Technical gear to pack for your first Alpine Trip
For many a trip to the Alps is a dream come true and the next step after enjoying the British hills in summer and winter. As an IFMGA Mountain Guide I work regularly with folk making this trek to the Alps and climbing their first Alpine Summits. Alpine Climbing is a big step up from the UK. As novice alpinists they are going to be moving on glaciers, avoiding crevasses, dealing with longer climbs and perhaps for the first time experiencing moving at altitude. Planning can make the difference between a successful or a wasted trip. It’s not uncommon to answer many questions by folk before they even arrive in the mountains. Most important is what to bring and perhaps any skills they could pre load before arriving. I always work from a gear list myself and I know it’s a big help. I will try and expand on the basic list and explain the finer points of why is needed and why.
Basic Alpine glacial kit
It is becoming more and more important with Global warming to carry the right gear for the job while on your Alpine trip. As Guides we are certainly experiencing more open crevasses associated with the changing weather patterns and seasonal snow fall. Crevasses are opening up earlier, becoming unpassable, as the winter snow retreats over the warmer summer months. Stories of people falling into crevasses and being rescued by friends, Guides and Helicopters are becoming more common. As Guides the spacing of people on a rope while moving in glacial terrain has generally increased to prevent more than one member being pulled into a crevasse. The training of procedures, by Guides, to deal with an incident on a glacier are becoming more rigorously taught. To travel safely around on glaciers is not a desired skill but a fundamental requirement. Having the right gear on your harness to cope with a crevasse fall and subsequent rescue is essential.
My personal preference while Guiding in the Alps is to treat all members of the team as equals and each member should be able to look after themselves and their partners on a climbing rope. Clear procedures to deal with various situations is essential along with a basic understanding of roping up for glacial travel and crevasses rescue. With procedures everybody needs to know who does what and in which order. Stopping a fall into a crevasse, pulling somebody out of a crevasse, ascending up a rope if dangling in a hole and calling out the rescue services are main areas I focus my teaching on.
The Alpine Mountaineers Kit List
Most Guides issue lists to their clients which are based on the minimum amount of kit somebody might need to rescue a person. I know the minimum amount of gear I need and where best to use it which allows me to reduce equipment and avoid having to carry excessive amounts of climbing equipment. But most novice Alpine climbers don’t have this luxury. Unfortunately if they are caught out with not sufficient gear life is difficult and perhaps situations can become more dangerous. I advise a bit more gear is always better than not enough. Over the years climbing hardware has halved in weight while strengths have increased. For example with Karabiners; why carry one piece when you can carry two for the same weight. Light is right and more is the score!
What I carry on my harnesses while moving in glacial terrain:
- 4 Screw gate Karabiners ( DMM Phantom Screw gates) The DMM Phantom screw gate is one of the lightest Karabiners on the market they are just perfect in my opinion
- 1 HMS Screw gate Karabiner (Sentinel Screw gate Karabiner). The Sentinel Screw gate is lightweight but still large enough to use the Italian Friction hitch (an essential knot used to safeguard somebody climbing)
- 1 Revolver Screw gate The Revolver Karabiner to reduce friction while hoisting a person out of the crevasse
- 2 prussic Loops (1.4m length of 6mm accessory cord before knotting) a prussic loop or jamming pulley to connect the load from the weighted rope to the anchor; another prussic and sling to safe guard the surface person to safely move to the edge of a crevasse.
- 2 slings (Dyneema 11mm x 120cm) 1.20m sling to attach the buried Axe to the rope another to safeguard the surface person. My advice is avoid the thinner 8mm as the rocks can be sharp and having a wider stronger more abrasive resistant sling makes sense. 1.2m is perfect for all jobs like running belays and attaching to buried axe belays.
- 1 or 2 17cm Ice screws (DMM Revolution Ice Screw) if the glacier doesn’t have enough snow on the surface deep enough to dig a buried axe belay one but better two ice screws to create an ice belay on the surface. Ice screws are generally more of use for the person who has fallen into a crevasse to secure themselves to stop the situation getting worse. Don’t go smaller than a 17cm, smaller ice screws might be lighter but generally very weak on glacial surface ice.
- An Ice Threader to create an anchor for abseiling off ice cliffs or down steep ice. There are many purpose-made threader devices but a 0.5m of stiff wire, similar to coat hanger wire can suffice.
- A belay device (DMM Pivot) for belaying people up and down steep ground.
- A jamming pulley (Rope man, Duck, Mini traction)
- Ice Axe (DMM Cirque ) An Ice Axe to stop a slide and create an anchor
How long should be my Ice Axe? We use Ice axes for many different reasons in the Alps: Steadying ourselves walking on steep terrain; creating anchors in the snow for crevasse rescue and climbing steep snow slopes, climbing steeper ice on glaciers, Ice Axe breaking for stopping a slide on snow and occasionally cutting steps on hard glacial ice to easy walking. The axe is a tool to be used in Alpine climbing and is not necessarily seen just as walking pole. With is in mind I prefer to use telescopic poles to help walking and reduce sore joints. To help gauge the length of axe best suited for you I suggest when holding the head of the axe drop the shaft down the side of your leg. The spike on the bottom of the axe should hit you on the ankle bone. Axes vary from 50cm to 65cm. The problem with having an axe that is too long it that it is very difficult to ice axe break comfortably as the bottom of the axe can dig into the snow or even you! .
DMM have two great axes. The Cirque a general lightweight walking and general mountaineering ice axe also a good option for ski tourers. The Raptor a more technical general mountaineering axe which offers a better pick for climbing and cutting ice. With all axes I carry a leash but generally only attached it when I’m climbing or on an exposed icy ridge in the Alps. Most mountaineers feel the leash can get in the way while walking and if attached during a fall the axe is dropped the leash just keeps the axe rotating around the body and can cause the person to be injured however dropping an axe can also lead to injury.
I always carry a helmet in the Alps. The mountains are high and rock fall is not uncommon even on popular paths. The old saying ‘Rope on Helmet on’ is almost totally correct. So when I’m travelling about on glaciers, rock climbing and ridge mountaineering I’ve got my ‘Lid’ on. Modern helmets are light and relatively inexpensive- it’s a no brainer! I like white, as a colour, as it best reflects the light and hence keeps your head cool on hot summer days wandering about on glaciers. The Ascent Helmet is a classic shape and design and as it’s made from a plastic tends to be less likely to breaking, especially in the ruck sac, like many foam made ones.
Crampons are essential and need to be of a strong metal rather than the very light alloy crampons used by many ski tourers. A general, 10 or 12 point, mountaineering crampon is best with most definitely an anti-balling plate to prevent soft snow balling to the base of the crampon. For general mountaineering avoid the more technical climbing crampons with big front points. They might be great for ice climbing but easily trip you up when you least expect it. A crampon bag is handy to stop your gear, inside your ruck sac, getting wet and cut. To save weight I often use my gaiters to wrap the crampons up with.
How long is a piece of string! I use many different thicknesses of rope and lengths depending on what I am doing. It is difficult to suggest one rope that does everything.
General Alpine Mountaineering and Glacial crossings: A 50m lightweight single rope is ideal. Certainly if the rope runs over any rocks the single rope strength and anti-abrasive properties are essential. I suggest a rope like the DMM Prodigy 9.8mm and make sure it’s an ever dry type rope.
For Alpine rock routes: Alpine rock climbing is very popular. What could be more dramatic climbing at altitude above a glacier on perfect granite rock? Double rope technique is best adopted so two half ropes are needed. I use an 8.5mm rope that offers strength and is less likely to cut on sharp edges. Lighter thinner ropes are vulnerable to being cut also by sharp crampons. I have used DMM Prophets for many years and they wear incredibly well. On easy snowy glaciers a half rope such as this can be used to safeguard a team.
An Alpine rack for leading
Every ounce counts so carry the lightest equipment you can find. Better to have more gear for the same weight than some heavy metal work that perhaps is longer lasting but just slows you down with the extra burden. I almost always use DMM Phantom snap gates and screw gates. Unbelievable weight saving and very easy to use. Walnuts are idea for chocks and I suggest a 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 size Dragon cam.
Intro Alpine rack: 6-8 quick draws, set of wall nuts (1-11) and 3-5 cams, 4 slings 1.2cm, nut key. 2-4 Ice screws.
Cragging rack for alpine rock routes: 10-12 quick draws of various lengths, Full set of cams, RP’S, 4 long slings 1.2m. A Pivot belay device is very handy for bringing up two climbers at the same time.
Waterproof Top -Light and minimal pockets
Waterproof trousers -side zips best.
Thermal base layer Top long sleeve –
Thermal base layer bottoms.
Thin Fleece with hood.
Warmer Fleece layer.
Add on jacket: Soft shell or further fleece.
Duvet jacket. For 4000m peaks a light down jacket is ideal
Warm tight Gloves: Leather palmed.
Warm Thick Gloves: Ski or Mountaineering Gauntlet
Blister kit: White zinc oxide tape and Compeed- Second skin is best.
Head torch: Light and small LED type ideal.
35-45 litre rucksack. Light weight and minimal pockets to save weight.
4 light weight screw gates
1 HMS Screw gate
2X 1.20m slings
2x prussic (40cm when tired.)
1 or 2 ice screws
Axe DMM cirque