correct size, the features I am looking for are:

  • Lean-and-mean single compartment design
  • Reasonably durable fabrics
  • Low weight
  • Side attachments for ice tools
  • strap for rope
  • floating lid for overpacking

Some models worth consideration:

  • Arc'teryx NAOS 45Arc'teryxNAOS 45 (ridiculously expensive)
  • Berghaus Arete Pro 45lBerghausArete Pro 45l (too large?)
  • Black Diamond Sphynx 42lBlack DiamondSphynx 42l (Very narrow design, seems fine. Doesn't have fully floatable lid. Much more durable than Speed.)
  • CiloGear Dyneema 45CiloGearDyneema 45 or CiloGear Worksack 45lCiloGearWorksack 45l (looks very interesting, expensive)
  • Cold Cold World Cold Cold World Backpacks made by Randy Rackliff. Very nice looking line of backpacks with realistically priced possibility to order custom made. Should be great for climbing, as Randy's personal experience actually out using the gear as intendeded is pretty much second to none (including stuff like 3rd ascent of of Moonflower and 1st ascent of Reality Bath come to mind...early solos of Slipstream..Tear Drop etc.). For us Euros the ordering though the company website means that the price gets bumbed up through shipping, customs and VAT though. See also introduction/review)
  • Crux AK47 XCruxAK47 X (Lean and mean design, light for the size.)
  • Haglöfs Ascent 38lHaglöfsAscent 38l (too gimmicky, heavy)
  • Lowe Alpine Mountain Attack Pro 45+10Lowe AlpineMountain Attack Pro 45+10.
  • Mammut Granit 40lMammutGranit 40l (no floating lid, crap chest strap)
  • Mammut Ice Pack 45lMammutIce Pack 45l (Alpinist Mountain Standard. Looks like it has the same crappy chest strap as Granit though.)
  • Millet Prolight 45lMilletProlight 45l.
  • Mountain Hardwear Dihedral 40lMountain HardwearDihedral 40l.
  • PODsacs Alpine 40PODsacsAlpine 40 (Looks good, probably the closest thing to my wishlist so far. Not perfect though. I don't particularly like the classic ice tool loops, IMO Black Diamond PickPocket type of attachment is far superior. Even bigger downer is that they seem to be using same crappy chest strap fastening system (plastic clamp sliding on plastic rail) that I positively hate after breaking that same system in two previous packs.)
  • PODsacs CragsacPODsacsCragsac (looks good, but unnecessarily large in sizes suitable for taller person (47+10l))
  • PODsacs Black IcePODsacsBlack Ice (looks good, but unnecessarily large in size suitable for taller person (53+12l))

Layering done right

In his book Extreme Alpinism: Climbing Light, Fast, and High, 1st edition.Twight, Mark & Martin, JamesMountaineers Books1999* The most advanced climbing how-to on the market * Techniques and mental skills needed to climb at a more challenging level * Illustrated with full-color photos throughoutBig, high routes at the edge of a climber's ability are not the places for inventing technique or relying on old habits. Complacency can lead to fatal errors. So where does the hard-core aspirant or dreamer turn? The only master class in print, Extreme Alpinism delivers an expert dose of reality and practical techniques for advanced climbers.Focusing on how top alpine climbers approach the world's most difficult routes, Twight centers his instruction on the ethos of climbing the hardest routes with the least amount of gear and the most speed. Throughout, Twight makes it clear that the two things he refuses to compromise are safety and his climbing ethics. In addition to the extensive chapters on advanced techniques and skills, Twight also discusses mental preparedness and attitude; strength and cardiovascular training; good nutrition; and tips on equipment and clothing.08988665450898866545HouseNon-fictionen Mark Twight pushes forward the idea of layering on top, which contrasts with traditional layered clothing approach. While layering under works very well in theory (and in some activities in practice as well), it isn't at home on climbing. Hanging belay is hardly a place to start removing your jacked to be able to add extra insulation layers. This layering on top works very well, as long as the kit used for it are appropriate. For example, layering belay insulation on top of shell jacket means that the shell jacket doesn't have to (in fact, it must not) be very loose. Furthermore, as the insulation jacket is bound to get wet, synthetic may be a better option than down.

Faulty by design

Buying new gear may sometimes be highly frustrating. It is quite possible that despite the numerous offerings on the market, no one is making exactly the kind of gear one would need.

I have found the following items most bitterly frustrating.

  • Hardshell pants. Manufacturer's just don't seem to get this right. First and foremost, almost all hardshell pants are way too wide. Because of this, they are heavy and constantly get stuck to rock and crampons. There's no need for hardshell pants to be any wider than soft shell pants, most of which are too wide as well. Furthermore, I find full-length side zippers to be both unnecessary and harmful. Not having them would make it easier to have proper fit, as well as making the pants lighter, more supple, more waterproof and cheaper. There are few models with half-length zippers on the market, but they have the zippers backwards. For taking a dump, the zippers would have to be from waist to somewhat above knee. Stretch fabric panels in seat and knees would be useful, although not mandatory. And finally, I don't like bib-pants one bit, especially ones with same fabric used above the waist, which just makes the pants heavier and also seriously impair the breathability. There seems to be no pants on the market fulfilling the criteria. Possibly the best option is to buy ones that suck least, then have them made narrower. Some paclite models might be good fit and featurewise, however, Paclite can't take the abuse of alpine climbing.
  • Tools for steep ice and mixed. Petzl Nomics are mostly excellent. However, they have two major faults: missing hammer and clippable spike. Because of these shortcomings, they suck whenever you need to pound pitons, on very low angle terrain often found during approach or descent and whenever you'd need to either secure your tools to yourself with lanyard or if you'd need to clip yourself to tool for resting. BD's new Fusion seem to have these areas covered, though. Whether they can deliver remains to be seen. If they do, hopefully Petzl will come back with Nomic 2.0.
  • Carabiners for racking. No matter how hard I've looked, no one seems to be making carabiners which would be optimal for racking gear. Plastic ice clippers are form-wise the best bet (large and deep enough), they are however too easily broken (I know several occasions where general portion of the rack was dropped because of this). If someone where to copy the form to aluminum carabiner and throw into it noseless design ala DMM Shield or Wild Country Helium, I'd buy them in a heartbeat.
  • Climbing gloves. Frankly, most ice climbing gloves have one fault in common: they are unsuitable for climbing. Which in my book is rather bad given their intended purpose. In order to be able to actually climb with a glove, they can't be too thick. furthermore, while all sorts of knuckle paddings would certainly have been welcome ten years ago when shafts were more or less straight and fangs didn't exist, with modern tools they are utterly useless and only serve to make the gloves too cumbersome and stiff. Suppleness-wise dry-tooling gloves are great. Also several softshell models, such as Mountain Equipment G2 Alpine glove are great if the temperature is high enough. However, whenever the temperature is significantly below zero, one does need some insulation. There needs to be a balance somewhere between very thick and uninsulated which most manufacturers seem to ignore. Gore-Tex lining is not mandatory, IMO. Come to think of it, despite having owned countless pair of Gore-tex gloves, I'm yet to own a pair which would be actually waterproof. Outdoor Design Diablo is good though, as well as BD Impulse. That's about it though, everything else seem to be either uninsulated or too thick. If the weather is too cold for such a gloves, I doubt any glove will work. Then probably the best pick is to use thin liner glove in combination with mitten. Mittens are warmer than gloves and because of way fewer seams, seem to be more supple. Unfortunately mittens are crap when dealing with screws, so you need to take them off for that. Not quite as cumbersome as one might think, as mittens are easy to put back on. Unfortunately spindrift tends to find its way into the mittens when they are dangling from your wrists, thus making the mittens wet, which will render them cold shortly.
  • Alpine climbing pack. For shortish alpine endeavours (like 2-3 days) I find that size around 30 liters is just right to fit climbing gear for technical ice, rock and mixed, stove, food, bivouac bag and just enough of clothing. Yet the size is small enough so that there's no room anything unnecessary (obviously this size doesn't really fit for longer trips or for cases where tent, pad and sleeping bag need to be carried). Given the size, the pack doesn't need to have very stiff hip belt, which wouldn't really work with harness anyway. It doesn't have to have all sorts of bells and whistles which only add weight and impair the functionality. It has to be relatively sturdy fabric though, especially if there might be the need to haul it. Mammut seemed to have got this quite right with their Granit. Unfortunately they have felt the need to spoil otherwise great design with two mistakes: non-extendable lid and down-right gimmicky (not to mention stupid) chest strap (I think mine broke during the first day out). Black Diamond Speed seemed like a great candidate as well. However, I soon enough found out that there's such a thing as too light a fabric. I don't expect my gear to last forever in alpine use, but it shouldn't tear on the first touch against the rock either.
  • Helmet. Hardshell helmet with proper ventilation seems to be impossible to find. Well, time-tested Petzl Ecrin Roc or newer Vertex might fit the bill, but they are so very heavy and sit on too high. Black Diamond had this down with first generation of their Half Dome; however, they had to go on and ruin the perfect design by changing the inner completely thus severely impairing the ventilation and adding all sorts of useless gimmicks.
  • Camera for climbers. Small and light, with manual controls, sensitive wide-angle lens and ability to shoot raw. Almost as elusive a combination as yeti. There seems to be some models coming to market though, that might hit the mark spot-on (Sony CyberShot DSC-WX1, Canon Powershot S90).
  • Approach/trekking shoes. I am looking for a show with no shaft. I find the shaft useful only if it was high and sturdy enough to actually support the ankle. So far none of the boots (including full-on trekking shoes) are stiff enough for that. And if they were, they wouldn't be good to walk in. As it is, the shaft only adds warmth, bulk, weight and price, none of which is beneficial. However, the shoes must have stiff sole (especially torsionally) for walking in rocky terrain carrying a pack. And of course they must be durable and shouldn't soak too easily, the features which are badly impaired with countless seems. Why can't anyone make a classic trekking show without the shaft is beyond me.
  • Grivel Rambo IV antibot. The antibot is made of hard plastic and elastic rubber with the big idea being that the elastic rubber reduces snow buildup and boosts longevity. In reality this doesn't really work, as the rubbery parts come off way too easily. I am yet to meet owner of Rambo IV's who have taken few approaches/descents wit their antibots intact. Once they come off, they start to do so very readily and they are virtually impossible to fix with super glue (even proactive treatment doesn't work).

Full House

Cover of "Beyond the Mountain" by Steve House. Credit: Patagonia Books,  Shot on 2009-10-09 Photo taken in USA.Licensed under: public domain.

Steve House, one of the foremost alpinist at the moment, seem to have published hist first book Beyond the Mountain.House, StevePatagonia Inc2009What does it take to be one of the world's best high-altitude mountain climbers? It takes raising funds for an expedition, negotiating some of the world's most dangerous countries, suffering freezing-cold bivouacs and enduring the discomforts of high altitude. It also means learning the hard lessons the mountains teach. This book explores those lessons. Dubbed by Reinhold Messner, "The best high-altitude climber in the world today." Steve House's story chronicles his experiences in the worlds highest mountains, each chapter revealing a different aspect of mountaineering.97809790659589780979065958HouseBiographyen. It appears to be short-listed as one of the candidates for The Boardman Tasker Prize. I've previously written about Andy Kirkpatrick, Andy Cave and Joe Simpson, all of whom are among the previous winners.

Climb out of Development Hell

Few years back there was some buzz going on about Stephen Daldry making a Hollywood movie about the 1996 Everest disaster. Back then Nicole Kidman was rumored to play Jan Arnold, the wife of Rob Hall. The movie them send a group of renowed mountaineers (including Ed Viesturs, Veikka Gustafsson and David Breashers) to climb Everest and shoot action shots.

Then not much was heard about the project, it seemed to have been lost in development hell. It seems that Daldry has stepped aside but the project has dug itself out of the said hell. And here's good news, the torch has been passed over to David Fincher. Mr. Fincher has some relatively well knows movies to his name, including "Alien", "Fight Club", "The Game" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button". Talk about the High Expectations. I am yet to tumble on any rumors about the schedule or casting though.

Meanwhile, documentary directed by David Breashers carrying the name of is out and available in DVD.

Unsung heroes of Eiger

  • Erich Waschak & Leo Forstenlechner. The pair, who may very well be unknown for even the climbers familiar with climbing history (I certainly had never heard of them before I read The White Spider, Reprint edition.Harrer, HeinrichHarper Perennial1998At 13,025 feet, the Swiss Eiger doesn't approach the height of Everest or Denali, but the sheer rise and difficulty of its 5900-foot north face keeps it in the company of the world's most celebrated peaks. At the time Harrer (Seven Years in Tibet, originally the sequel to this volume) became part of the first successful summit climb in 1938, the north face of the Eiger was considered the "last and greatest of Alpine problems" left in the world. Originally published in 1959 (with chapters added in 1964 and an index covering subsequent Eiger climbs), this riveting account of his ascent and the history of confronting the EigerAbeginning with the first fatal attempts to conquer the north face in 1935Ais a crisply written paean to the mountain where Harrer first earned recognition as a world-class climber. A simple narrative style brings to life the many obstacles faced by Eiger climbersAsnowstorms, avalanches and a continuous shower of falling rocks among them. Harrer has a Hemingwayesque appreciation of the codes, bravery and rules of conduct governing the closed world of "true mountaineers." And he reserves special contempt for the sensation-seekers who gather to watch deadly feats of climbing from the ground below. Sections that document the evolution of climbing gear (Harrer wore no crampons on his 1938 ascent) and national rivalries in the WWII-era climbing community help make this volume an important contribution to the emerging canon of mountaineering literature.97800071978429780007197842White SpiderBiographyen put up a first one-day ascent of Eiger North face as early as July 26 in 1950 in astonishing 18 hours. The ascent was way ahead of its time, the next single day ascent was pulled of 24 years later, when slightly more well-known rope team of Reinhold Messner -Peter Habeler climbed the face in ten hours.
  • Michel Darbellay. First solo ascent as early as 1963.

Scream of Stone

Scream of Stone .

All mixed up!

Eiger Obsession

There seems to be quite a few movies and books popping out in last two years covering the historic, and in many cases tragic, events on the north face of Eiger.

I've mentioned The Alps: Climb of Your Life already earlier. Now I finally got around ordering North Face as it became available in Blu-ray. When searching the net to find out where to order it, I also tumbled on The Beckoning Silence , based on a book by Joe Simpson (yes, the very same one who Touched the Void). Both movies deal with the same tragic event on 1936 when Adreas Hinterstoisser and Toni Kurz, who joined forces with Austrian party of Willy Angerer and Edi Rainer while on the face, were trying to put up a highly coveted first ascent. They failed and the entire party was killed at different times during their retreat attemp. Nordwand (aka The North Face) is a drama movie based on true story but with some fictional elements injected into it, while Beckoning the Silence appears to be documentary.

The same event, together with many other early attemps, the first ascent, and the ascents that followed are all described in "The White Spider" by Heinrich Harrer, himself a member of the first ascent party (and later famous for Hollywood movie "Seven Years in Tibet"), considered a classic piece of mountaineering literature.

History of climbing gear

"Just before the rocks separating the Second from the Third Ice-field, I looked back, down our endless ladder of steps. Up it I saw the New Era coming at express speed; there were two men running - and I mean running, not climbing - up it." With these words describes Heinrich Harrer the significance of the modern crampons during the first ascent of the North Face of the Eiger.

I recently tumbled on an interesting article about the Nut Museum, which contained quite a bit of information about the development of trad pro. As it was interesting read, I though to throw together some pointers to various articles describing the history and development of climbing gear.

History