How to Select an Alpine Rack
by Erik Johnson
AAI Instructor and Guide
Let's begin with a definition. Alpine climbing, in general, is: 1) a long way from the trailhead; 2) any combination of rock, snow, glacier, and ice; and 3) lots of moderately technical terrain (up to 5.6). In other words, alpine climbs are long, complex, and are best done as quickly as possible. Weight becomes a significant factor in reducing the time and energy spent on the approach, climb, and descent. Unfortunately, somewhat at odds with the "light is right" credo is the wide array of gear that one needs to climb safely on rock, ice, snow, and glaciers.
This article is intended to provide a starting point in choosing what kind of and how much gear to bring on any given alpine climb. Every climb is of course different, and the rack you bring will need to be adjusted for each. I have a basic rack from which I add or subtract gear, reflecting the characteristics of my climbing objective. Below is a discussion of each of the components of a basic alpine climbing rack.
My complete alpine rack (rock and glacier), minus the emergency 'biner (see below).
Components of an Alpine Rack
- Camming Devices: Each cam has a range of crack sizes it fits, and that range depends on the make. Black Diamond Camalots are on the heavier side, but each size has a wider range. Metolius Powercams and TCUs are lighter, but each size has a smaller range. Omega Pacific Link-Cams are a recent addition and have the widest range of any cam on the market. Keep it small: no more than 5 units, and stick to the medium to large sizes. Nuts and pitons will almost always work in small cracks, and cams work better in larger cracks. Since each cam has a range of crack sizes it fits, you don't want much overlap. In other words, balance overall weight with the ability to adequately protect a climb. 3 to 5 cams are a good start. My basic rock rack consists of: Camalots #1, #2, and #3;Powercams #4 and #5; and a #2Link-Cam. If the climbing is much harder than low 5th class (up to 5.6), I'll bring more cams in order to adequately protect the crux pitches.Note: If you find yourself considering leaving a cam for a rappel anchor on the route, don't hesitate - leave whatever it takes to create a well-built anchor - cams are cheap insurance policies.
- Chocks: Since chocks don't have much of a range of crack sizes each piece fits, more pieces are required to cover a range of crack widths. Black Diamond, Wild Country, DMM, Smiley, and many others make chocks. Their precise sizes and shapes vary a bit, but none is significantly better than the others. I'll bring a range of sizes from BD size #4 to #13 and a mix ofBD, DMM, Wild Country or whatever I have on hand, but no more than 10 to 12 total. I regularly find chocks on climbs and regularly leave them behind in anchors (I'll generally use chocks that I find on a route, but usually not cams or carabiners).
- Pitons ("Pins"): Black Diamond makes the widest range and most available selection of good pins. BD Knifeblades, Bugaboos, and Lost Arrows are best for most climbs, and they fit where nothing else will. Pins are the first things to be cut from my rack if they're not needed. They are heavy, require a hammer, and permanently damage the rock. They are great emergency pieces for anchors. I'll bring them more often on winter routes than on summer routes - it's much easier to place these wearing heavy gloves after 20 hours on the go in very cold weather. There's something about the crescendoing ping-ping-ping that is very comforting when building an anchor in icy rock. I'll bring half dozen or so in a range of sizes and lengths, but no angle pitons (BD Angles) because they're heavy, and cams or chocks will work in the size of cracks that they fit.
- Hammer: If you're bringing pins, you've got to bring a hammer. To save weight, I'll bring a "north wall hammer" (an ice axe with a hammer end in place of an adze end) instead of carrying a normal ice axe and a big-wall hammer. If you need to chop a step for some reason, the pick works almost as well as the adze.
My rock rack with the "north wall hammer."
- Carabiners: I'll restate that "light is right" here. Bringing way too many 'biners is a common affliction. Use wire-gated instead of solid-gated to save some weight, and don't bring "loose 'biners" that don't have a specific purpose. Every 'biner should have a role on your rack - if it's not holding something, it should stay home. I'll group several pieces of pro together on the same 'biner, except for cams, which I'll rack individually. BD Neutrino carabiners are great and very light, but they are hard to manipulate with gloves. BD Hotwires are the slightly larger versions and are much easier to use in cold, snowy weather. Wire-gated 'biners also do not freeze shut or open nearly as often as solid-gated 'biners, and they are easier to clip when wearing gloves.
- Slings: Shoulder-length (24") and double-shoulder-length (48") are the preferred sizes. Much of the pro I use on alpine routes is "natural," i.e. horns, chickenheads, flakes, spikes, trees, or anything that I can either girth-hitch or slip-knot a sling around. Quickdraws are for the crags, they're not very useful in the mountains. The sling material is at times critical. In snowy, icy, and wetter environments, nylon is not the best choice. It absorbs water, which decreases the strength of the sling, makes it heavy, and can be very hard to use if it re-freezes. Spectra and Dyneema (or any number or other industry names for basically the same thing) is the sling material to use. You can tell how much nylon is in a sling by how much color there is in it. Nylon can be dyed, while Spectra and Dyneema cannot and are always white. These slings are also very static - they do not stretch as nylon does. This means that if they are not used properly, equipment failure can occur at lower loads than with nylon slings. For drier environments, plain nylon slings work just fine; they last longer and can be safer. Use 9/16 inch tubular webbing for nylon slings. I'll bring 6 to 8 shoulder-length slings and 2 to 4 double-shoulder-length slings. I also take at least one 'biner per sling, adding a second 'biner on just a few slings (for chock placements).
- Cordelettes: These are key pieces of equipment. 6mm is adequate thickness for alpine environments (because of generally lower forces during falls), but it is only marginally lighter than 7mm, which is quickly becoming the standard thickness. Be aware that 6mm has a single strand breaking strength of around 2200 lbs, while many 7mm have 2500 lbs (exact strength depends on manufacturer). My cordelettes are 25 to 30 feet long by 7mm. I carry twoper person. This means that for a party of two, we would have four cordelettes total. This is because in the event of having to rappel, perform self-rescue, or rig v-threads, chances are we are going to have to build a lot of anchors, and it's likely we'll have to use most of our own gear. Using cordelettes keeps me from having to cut the rope for anchor material. These are a cheap way to be sure to always have good anchors, and at 25 to 30 feet each, I can cut a few lengths off one and still be able to use it as a shorter cordelette.
A glacier rack, with pickets, ice axe, and ice screws pictured.
- Ice Screws: Any cro-mo steel ice screw is fine (BD, Petzl-Moser, Grivel), but stay away from the cheap titanium ones. If I'm only carrying a few, I have to know they'll work when I need them to. I use 22cm whenever I can get away with it. In drier places with thinner ice, shorter screws might work better (13 to 17cm - any shorter and they're not very effective). For climbs with moderate ice sections, six screws are fine: two screws per anchor, two anchors in at a given time, and two for pro. If the ice is more difficult, or if there is a significant ice portion, bring more.
- Pickets: Bring at least one picket per climber if you'll be traveling on snow but not on a glacier. Bring more if you'll be on snow that is steeper and/or long. If traveling on a glacier, a two-person rope team needs two pickets per person. However, one picket per person for a three-person rope team is adequate. I use the two-foot model (MSR Coyote is the standard picket), and I usually rig it ahead of time with a 48" sling (or 7mm cord tied in a 48" loop) girth-hitched to the top hole for ease of racking. Pilfer 'biners from other parts of the rack for the snow section, as you'll not be using the cams on that part of the route.
- Emergency 'Biner: See photo below. This is a carabiner that holds some equipment that I don't generally use: a belay knife, 2 short 5mm prusik cords, and a Petzl Tibloc ascender. I will also usually put another 6mm cord tied in a loop for a rappel backup on this 'biner.
- Pack, Axe, and Crampons: These are not part of the rack, but I'll make a short comment here. Get your pack as small as possible. My pack is always very overstuffed on the approach, but once on the climb it is reduced to the correct size as I am then using much of the gear that was in it. Do you really need crampons? Check conditions, but if you're doing any glacier travel or significant snow, bring them. Shorten up that axe! My alpine axe and north wall hammer are no more than 40cm.
A few last words about adding and subtracting things from an alpine rack. What range I am climbing in makes a big difference in what I bring. Most climbs in the Cascades involve glacier travel, so a glacier rig and pickets are mandatory. On peaks where the rock is less than stellar, the rock gear can be thinned, with maybe an extra pin or two thrown in. In the Bugaboos, the approaches involve a glacier crossing, but they are very mellow. The rock there is awesome and very big, so I'll usually bring a full rock rack, but few to no ice screws or crampons. In the Alaska Range, I go heavy - I bring lots of everything because I fly into a base camp, then pare down depending on what the conditions look like in person. In the Sierra I can, with a few exceptions, forego any snow and ice gear, because there's not much of either by mid-summer, but I'll go a bit heavier on the rock gear.
The time of year also plays a role in deciding on a rack, as does the length of time I will be spending in the backcountry. If I am going in somewhere to a basecamp and climbing multiple routes, I'll bring more gear (backup gear). That way if I have to leave some gear on a route, I can still do more climbing and am not short crucial gear.
Lastly, do your research for your proposed route. There is a lot of information out there. Try to talk to someone who has just come out of the area or even off that climb. I just came back from the Tetons of Wyoming to climb the Grand Teton, and before the climb, a friend told me "a #2 Camalot is invaluable, but a #3 is a waste of weight." He was right, I must have placed the #2 a dozen times, and never did I need a #3. We climbed much faster than the other four parties on the route and summited 2 hours ahead of them, partly due to our very light packs and rack.
Other than that, have fun, be safe, and don't forget the headlamp!
Erik Johnson on the Upper Exum Ridge (5.6) of the Grand Teton, Wyoming, in June, 2007.
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