Magazine article Geographical

Climbing Lite: Essential Gear: Heading into the Mountains This Summer for Your First Taste of Alpinism? Then Andy Kirkpatrick Is Keen for You to Benefit from Some of His Past Gear-Selection Mistakes

Magazine article Geographical

Climbing Lite: Essential Gear: Heading into the Mountains This Summer for Your First Taste of Alpinism? Then Andy Kirkpatrick Is Keen for You to Benefit from Some of His Past Gear-Selection Mistakes

Article excerpt

Someone once said that you should begin an alpine climb as you mean to finish it--on your knees--which just about sums up this glorious pursuit. Alpine climbing is tough, and it's a game of lessons, where you're always trying to learn how best to play it. These lessons are usually learnt the hard way, feeling as if you're hungover as you stagger up to some alpine hut, your shoulders aching under a load that seemed so light when you left the valley, your body racked with prickly heat inside your winter layers, your skin feeling barbecued under the hot sun." What am I doing wrong?" you ask yourself. If you can find the answers--instead of just jacking it in--then you're on the road to becoming an alpinist.

Gear is one of the central pillars of alpinism, and it's fair to say that if you have everything you need, then you nave too much. This type of climbing is about cutting everything back beyond the bone, making do and filling the gaps left by the gear you don't nave with technique, skill, and good old-fashioned grit.

In the foothills

The most important piece of alpine gear is your footwear. An alpine climber lives and potentially, dies by his or her feet; a good pair of boots is crucial for born success and safety. Weight is important, but this comes third after comfort and performance.

Boots must be broken in before you start climbing so that you know they fit and to build up an understanding of how well your sole will 'stick' or 'edge'. Your boots need to be suitably stiff for kicking steps up snow without crampons, meaning they must have a 'B3' rating. All B3 boots will take a full step-in or hybrid crampon. [For more about this rating system, speak to your local specialist retailer or visit www.scarpa.co.uk/ crampon/index.html--Equipment Ed.]

The big question when it comes to boots is whether to choose leather or plastic uppers. To be honest, I'd try on both and go with whichever feels good: both types are a similar weight and are hot and sweaty when in the valley. The big advantage of a plastic boot is that you can take out the inner and stow it in your sleeping bag overnight to keep it warm, which is much more difficult or, rather, uncomfortable, to do with a stonking great leather boot. If you're prone to getting cold feet, then plastics also tend to be warmer, especially if you buy models with dosed-cell inner boots. The advantage of leather is that it breaks in over time, reducing many of the pressure problems some climbers have with plastic boots.

A good pair of boots is nothing without a decent pair of socks. I'd advise a traditional thick-and-thin combo, with a blended sock of wool/polyester offering the best balance between wet warmth and rapid drying. If you're planning on being out for several days, take a spare pair of socks in a plastic bag, as your first pair will pack down and get smelly. It's also worth taking an extra boot lace and some anti-blister gear; if the approach is very long, I tape my feet up. Gaiter-wise get something tough, trim and with a front opening so you can adjust your boots without taking them off.

A head for heights

I think the next most important piece of gear is your helmet, and you should wear one anywhere where you can slip and fall, or where there is danger of rockfall. Get a helmet that you feel comfortable wearing; aim for something lightweight and well ventilated. Avoid polystyrene 'break apart' helmets as these won't provide enough protection in a long fall (which is typical on non-technical climbs). Make sure that the helmet will fit over a hat and balaclava, and check that it's headtorch-friendly.

Eye protection is also crucial, so carry a pair of good-quality sunglasses. They should provide full protection, and although you may look uncool, it's worth considering a nose guard. Stow your glasses in a solid case so they don't get broken when stowed in your rucksack lid. …

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