Sunday, 5 September 2010

Tour du Mont Blanc - Post Trek Gear Debrief

This is to be the first in a series of posts documenting the 11 days of the Tour du Mont Blanc. I'd like to dedicate the series to Ping, Jean-Rémy, Yotam, Eli and to Bob. My thanks to you all for a truly memorable adventure.

We arrived home into London Gatwick Airport yesterday afternoon, tired, elated and seasoned. We had mountain legs and thick beards. We carried small packs full of dirty clothes. As I write this, my kit lays simultaneously either spread out on a bed or hanging on a line. My boots are clean and re-proofed. The Macbook Pro hums as it downloads photos and HD video. I mused, throughout the period we spent in the Alps, on the relative merits of my choices. We experienced varied weather, terrain and sleeping accommodation. Kit selection is essential to enjoying the TMB. Without water, my pack weighed less than 6kg. I am glad that it did given the fact it was a demanding 11 days - that said, I reckon it could have weighed less. The final gear list is here.

Gossamer Gear Gorilla (693g)
There can be no doubt in my mind that for almost all types of trail, hill and mountain walking, the Gorilla is perfect for me. Clearly, as my eyes gazed longingly at various aiguilles and glaciers, and I made the decision to learn to use crampons and ice-axes this winter, another sack more suited to winter conditions (and carrying that sort of kit) might be necessary. I am not convinced the Gorilla would excel in winter, glacier walking. The ice-axe loop seems entirely in the wrong place and I foresee the mesh being torn. I will consider the position after the course I intend to take early in 2011, but for everything short of that, the Gorilla is perfect. The side pockets are perfectly accessible on the move. The Y-shaped roll-top tie is secure and functional. The main outer mesh pocket is cavernous and I can stuff all manner of wet, or quick-access, items in there - useful for gear I'd washed. The sit-pad backsystem is sufficient to allow some airflow which reduces moisture build-up, even on 1700m ascents. Note, however, that a Z-Lite, even two sections, will not fit without some real butchery. The shoulder straps are comfortable and reasonably adjustable; the sternum strap equally so. I experienced some pins and needles in my back on the last day but some adjustment resolved that - 11 days carrying a pack, sometimes a little too tightly as there was quite a bit of scrambling to be done, I am not surprised by some odd sensations at times. It demonstrates a need to be careful about over-tightening which is actually not necessary. The hipbelt has always felt flimsy to me, but only until it is tied around my waist and then feels simply perfect. I doubt the Gorilla's ability to securely carry more than 10kg on long, technical ascents/descents but I have not tried it at that weight yet so it is merely a feeling. I have to say, I doubt I'll ever get near 10kg on the treks I intend to use it for. It remains the best pack I've ever used.

Integral Designs Silnylon Pack Cover (75g)
In a word, poor. Too difficult to adjust as the bungee cord does not slide through the cord locks smoothly; it comes off far too easily in strong wind as there is nothing for the top to hold on to unless you have enough kit i your pack to engage the extension collar on the Gorilla which tends to defeat the object of a UL sack. I am not even convinced that it is completely waterproof as it really seemed to 'wet-out' in heavy rain. At least it dried quickly in the mesh pocket of the Gorilla when not being used. Sea to Summit do another version which my friend used on his Talon 44. It was much better as it had a strap going across the middle which made it far more secure. I do prefer pack covers as a wet pack is an obviously heavier one, but this will need some re-thinking. Gossamer Gear are redesigning their pack cover this year so I will look at that one as it is has more secure strapping.

Vaude Power Lizard UL (1050g)
Large enough for two in an emergency, strong enough to withstand serious winds, light enough to pack and forget - we didn't use it but that was rather the point. Enough said.

Scarpa ZG-40 GTX Boots
Old friends never let you down. These fellows understand me and protect me. I washed them down as often as I could and they breathed even on the hottest days. They never let water in, despite river crossings and wet weather. After 11 days, 180km, 10,000m of ascent and 10,000m of descent, I wore them on the flight home without a moment's hesitation. There may well be better boots out there but these will stay on my feet for some time to come. The lugs are getting low so I'll need a new vibram sole putting on it.

Socks (180g for 2 packed)
Smartwool Hiking Medium Crew socks. The most comfortable socks I have ever worn. They take a while to dry when washed - perhaps a day in the sun in the large mesh pocket on the Gorilla - but I took 3 pairs so that was never a problem. I wore them for 2-3 days, washed them and moved on to another pair whilst they dried. Worked fine. Over 11 days, I had not one single issue with my feet.

Integral Designs Hot Socks (140g)
Or the 'Brothel Creepers' as my friend calls them - the sole really is tough enough to take a hell of a lot of punishment and, truth be told, you won't always want to put on refuge slippers as some are rather ... ancient. To be honest, warmth was surprisingly not crucial as refuges tend to be warm enough, but you need to have something on your feet in refuges. Personally, if I were to do it again, I'd take flip flops as they are more versatile in towns like Les Houches and Courmayeur (it was too bloody cold in Champex to consider anything but boots).

Base and Mid-Layers
As a primary base layer, I was using the Montane Bionic short sleeved t-shirt. As a 70/30, synthetic/wool blend, it dried quickly, wicked moisture effectively and did not smell particularly bad after a few days use. As it dried so quickly, I was able to wash it in the showers at refuges after 2-3 days and it would dry overnight. In effect, I wore this top everyday whilst moving. As both mid-layers and also refuge wear, I used Smartwool Lightweight long-sleeved tops (180g and 210g). I found, in fact, that I probably only needed one of them, as I had the Montane Prism to put on top in colder weather. Thus, when it was cold, I could put the Smartwool on top of the Bionic, whilst moving, with a shell over that (either the Litespeed or the Haglöfs LIM Ozone jacket) and the Prism for summiting. Given the amount of ascent involved, having a thinner mid-layer was advantageous. As I only used it sparingly, I didn't need to wash the Smartwool top at all and it was fine by the end of the trip. I also took Divide and Conker merino leggings - I used them once. They were useful to have but I didn't need them.

The Montane Prism 2.0 (414g) is reviewed in another post to follow this one. Suffice to say, apart from one incident, it performed superbly.

In much of the northern part of the Mont Blanc massif and the Chamonix valley, the weather seems to be sunnier and warmer than in the southern, Italian, part. I don't know if this is peculiar to our trek or not, but a few people mentioned this to be the case. Thus, I hiked a lot in shorts at the start and at the end - Montane Terra shorts. When I didn't, I hiked in the Montane eVent Venture pants (354g). The crossover between the two was perfect. Only once did I use the Montane Terra pants (350g) for anything other travelling in and refuge wear. Apart from fitting me as if I were an elderly gent with a rapidly ascending waistline, the Terra shorts were fine. They dried quickly when they were damp from perspiration and allowed my legs to breathe well enough to regulate my temperature effectively. 

Shell and Wet Weather
The Venture pants are a great innovation and breathed really well, even when the sun was out but rain was threatening. They have zipped vents at the top of the thigh to allow greater venting. When rain did come, they acted as a very effective barrier against both the rain and the chilling mountain wind - sometimes we had snow, for example, so they were welcome. The eVent fabric I found to be slightly better than Gore-Tex Pro-Shell in terms of breathability but the LIM Ozone jacket (345g) breathed well enough, especially when the pockets were opened to aid venting. It seems to me that waterproof membranes will always struggle to breathe as effectively when wet as they do when dry. In the end, I was sweating a little on hard ascents, but not enough to concern me, regardless of the weather. My friend loved his Mountain Equipment Firefox jacket - lighter than the LIM Ozone at 290g, with only 1 pocket - but the cut seems less slim than the LIM Ozone (I preferred the slimmer cut on the Ozone). Both have adjustable hoods which grip the head well enough in the wind. The Montane Litespeed was a good addition - when I need a windshirt but did not want the LIM Ozone, it was perfect. Everyone knows how good this piece of kit is - it does not get better with repetition.

Mountain Equipment Windstopper Fleece Gloves
These were great. At only 68g, they're really light, shrug off rain, dry obscenely quickly and kept my hands warm when I needed them to. Even when my hands were already cold, shoving them into these gloves warmed them quickly enough. The grippy palm might not be to everyone's taste, but it's useful if your hands are already cold and you want to hold a cup or grip something tightly.

Sea to Summit 13 Litre Ultrasil Drysack
It felt somewhat diaphanous when I first got it, but it kept all my essential kit (including passport) dry and was easy to push all the air out of to pack it down neatly. Great, light and easy to use. Prefer these to the Exped bags. Could've done with another one, just to keep my OCD at bay.

Refuges all have their own bedclothes, but I used a Jagbags silk mummy liner (50g). It felt great (a real boon after a hard day) and kept me, and the bed clothes, as unsullied as possible. Also, silk has the advantage of being reasonably warm when it's cool, but not too hot when it's warm. Sometimes, I slept with just the Jagbags liner and nothing else. Never had a bad night in it. Secondly, and perhaps the greatest bang for your gram - earplugs. A dortoir, with 20 other snoring men, is no place to get a good night's sleep - earplugs are essential.

Swiss Army Knife
Bit of a joke this as neither of us thought it would get used - but it was used every day! We cut bread, salami and cheese with it, mended blisters, cut duck tape, opened beer bottles, used the tweezers, and used the scissors. At 75g, it's a bit heavy but it really can be useful - I can just foresee me missing one of the blades right when I need it so I'll keep it.

Petzl e+Lite
It's a headtorch that weighs 27g and gives various different levels of light. I find it very comfortable to wear. It does what it needs to do and weighs a ridiculously small amount. What more could you ask for?

Platypus and Drinksafe Systems In-Line filter
Alpine water is probably perfectly safe to drink. The water in refuges can sometimes be 'non-potable'. In either case, the in-line filter meant we did not need to worry. I often ended up filtering for others. On hard, technical ascents, drinking regularly is crucial and having the hoser less than 10cm from my mouth meant I stayed hydrated. It's so crucial. There are lighter set-ups being manufactured every day but this will do me for now.

Food and Water
I carried about 600-750ml of water at any given time as I knew, from the maps, we'd have ready access to more en route and I'd be able to filter it. We carried little food, in fact, as we usually ate at refuges at both lunchtime and booked in for demi-pension (half-board) ech night. When we were too far away from refuges, one of our Israeli colleagues had some Met-RX Big 100 bars which we scoffed and gave us a reasonable burst of energy. Food in the refuges varied - generally it was pretty good and I would recommend 'demi-pension' each time but I am not sure you will always need a packed lunch as you can often stop en route at other refuges.

Suunto Vector
Performed admirably. Very rarely was it wrong about the altitude we were at by more than 50m. Often, it was spot on. I re-set it every morning and evening and whenever I knew what the altitude actually was and this kept it accurate. When leading others, it's very helpful to know how far to go and to help motivate them by keeping them informed as to their progress. The compass was spot on for general directional awareness but I'd always back it up with a Silva compass.

Panasonic Lumix TZ-10 and Lowe Pro Apex 20 (343g)
The Panasonic is a great camera and the Lowe Pro pouch attached perfectly to the hip-belt of the Gorilla so that I had ready and easy access to the camera, even in inclement weather. The rain cover kept the worst of the rain off and even when the pouch and camera fell into a river en route to La Fouly, it was protected for just long enough to enable me to get the camera out and into the sun. At no stage did the pouch feel as if it would come off, even when scrambling over some tricky summits. I loved them both. Battery for the TZ-10 lasted 7 days before I put the other one in and that was including 5 videos lasting 2mins in total.

Apple iPhone 3GS and earphones (210g)
My favourite piece of kit in any given situation - you often need to phone ahead to book refuges so it's crucial to have a phone. Add to that a French Dictionary, a compass, GPS, iPod (with video), email, internet, Awesome Note, Calendar, pdf reader and the odd game or two and it's really indispensable. Battery lasts for ages if you do not use 3G and you can charge it at least 3-4 times in 11 days without any problem at all.

Sea to Summit Pocket Towel and Camp Wash
The S2S pack towel dried me quickly and dried itself overnight. It weighs a paltry amount (56g) and packs away (without it's ridiculous little pouch) neatly in my drybag. When wet, I just stuffed it in the mesh front pocket of the Gorilla. I washed all my clothes in Camp Wash, as well as myself, and I used 75ml over the course of the entire 12 days. I commend both.

Contact lenses and Oakley Flak Jackets
It was nice, especially on the harder days, not to have to worry about glasses. On the sunnier ones, especially when gazing adoringly at the Mont Blanc massif, or the Grand Jorasses, it was nice to have shades. The Oakleys come with the hard case which protected my glasses too. They were a good thing to take.

Tilley TH5
Kept the sun off the back of my neck, and the top of my head, as well as keeping the sweat out of my eyes. It breathed reasonably well, so I never felt as if it was contributing to me overheating. It also kept light to medium rain out of my eyes but, with heavy rain, it was eventually breached. Perpetually, I kept a €10 note in the plastic bag kept in the pouch at the top which bought me many drinks/much food when needed but I had left my Gorilla outside. You can treat it with virtually callous disregard, crunching it up in your pack even when wet, and it still does the job. Just washed it now and stretched it across my knee and it looks the business. My friend thought I looked like an Aussie bushwacker - bonus or detriment...?

Sunscreen is essential in the Alps and we used Riemann SPF20 Sunfilter as it dries quickly, is an oil-based application and does not come off even after sweating if you allow 15mins before doing any real exertion. It does not require a great deal to cover exposed skin so is very good for backpacking.

Mapping and Guiding
Kev Reynolds' book is great but the maps are appalling and it's damned heavy (375g). There is a very light French guide which has superb maps in it, and a vast wealth of information - if you speak French. Mine is ok, but not good enough for those purposes. We took a 1:60,000 map as it covered the whole route. It was adequate but outdated (as the TMB now has various 'variantes') - there are 1:25,000 maps that are better, but you'd need two. We could've bought them in Les Houches.

I did not take poles as I do not use them. That said, my friend suffered an ankle injury at the hands of an errant mountain biker who should not have been on the trail at all, let alone speeding down a narrow mountain path in the fog and rain. We bought Leki Ultralite Makalu Titanium Carbonlite poles (180g each) for him in Champex. They meant, even on the long, steep and technical descents from Fenêtre d'Arpette and Le Brévent, he could deal with them. I am intrigued by poles, as I used them for a very short period and found I got on with them, so I am going to look into them.

Other packs
Many others on the trial had truly enormous packs, but some camped in campsites so that accounted for a lot of the weight. Others simply had not thought through what they would and, more importantly, would not need. I felt perfectly comfortable, safe and equipped with just over a 6kg base weight. However, as Eli (below) said - he was "ready for anything" and with his slow, deliberate pace, he in fact covered more mileage and ascent than anyone. He had something in his pack to cover every eventuality, including Armageddon. He carried enough food for the whole 11 days. He did the GR20 last year with 27kg on his back and had 21kg on the TMB. He's used to carrying it but even he admitted that he's slowly replacing his kit with lighter stuff. Think I convinced him that the Osprey Aether 60 or 70 is a good way to start (I was not going to convince him that a 40 litre UL pack would do the job). His GPS was very useful on occasion - more for information purposes than to find paths as the trail is well-marked but we used it frequently. As I said - he was ready for anything! Jean-Rémy, on the other hand, had to pack quickly before he left so took rather more than he would've liked. That said, his food was great at Les Mottets - salami, cheese and bread was a welcome supplement to the soup we all had. It was a nice balance really and that's perhaps why we all got on so well. Thank you again to all of you.


  1. I'll do the journal of the trek soon - but thought the kit stuff would be the most interesting to most...

  2. Great starter for the journal. Looking forward for the complete saga...

  3. Maz- excellent post. It is always good to have commentary on gear lists, it either confirms your thoughts on a good or bad bit of kit that you may have - or acts as a basis for further research.

    Looks like you had an excellent trip - I look forward to the next installment.

  4. Yotam: of course you are - you're Luke.

    Mark: Thanks for your comment. I find other people's reviews of their kit so useful especially in these days of internet purchases of either internationally obtained kit like MLD, SMD, GG etc or cottage industries like Laufbursche - neither permits you the chance to go and see it, try it, fiddle with it and so on. Someone you know has similar views/requirements to you, who likes an item, allows you a ready benchmark. Secondly, there is a wealth of kit out their I had never heard of before I started reading UL blogs. Keep up the auspicious start on your blog, by the way.

  5. The Gorilla better be good as I got one :). Packed my kit in it ad its comfy. I don't rate the Sea to Summit Dry-sacks. Wait till its raining heavy all day and the next day. Sophie on her Longest dog walk used them and hated them. Jim Woods has a lot to say on Silnylon. I have used them and noticed kit was a tad damp on very wet trips.

    Other kit you used sounds good. Montane Bionic is one bit of kit I am checking out.

  6. I like Jim's blog - it's very detailed and informative. As for Silnylon - you see what I said about the pack cover so what you say about the drybags does not surprise me. It worked well for the time I used it but I would not be shocked to find it fail. Maybe then I'll go back to Exped - who knows? The point is that experimentation is the mother of innovation.

  7. Welcome back! Looks like I have plenty of reading to do and looking forward to your full TMB write-up. I'm just back from Chamonix myself so I'll have to get typing soon myself!

  8. Indeed you will need to be typing as I'm looking to get some ice-axe & crampon training. Also fancy Mont Blanc myself but walking not climbing just yet.

  9. Hi Maz and others,

    This was very good experience and will be remembered for many more years. Your posts are great and very informative for those who plan to do the TMB and others who did it already and just want to remember.
    i added some pictures to picasa of our trip together (and some extra days) of TMB 2010 .

  10. Thanks Eli. Don't forget - I have plans including you for next year...

  11. Maz- excellent post. It is always good to have commentary on gear lists, it either confirms your thoughts on a good or bad bit of kit that you may have - or acts as a basis for further research.

    Looks like you had an excellent trip - I look forward to the next installment.

  12. Great starter for the journal. Looking forward for the complete saga...

  13. Thank you for the info, it is very helpfull for planning my TMB this comming summer. 

  14. Thanks for the intelligent and meticulous rundown. We're leaving for TMB in four days (way too early in the season, I fear!), I was having a brief kit freak-out - and found your post deeply soothing. Thanks for taking the time.

  15. Glad the post helped. Don't know if some of the huts will be shut - please check if you are going to stay in huts, especially Elisabetta. Do not have Internet access at the moment a I'm in Jotunheimen, Norway so I cannot check myself. Also grab the hut contact list from the Tourist Office in Les Contamines.

  16. help please - is there any problem with matresses in huts being damp and so a karrimat or similar is needed? And are there blankets in all huts so a sleeping bag ( other than a sheet liner) is not needed?