By “Sensei” Dave Staeheli
We all love our mountaineering gear. We like to buy it, play with it, and maybe even use it. Handling our gear helps us maintain a connection with the beautiful places where we intend to use it.
We need equipment to get us up a mountain, yet we must keep in mind that that same equipment can impede, or expedite, our mountaineering adventure. The right amount of equipment (that we know how to use) will let us flow up the mountain in a Zen-like state, expending the minimal amount of energy on our gear, saving as much energy as we can for the climb itself.
The wrong gear—too much of it or too little—means we “got the fumbles,” expending wasteful energy that we are really, really going to need later. We are dependent on equipment, yet we don’t really want to be “equipment dependent.”
Guide services like Mountain Trip send out an excellent recommended equipment list. The guides have had a lot of input into the list, and if you follow it, you can’t go too far wrong. It does not, however, reflect personal idiosyncrasies or experiences. For instance, “Master Todd” made sure Mountain Trip recommends a 96-ounce pee bottle (see “Pee Bottle 101”). I, however, believe that I have reached a higher plane of existence and only require a half-liter pee bottle. I also have my personal experience of 30-plus years of arctic, high-altitude mountaineering to help me know what I need. If you don’t have similar experience, it’s probably best to go with a guide service’s list.
Personal style and experiences can affect your choices, but do you have experience similar to Denali, and are you familiar with expedition-style mountaineering? What worked well on your trips in the past may not be ideal for Denali. For instance, layering of clothes is generally considered good. Some experienced climbers show up with a sack full of light clothing layers and what they consider a “mid-weight” layer. This works well for the environments in which they generally climb.
On Denali, the reality is that it’s usually better to consolidate your light layers into two or three items, so consider getting a couple of mid to heavier weight items and use those for temperature adjustment. A light puffy or mid-weight fleece jacket is your friend and will be much more versatile than many light layers buried so deep they won’t see the light of day once the mid-mountain is reached. The Mountain Trip equipment list is a “guide recommended” list and there are good solid reasons behind each item. Exceptions and variances to the list should be well thought out based on your person style and experiences, remembering always, this is Denali!
Returning to the title of this guide’s tech tip, let’s take a basic piece of equipment—one that may change according to your preferences, and may also change as the season progresses—and let’s talk about how to keep the “fumbles” to a minimum. This is the old generic 1-liter water bottle.
Mountain guides really prefer (read—insist!) wide mouth bottles so they avoid pouring water on their hands when filling them, and wide mouths are less likely to be plugged up when partially frozen. Two are recommended, but a small percentage of climbers should have three, especially in late season when it gets hot on the lower glacier. Hopefully you know who you are. I’m a big fan of those hydration bags, “Camelbaks,” for mid- to late season on Denali. During mid-season, it’s important to use the tube insulators and learn to “back-blow” water away from the mouthpiece, so the tube doesn’t freeze up. Somewhere on the mountain these hydration bags will start freezing up, and then it’s time to return to the standard water bottles.
Bottle insulators, “cozies” or “parkas,” are a must, but don’t count on them to keep the bottle unfrozen in all conditions. When it gets cold you still have to take your bottle to bed. Learn to take only one bottle to bed and then get a fill-up on all the bottles in the morning. Mark your bottles and parkas with name or code. On larger teams, the cook tent can easily have 20 or more empty water bottles to fill up, and the clear labels will make it easier to keep track of whose is whose.
Take care of your water. Don’t set your bottles directly down in the snow when it’s very cold. If you can, carry the bottles inside your pack unless you are one of the few who know that you need water on the trail between hourly (+/-) breaks. Outside the pack, they are prone to freezing and loss. It’s rare to see seasoned Alaska climbers carry a bottle on the outside of their pack. This becomes especially important above 14,000 feet. I don’t know how many bottles I have seen pop out of the side pocket on a pack and pitch down the side of the West Buttress! If you focus and work on developing the little things to make them into habits, then the “fumbles” will disappear.
The trick about mountaineering equipment is not to have the fanciest or the most, but to have gear that works in most conditions and functions when it counts. Especially important, is that your use of the equipment takes little thought or energy. Simplicity, versatility and pre-expedition planning are key avenues to success.
Be known for your Zen-like thoughts and lack of dependency on equipment. Soon Grasshopper, you will be able to climb Denali with your loin cloth and begging bowl.
Can anyone say “Om Mani Den-Nah-Lee Hum”?