Equipment for Expeditions
by Tom Richardson
To slightly amend the words of the legendary lightweight expeditioner, Mountain Guide, environmentalist and AC member Rob Collister:
‘If you have enough (gear) to climb safely in the Alps, with a few important exceptions you can climb pretty much anywhere up to 6000 metres. If your sleeping bag keeps you warm ,your waterproof keeps you almost dry and your tent stays upright over a wild, wet ,winter weekend in the Llanberis Pass you are equipped well enough for most things.’
In other words don’t buy lots of new gear unless you need to! Having said that, the equipment required for any mountain expedition is not something to be left to chance. It will very likely contribute to whether you are successful or not and might save your life. The refinements you need to make to the list of gear that you already have will depend on:
- The height of the mountain and the effect of altitude. Most people begin to feel it from about 2800 -3000m onwards.
- The technical difficulty expected whether that is on rock, ice or snow and how steep and dangerous the route is.
- The style of climbing. Alpine style, unsupported ascents demand light loads but may necessitate being storm bound in a tent or snow hole for extended periods without an easy descent route. On the other hand expeditions that use extensive fixed ropes and camps will need a lot of equipment and the ability to get it from home to the mountain, up it and back home again.
- The latitude – Mountains nearer the Poles are colder for their height. Conditions on Denali (6194m) in Alaska for example are more like a mountain over 7000m in the Eastern Himalaya. The season and weather. The arrival of storms, the winter, the monsoon or the Chinook etc. all have an impact on temperature, wind, precipitation and therefore you.
- The remoteness or otherwise. The demands on gear are quite different if a helicopter can rescue you one hour after you make a call on your mobile or satellite phone compared with the prospect of a 10 day trek through waist deep snow, hauling sledges or along a series of arid valleys and passes to a road head.
The basics that you probably already have might include the following or similar:
Boots and Shoes
Mountain boots with a rigid sole and insulation such as La Sportiva Nepal Evo, Scarpa Jorasses Pro or The North Face Verto Glacier 6K will suffice for many destinations outside winter up to (with only a few exceptions), but not above about 6000m. For example in the summer, popular peaks in Ladakh, India that do not usually get the monsoon such as Stok Kangri (6120m) would be fine with such boots. Beyond that, double boots are necessary. The least expensive, but heaviest and most cumbersome are plastic shell boots such as the Scarpa Vega. Modern double boots such as the La Sportiva Spantik and Scarpa Phantom 6000m are lighter, warmer and more dextrous to climb in.
Over-boots such as the Forty Below neoprene, Mountain Hardwear and Boreal can upgrade standard boots but make them even more bulky and cumbersome, which might still be fine for non-technical terrain but is likely to prove a hinderance on more demanding ground.
Above about 7500m special high altitude boots are required such as the La Sportiva Olympus Mons, Scarpa Phantom 8000 or the Boreal G1.
Trekking boots for the approach can be lightweight fabric and leather boots and will be fine on most terrain e.g. Salomon Quest, Asolo Fugitive or whatever you have. In some locations for example in East Africa the bogs on the approach to the mountains form a substantial challenge. The Bigu Bogs of the Ruwenzori or the Vertical Bog on Mount Kenya require at least gaiters but possibly wellingtons.
Trainers are handy and anything will do.
Down booties e.g. from Rab, Mountain Equipment or PHD are usually a luxury but eventually become a necessity with height and cold.
Socks: There are lots of technical socks on the market. Merino wool is warm and doesn’t get too smelly so can be worn for several days. I always keep a fresh pair for summit day. Smartwool, Icebreaker and Teko are the main brands.
Avoid cotton or any other absorbent fabrics!
Thermal inner gloves – several pairs in case the fingers get worn out. They can protect your hands from both cold and sun burn.
Warm weatherproof gloves or mitts. Mitts are warmer but less dextrous than gloves. Those with a fleece liner tend to give better grip on tools and poles than those with slippery synthetic insulation. On mountains up to about 6000m the old traditional Dachstein mitts take a lot of beating and are very cheap (£25-ish) and warm. Fashion some cord to make wrist loops.
For trekking, Windbloc lined gloves with a leather palm are handy, although worse than useless when they get wet.
For colder conditions consider down mitts or synthetic ones such as the OR Altai mitts or Black Diamond Mercury mitts. Always carry at least one pair of spare mitts. These mitts can also be vital as belay mitts if you are tackling technical climbing that requires thinner, more dextrous gloves.
For many people spending a sustained period of time in high cold places can cause finger and thumbs ends to split. This can be painful and messy. Take Superglue to stick them together.
Head and Neck Wear
A sun hat is vital in most areas to protect you on the approach. Tilley hats are good and tough. Baseball style hats and a Buff to protect your neck are also an option. Rohan and Patagonia make baseball type hats with a drop-down flap in the style of the French Foreign Legion.
Fleece and/or wool cap, beanie and balaclava. Check they fit under a helmet. Fleece-lined knitted hats can be bought in Kathmandu for about £1. Gore-tex/fleece mountain caps cost about £30 in the UK.
Neckgaiters and Buffs are versatile items for filling the draughty gap between hat and clothing. Headbands are also great when you don’t want to get too warm but protect your ears in cold winds...etc.
Face masks are useful in certain high altitude/extreme cold environments. These are often available from ski shops.
Simple Gore-Tex gaiters with a Velcro front closure are the most versatile. Black Diamond Front Point and also OR Crocodiles are good. They should be snug fitting so you don’t crampon them with the opposite leg. Berghaus Yeti type gaiters that cover the boot upper are convenient once fitted (but this can be a challenge) and can add a bit of warmth. They only work with rigid-soled boots and are best suited to use with crampons as rock will trash them more easily. Insulated gaiters of this type add little warmth so do not properly upgrade the boots. An overboot is better.
Thin, tight fitting, high wicking fabrics are available from many well known brands such as Arc’ter’yx and Patagonia. Many manufacturers make two weights of thermal underwear and the layering of one thin and one thicker top is very efficient. Merino wool is the best natural fabric for the same reasons as it is for socks.
Polartec Powerstretch is excellent as super warm long johns - only slightly windproof - and in stretchy, light fleece tops. Softshell trousers are good outer wear as they are windproof, a bit water resistant, hardwearing and have pockets e.g. Mammut Base Jump Pants or Patagonia Guide Pants.
Several thin layers are always better than one thick layer as they are more adaptable to conditions. Very lightweight, lined windproof hooded tops (such as those made by Rab) are very easy to wear, extremely warm for their weight and provide a slippery, easy-to-move layer that helps prevent the dreaded ‘michelin-man’ feeling when high friction matierials (like fleece) are layered up. Having said that Buffalo Pile Pertex clothing (made in the UK) is superb for cold condition climbing, is light and warm and dries fast. Check out the Big Face and Special 6 Shirt and their expedition salopettes.
Thin synthetic-filled jackets made from Primaloft are also excellent mid layers under a shell. They are warm, windproof, light and pretty breathable. Examples include the Rab Generator, the Arc'Teryx Atom SV and The North Face Red Point. In many countries it is worth considering what local people are wearing in the mountains and using their knowledge and giving them respect. That may be the use of fur in the Arctic or the wearing of the light cotton shirt and pants called the shalwar chemise in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Local people are often delighted and the clothing is always practical.
A head torch is essential for all trips. Modern LED technology has improved lighting and battery life enormously in recent years. Nonetheless, always have a backup/spare light and keep it handy. Lithium batteries last longer than standard ones. Rechargeable systems or hybrids can be an excellent solution. Using a solar charger such as a Goal Zero Guide 10, Power Monkey or similar works well unless weather conditions are really bad, in which case also have back up batteries. Check out Petzl Myo or the Reactive Nao and Black Diamond Icon and for back up Tikka or Spot.
Unless you are allergic to it, down is the answer and it is worth getting the best you can afford if buying new. Rather than just giving up on your old bag and buying new you could upgrade with an over bag or inner of fleece or down or have a bit more down added. Mountaineering Designs in Cumbria can do this.
The amount of fill and construction is dependent on where you are going. Check out Mountain Equipment, Rab, PHD Designs (made in the UK), The North Face and Mountain Hardwear. If you have plenty of time you can custom design your own bag through PHD designs.
To make your choice go with the philosophy of Andy Kirkpatrick that the ideal sleeping bag for mountaineering is not so cold that you will die, but not so warm that you won’t want to get out of it in the morning! A night’s sleep can be made warmer and a sleeping bag upgraded by wearing more clothes. Another tip is to fill a Nalgene bottle with hot water as a hot water bottle. Use the water to drink in the morning.
Remember that you may well have to carry the sleeping bag for longer than you will sleep in it. Always keep it in a dry /compression bag. These are made by POD, Exped and Sea to Summit and are available in a range of colours, sizes and weights. They can also be padlocked closed for storage.
The old traditional yellow mats, formerly known as Karrimat (now known as Multimat) still have many advantages. The main one being that they cannot be punctured. It doesn’t matter what is underneath you, they will still work. Luxurious they are not, but cheap and functional they are. The more luxurious looking ridged brands are less good as they can gather snow in the valleys between the ridges which eventually melt against body warmth. Multimats are relatively cheap so feel free to customise them to the right shape with scissors or a knife so they fold or fit in a rucksack. Modern ones have a reinforced eyelet on the corner. Tie some cord through it to clip it on and stop it from blowing away. They are also useful as improvised splints and many other things.
At the other end of the continuum Exped make some superb down-filled mats that inflate using a simple built-in hand pump. They aren’t cheap and are a little heavy, but are less bulky than a Karrimat and really warm even on snow.
Take both a repair kit for any inflatable mat including a small tube of Seam Grip and a backup Multimat between a group just in case.
They can be for planned or emergency use. Terra Nova and Mountain Equipment use Gore-Tex, Rab use eVent and Marmot use their own super-light fabric in their superb and recommended Alpine Bivvy.
People shelters - These are lightweight bags that you pull over your head when hiding from bad weathewr and/or bivying. Outdoor Designs make by far the lightest group/people shelters available. They can accommodate two, four or six people. Carry one as they could save your life.
There are three rules of rucksacks:
1. whatever capacity you have ,you will fill it, so save weight by keeping it smaller if you can.
2. If you're buying new, go for the one that has the fewest features and which is as unadjustable as possible to save weight.
3. Make sure your pack fits you properly. There are lots of packs on the market and again you will possibly have something that will do the job already.
For big load hauling check out things like the Berghaus Expedition, the Macpac Ascent or Aiguille Jorasses (made in UK).
For medium size loads again there are many options. Consider the Crux AK 47, The Black Diamond Speed and the POD Black Ice amongst many others.
Packs that can be converted from comfy load haulers to minimalist climbing packs can be useful. Skimpy lightweights such as the North Face Verto series are good for the summit dash and weigh nearly nothing.
Use lightweight dry bags to protect gear in your bags and separate it out for use during the day.
Salopettes or over-trousers with side zips and the facility to answer a call of nature plus a simple jacket with a protective hood and good arm movement made from Goretex , eVent or similar are standard. Go for bright colours for photographs and so you can be found more easily. In some places clothing like the very breathable, rugged but slightly heavier Paramo gear or the Patagonia Ascentionist jacket can be ideal too.
This type of clothing is designed to go over the top of everything else. Taking clothes off to put them on is a waste of heat. Down is again the best insulator and can be made in a wide variety of insulation levels. Wearing down whilst climbing is usually too warm for all but the coldest conditions. A mid-range down jacket or a synthetic-fill jacket is the most adaptable .The exact choice will depend on the particulars of the expedition, the height and the latitude of the mountain, the remoteness and the season.
Down jackets with matched salopettes or one-piece suits are only necessary for high altitude in winter or for the higher reaches of 8000m peaks.
Recent waterproofing technology has made light- fill down jackets such as the Berghaus Asgard hybrid with hydrophobic down a good jacket for use at lower alpine altitudes and damper conditions. The Rab Infinity jackets use high quality down and a very light Pertex outer, giving a warm and super light jacket that is ideal for lightweight alpine style climbing from 6000m. The all-time classic jacket first produced for an ascent of its mountain namesake in 1970 is the Mountain Equipment Annapurna and still a strong contender.
Very specialised expedition weight down suits are also produced by Rab, Mountain Equipment, Mountain Hardwear The North Face and PHD Designs.
Synthetic-filled jackets deal with damp better than down, but are often bulkier and heavier than their down equivalents. Consider the Mountain Equipment Fitzroy, the Paramo Torres or The North Face Makalu.
Travel towels such as those from MSR are slightly better than standard ones but less washing gets done anyway!
Washing kit. See above. Travel tooth brushes are more hygienic.
Personal first aid kit including at least dressings, Compeed, Ibuprofen and embroidery scissors in a plastic box.
Repair kit including Seam Grip, Tenacious Tape a big needle and dental floss for sewing things like pack straps or even trekking boots. A small length of fairly pliable wire is useful for more robust repairs.
Sunglasses - Regular sunglasses, Category 4 glacier glasses for use on snow and a backup pair. Snow blindness is very bad. Goggles can be useful in spindrift. If you are a glasses wearer prescription glacier glasses can be made or Adidas make sunglasses into which your lenses can be fitted.
Sun block and lip block. Essential. The new once-a-day sun lotions are much more convenient. Choose the screening level according to your skin type.
Altimeter. Barometric altimeters need regular recalibrating but are convenient e.g. Suunto Core. Alternatively a GPS unit such as the Garmin eTrex will remain accurate but does consume battery power.
Compass. A basic Silva type. At least one each.
Maps – Try the Alpine Club, RGS or Stanford’s of London
Notepad, pens...etc. Electronic pads, tablets...etc. will consume lots of power. Paper and pens will not. The ink in fountain pens and some markers will freeze and can ruin a pen (and whatever it is being carried in). Instead use the device used by the Soviet Union for writing in space - a pencil!
Camera - Small pocket digital cameras are easy to use. The best pictures are often taken when it is least convenient to do so, so always go for minimum faff. Take a spare card and charged battery or two with you.
Reading material. Kindles and the like save a lot of weight compared with books, but again consume power and will need to be recharged. The read pages of a novel can be torn out and put to numerous uses.
Penknife and other tools - A Leatherman is the most useful, especially the pliers. Alternatively just take a pair of pliers. A Swiss Knife with scissors is also handy although sharp embroidery scissors in a first aid kit will do.
Water bottles . One or two clear, 1 litre Nalgene bottles (with an insuated case) with wide necks plus a polythene one clearly marked as a Pee bottle for use in a tent. Water bladders can be difficult to fill and clean and the drinking pipe can easily become contaminated and frozen, but you do tend to keep better hydrated if you have one. A short piece of tubing can be useful to get at difficult water sources when on a steep route.
Personal Climbing Gear:
An easy-to-use, lightweight harness for mountaineering routes such as the Black Diamond Alpine Bod or the DMM Alpine/Centre are ideal. They can be put on whilst you keep your feet on the ground/ice/rock and you can remain tied in while answering a call of nature. For more technical climbing, the super slim Arc'Teryx range save weight. If you fear that your brain might get addled by altitude, the fail safe Metolious Safe Tech All Round is worth a look. HMS auto locking karabiners can be useful for this too .Whatever you have may well suffice and you will at least know how it works.
Mountaineering crampons with standard front points are best for everything except steep technical mixed and ice routes. The way they attach to the boots is less important than whether they fit or not. Durable anti-balling plates are essential. Keep them in a strong bag to prohibit them from chewing other gear. Examples include Petzl Vasak, Black Diamond Sabretooth (in stainless steel) and Grivel G12.
For most expeditions, but not all by any means, a 60/5cm compromise axe each plus a hammer between two can be enough. On steeper routes a pair of technical tools for the lead climber and the above combination for the second can work. Technical tools such as the Petzl Quarks, DMM Fly or Black Diamond Vipers can be versatile enough. Compromise axes have a traditional head with pick and adze but a curved shaft enabling them to be used to climb relatively steep ground. Examples being Grivel Air Tech Evo, Black Diamond Venom and DMM Cirque. A hammer needs to have a big enough head to give a reasonable chance of striking a target. Technical axes are of limited use on easier terrain. Compromise designs are better for plunging the shaft into snow, belaying and for self-arrest. Leashless short, technical axes are not very good for plunging and are too short for support on easier soft snow slopes. Wrist leashes or the more modern spring leashes are a personal choice. It would be very bad to drop your axe down a mountain. The best way of not doing so however is to pay attention.
Helmets are essential on most expeditions. Choose a model that is both lightweight but also tough enough to endure the journey to the mountain as well as up it. (Not cycling type models as they easily crack in your sack!) Those with a tough plastic shell are best e.g. Petzl Ecrin Roc or Elios, Wild Country 360, CAMP Rock Star or Black diamond Half Dome.
Ascenders such as a Ropeman or Tibloc and prusik loops are improtant for crevasse work...etc, even if full jumar type ascenders aren’t needed.
Descenders. A belay device will do the job and is slightly less easy to drop than a traditional figure of eight as it remains more attached when you attach the abseil rope.
A snow shovel each can be very useful in many places. It enables tents to be dug out after storms, snow caves to be created and tent platforms crafted. A metal blade and collapsible handle is best.
Snow Saw - Very useful in some areas as they are important for cutting blocks to make ‘wind walls’ etc.
Eating and cooking:
Fuels for cooking vary in both type and quality around the world. A multi-fuel stove is the most versatile. MSR and Primus make excellent models. Always take matches as well as the starter system in these stoves.
A fuel filter to clean liquid fuel is useful (as is a spares kit including plenty of ‘prickers’) and saves a lot of time cleaning stoves when they malfunction. The most common fuels around the world are kerosene (known as paraffin in the UK) and of course vehicle grade petrol. For base camps, locally bought kerosene stoves are often well suited to the fuel. Transporting liquid fuel to the mountain is always difficult. Make sure your containers have properly fitting screw tops for security. In countries where gas canisters can be bought in country e.g. Nepal, a Jet Boil for bivvying or a super-efficient Primus ETA Power for camps can be ideal. Air freighting canisters of gas is a difficult and expensive process, best avoided. If you plan to do any real cooking using locally bought fresh food, a small pressure cooker is nearly essential and will dramatically save on fuel. These can often be bought in country along with standard kitchen pans and utensils. An unbreakable, big insulated mug and a spoon/ Spork are worth taking from home.
Water purifiers - The best way to make water safe is to boil it. At altitude the boiling point is below 100C but it still does the job. To save fuel the next best method is to use iodine tablets or locally bought tincture of iodine from a pharmacy. It is best not to use it for too long though. Fancy filters and those using UV light are less reliable. They can break or clog and/or only work on clear water.
Tents can be expensive and also easily destroyed by weather or avalanches (hopefully when you are not in them). It is a balance between lightweight enough and strong enough. Designs based on the geodesic dome are free standing so are great on difficult terrain. The Mountain Hardwear Trango series, The North face Mountain and VE25 and the Terra Nova Quasar are all excellent. For high on a mountain and a step before bivvying, single skin tents are light and more able to be secured in difficult situations. The Mountain Hardwear EV2, Terra Nova Gemini and Crux Raid are all good examples. Irrespective of what they are constructed from, expect considerable condensation which will form a thick layer of ice inside the tent overnight. The ice will shower you as it thaws. The official line is do not cook inside a single skin tent. It will create condensation which will form more ice and the fumes can kill you.
For solid reliable base camp tents it is hard to do better the traditional Vango Force Ten ridge tents. Go for the CN3 model. They have a nylon flysheet and take two-three people. They are strong, inexpensive and will last and last. Using these tents with just poles and the flysheet creates lightweight, reasonably comfortable tarp tents. Using just the inner poles can just about do at a not-too-wild high camp.
Group dining tents and kitchen tents are usually supplied by the ground agent. Otherwise they can be bought in some countries such as Nepal and India. Buying in the UK and transporting out will be hugely expensive and best avoided. Sometimes such things can be improvised using local tarpaulins.
Ropes - It is really better to think of ropes as personal equipment and always use your own. That way you know what has happened to them. In most situations a pair of lightweight half ropes with a water repellent finish is the best. On very technical routes these may be full length but for general mountaineering for two climbers two 8mm 30m ropes might suffice. On easy ground a single rope might be enough.
Tapes and slings. Dyneema slings are light but nylon is much easier to use to improvise anchors etc. Have some of both. Make sure they are in good condition. Carry new spare abseil ‘tat’ of at least 8mm and/or 22mm tape.
Carabiners. Light is good but too light might be too small and difficult to operate with mitts. Take what you have. Make sure you have some krabs that you are happy to leave behind if necessary.
Ice screws. Longer ones can be more easily tied off if needed. An easy-screw system helps a lot and adds little weight e.g. Black Diamond.
A minimal rack of nuts and cams. Remember that your standard of climbing will reduce at high altitude and on unknown ground.
A few rock pegs, blades and angles. Avoid locally made climbing hardware that does not have genuine European/UIAA certification.
Satellite phone. These can be rented for a price in the UK and often from in-country agents in some places. Check before departure.