Of all types of climbing, “alpine” climbing takes the cake when it comes to diversity. For me, that diversity is what makes it so interesting and exciting. The demand of traveling over snow, ice and rock all in the same day, often at altitude and in wilderness, requires that I be well-rounded in many facets of mountain travel. Far and away the most commonly asked question I get about alpine climbing revolves around the gear I carry. The following outlines a few of my thoughts on bringing the right gear (as well as the right amount) on your next mountain adventure.
Of everything you’ll need for your next adventure, the most important place to invest is in your footwear. Where the rubber (or metal) meets the mountain is your primary, and sometimes ONLY, connection to the mountain. A large portion of our time in alpine terrain is spent covering moderate terrain quickly – soloing or simulclimbing – and we must be able to trust our feet at all times. I have a fleet of approach shoes, mountain boots and crampons from which to strike a balance between footwear that climbs well, but still offers adequate protection for long approaches, snow, ice and/or cold. The less confidence I have about exact conditions, the more conservative I tend to be in my shoe choice. Check out La Sportiva’s Ganda Guide for an amazingly versatile summer approach shoe.
The rope and rack count for a huge piece of the overall weight of your alpine kit and should work as a unit, complimenting each other. The character of the route, descent, and bail options play a huge role in choosing your rope/rack combo. How hard and sustained is the climbing? How long is the approach? Are you rapping the route? If you need to bail mid-route what are your options? Other factors influencing rope choice are the number of people in your party and any glacier travel requirements. Of course, exactly what you bring is hugely subjective and will depend on your ability and comfort in the terrain.
On objectives such as the Torment-Forbidden Traverse in the Cascades or the Grand Traverse in the Tetons, less rope and a smaller rack is sufficient because of the limited “difficult” climbing combined with bail options that only require a few rappels. With moderate ice climbing, but committing nature, the North Ridge of Mt Baker may not require much rack, since you easily and consistently build V-threads to bail, but it may be prudent to consider having the ability to rappel further than one 60m rope will allow. For long routes in the mountains that require numerous rock anchors for rapping, a larger rock rack and the ability to rappel long distances are things to consider.
In Mark Twight’s, “Extreme Alpinism” he repeatedly refers to the “anorexic” rack he and his partners tend to carry in the mountains. I’ve spent a lot of hours weighing how much rack to carry. While I understand that the less stuff I carry the faster I can cover moderate terrain, the reality is that when I’m faced with sustained and difficult climbing I certainly move faster with MORE rack. I advocate taking what you’ll need to feel comfortable and move quickly on the more difficult terrain you think you’ll encounter. More rack often gives you the ability to place high-quality gear on the pitch and build bomber anchors quickly, spending less time back-cleaning gear and generally being “wigged out” because you’re way above your gear. Good anchors are a big priority for me.
The two rope systems I find myself using most often are a skinny (~9.2mm) 60m single rope and a pair of ultra light (8.0mm) 60m half ropes. The single rated rope is light enough to carry longer distances and allows 100’ of rappelling at a time. The half ropes minimize rope drag on long pitches, allow 200’ of rappelling and split the rope weight between partners on approaches. My 3rd rope choice, and one that I find myself using often on more moderate terrain is a 40m, 9.2mm +/-. While this rope is a bit more specialized, it’s minimal weight means moving faster on easy ground while still being long enough to allow a 40m lead. With shorter pitches, you’ll need less gear mid-pitch shaving more weight from your rack. Remember that you can only rappel 20m with this rope! If there’s a need for longer rappels, add a 42m, 6mm +/- tagline (it won’t stretch as much as the climbing rope). And, lastly, for teams of 3, consider 2 of the lightest single ropes available (< 9mm), at either 40m or 60m lengths and have your seconds climb simultaneously using a plaquette on the anchor.
Here are a few examples of items that are consistently in my alpine climbing lineup, regardless of season.
40 L pack – Black Diamond Speed 40
From multi-day Alaskan climbing in the spring, to summer in the Tetons, fall in the Cascades and winter ice trips to Canada, a simple and light 40L pack is my go-to. If you cant fit it in a 40L pack, leave it at home. The exception to this rule would be mid-winter week-plus long trips in the backcountry or lugging gear into a base camp. For single day endeavors find a similar 30L pack.
30 degree down sleeping bag – Brooks Range Mountaineering Alpini 30
In colder temps this bag can be supplemented with puffy pants and parkas which you would be carrying anyway.
Sleeping pad – Thermarest NeoAir Xtherm
11oz with an R value of almost 6. If you find a lighter pad with this much insulation let me know!
Harness – Petzl Hirundos
While light weight, the Hirundos is still fully functional with 4 rigid gear loops, a belay loop and ice clipper slots. The small weight gain over ultra-light weight harnesses is made up for in functionality and the ability to keep things organized.
I carry 3 pear shaped lockers, a plaquette-style belay plate, 1-4’ runner, 1 cordellete, a knife, and a short prussik loop. This is the standard kit that lives on my harness whether alpine climbing, cragging, or top rope guiding. I seldom add or subtract things to this kit, although I’ll admit to carrying the Grigri 2 quite a bit rock climbing.
Gear up, get out there and have an adventure!