Thursday, September 7, 2017

Summer Climbing Gear Thoughts, a Retrospective

With miles and miles of big mountain terrain traveled this summer, I've got some thoughts on gear. This is me just rambling on about what has worked for me, this year in this environment with the selection I have at my disposal.

The CAMP Flash Harness is great. It was initially plugged as a sport climbing product, with minimal adjustments and doodads. They then offered an "Alpine" version, with more adjustment and features. I don't feel I need the additional features of the Flash Alpine. The regular Flash is all I've needed in Patagonia, sport climbing, on giant trad multi pitch routes like the Direct South Buttress of Moran, and on the Grand Traverse. That's pretty dang versatile.


In 2009 I took my AMGA Alpine Guide Course here in the Tetons with Exum and the legendary Tom Hargis. Hargis both impressed and bewildered me with his approach shoe selection. Over the 10 days Tom changed shoes like Elton John changes concert outfits. On one trip to Baxter's Pinnacle (literally, the shortest technical summit climb in the range. It's a 10 minute boat ride, a 30 minute walk, 5 easy pitches, and one harder pitch) Tom wore three different pairs of shoes. I'd always done fine, up to that point, with a pair of approach shoes and some rock shoes. After three seasons here, I get it now... I have a literal wall of shoes. I also have a couple sponsorships. However, even without the gear deals, I'd have multiple approach shoes. This is what I think an alpine rock climber should have to choose from, listed from most "climbable" to most "walkable":

  • comfortable rock shoes. (I use Evolv Supras, sized up. See below for more thoughts on rock shoes...)
  • Techy approach shoes. Worn when spending the entire day in one pair of shoes, from approach through the pitches of a moderate (moderate for you... A few grades below your max) route, and back down. These are optimized for climbing. Just barely walkable. The Evolv Cruzer Psyche is my favorite. I also have a pair of Evolv prototypes that are even better. 
  • Descent shoes. Ultralight, sticky rubber soles, worn to complement rock shoes when the approach/descent is short and the up pitches are hard. The classic Evolv Cruzer invented this category and still leads the charge. 
  • High-tops. For using with crampons. I use discontinued Evolv Maximus. 
  • Walking/running shoes. These are fully optimized for non-climbing. Treaded outsole, thick foam midsole, light upper. When you will have other shoes for the climbing portion of your day, your feet deserve proper walking shoes. I use Garmont 9.81 hiking shoes. Kicks optimized for walking really are better for walking than any "approach shoes" out there. 

More on rock shoes... For years I've had a rotating set of rock shoe models but watched jealously those that could use the same ones for every sort of steep climbing they did. The real pros seemed to have one preferred model in two different sizes. A tight pair for hard cragging and a sloppy fitting pair for long routes. Finally, with the Supra, Evolv has made a model that will work for 95% of the climbing I do. Basically every pitch I've climbed this summer has been in Supras. One pair fit to wear with socks on long routes, and one pair fit closer (note, not tight... the right shoes on good climbers don't need to be vice tight) for sending. To complement the Supras, in very specialized settings, I have a couple other pairs in the mix. I have high tops (watch for the Evolv General coming out soon, to replace the Astroman) for wide cracks and Addict slippers for Indian Creek. 
Supra, socks, smoky light. On the "black face" pitch of the Grand Teton's Lower Exum Ridge. September 7, 2017. 

The Cassin Eghen pack has proven to be my go-to bag all summer long. I've long been a fan of boutique handmade small alpine packs. The mass-produced packs just weren't ever simple enough. The Eghen 22 is finally a mass-produced product that is just right for basically all alpine rock climbing. It is big enough to hold what I need to guide the 3-day Grand Traverse, but cleverly folds down to hold a water bottle, first aid kit, and extra jacket for the steep pitches of the Dihedral of Horrors or the Snaz. 

I'll likely eat my words but I think non-locking carabiners have reached a sort of plateaued maturity. The tiniest, lightest carabiners are now advancing literally one gram at a time. The CAMP Nano 22 brings a big improvement in ergonomics and a tiny improvement in weight over the Nano 23. Mid-size, wire-gated, notch-less carabiners like the CAMP Dyon do everything the ultralights can't do. 

Enjoy alpine rock climbing? Get more ropes in more lengths... Figure out how to do it... Sell a set of cams, skip an extravagant pair of approach shoes, something... This summer I have used ropes in 28, 30, 35, 40, 42, 45, 50, 60, and 70 meter lengths. And each was the right tool for the job, at the time and under those circumstances. Longer ropes weigh more, for sure. More importantly, its more to coil and more to restack and more to tangle. If I had to pick two ropes for all my climbing they would be a 40 and a 60. If I had to pick 3, it would be a 30, a 50, and a 70. Diameter? That doesn't matter nearly as much as length. The fattest 45 weighs less than the skinniest 70... I can't tell you how many folks walk into Garnet Canyon with 2-3 times the rope length they need. 

You now, officially, have no reason to use a device that doesn't offer some sort of assisted braking function for belaying a leader. The Edelrid Jul (unqualified, for skinny ropes. Mega Jul for more "normal" diameters) does everything your ATC Guide or Reverso does, plus adds a very real margin for error. I have a contractual obligation to Edelrid's competition, but I'll risk that here with this endorsement. This is that important to me. The one hang-up of the Jul is in belaying a second or two on moderate to fatter ropes (like, thicker than 9.2mm or so). In that context the CAMP Ovo feeds easily. Carry a Jul (or Mammut Smart, or Grigri, or CAMP Matik) to belay the leader, and an Ovo to belay the second(s). Yes, you can rappel "like normal" on a Jul or Mega Jul. Yes, you can belay one or two seconds on a Jul or Mega Jul. Yes, you can belay a leader on a kinky rope with a Jul or Mega Jul. Yes, you can belay a leader on two ropes with a Jul or Mega Jul. Read the instructions, try something new, get outside of your comfort zone, and realize the true risk-management advantages of this tool (and those like it).

First Aid kit... I like having a full-function "emergency kit" that I can take anywhere. It is ever evolving, always under review, and subject to only the most occasional trip-specific edits. This summer I worked closely with IFMGA guide and ER physician Alan Oram to really polish the kit. Operating under the premise that "bandaids don't save lives", I now carry a few fairly specific-but-quite-valuable items. The kit has gotten bigger and heavier, but I am truly better equipped to save lives.

Camping stuff... Don't tell Ian, but I've recently caved in and started carrying an inflatable pad on traverses. I used to suffer on rigid foam, just under my torso. I've gotten soft. Also, I think there is a ton of room for improvement in mountain bivy shelters. The Black Diamond Firstlight is great, and head-and-shoulders above the competition in many ways. But a few super simple tweaks would really bring it all together. First? Add some fricken mid-wall tie-outs on the sides. Next, make the dang thing waterproof. Sleeping bag... I continue to use the Feathered Friends Vireo for almost everything. I've observed, only slightly joking, that the biggest advantage of this zipper less sock is that I don't ever need to decide whether to zip it or not. Eliminate those choices and my brain is freed up to obsess on other even more pointless tasks. 

*I suspect that it is fully clear, but in the interest of full disclosure, I must note that I work with the manufacturers of much of the above recommended equipment. They provide me with equipment, but I provide the opinions. 

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