Mountain Preparedness: What Goes in a Guide's Pack?
Article by John Scripps, AAI Assistant Registrar,
with quotes from Seth Hobby, AAI Instructor and Guide
From the September 2006 edition of AAI's E-newsletter
Much is written and said about the importance of "going light." These commentaries most commonly arise in the context of marketing efforts and in declarations from leading climbers on the determining impact that weight has on their climbing outcomes. Neither comment on weight is very useful for the would-be buyer when it comes to sorting out price-benefit ratios or when deciding precisely how particular light-weight products fit into the final, important choices of what to bring on any given climb. While we can't do much to influence the notorious cost of lightweight gear, we can share some of the the technical knowledge and experience necessary for making smart decisions about what you decide to put in your backpack.
When venturing forth into the mountains, we bring clothes, food, and climbing hardware with us for safety and comfort, but bringing too much can both decrease our fun and compromise our safety by slowing us down when time is of the essence. To help guide us through this paradox, we've enlisted the help of Seth Hobby, an instructor and guide here at AAI who tells the climbers he works with that "the key to alpinism is simplicity." We want to show you what "going light" looks like in Seth's practice of alpinism by examining both the contents of his pack and the logic behind many of his gear choices.
Pictured above is Seth's pack, weighing in at a moderate 45 pounds but fully loaded for six days of alpine ice climbing in the North Cascades of Washington. His trip was to include some glacier travel, camping on snow, and steep ice climbing. Pictured below are the contents of Seth's pack. We hope that a review of the contents will help you make equally smart choices on what to bring and what to leave behind.
= Cooking/Food System
= Sleep System
= Clothing System
= Climbing Equipment
= Other items
Sleeping bag (already packed): A temperature rating between ten and twenty degrees works perfectly in most places, striking a balance between warmth and weight. If it gets much colder, which is rare in a tent, you can wear layers while you sleep. Down is preferable because it is lighter and more compressible. Concern about getting a down bag wet can be alleviated by storing it in one or two garbage bags inside your pack. Also, when space in one's backpack is at a premium, Seth notes that his fifteen-degree down bag fits in his helmet when fully compressed. He recommends a compression sack for that reason.
Sleeping pad: Regular or 3/4 length is all you need. The author happens to be 6'6" and uses a 3/4 length Thermarest. He and Seth both use their rope or pack (whichever is drier) to insulate/cushion their legs when sleeping on snow or rock. On overnight rock climbs, you can use this rope/pack combo in lieu of a pad to save even more weight. Inflatable pads should be folded and stored in one's pack to protect from punctures, and you should always carry a patch kit with you on trips just in case.
Tent: Seth's is a Black Diamond Firstlight. Weighing two lbs. 9 ozs. (1.16kg) and taking up minimal pack space, it's an ideal 3-season shelter. It isn't completely waterproof but it stands up well to moderate precipitation and wind, thanks to its low profile.
Lightweight Rain Tarp/Emergency Bivi Sack: Used in concert with the Firstlight to protect from rain. The tarp serves multiple uses: rain fly, cooking shelter, emergency bivi sack in case of injury or epic. (Seth uses an Integral Designs Guide SilTarp - weight 1 lb. or 454 grams).
Puffy Jacket (Puffy for short): Similar to a sleeping bag, this insultating layer is an essential item that in some incarnations can also take up an excessive amount of space (especially if you buy one that is warmer than you need). Except in the coldest climates/climbing situations (such as at high altitude, at high latitude, or during the winter), a moderate temperature rating is all you need. Because you depend on the puffy for warmth and because of its likely exposure to the elements, synthetic insulation is preferable here. Down coats, by contrast, are worthless when wet and take a long time to dry. In sum, look for a weight that is appropriate to the climate where you'll be climbing (not simply the warmest product). The lighter the weight that will work for you, the better, because it will be more compressible than a warm coat and save space as well as many ounces. Compare Patagonia's Micro Puff Jacket (at 20.5 ozs. or 581 grams and) with their DAS Parka (at 29 ozs. or 822 grams).
Waterproof Layers - Top and Bottom: Seth doesn't carry the standard issue Gore-Tex pants and jacket - the heavy-duty kind you'd wear skiing in winter. His are lightweight, much more packable, and half the price. His jacket and pants are less durable, but his logic is that they'll only be worn a small percentage of the time anyway. If the weather gets really bad, most climbers typically either seek shelter or head back to the car.
Softshell Layer: What Seth refers to as his "action layer." Products filling this niche are breathable, quick drying, windproof, and highly water-resistant - they're made for climbing, in other words. Softshell materials have a much wider comfort range than Gore-Tex and will suffice as an outer layer when rain isn't a huge concern. Not pictured are Seth's "action pants," which he "never takes off on a trip." Weights: Patagonia Ready Mix Jacket 14.98 ozs. (425 grams); Patagonia Guide Pants 17.97 ozs. (510 grams).
Mid-layer: A fleece-type insulating layer that provides warmth. Patagonia's R1 is an example which weighs only 6.48 ozs. (184 grams).
Base-layer: Polypropylene tops and bottoms are buried under Seth's puffy jacket. His are from Patagonia, and each piece weighs 5.5 ozs. (156 grams).
Glove system: One waterproof shell or insulated glove with two sets of lighter-weight "action" gloves. The shell/insulated glove is used as a last resort and worn only when necessary, for added warmth on summit day or in excessively wet/cold conditions. The two lighter-weight gloves are worn in rotation, with the wet pair always kept on one's person to dry. Seth uses one pair of softshell-type gloves (the Black Diamond Drytool glove) and one polypropelene fabric glove (such as the Mountain Hardwear Powerstretch glove). Some guides even use Atlas Gloves, which are gardening gloves with a rubber grip. Seth packs his shell/insulated gloves in his down sleeping bag, because both items function as a last line of defense against cold and absolutely need to be kept dry.
Socks: Two pairs for six days, worn and dried in rotation like the action gloves. Some people bring along an extra pair for sleeping, storing the socks in their sleeping bag when not in use.
Boots: Leather, full shank, single boot. For a full treatment of the boot subject, please see last month's Expert Tips article.
Backpack: Be careful here. Lightweight packs (2-4 pounds or 906 grams-1.8 kg empty) only carry light loads comfortably ("45 lbs. or 20.4 kg and below", in Seth's case). Seth's is a Wild Things Andinista (3lbs 14oz or 1.76 kg). The pack isn't built to carry excessively heavy loads as it basically consists of thin padding on the shoulders and hips, a plastic frame sheet, and a single 4000 cubic inch compartment. Seth removed the pack's lid and some "excess" sewn-on features to shave even more weight. He lines his backpack with a garbage bag to keep everything nice and dry.
Rope: Seth's is a Beal Joker, a 9.1mm dry-treated rope that is marked at the halfway point for quick rappels, weight is 7lbs. (3.18 kg) at 60 meters. This rope is strong enough to hold a lead fall and light enough to bring on glacier traverses. Ropes in the 8mm range will hold crevasse falls, but have to be used in tandem to safely belay the leader on steeper ground. On Institute alpine and glacier programs, we typically use either the Joker or the Beal Stinger III which is a 9.4 mm dry treated rope weighing 7lbs. 13 oz. at 60 meters (3.54 kg).
Alpine Ice Rack:
- Picket - Just one if you plan to use one of the technical tools as an anchor. (See technical tools description).
- 6 ice screws- one 21cm or 19cm screw, the rest 17cm
- 4 shoulder-length Dyneema slings- Dyneema is thin, light, and very strong
- 2 double-length Dyneema slings
- 8 non-locking wire gate carabiners- Black Diamond Neutrinos and Hotwires.
- One quickdraw
- One cordelette
- Five locking carabiners
- (1 pulleywould be added if the trip involved significant crevasse hazard)
Harness: Seth uses the Black Diamond Alpine Bod. Comfortable for walking, these harnesses are ideal for alpine climbs not involving a lot of hang time. Padded harnesses weigh more, but are much more comfortable to hang in. Evaluate your harness choice accordingly, and don't take one with features you donÕt need. The Alpine Bod weights 13.92 ozs. (395 grams).
Technical tools: Seth's are Petzl Aztar EXs. These are lightweight, dropped-pick tools designed for climbing steeping ice. Seth saves weight by using one as his glacier axe on lower angle terrain. He saves weight further by using one of his tools as an anchor, rather than bringing an extra picket. These weigh in at 1 lbs 1.62 ozs. (500 grams).
Crampons: New-matic designs work with the widest array of technical/rigid climbing boots.
Trekking Poles: They may seem like a luxury, but the added weight is more than made up for in the stress they take off of your legs and knees, especially when descending. Field maintenance is easier on poles with the "flick-lock" design.
Helmet: Light and strong. The HB Carbon Dyneema 10.57 ozs. (300 grams) and the Petzl Elios (Size 1 weighs 11.10 ozs. / 315 grams and Size 2 weighs 12.16 ozs. / 345 grams), are good choices.
Stove set: Seth's is a JetBoil, which is an integrated burner and mug set-up. These are light, fast, and efficient at cooking/boiling/melting, ideally suited for dehydrated, pouched, and "just add water" meals like the ones Seth has packed. The Jetboil PCS set weighs only 14.98 ozs. (425 grams).
Dinner: The one-gallon Ziploc bag on the right carries five dinners! As an affordable alternative to dehydrated meals, Seth brings along Tasty Bite dinners, tuna in a foil pouch (ideal for climbers and sold right next to the canned stuff), and Annie's mac and cheese.
Lunch: The one-gallon bag on the left holds six lunches, mostly breakfast bars, energy bars, and a bag of drink mix. When this photo was taken, Seth hadn't yet purchased his tortillas and cheese, but all told he thought his six-day food/drink stash would weigh under 5 pounds (2.27 kg).
Tea and coffee!
Breakfast: Pop tarts! Tasty and ready to eat!
*Extra Tip: Seth doesn't carry all his water on the hike in, as there are usually plenty of water sources (streams, snowfields, etc) both on the approach and higher in the mountains. A full Nalgene bottle weighs over 2 pounds - so just carry what you need, make sure you've done your research and know where the water sources are likely to be and how much water you will need to get you there.
First Aid Kit: Well-stocked for the entire group.
Sundry Items (Not Pictured): glacier glasses, visor and bandanna (for sun protection), repair kit (w/ needle/thread, Thermarest repair kit, extra 2" buckle in case the one on your hip strap falls off or gets stepped on - what Seth refers to as a "showstopper"), sunblock, spoon (the #1 most forgotten item), and basic toiletries.
We hope this quick look into a guide's pack will help you refine your approach to packing for alpine climbs and, hopefully lighten your loads in , the future. With a fully integrated system like Seth's and where redundancy is only present in the anchors that you build, your final pack weight for six days of alpine climbing should be under 45 pounds (not counting your rope and hardware). It's a great goal to strive for, and if you succeed, you will reap the benefits repeatedly in the many years and mountains that are in your future. Good luck!