Saturday, 20 August 2011

Classic Haute Route Pre-Departure Kit Analysis

On 21st August, we fly out to Geneva at almost exactly the same time as we did last year. And like last year, we'll make our way by transfer to Chamonix to begin another good length Alpine trek. This time, as I detailed in a post on the planning stages, we will be making a high-level traverse from Chamonix to Zermatt. This is a completely different prospect to the Tour du Mont Blanc which started with a flight to Geneva last year at this time. As I said previously, this traverse crosses several high-level and onerous cols and navigates more than a dozen glaciers. Only 120 kilometres (75 miles), the route involves significant ascent and descent - more than 10,000 metres (33,000 feet) in total - and includes ascents of the Tête Blanche (3421m / 11,224ft) via the Col Superior du Tour, Pointe des Planards (2866m / 3402ft), Pigne d’Arolla (3796m / 12,454ft) and the Tête Blanche (3724m / 12,218ft) from the Mont Mine Glacier. We stay in alpine refuges, much like the TMB, but many will be at a much higher altitude, usually well above 2,000m.

So my kit selection is predicated upon this task at hand. As we'll be guided, this year we have opted to drop the shelter (which we took as an emergency precaution last year on the TMB). In its place, we'll have to take a great deal of heavy metal - ice-axe, crampons, harness and carabiners. All adds weight.

Preparation finalised today - last minute rope work to get used to tying into a harness again, tying knots and taking in coils in order to move together - and a 10km march with 11kg in my pack (simulated by weights and blankets) through the Surrey Hills with mountaineering/winter boots on. And packing...

That said, let's start with pack. Rather like our winter mountaineering in the Cairngorms this February, my pack needs to carry in excess of 40 litres and needs to be tough enough to deal with rock and ice. It needs to be able carry an ice-axe and crampons without engendering concern for potential damage to the rucksack. Simply put, the Gorilla, great as it is, is simply not the right pack for this trek. I was deeply impressed with my old friend the OMM Villain, as I have recently said, and it was the obvious choice for me. At just over 1kg, with a maximum carry of 55 litres, and which is comfortable, robust (210 denier), functional and effective, it is perfect.

Technical Mountaineering Equipment
The mountaineering kit describes itself and needs little in the way of explication. I shall take the Grivel Air-Tech Evolution ice-axe on the basis it is more of an all round mountaineering axe than the Black Diamond Raven Pro, which I find to me more of a walker's axe. I shall also take Grivel G12 crampons. I used both in the Cairngorms this winter, climbing Jacob's Ladder, and they do exactly what I need them to do without fuss or hysterics. The harness I took to the Cairngorms received some approving looks and comments from the guides at Glenmore Lodge and from Ron Walker himself. The Black Diamond Couloir is lightweight, comfortable and easy to get into and out of. I am not climbing, this is an emergency harness. It does not need padding or features like the Alpine Bod. My companion used the Alpine Bod in the Cairngorms - he took delivery of the Black Diamond Couloir this week. 'Nuff said.

I am also required to take a couple of 'crabs. I like the weight and feel of the Black Diamond Vaporlock HMS Screwgate and so I'll be taking this as my HMS Screwgate and the DMM Shadow as my standard screwgate 'crab. 

This has vexed me greatly over the last few months. I purchased the Rab Vapour-Rise Pull-On as I wanted a single hooded top which would cover a wide variety of terrain, temperatures and conditions - a top I could wear on its own without a base layer in warmer conditions, and layer variously underneath it in cooler conditions. It needs to be fairly durable, windproof, water-resistant. I reviewed it recently, and I have worn it in the Brecons and Snowdonia. It works and meets my requirements very well.

Layering under that top is not just about the trekking day, but the afternoon and evening in the refuge too. Consequently, I need layers which can be worn in the refuge and which will fulfil a role on the mountains as well. In conclusion, there are three coming with me. In a sense, it may be that this is one too many, but I want comfort in the refuges as well as technically efficient kit. Consequently, I am taking the Montane Bionic short-sleeved tee as my primary, warm weather base layer. For cooler weather, I will layer a 200 weight long-sleeved Smartwool crew neck tee as a base layer instead. This will also serve as a base layer in-refuge too. Finally, for the coldest weather, where we spend much of our day above 3,000m, I'll put a Patagonia R1 Hoody under the Rab. Those two layers alone will meet almost any temperature issue. Perhaps this will often be too warm, but not having spent much time above 3,000m, I want to be sure and I can always swap. 

Mountain Equipment Liskamm Pants
These intrigue me. I have not done an Initial Analysis as I wanted to see what they were like when I got back. I don't like Softshell Schoeller fabrics but these are different. Technical mountain pants designed by guides, the full history of them can be found here. They, like the Rab Vapour-Rise, will be my primary mountain clothing so they need to be comfortable and functional. Full report on these when I return. For lower levels the perfect Montane Terra pants will do.

Shell Layer
OMM Cypher Smock (260g) and Golite Tumalo Storm pants (190g). No question, no debate, no hesitation. They are both great to walk in, easy to use, lightweight, effective and comfortable. Both will sit at the top of my pack until needed and, on a terrible day (we experienced a few of those last year o the TMB), they'll do all day. I can do 15-18km, and 1000m of ascent in these and breathe well enough, and keep the rain out (as well as a membrane layer will ever do). The Cypher has proven particularly adept at working with the Rab Vapour-Rise in keeping out wind and still breathing comfortably on ascents in wet, muggy weather. I am very, very happy with both.

Ninja ICE HPT Canadian workers gloves - Ron Walker turned me on to these in February and they are great. Not easy to get onto cold, damp hands but once they're on they are excellent. Warm, flexible, durable and cheap. They're intended for cold-storage workers, fishermen, agricultural workers and construction workers, as well as outdoor winter use. They're bloody good. I can hold and axe, adjust toggles, put on crampons and manoeuvre zips - all without taking the glove off. For cold, wet hands that need no such dexterity - the marvellous and featherweight Buffalo mitt is without equal.

My recent foray into trail runners, the La Sportiva Raptor in particular, has been successful. Wet feet has not made me miserable and the dexterity engendered by trail runners is pleasing. To go back to boots, and B2 rated crampon boots, for a 13 trek, is going to be hard. I have Scarpa Mantas as my winter/mountaineering boot. I admit to a pang of regret that I need to sneak feet into these again, especially for so long, but it's a necessity. For socks I am using Bridgedale Coolmax liners with Smartwool medium hiking crew. I'll take 2 liners and 3 Smartwool pairs.

Two Swisstopo maps (Sheet 1 - Mont Blanc Grand Combin - No. 5003, Sheet 2 - Matterhorn Mischabel - No. 5006), the Garmin Fortrex 401 and a Silva Expedition 4 compass. A note on 1:50,000 Swisstopo maps - the Geographic Co-ordinate System used is not longitude and latitude but the Swiss grid system CH1903. Consequently, any GPS system will need to be set to this value in order to work from a 1:50,000 Swisstopo map. Frustrating but not much of a problem as it is a very easy system to use.

Alpkit Airlok drybags, 13 litres each (and 40g), work fine. They're good enough to keep anything I need dry but need some care. I did have a Sea to Summit Silnylon dry bag but it tore. Some McNett Tenacious Tape seals that up but still - it sends a message. No sleeping bag to keep dry but there is the question of my refuge kit and my Jagbags silk liner for refuge nights.

Other stuff
The Petzl XP2 is a great head torch and Fraser put me on to it. He's done a luminousness test as well. The AAA batteries also fit the Garmin Fortrex 401 so I am taking 6 spares. At 12g each, it's no hardship for 13 days of use.

My standard First Aid kit will be coming along, as well as a (very simple) wash kit and a S2S towel (the same as I used on the TMB). Along with passport and Amazon Kindle, there is not much more to tell. The Kindle is a feat of real genius for a bookworm like me and the thought of late evenings in the shadow of antediluvian alpine behemoths with a book and a beer fills me with a warm glow.