Tech skills: gear for alpine rock

Posted by Daniel Middleton on 20/06/2014
When it comes to alpine rock, light is right, so leave those heavy hexes at home

The meteo says “beau temps” for the next few days, and the sun is shining. You’re psyched and ready to leave the campsite to get your teeth into some real alpine rock. But in the alpine playground speed is king, so make sure you’re travelling light with the right kit.

Protection

When climbing long alpine routes, one important time-saving technique is to learn to place less gear, and to place what you have quickly. This means making sure every piece counts. Your rack will vary depending on the type of route, but a good starting point is a single set of wires and three or four camming devices. The large expansion range of Black Diamond Camalots makes them a great option, and Wild Country Superlight Rocks are a winner for smaller wires. Add a few extra slings and krabs and you’re ready for (almost) anything.

Quickdraws

The perfect alpine quickdraw is both long and light; take 6-10, depending how technical and sustained the climbing is. A smooth-running rope reduces drag and increases the security of any dubious protection, so extend any protection by using longer draws. A slim Dyneema extender (20cm is the shortest useful length) paired with wiregate krabs is a perfect solution. DMM Phantom quickdraws are a good example of what to go for. Using 60cm slings to make a few sling-draws is also a great idea, but never use a rubber string or grommet on an open sling.

Harness

For alpine rock routes, a standard harness is ideal. Four or more gear loops and some adjustment for clothing are handy. Releasable leg loops may make leaving a deposit en-route slightly easier, but you really should be trying to avoid doing this. The Edelrid Orion or women’s DMM Puma tick all the right boxes.

Rock shoes

Don’t even think about wearing your eye-wateringly tight bouldering shoes if you intend remaining friends with your partner after the route. Sixteen pitches of complaining about self-infl icted suffering are enough to ruin the staunchest of partnerships. Save your feet and your social life with some roomier shoes with a bit of mid-sole support. They may feel a bit less precise to begin with, but at least you’ll have someone to enjoy a beer with afterwards. The Scarpa Force X and 5.10 Hueco hit the mark. But remember, the fit is everything.

Ropes and belay device

Some modern routes, especially bolted ones, may be suitable for a long (70m+) single rope; check pitch lengths and the abseils. But for the majority of routes you’ll be best served by our time-honoured double-rope system; the option of 50 or 60m is a matter of preference. How thin you go is also down to you, whilst thinner is generally lighter, you will lose some security and durability. The Mammut Phoenix or Beal’s new Ice Line Unicore are just the ticket. Make sure your belay device works with your rope, and if you do choose a device with a clever guide mode (such as The BD ATC Guide or Petzl Reverso 4) then make sure you know how to release it.

Glacier approaches

The flattest part of the route can also be the most dangerous if glacier travel is involved. Make sure you carry the kit and know how to perform a crevasse rescue. At the very least, this will mean prussik loops, a pulley wheel and a couple of ice screws. Take a proper kit if extended travel is required. Short approaches can often be achieved with approach shoes, flexible crampons (e.g. Kahtoola KTS Steel) and a shared lightweight axe, but check conditions and your route carefully first. If in doubt, upgrade to mountain boots (e.g. Sportiva Trango S Evo), crampons and an axe each.

Helmet and headtorch

Even the most pristine Chamonix granite has a few loose blocks, so give your survival chances a small boost and wear a helmet. Get one of the light and well-ventilated ones; either foam (e.g. Petzl Meteor III) or a hybrid construction (e.g. Camp Armour). A compact LED headtorch (e.g. Petzl Tikka XP2) will come in useful for those early starts; make sure it fits your helmet. Plus, if you end up spending the night somewhere with a name like Le Dortoir Anglais, it will also come in handy for checking how miserable your partner is looking.

Dan Middleton is the BMC Technical Officer. Happiest when testing slings to destruction on his mobile gear-testing rig, he can be contacted at dan@thebmc.co.uk

Expert Q & A

This issue’s expert is Rob Greenwood. Rob is an alpine rock wad and ex-employee of DMM and the BMC.

Q. Baguette and brie or gels and energy bars? Discuss.

A. Both. If you're just about to engage with some alpine suffering, you want to know that there's some comfort through eating. It's good to know your palate. Personally, I find gels a last resort and prefer to keep myself topped up with something more wholesome throughout the day.

Q. Any alpine gear tips that you learnt the hard way?

A. When I climbed the North Face of the Eiger with Jack Geldard, we both took the same weight sleeping bag: his was filled with high-quality down whereas mine, well, wasn't. As a result, he got a sweat on throughout the night, whilst I just lay there repeating the words, "I'm at the Death Bivouac" to myself over and over again. Words cannot express the envy - and stupidity - I felt for not having invested in something better before setting out on one of most significant routes of my life.

Q. How big a rucksack will all this need?

A. It depends on the season and how long the route is. For day-long summer routes, I personally use a Crux RK35; for multi-day winter routes I use a Crux AK-47X. It's worth remembering that now you're in the Alps, it's fashionable to strap things to the outside of your bag on the approach. When you start climbing, all that remains inside is a warm jacket, stove, food and water. This allows a much smaller pack to be carried.

Q. Hut or bivouac, which is better?

A. There's no doubt that huts are 'better', it's just that they're not always located half way up a route – and they cost a lot more. Rightly or wrongly, some of the most memorable mountaineering experiences I’ve had have been focussed around bivis. Like them or loathe them, you rarely forget them.

Q. 50 or 60m ropes, I can’t decide?

A. This is largely dictated by the style of climbing and terrain you have in mind. For routes that involve a lot of glacier travel or ridges, I’d recommend a 50m rope: the additional 10m would just be unnecessary and extra to carry. With rock-based routes and longer ice/snow/mixed routes, a 60m length would advisable, since it allows longer pitches and abseils.

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