Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Gear for The Cassin

This is an unashamedly geeky post about the gear I took up the Cassin Ridge on Denali. I'm not good enough at climbing just to throw some stuff in a bag and get on with it. Before a big climb I spend an unhealthy amount of time thinking about what I'm going to wear, the rack and food. Thanks to all my partners for putting up with my over thinking and constant chattering about my latest lightweight idea. If only I put as much effort into training!

Why we do it - Livingstone high on the Cassin.
Last June Tom Livingstone and I made a two day ascent of the Cassin Ridge. The normal ascent time for this route is four or five days. Although being fit and acclimatized played a large part in our success, so did our choice of equipment. We stripped everything down to the bare minimum which allowed us to move quickly over the terrain. The post below reflects on the equipment we took, what worked well, what didn't and suggests what I would do again differently.

Please be aware this post is just my opinion from my ascent in good weather. Don't just blindly copy what I have done, come to your own conclusions and use your own judgement before deciding on what to pack.

Goodnight Alaska - Livingstone struggles to put his psyche to sleep!

Sportiva Spantiks - These worked really well, being warm and supportive. As long as they fit you I think they're a brilliant boot for such a climb.

Teko Expedition Socks - These also worked really well, but I wish I'd taken a second pair for day two. I was unable to dry my socks out overnight and as a result had really cold feet as I broke trail in the shade towards Kahiltna Horn. The sensation went very strange and it felt like there was a large amount of fluid on my feet. I was extremely worried that I had frost bite. Thankfully the stumble down to 17k warmed them back up.

A pair of merino boxers - the Rab ones are good value for money.

Powerstretch Bibs - Although these look pretty silly they are great for cold weather climbing. They keep everything tucked in, which eliminates cold spots. Mine are an old Patagonia pair. Rab and Outdoor Research currently make them.

Softshell Trousers - I wore ME G2 trousers, which worked well. They're made from Gore Windstopper which means they're completely windproof (unlike most conventional softshell trousers, which are only wind resistant) and very breathable. They also have internal gaiters, which meant proper gaiters weren't necessary. I'd probably take a pair of softshell bibs if I was going again. If using a pair of bibs (or trousers with braces) make sure they have a drop seat so you can go for a dump without taking off your jacket and harness.

Wool Zip Tee - I used an icebreaker that worked well. I would be interested to try one of the Brynje string vest thermals that Andy Kirkpatrick raves about. 

Patagonia R1 Hoody - this worked exceptionally well. Its' long body tucked into the Powerstretch Bibs, together with the long arms and thumbs loops we brill for eliminating cold spots.

Hooded windshirt - This was my outer layer low down on the route and on the apporach.

Thin synthetic jacket with a big hood - This was the outer layer for most the technical climbing. It's warm, breathable, competely windproof. As it isn't going to be raining up there you don't need an expensive and heavy shell jacket. The Rab Xenon is a good jacket.

Down Jacket - This is is probably the piece of clothing I speant the most amount of time fretting about. Denali has a reputation for being the coldest mountain on earth (It isn't) and concequently I thought I needed a massive box wall down jacket, with so much down in it that I'd end up in the Hague accussed of goose genocide, to survive. Thankfully the nice people at Mountain Equipment didn't have any box-wall jackets to give me, so they sent me their excellent stitch-through Vega jacket instead. This was a lighter jacket, with a water resitanct outer and helmet compatable hood. It prooved to be plenty warm enough for my ascent in late June.

Livingstone on the summit at sunset - wearing all his clothes.
Hats and gloves

Mountain Equipment Randonee Gloves - These are an excellent pair of dextourous, leather palmed gloves, pile lined gloves. They are very warm and good for technical climbing. They need to be bought tight as the pile beds in with wear. However I probably wouldn't take any gloves if climbing the Cassin again as the climbing isn't really technical enough to need them. If leaving the gloves behind I would take a pair of lightweigh mitts like dachsteins incase I dropped my main mitts.

Gore-tex Mitts - I took an old pair of Marmot mitts with a leather palm and fleece inner. These are lightweigh and very warm. I wore them most of the time. Adding chemical hand warmers high up on the mountain. The mitts are fairly dextorous but I added elastic idiot loops so I could whip them off, to place or remove gear bare-handed, without fear of dropping them.

Synthetic overmitts - I took the outers of a pair Mountain Equipment Fitzroy Mitts to wear over my climbing mitts on high on the mountain Together they worked really well and I didn't have any problems with cold hands. I also wore them on my feet during the bivis. The plan being that I would dry my socks on chest and the mitts would keep my feet warm. This didn't really work and I ended up with cold feet and wet socks. TAKE TWO PAIRS OF SOCKS!

Powerstretch Balaclava and buff - In addition to the myriad of hoods. These worked well keeping my head and face warm. I took a neoprene face mask with me to basecamp, but found that a growing a great big bushy beard was a better option. I also took sunglasses with a nose guard, normal glasses and ski googles. You could combine the sunglasses and the ski googles together if you got a pair of  something like Adidas Terrex Pros.

Bivi gear

I'm pretty fortunate that I can sleep practically anywhere. The first night, camped beneath the Jap Couloir I was warm and slept well. The second at 5000m on a sloping ledge I had cold feet but slept ok.

Karrimat - You could risk taking an inflaitable matt, but karrimats are warm, comfy and practially industricable. They only disadvantage is they are fairly bulky and have to be strapped to the outside of your pack. I wouldn't reccomend cutting your karimatt down much as they provide a massive amount of insulation and the weight saving is neglible. If you don't beilve me spend a night on snow with a cut down matt and another with a nice thick full length one to expirence the difference.

Sleeping Bag - I took a PHD bag with fill of 500g of down and a water restiant outer. I found it worked ok, but was a little on the short side. I wore all my clothes on both nights. I would probably take a slightly lighter sleeping bag. An long zipless bag with a fill of 350g of top quality down would be my ideal choice. As well as a spare pair of socks I would also take a pair PHD Down Socks as these weigh bugger all but will make a massive difference to your comfort.

Black Diamond Firstlight Tent - This was a good warm option, but I'm glad the ledge we found wasn't any smaller otherwise we'd have struggles to fit our tent on it! It seemed silly to take bivi bags, when the Firstlight is lighter and offers so much more protections. I wouldn't like to use a petrol stove inside one, but a Jetboil or Reactor would be fine.

Trying to get into bed - this photo doesn't really show how small the ledge is.

Having heard horror stories about friends whois Jetboils froze halfway up the Cassin I was reluctant to take one. Instead we took a MSR XGK stove and two full large fuel bottles. Instead of using a stopper we put a pump in each bottle in case one failed. By the time we got back to 17k Camp both had. I would probably take a MSR Reactor Stove next time as these are unbelivable fast at boiling water but also incredible efficient. Also gas is much easier to use.

Me brewing up in the heat - low down on the route.

We also took a small trangia pan and lid, which was both cheap and very lightweight. Most of the food we ate was freeze dried meals, which you eat out of the packet, so we didn't need a bowl.

We took a nalegene bottle in a Forty Below cozy each. It is worth clipping this to your harness with a spare krab so it easy to access and you drink often. I kept mine in my sack for the first part of the route and didn't drink enough.

Climbing Gear

60m 8mm rope - I would take a shorter 40m rope if going again. It would be pretty difficult to descend the Cassin above the Cowboy Arete and none of the steep sections are longer than 20m. You would have to do a bit of down climbing and leave a lot of gear but I could be done.

The climbing on the Cassin is generally fairly easy. With a four or five short pitches that might get Scottish V, lots of grade II-III scrambling, topped off with endless trail breaking at 6000 metres. You don't need a big rack.

Me leading the "crux" above Cassin Ledge.
4 Ice screws - We took 2 16cm and 2 13cms. In good ice I will abseil off a 16cm V thread and in bad ice I won't abseil off one at all.

6 Wires - a random seclection of the years crag swap up to Rock 8.

Camalots - Grey, Purple, Green and Red. Colin Haley told us we didn't need a Gold and he was right.

1 Knifeblade - Didn't place it and wouldn't take it again.

Slings -  8 60cms and 2 120cms.

20 wiregate krabs - This seem like a good number. We were a bit short at times, but never too short.

V threader and 15m of 5mm tat - We drilled one v thread on the descent down the wickware ramp to abseil over a big crevasse.

Personal Climbing Gear

Simple harness with fixed legs loops
12 point crampons with anit bailing plates
Spring leash
Reverso and and 2 extra small screw gates
2 extra biners for clipping my water bottle and gloves to my harness.

Tom L leading a steep section in the Japanese Couloir - I found this bit harder than the "crux" above. 
Other stuff

30 Litre Rucksack - I took a Aiguille Alpine Cirrus, which is a simple, lightweight and durable sack. It was just big enough on the walk in with a few things hanging on the outside. Livingstone took an even smaller Arc'teryx Pack. Both of us had a short length of tat with an old krab looped through it so we could clip it to belays easily.

Livingstone about to leave our camp at 14k.

Suunto Altimetre Watch - Set to feet. Good for morale so you can work how much further you have to gain. The alarm clocks on these are pretty quiet. It would be worth one of you taking a second watch and sleeping with it tucked into your hat. Casio Classics are loud, cheap and reliable.

Small pen knife for cutting tat -  Attached to this was my one luxury item: Ueli the fast and light wolf my girlfriend gave me!

Ipod shuffle - I've got one of the old ones the size of a pack of gum. They're good to escape when you're cold and tired.

Topos - Laminated topo and route description from the Supertopo guide each.

Lighters - Take 4 or 5 and put them in lots of different places so you can't lose/break them all.

Camera and spare battery - Get one that is small enough to life round your neck. That way it is always handy and doesn't get cold. Top tip. Take lots of memory cards on a trip and change them after each new route. That way if you drop your camera you haven't lost all your pictures.

Spoon - each.

Radio - It was nice to know what the whether was going to do every evening and play trivia with Lisa!

A small first aid kit - with a roll of tape, head ache tablets, strongish pain killers, a bandage and some Diamox in it.

Sun cream - Small tub of high factor children's sun cream and a lip balm each. 

Map and Compass - I think we took one anyway...

Ueli and I - Psyched off our faces!

Food and fuel.

We were away from our camp at 14k for three nights. It took us two full days to climb the route a half day to get to it and a half day to get back to camp.

We took two large MSR fuel bottles full of white gas, plus an extra 400ml plastic pep bottle so we could melt extra brews in the 'shrund at the base of the Jap Couloir. We had more fuel than we needed and I reckon it would have been five days before we ran out.

We took snacks and a big evening meal for the approach day. Then two days worth of food for the route. Generally I was pleased with how our food worked, but would probably do things slightly differently if I was to do the route again.

We took something along the lines of this each:

Approach day
5 bars - a mix of cliff and snickers
1 bagel with cream cheese
Mountain House freeze dried meal

Climbing day
2 sachets of instant oat meal
6 bars - mainly Cliff plus a couple of Snickers. The Cliffs were fine low down on the mountain, but when it got cold they went rock hard and were difficult to swallow with a dry mouth. I wouldn't take as many next time.
7 GU gels. These were pretty sickly but easy to get down and they made me feel like Mark Twight.
Bagel, cream cheese and a big chunk of salami. Real food was amazing for energy. I should have taken twice as much and cut down on bars.
Mountain House freeze dried meal. These were excellent, tasty and packed full of energy. I can't recommend them enough.  I think we took one extra one between us just in case.

What we didn't take...

Toothbrush - My mouth felt pretty minging at the end of it and cleaning my teeth back at 14k was semi-orgasmic.

Walking Poles - Although they are heavy they would make breaking trail on the upper Cassin much easier.

Spare socks - JUST TAKE THEM!

Drinks powder - I think we just drank melted water on the Cassin. We might have had a few tea bags, but we didn't have any energy powder. Back at 14k we blagged some GU brew from a departing team. It tasted great and apparently helps with recovery. I'll take some next time.

Loo Roll - There is an abundance of snow on the route! 

GPS - I took one to 14k Camp, but couldn't be bothered to learn how to use it.

Me on the Cowboy Arete - some years this is crux of the climb. We had good conditions.
Below is Livingstone's video he made of our climb and Joshua Lavigne ace video from single-pushing the Cassin the year before. Not quite Alaska but Colin Haley has written this interesting piece on the Patagonia blog about the clothes he wore during his very productive Patagonia season last year.

Cassin Ridge, Denali - Livingstone/Ripley from Tom Livingstone on Vimeo.

Cassin in Under 24 hrs from Joshua Lavigne on Vimeo.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

British Style - 1000 Climbing Tips by Andy Kirkpatrick

A long time ago I went to an Ian Parnell lecture entitled: British Style. To set the scene he started the talk with a picture of the late, great Jean Christophe Lafaille, dressed up to the nines, in his lime green, Gore-Tex suit, adorned with his sponsors' logo. That's not British style. Then he put up a photo of a large team of Russian climbers forcing their way up a big mountain. That wasn't British style either. Finally he put up a picture of a climber wearing a checked shirt, wonky glasses caked in grime and a knackered old helmet. He was chalk climbing on the White Cliffs of Dover. This was British style. Ian the recounted a tale of this guy, I forget his name, making the first solo ascent of the Colton MacIntyre on the Grandes Jorasses. He was roped soloing and climbing very slowly, inching his way up the huge face. Some French climbers viewed this from the hut with binoculars and decided that they didn't want a Brit to make the first solo (after all it was bad enough that two of them had made the first ascent!) so they set off early the next morning and free soloed past him in their fluorescent Gore-Tex. A day or so later the lone Brit topped out. I have no idea if this story is true or not, but it makes a good tale.

Anyway I digress.

I've long been a fan of Andy Kirkpatrick and over the years have probable devoured every word he has ever written. I can remember reading an article on ice tools in the first climbing magazine I ever bought. A copy of High Mountain with Kenton Cool climbing the Moonflower Buttress on the cover - Magazines never seam to be as interesting these days.

Kirkpatricks latest book is an ebook containing 1000 short bits of advice for climbers on all aspects of climbing. Each tips is at most a page long and some are only a single line. Written in Kirkpatricks humorous style they cover every aspect of climbing from the first steps tieing on and indoors, right through to expeditions and big walling. It also has top tips for taking photos, getting free gear and airport luggage allowances. The only aspects that aren't covered are sport climbing and bouldering, which is probably a good thing as it isn't what Andy does.

The tips are well thought out and easy to understand and written from Andy's hard won expirence. I like Andy's systems approach to climbing, using his gear as a tools to try and get the most of out. Most of the book is plain text, with the occasional photo to illustrate a point. I've been climbing for quite a long time and although I already knew plenty of the tips, I've learned plenty from reading this book and it has made me reflect on my apporach to climbing.

What I didn't like:

There are a few anecdotes throughout the book, but I was hoping for more. I used to love the humorous tales about Dick Turnbull, Jule Cartwright or Andy Perkins that Andy's old columns in High or Climb were littered with.

Some more photos to illustate tips would have been nice. One of my favourite books is Mark Twight's Extreme Alpinsim and the thing that makes that book is the high quality well captioned photos throughout the text. If this book was to appear in real-book format it would ace if it had photos.

The spelling is awful, but I found it didn't detract from the reading. Andy is dyslexic and I'm not much better. I'm sure this blog post is littered with errors.

The table of contents is a bit vague and at the back of the book. It would be better if it was a bit more detailed (more subheadings) and at the front of the book.

Finally it would be ace if it was an actual book. A small paperback that I could keep by the loo or throw into my bag for expeditions. I've taken the Mark Twight book to 14k Camp on Denali and read and re-read it whilst planning and psyching myself up for the Cassin. However I accept that it would be more expensive as a book, probably £15 a copy, and Andy probably wouldn't get anymore money. I'd still like to see it though.

In conclusion it is good book full of hard won expirence. Well worth a read for both beginners and experienced climbers a like. I can't imagine there are many climbers who would learn nothing from it. Pretty good value at £6.65 a copy. I would have probably paid up to £10 for an e-book copy and up to £16 for a print copy.

Top top it off I've written ten of my own tips that I've learned from expirence. Hope they are interesting.

Tip 1 - Take spare socks. The photo above shows Tom Livingstone sleeping halfway up the Cassin on Denali. We stripped everything down to the bare minimum and didn't take spare socks figuring we could dry our on our chests overnight and wear our over mitts on our feet to keep them warm. This didn't work and the next morning we put on very soggy socks. By the summit my feet were freezing and I was super worried about my toes. Thankfully the stomp down to 17k warmed them back up. In future I'd take a spare pair of socks.

Tip 2 - Recce the approach the night before. This photo shows Hamish and I stood beneath the Petit Dru North Face the night before we climbed it. We spent several hours figuring out the complex approach from the Grand Monets. The time paid off and the next morning, familiar with the approach, we arrived at the base of the route without issue. A couple of weeks later we heard on the grapevine that Kenton Cool had gone to do the route a few days after us and gone the wrong way on the approach, which caused him to bail before he even got to the route. More recently Ollie and I got disorientated on the approach to the Cullin Ridge, which played a big factor in our failure.

Tip 3 - Learn your route. Spend a fair amount of time memorizing where the route goes. It is well worth photo-copying and laminating a good photo topo and route description for a long route Each climber should have their own copy that way if one gets lost it isn't the end of the world. The photo shows Pete Graham bailing off the Eiger North Wall in good conditions, chiefly because we wasted too much time getting lost looking for the Difficult Crack.

Tip 4 - Practice climbing in your big boots. With a bit of practice you should be able to climb a couple of grades lower than your limit in big boots, which is a good skill for alpine climbing. If you have small feet (smaller than UK 10) you should be able to get away with using B2 boots for most summer alpine climbing. If you feet are bigger you might want something a pair of B3s as B2s in your size will be pretty bendy and a poor choice if you need to front point. The photo is me leading Eliminate A, the finest VS in the Lakes.

Tip 5 - take photos when you don't want to. This is a photo of Hamish very cold and pretty pissed off at the base of the crux of the Central Pillar of Freney. I snapped this while we were waiting for Luke to frigg his way up it. Taking this photo probably angered Hamish even more at the time, but looking back at it four years later it brings a smile to my face.

Tip 6 - Know when to stop. If it is cold, dark, you're knackered, scared and unsure of where you are then don't be afraid to stop and wait for dawn. The photos shows Hamish somewhere of the Dru's west Flank in our Bothy Bag. By this point we'd be on the go for 23 hours and had been abseiling blind (I'd dropped the guide book early on the descent) for a long time. One of us said, "stop" and the three of us sat in bothy bag for a few hours and waited for dawn. When dawn came a quick traverse round on ledges brought us round to the Charpoa Glacier and we were eating Midnight Express by midday. A bothy bag is worth it's weight in gold, having  spent unplanned nights out in the mountains both with them. I'd much rather have one for the sake of 500 grams.

Tip 7 - Go climbing with your mates. Go climbing with easy going, but driven people that you know, like and get on well with. Climbing is supposed to be fun and the right people can be make or break that. My first trip to the Alps nearly ended in disaster I didn't have a proper partner and spent the summer playing partner roulette, trying and more often than failing on routes that were too hard for me. The following summer I came back with two psyched and capable friends and we had a brilliant summer ticking our way through classic routes in reasonably good times. A good rule of thumb is to always climbing with people who are better than you!

Tip 8 - Your life is worth more than you gear. No one likes doing it but if it comes to it leave gear. In my younger days I abseiled off all sorts of mank to save a penny or two. These days I always have several old/found biners on my rack, which I have no qualms about leaving. The more I climb the more gear I seem to find. Always carry a nut key, mine must have paid for itself twenty times over!

Tip 9 - Have a good system for abseiling. On long abseil descents create a lanyard by larks footing a 120cm sling through your belay loop. Tie an overhand knot at half way and clip your belay plate into this. The extends your belay plate out of the way, which I find more stable when abseiling with a pack. Clip a second screwgate to the end of your sling and use this to clip into anchors. Whilst abseiling clip the screw gate into the rope you are going pull so you don't forget which one. Instead of clipping your prussik to your leg loop use a short prussik larks footed into your belay loop. Wrap it around the rope three times and then clip it back to your belay loop with a krab to create a French prussik. This way it can't be dropped. It is important to note that taking a factor 2 fall on to a dyneema sling can snap it. With this in mind some climbers would choose to use a nylon sling, which is slightly more dynamic, for this purpose. However I am happy to use a Dyneema sling but am careful not to stand slack on the abseil station.

Tip 10 - Get the beta.
Talk to other climbers who have done the route. Ask them what they took, what they wore, where it was hard, where they went wrong. When packing for the Cassin we tried to strip our kit down to the absolute minimum. It was handy to talk to Colin Haley who was camped next to us. He'd climbed the Cassin a couple of times and gave us an idea of what gear we'd need. We'd have probably taken a fair bit more rack otherwise, which we wouldn't have needed and would have made us slower.