Master Class: 7 Steps For Alpine Pack Packing
This article appeared in ASCENT 2017 (Rock and Ice issue 242).
Alpine climbing season is upon us. Time to start thinking about your summer plans for the high mountains. A big key to a successful trip into the alpine is bringing the right gear. Alpine climbing often has an element of suffering to it, but a lot of that pain can be minimized if you pack the right gear to keep the weight down, leaving nonessentials at home. Here are a few tips that I’ve used over the years to help mountain guides trim their packs.
1. Pack Selection
First, understand what type of outing you will undertake. Is it a basecamp-style expedition where the big pack and overnight gear can stay at the bottom of the climb, or is it an up-and-over climb where everything stays in your pack? If it’s a basecamp gig your life just got a lot easier and you don’t have to put as much thought into packing. If the approach is short, bring the kitchen sink. Having a heavy pack on a short approach so you have a comfortable basecamp is worth it. Just don’t forget the summit pack.
Even more important than picking a lightweight pack is picking one that is the right size for the objective. The best governor I’ve found for limiting what is in my pack is to start with a pack that is slightly too small. This will help you decide what’s really important and what can be left behind. For someone my size and with my current climbing kit the perfect sized pack for a multi-night up-and-over is around 30 liters. I usually have to strap the rope, helmet, ice axe and crampons on the outside of my pack during the approach, but everything else should fit inside no problem.
2. Bivy Gear/Bag
The next step for trimming weight and bulk from your kit starts by scrutinizing at your heaviest and bulkiest items. Sure, you can save a few ounces by having the lightest carabiners and slings, but you can shave real weight and bulk by trimming your sleeping system. I’m not suggesting you go with the “shiver bivy,” i.e., no bag or a very thin one, to save weight. A good night’s sleep is one of your best performance enhancers. Instead, consider your sleeping bag, pad, shelter, stove, and fuel. All of these items are bulky. A lightweight (one pound or less) down sleeping bag such as the Patagonia Hybrid (pairs with a down jacket) compresses to the size of a water bottle, and the new generation of inflatable pads such as the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xtherm (16 ounces) packs even smaller than that.
The type of shelter I use depends on the weather. Sometimes it’s as simple as an open bivy with no bivy sack or tarp, but often I’ll bring a lightweight tent to share with my partner. A small single-wall tent like the Black Diamond Firstlight is compact and adds considerable warmth to bivies. If you are going without a tent, make sure you have a ground sheet to protect your inflatable pad. Nothing is worse than having your pad pop in the middle of a cold night.
4. Stove and Fuel
When it comes to fuel, you will need to know whether you will melt snow for water. If all of your drinking water will be from snow, you don’t want to run out of fuel, but fuel is heavy so packing a bunch of extra is just a waste of energy.
On most climbs I prefer to use a canister-style stove like the Jetboil Flash (about 15 ounces with the pot and lid for brewing up). For an average summer alpine climb in the Northwest I budget one ounce of fuel per person, per day, if there is going to be running water. If I am melting snow for water I’ll go with two ounces per person, per day. Now, there are a lot of variables you should take into account: air temperature, wind, snow temperature, type of meals, amount of hot drinks, etc. These calculations are for drinking water and hot water for meals only—no cooking. I’m also a two-drinks-in-the-morning, one-drink-in-the-evening person. If you need more or less, adjust accordingly.
On multi-day alpine climbs, food is one of the most critical pieces of “gear” you can put in your pack. It is the only added weight in your pack that will actually give you more energy. Making sure you have enough quality food to sustain you is important, but it’s often difficult to decide on how much and what type of food to bring.
Both the amount and type of food you pack will vary from person to person, but I strive for 1,700 to 2,000 calories per day for lunch, 1,000 calories for dinner, and 500 calories for breakfast.
For most people the key is to have a variety of lunch food. You want to ensure that every time you have the opportunity to eat, you have something appetizing in your lunch bag. Over the years I’ve seen too many climbers bonk because they were not getting enough calories during the day. Bring items you like, but make sure to have a mix of things that are salty, sweet, meaty and fatty.
I try to keep dinners simple, going with freeze-dried meals instead of foodstuffs that involve real cooking. This saves fuel and conserves my valuable rest time. Sitting at a beautiful alpine bivy with a warm bag of freeze-dried gumbo on my belly is a much better use of my time than bending over a stove making sure my pasta isn’t burning.
6. Tools and Crampons
Continue through the rest of your gear looking for places to save weight. Start with the heaviest items, and see if there is a lighter version that would still work. Maybe this trip you can get away with aluminum crampons, such as the CAMP XLC 390 (18 ounces). Or perhaps you could use a steel front plate and aluminum rear plate. For tools, the Black Diamond Raven Ultra is light (12 ounces) and is fully functional. If you barely need an ice axe and are just using it to chop a few steps or walk on a glacier, a rando-racing axe like the CAMP Corsa (7 ounces) is a place to save weight, but it’s fairly limited in its use for anything other than approaches.
Be careful when you start skimping on technical gear. These are the mission-critical items that keep us attached to the mountain. If all you are doing is crossing a moderately angled frozen snowfield, super-light might be ideal. If there is a chance you will encounter real or glacier ice, then a sharp pair of steel spikes and a standard axe are worth the weight.
7. Fitting it in
Once you’ve trimmed all the weight possible, the last thing you will need to do is fit this pile of gear and food into that tiny pack. This is where the battle is won or lost. Bulky, odd-shaped objects like your stove are your enemy, and small, soft things like a jacket, bivy sack (out of the stuff sack) and extra socks are your friends. Start by packing the bulky, hard items and fill in the gaps with your friends. The key is to eliminate dead space. If, when you are halfway through the process, your bottom pack seams look as if they are about to burst, then you are doing it right. If you wait until you are near the top before you start pushing hard, you’ve already lost the battle. Good luck squeezing it all in, and have fun out there.