When I started alpine style climbing in the 1970s I was very satisfied with the kit I used and never really thought much about whether it could be improved. Now I look back and so many things have got so much better that trying to choose just three that have made life easier is so difficult
1976 – Cecchinel/Nomine route on Eckpfeiler Buttress, Mt Blanc in 1976. No goretex yet, no yeti gaiters. But I do have a curved axe, terradactyl, strap-on crampons, moleskin breeches, a plastic bag to bivouac in, ankle gaiters and a methylated spirit stove. And I think it can’t get any better.
So what three most improved pieces of kit have I chosen?
1 Down jackets
Back in 1987 Victor Saunders and I climbed the Golden Pillar of Spantik in Pakistan. I still have the down jacket that I took. It’s the red one in the photos below. I don’t have any data to compare warmth but my guess is they are about the same on that front. But wow – on my kitchen scales the Spantik jacket weighs in at 1330g whereas the Ramche is less than half that at 450g. The introduction of lighter fabrics, different baffle arrangements, a reflective inner shield and top quality down has made an amazing difference. Add in hydrophobic down compared to the old water absorbing down of the eighties and the improvement has been remarkable.
Spantik jacket weighing in at 1330g in 1987.
Ramche jacket weighing in at 450g on Gave Ding in 2015.
When I started alpine style climbing I used a Trangia methylated spirit stove. This was not very convenient but gave me some lasting memories. On the Dru the meths leaked into bread which led to me getting badly drunk and in Peru the stove tipped over as it melted into our sitting bivouac ledge and poured burning liquid over us. By the 1980s I had moved onto my first gas stove. In comparison it was brilliant. Surely it could never be improved? I stubbornly carried on using it for over 15 years until in 2010 I was introduced to the MSR Reactor stove. Wow! My kitchen scales tell me that the Reactor weighs 508g compared to 752g for my old stove. Much as that’s a 30%+ weight saving it is less than half the story. The really big saving is in efficiency. Whereas we used to use one 250g cylinder per day we now use about one per three days. On a typical seven day alpine style Himalayan climb that’s a tremendous saving at a time when weight is so crucial. Add in taking about half the time to boil and operating much better in windy conditions and the improvement is simply amazing.
Old gas stove in use on Vasuki Parbat in 2008
Happy brewing with Reactor on Shiva in 2012.
Having always been a man keen to avoid frostbite I think it was in 1979 that I bought a pair of Galibier Makalu double boots. They were state of the art at the time, they smelled of gorgeous leather and I loved them. Nowadays I use Olympus Mons 8000m boots (those black and yellow ones punters often use on Everest) but with the foam like sole replaced with a nice hard wearing one. Even with the heavy duty sole they weigh in at a nearly a 20% weight saving on the Makalus. But it’s not just the weight. The leather Makalus absorbed moisture and I can vividly recall the challenge of thawing them out and getting them on every morning. The thawing could only be done over the stove which not only wasted gas but also tended to result in torched laces and singed boot leather. And the thawing process took so long that two man efforts to force half frozen boots onto cold feet would start at the earliest possible opportunity. The kicking and banging that was necessary often resulted in collateral damage to tent fabric, stove or body. Nowadays I loosen my laces fully, slip my feet easily into flexible boots and the day can begin. Bliss!
Olympus Mon on the left and much thawed (but still much loved) Makalu on the right.