Friday, March 20, 2009

Haute Route Packing Tips

As guides Olivia and I spend a good portion of our time packing for various adventures.  By using a good equipment list we are able to pack and plan efficiently, leaving more time for skiing.  As I packed for our upcoming  Haute Route Ski Traverse, and Ortler Ski Circuit programs I took some extra time and laid out all my gear and shot some photos to give people an idea of what we do to minimize the weight of our packs while making sure we pack sufficient clothing, repair, and rescue equipment.

I always begin with a fresh equipment list.  This may be something that your guide provides (here is a link to our Haute Route Equipment List) or it may be something that you come up with on your own.  All of the good Haute Route guide books include one. We have detailed lists for backcountry ski touring, rock climbing, expedition mountaineering, and the other activities that we participate in as guides and on personal trips.  A good list will ease your mind in the hours before a trip, and will lead to a much more organized adventure.

Our equipment lists become a "to-do" list as this is the place where we make notes about what remains to be done, and what items we need to repair, replace, or purchase on our way out of town.

I like to lay out all of my gear as I am packing and then decide which items will go in which bag once it is all together.  We use two types of bags for transporting all of our ski gear from the US to Europe.  We use a wheeled duffel bag (Patagonia Freewheeler Max) and a wheeled ski bag (Dakine makes some nice ones).  Most US airlines limit each passenger to 2-50 lb. bags.  The disadvantage of the wheeled bags is that they weigh about 8-10 lbs. empty, leaving only 40 lb.s for gear while staying under the 50 lb. allowance.  One skier can easily do this.  If we are both going we also take a light duffel (Patagonia Black Hole Bag).  We load each bag up to about 49 lbs. making sure that we have no more than 2 bags per person.  The wheeled bags make it very easy to move your gear around in train stations and airports.  Often when we first arrive in Geneva or Zurich, we will quickly unpack the light duffel and cram everything into the big wheeled duffel; the thought being that it is easier to drag one heavy wheeled duffel than shoulder the second duffle.  Each of us then takes charge of one of the wheeled bags when riding trains.

Tips at the airport: Make sure you are certain of your bags weight before you arrive at the airport.  We use a 100 lb. fish scale that hangs from the ceiling our in our gear shed to confirm weights.  I have noticed that the scales at the airport are not always accurate and often will ask to weigh my bag on another scale if I am coming it at 51 lbs. and they are wanting to charge excess luggage.  I seem to have better luck in general if I show up looking tidy (clean shaven, nice shirt, etc.)  and organized, something for the climbing and skiing dirtbag to consider when traveling.  We zip tie the zippers on our bags when leaving the US.  We wait until we pass the "weigh-in" before adding the zip ties as we often need to shuffle gear to get the weight just right.  The TSA will re-zip tie them if they look into your bag.  Once we leave the bags in Europe we add small padlocks as they are often stored in public ski rooms and the small locks help to "keep honest people honest."

If you are pressed for space you can also put some of the gear you will need into the 45L pack you will use for your ski trip and take it as carry-on.  It is not unheard of to lose luggage on the way to Europe.  Best to schedule an extra day at the beginning to give your luggage a chance to catch up and to sleep off jet-lag.  If on a tight schedule you might pack the more critical items in your carry-on to speed the process of replacing gear and limit the damage to your wallet if you need to buy some items for a trip.  The luggage is rarely gone for good, but may not arrive in time for your schedule to work out, thus plan B.  We generally do not take our boots in carry-on as they are usually too large and in a pinch we can rent boots and skis in places like Chamonix or Zermatt.

Let's talk about specific areas of equipment.

Top Layers: I start with a synthetic t-shirt, and a light or mid-weight synthetic top.  The T-shirt is worn as a base layer and is quick to rinse out in the hut when it starts to "ripen" and often it keeps layers over it from becoming too soiled with sweat.  On top of these two layers I wear a Patagonia RI pullover, and then a soft shell (Our most recent favorite is the Patagonia Ascensionist Jacket).  Your soft shell for ski trips should be medium in weight and more focused on being breathable than waterproof.  On top of this I can layer either a light down coat or something like a Patagonia Micro Puff Jacket.  Additionally I bring one cotton t-shirt to wear in the huts at night when my other clothes are drying out.  This is a luxury, but it is nice to have something semi-clean and non-synthetic to wear during your non-skiing hours.  I also generally take a very light, water-proof shell.

Bottom Layers: On the bottom I take a light pair of long underwear, a pair of synthetic climbing pants (Patagonia Guide Pants) and a pair of lightweight, waterproof shells.  I also carry a change of synthetic boxers, and alternate pairs, rinsing when possible in various huts.

Hands, Feet, and Face:  I carry a light pair of gloves (OR Vert Gloves) and a heavier pair.  I throw in a set or two of those chemical hand warmers for unusually cold moments, but often never use them.  I take two pairs of ski socks.  For my head I take a lightweight ski hat, a neck gaiter, and a Buff.  A Buff is a stretchy neck gaiter that also doubles for face protection or a headband when you are sweating on a long uphill.  In addition I carry one pair of dark sunglasses and a pair of ski goggles.  I prefer a yellow tint on the goggles as this seems to work best in a whiteout.

Navigational Equipment: If going with a guide you should not need this, but if going on your own it is essential.  I take a GPS unit with 2 extra sets of batteries.  I tape all my new batteries together and then leave them loose in my pack, with the tape there to sort which are new and which are old.  I also carry a watch with an altimeter, a small waterproof notebook, two pencils, a compass, and a complete set of maps.  For the Haute Route we own both the 1:25,000 maps and the 1:50,000 maps and we find that in most cases the 1:50,000 are sufficient for navigation.  The exact maps needed for the Haute Route and the Ortler are on our website on the equipment lists for those trips.  Brooks Range makes some nifty covers to hold all this together and sells kits for route planning, etc.  I also carry the a grid tool so that I can accurately pull and place GPS coordinates on a map. Don't kid yourself into thinking that you can just follow the crowds on the Haute Route.  On each of our trips we have found ourselves in front frequently, navigating in poor visibility, on our own.  Make a solid route plan in advance and keep track of your location even in good weather.  We do a route plan before each trip and then review the next day each night in the hut.....much to the chagrin of many of the European guides.

Repair Kit: We typically carry some extra posi-drive screws, steel wool, epoxy, skin wax, glide wax, hose clamps (to repair ski poles), a ratcheting screw driver, various skin tips, tail, clips replacements, a ski pole basket, some duct tape, and some cotton athletic tape.  Even more importantly, we do not take brand new gear that has not been skied previously, and we are sure to carefully inspect our existing gear to make sure it is 100% for our week long adventure.  Prepare carefully and thoughtfully, but keep track of the line between careful planning and paranoia, as paranoia leads back to the classic American skier with the huge pack, a safety issue in itself.

Rescue Insurance: In Europe there are very good helicopter rescue services.  The service is well-run and expensive, so make sure you consider rescue insurance beforehand.  Olivia and I use the $5000 in coverage provided by the American Alpine Club, but you can also buy a Carte Neige in Chamonix, or purchase REGA insurance in Switzerland.  The French recently began requiring people to provide a doctor's certificate to obtain this insurance.  The certificate needs to include a written statement from your doctor that you are fit to participate in either ski mountaineering or climbing, and needs to be in French.  You can evidently also sign a statement at the time of purchase in Chamonix noting that you have not recently been told by a doctor that you should not participate in ski mountaineering or climbing.  You will be charged for any rescue and they will ask to see proof of insurance before the rescue, so bring whatever card your insuring organization gives you.  One bonus of the AAC card is that it will generally get you a discount of anywhere from 5 to 10 Euros per night in the huts.  

Rescue Equipment: You need about 85 meters of rope to get over the Col du Chardonet (day 1 - coming from Chamonix to Zermatt) and don't need that much rope after that.  We generally carry 1-30 meter rope and then another 5o meter 8 mm rope for the Col du Chardonet, extending our anchor a bit to make it the extra 4 meters.  Another option is 3- 30 meter ropes, which makes it easy to split amongst the group, but then you will need to know how to pass a knot on the lowers.  Once beyond this obstacle you will not need all that rope, but should hang on to at least 2-30 or 40 meter ropes for crevasse rescue should someone go in further along the route.  We have heard of people mailing their extra rope on to Zermatt or back to Chamonix from Champex or Verbier, but we have not done this.  We also carry a small first-aid kit (heavy on blister repair), a Brooks Range Ultralite Rescue Sled, and a Brooks Range Ultralite Guide's Tarp.  Keep in mind that if visibility is poor or the wind in high, you are not going to be rescued by a helicopter, so best to at least plan to take care of things yourself.

Pack: I have been using a Black Diamond Revelation (45L) and it has been a great pack.  It has a separate pocket for your shovel and probe, which is useful.  I would not go any bigger than 45L, but you will need most of this space on warm days when most of your clothes are in the pack.  It also has small pocket on the waist belt for your ski pass as well as some small, strong loops that you can use to clip your ski crampons and some of your rescue gear.

Technical Gear: For ski touring we carry a short (50cm) ice axe, and aluminum crampons.  The crampons stay in a small cloth sack (available in Chamonix).  These need to be compact as you will want to put them in your pack when riding crowded trams.  The cloth pouch keeps your crampons from destroying your clothes.  I don't use a protector of any sort for the ice axe.  I carry a lightweight harness (Petzl Hirundos) with a belay loop.  For crevasse rescue I carry an 18 foot 6mm cordelette, 4 locking carabiners, 5 non-lockers, a double length sling, 2 shouler length slings, a prussic, and a Petzl Reversino that works well with the 7.8mm Randonee Rope.  Be really careful when selecting cord and prussics as you need pretty thin stuff to grab onto a skinny ski rope.  Your system is going to be weaker than a traditional mountaineering setup, but the loads may not be, so you need to carefully assess the situation if you actually perform crevasse rescue.  We ski with our harnesses on with a locker already on the belay loop to speed things i we need to pull someone out of a crevasse.  Also consider how much rope it will take to get someone out and understand that 30 meters is likely to be too short for a big crevasse.

Skis: The trend these days is to use wide, twin-tipped, big skis.  In reality many of these setups are designed for the "slack" country, that area just outside a ski area, and not for the true backcountry.  I would encourage you to not buy into the hype and to consider a mid-sized ski, relatively light in weight, and perhaps with some side cut.  There may be times along the way when you want to go big and will wish you had a big mountain ski, but most of the time you want a ski that is going to handle well in variable conditions, is going to be light enough to keep your legs strong, turns nimbly, yet remains stable, and will be pleasant to carry when boot packing.  I am using the G3 Spitfire this year and think it will be the perfect balance of weight and performance.  At 7.7 lbs. it is as heavy as I want to go.  I am using Dynafit STS bindings, and will be using a ski brake.  Last year we had a runaway ski where the brake did not deploy, we made a lucky catch, and were relieved as the result would have been a very long day.  The Spitfire has dimensions of 123/89/111 and as a result cruises chunder, provides great floatation in powder, and is responsive when turning.  On a long European ski traverse such as the Haute Route you are going to see every possible type of snow and you need a versatile ski that is still not overly heavy.  The Spitfire turns well, is predictable, and still feels solid if you are really laying it down.  I am using the G3 Alpinist Skins, which are remarkably lightweight, and came with the coolest skin trimming tool I have ever used.  Make sure whatever ski you pick has a nice flat tail, or at least a groove for your skin tail attachment.  The other skis in this photo are the 2009-10 G3 Tonic, which are one of our current favorites, but will remain in our local quiver in favor of a slightly lighter ski for the Haute Route.

Pack Test: Before I pack everything into my bag for Europe I lay out the clothes and equipment that I will be wearing and then make sure that all of the other items to actually be carried on the Haute Route actually fit into my pack.  Once dressed for skiing, you need to be able to fit it all into that 45L pack, with enough room left over for the critical bottle of wine, or demi-baguette.  

The beauty of climbing and skiing in the European Alps is that you can utilize huts and trams to make big routes possible in a day, and can avoid carrying tents, stoves, and all that in involved in camping in the mountains.  You do not want to show up dangerously light on clothing, etc. but you do want to have a lightweight kit that will allow you to enjoy climbing in Europe as the Europeans do, with a small pack a bit of cash, and a credit card.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Expedition Planning Seminar - Feathered Friends - March 5

Olivia and I will be hosting an expedition planning seminar at the Feathered Friends Store in Seattle on March 5, 2009.  They are located at 119 Yale Ave North in Seattle.  This runs from 6:30-8:30 pm and will focus on planning for some of the various high altitude expeditions that we have been involved with over the years.  In particular we will discuss various strategies for keeping your equipment light on Denali Expeditions and Aconcagua Expeditions.

In 21 years of expedition climbing we have had the opportunity to visit Aconcagua (6 times), Denali (28 times), Cho Oyu (5 times), Mt. Everest 2 times, Shishapangma, South Georgia Island, Antarctica, Kilimanjaro, Ecuador (5 times), Mexico (13 times), Mt. Elbrus, Mt. Sanford (2 times), Mt. Bona (2 times), Peru, the Ruth Gorge, as well as a bunch of other spots in Alaska, Europe, Asia, and points in between.  Over time we have come to realize that when planning for an expedition "less is more," but there are a couple of key pitfalls that can be avoided.

Topics Discussed:

Lightweight Expedition Climbing Equipment
High Altitude Cooking and Kitchens
Communications Equipment
Outfitted vs. Independent Expeditions
How to find an outfitter w/o going broke
Packing and Shipping your gear

Gear nuts will get a kick out of the evening as a portion of keeping things light involves buying the latest, greatest lightweight gear; the other portion involves careful planning and a willingness to improvise or live without.

As part of the evening we will bring our full Denali packs and cover what we feel is essential and what we we leave behind.  This will be a light evening with plenty of opportunity to ask questions specific to a trip you may be planning.

For more information call the Northwest Mountain School at 509-548-5823 or Feathered Friends at 1-888-308-9365.