New Gear

With the Shuksan climb just a few months away, it’s been high time to pick up the gear I need. For Adams last year, both my partner and I decided to rent the speciality gear (helmet, ice axe, crampons, etc). This was primarily a financial decision- the gear certainly isn’t cheap, and there was the nagging question of whether this was going to be a one time thing or a passion I’d pickup and continue with.

Of course it wasn’t a one time thing, so just from a practical standpoint it made sense to invest in the gear rather than renting it year after year.

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First up, (new) sleeping bag. My first bag (used on both Katahdin and Adams) was a North Face Snow Leopard II. It was a big green bag that was incredibly comfortable and super warm. It served me well (from the standpoint of comfort and warmth). The problem was that it was simply too big and heavy. Even shoe-horned into a stuff sack and cinched down it was still one pound or so too heavy and took up way too much room in my bag. Of course I didn’t really learn this on Katahdin since we left our sleeping and camping gear in the car, but on Adams this was clearly obvious.

Thanks to REI’s stupendous member policy, I was able to return the bag and get a store credit. I eventually used that credit to purchase the Kelty DriDown II bag. Bright red (a big hit with the kid at home), this bag is no less warm…but packs and stuffs down to the size of about a football, and weights much less than the Snow Leopard. The bag is highly rated, and won a number of awards from Outside Magazine (the 2013 Outside magazine gear guide is actually where I first learned of it). I think this one will be the winner.

Next up, ice axe. This is an exciting purchase, I think because it’s such a specialized tool. Not quite as many options in the world of ice axes (compared to sleeping bags), it’s mostly a matter of type and size…color is pretty secondary (or worse). In this case, I went with the Black Diamond Raven Pro. This thing is ridiculously light, it feels almost as if it weighs nothing. I went with the 60cm version- the one I rented last year for Adams was 55cm, and I found that at the crux part of the climb on the steep angled glacier, 55cm was fine, but on the lower angled stuff it was a tad small/short, hence the move up to 60. I just need to get a leash for the axe, and it’s good to go.

Crampons…an even more specialized tool. At the suggestion of the guide outfit I went with the Petzl Sarkens.  I had Petzel Vasaks last year on Adams, and they were just fine. But I was pushed pretty hard towards the leverlock system, which seems a step or three beyond what the Vasaks had regarding attaching and securing to the boots. They came in earlier this week, but I haven’t had a chance to get them onto the boots yet. That’ll be next week.

Finally, to me the least exciting but maybe one of the most important pieces of gear, the helmet. The Elios was recommended, and that was enough for me. It is now mine as well.

So I’m 95% of the way there. A few smaller pieces of gear still needed, but this was the big gear hurdle. I have a mid-size pelican case at home that I use to store my gear…but it looks like I need a bigger case now!

Climbing gear: in-store vs internet

I’ve posted a number of times about my upcoming climbs in Maine (Mt. Katahdin) and Washington State (Mt. Adams). I’ve also talked about the different paths I’ve taken regarding the research and purchasing of gear for these trips: everything from boots to gloves and sleeping bags.

I bought the bulk of my material recently, and it wasn’t from an online retailer (as I had planned it to be). Instead, I found a store. A real brick and mortar establishment. Here’s how it went down.

I’m currently traveling, and the state I’m in has a family owned outdoors shop that’s been around since the late 1960’s. I found about it before I got here, and I planned to check it out while I was here. Today was my chance. I headed over with one real goal: try on boots to get an accurate sense of my size, then purchase said boots online (to save money). But this plan didn’t last.

The store was awesome, basically a toy store for the outdoor enthusiast. But what made it special was that the staff were knowledgeable. These weren’t kids working after school and on weekends for extra cash (like most sporting goods stores). These were folks that practiced what they preached. The guys I worked with were a professional climber and a professional skier. As soon as I told them what my goal was (the Mt. Adams climb) they got all pumped up and excited to work with me. As we were trying on boots, they walked me through the different sizing and types of boots, plus their features, making one better than the other. The particular boot I was trying on was a decent price (about $40 more than on-line), and it got good reviews. I decided that I was going to buy it in store. Yes, it was more expensive. But these guys put the time in to help me understand what I was buying and how to choose the right boot. Plus, it was an opportunity to support a local business.

Once I decided to get the boots, I ran through my gear list with them. I think they enjoyed the experience more than I did. I picked up my new boots, plus gloves, glove liners, socks, sock liners, sleeping pad, compression sack, caribiners, pants, and a few other choice items….roughly 90% of my list. For buying it all at once, they gave me a nice discount as well.

Ultimately, I probably could have saved another 15-20% if I purchased on-line vice in the store. And for some of the remaining items, that’s exactly what I plan to do. But it was great having these guys help me. Their knowledge was key to choosing the right stuff, and I’d prefer to help a local business.

It’s just a few weeks now till Maine and Mt. Katahdin….

Climbing gear discount?

As I’ve written before, the problem with specialized pursuits (like climbing) is that it is expensive. You can get away with a good amount of stuff in shorts and a t-shirt and Nikes, but at some point you’re going to need specialized stuff. There are lots of ways to buy it…new, used, online, from a store, eBay, etc. Today I found (or was shown) a new method that is in the least, intriguing.

Enter, CLYMB. This site runs daily deals on certain brands and gear specific to outdoors adventures, and even more specifically geared to climbing and hiking. The deals seem to be random assortments of stuff, and the discount looks to be in the 40% to 60% off MSRP range. At least generally, that’s a pretty good deal on anything.

The trick is that each day has a different set of deals on a different set of stuff. Most of the deals last a day, some for two days. But the inventory is limited, so the color or size of choice might be gone quickly.

It’s an interesting and obviously successful concept- Gilt and RueLaLa are two other sites with the same setup, just with a focus on fashion apparel, home furnishings, and other assorted things. The nice thing about CLYMB is that it’s focused, so I don’t have to sift through other crab to find something I would be interested in.

Maybe this will be a good way to get new gear?

Climbing: another in a line of expensive hobbies, i.e. getting used gear

This is the downside to mountain climbing: it’s expensive. There are of course other downsides, but this one is pretty key. To do it right, and safely, there is at least a minimum investment in gear and equipment. Like most things, the more you do it and the more serious you get about it, the more you need to spend.

When I started with just rock climbing (top-roping), the gear was relatively simple: shoes, harness, chalk-bag. The relatively small amount of stuff I needed allowed me to get new gear: REI proved invaluable in this case. Scarpa shoes and a Petzl harness and bag. The shoes aren’t too bad in cost, nor is the harness…but you’re still talking about more than $100 to get it all (again, brand new).

For my first alpine climb, though, the situation has changed. Now the list of gear I need is long, with a number of high dollar items on it (see boots,  sleeping bags, and packs). If I follow the gear list for my Mt. Adams climb exactly, and get everything new, it’s easily a “few” thousand dollars. So that leaves two options: don’t get everything on the list (still investigating) and getting as much used gear as possible (!).

Used-gear is a great way to go, kind of. You can get good or great stuff at a steep discount, as long as you don’t mind the fact that it’s been used by someone else. As when buying anything used, you need to be mindful of a few things. First, it’s condition. It it broken? Or is it degraded in such a way that it’s less than fully functional? Second, is it real? It seems that the climbing equipment world is a victim of counterfeit goods as well. Third, how far away is it? If I need item X for a climb this weekend, I don’t want to buy it from someone 3,000 miles away (unless I want to pay a lot for shipping). Fourth, can you trust the seller? Is their description of the gear accurate (luckily third party sites can mitigate this to some extent). With all of these potential issues, it makes buying used-gear a bit more complicated than buying new gear. Walking into an REI I feel much better about the quality and authenticity of what I am purchasing.

That being said, used-gear is a great way to go, especially being new at the sport. Why spend untold thousands when I have yet to really get a sense of what brand/type of gear works best for me? Or what part of climbing I will end up wanting to do the most?

For my Adams climb, I am using three methods to acquire the gear I need: 1) buying some items new (things that I just can’t find used, or if I can, the price difference is negligible), 2) buying some items used and 3) renting some items.

For new items, there are many, many retailers. Sadly so much of the stuff is so specialized that I can’t find a local store to “try out” the item before I buy it (this is also because I live somewhere with practically zero climbing culture, thus few stores to cater to it). But everything from REI to Moosejaw to EMS and 5,000 more sites exist via the internet for this very purpose. For used items, my options dwindle fast. First and foremost, there is eBay. eBay is reliable, and has a system in place that can protect both the buyer and seller in case problems arise in the transaction. I’ve already tested this method, as I got a set of barely used Black Diamond trekking poles last week from a seller in Washington State– the price of the poles was about 40% of the retail price. Score one for the newb! But eBay isn’t the only option. The SummitPost site has a used gear buy/sell forum as well. Better selection (specialized site) but lacks the buyer protections that eBay offers. There is always the search on Craigslist….but this is perhaps the riskiest way to acquire gear. One site I recently found was GearTrade, which seems like a step towards the eBay direction. It has sellers and their ratings, a great selection of stuff, and pretty killer prices. I’ve only been browsing it thus far, but I am thinking I might get a bunch of stuff from here. Another option I found is Second Ascents. This looks similar to GearTrade, though the website looks a bit more polished.

Rental is the third way to get gear, and I am using it for Adams as well. Certain pieces of gear I think are best rented for a first timer, including crampons. Northwest Mountain School gave me some recommendations for places to rent gear as well.

I have plenty of time to acquire everything I need before the climb in August, and as the above makes clear, plenty of options for where to get it all.

 

Pictures and Video from the Mountain while not falling off

The experience is amazing- being on a mountain, pushing yourself to get to the top, and eventually (hopefully) standing on the summit. Not surprisingly, I want to be able to document the whole experience fully. With this, my camera becomes a key piece of my gear (though it’s a want versus a need). 

The first (and most important) question to answer is what type of camera to bring? In order to catch the highest quality pictures and even video, I would default to either my DSLR camera or HD-video camera. Both of these devices do both pictures and video…and do them well. But there is a significant downside: weight and access.

First, let’s deal with weight. The idea is simple: stay as light as possible. As you outfit yourself with gear and clothes before the trip, the top consideration is the weight. How many pounds/grams/ounces is the sleeping bag, pack, sleeping pad, shirt, boots….the list goes on and on. DSLR cameras, and HD video cameras, have gotten smaller and lighter over the years in a amazing way.

Digital SLR camera

But the use-case is still taking pictures at Disney World, or at the beach, or video at the kids soccer game, etc. They are not light enough. You then add batteries, lenses, the case, it ends up being a relatively heavy accompaniment to your gear.

Second, access. A 60L pack is pretty big and deep, and it can hold a lot of stuff. When you’re trudging up a snow field at 12,000 ft, the last thing I will want to do is stop, open my pack, and dig through it to find my camera. So the alternative option is to use a harness to secure it to my chest, for easy access. Sadly neither of these options are really good (for me at least). First, if it’s buried in the pack, and I have to stop to get it out, then I will likely get few photos outside of camp and the summit (where we are stopped anyway). If I use a harness to strap it to my chest, it will certainly be easy to access. But I run the significant risk of damaging the hardware if I trip, fall, scrape it against a rock, hit a branch, get snowed/rained on, etc.

So that more or less removes the DSLR or HD video camera from my pack list. Instead, it seems like a digital point-and-shoot is the better course. Luckily, these cameras (P&S) are now sufficiently advanced that I can get high quality photos and even HD videos from them. There are of course 12 dozen options out there, but the main items of concern/interest are:

  • Needs to be anything but super delicate. Ideally, ruggedized to some extent.
  • Light and small
  • Easy to manipulate key functions with gloves on

Luckily the above still gives me a pretty decent assortment of cameras out there to choose from. For access and storage, my hope is that if it’s ruggedized I could secure the camera and its small case on the outside of the pack via a gear loop or something similar. If the camera is not ruggedized, then my pack will (hopefully) have a hip belt.

Digital point and shoot

This is a wrap-around piece that secures the pack at your waist. On it will be a pocket or two, hopefully big enough to fit the camera. This would protect the camera itself, and provide easy access so that I can capture content even as I am moving. Let the testing begin!

Sleeping on a mountain- I want to be warm, right? Oh, and I need to carry stuff.

The issue of which boots to get isn’t yet settled, though I have a plan now (at least). I’m going to purchase both pairs of boots in various sizes and figure out which one I like best, and which one fits best…then send the rest back.

So with that out of the way, the next big purchase is a sleeping bag. This site from REI was pretty key (photo credit), explaining pretty much everything I didn’t know about sleeping bags. I actually went into REI this past weekend to get a sense of the bags and differences between them. Ultimately, I learned what was important: I needed a bag rated for 0-20 degrees, and that was generally in a “Long” size to accommodate my height. I also decided (based on price) to go for synthetic down. As with everything else, these factors narrowed it down to a few dozen options. Putting a price limit on the selection lowered the options even more, down to about a dozen. Ultimately, I chose The North Face Snow Leopard bag.

I’m not a fan of the color…but if I happen to roll down the side of the mountain in my sleep, at least the color will stand out against the snow! But overall, the bag got good reviews from the variety of sites that I checked. It was a good price (though it’s back-ordered through REI), and it’s a brand that I know.

Next, it’s on to a sleeping pad.

The North Face Snow Leopard

But while I was at REI, I decided to take a look at the packs. Now the gear list from NMS recommended the Cilo Gear 60L Worksack– it’s a decent price point (if a little high) and looks nice, but it’s only available online. This means that I can’t try it on for fit or comfort, or play with it to ensure that I like it. As I was puttering around the bags, a nice sales woman offered to help me. Ultimately she “fitted” me for a pack, determining that I should get a “Medium” size. She did this by using a “device” against my back to determine the length and width of my torso. I mean, it wasn’t rocket science but it was certainly something I was unable to do at home. We looked around a bit and found a great Osprey bag, the Aether 60.

Osprey Aether 60

It was a brand that I know, a bag that should fit me, and was the right size. Sadly at REI all they had was a large, so I wasn’t able to get it….so now I am looking online. Of course, there are other bags out there as well to consider, so I am still perusing those as well.

Feet first: getting mountaineering boots

High quality mountaineering boots are expensive, and thus, hard to find. My local REI, Hudson Trail Outfitters, and other assorted local stores sell a cacophony of hiking boots, approach/trail shoes, ski boots, etc. But, no serious mountaineering boots. This isn’t terribly surprising: at $300-$500 average cost, they wouldn’t be flying off the shelves at the store. Thus stocking them in-store would probably be a waste of money.

The gear list from Northwest Mountain Sports is detailed enough in that it provides what one might call “recommendations” for many of the items. For example, for boots, it suggests the La Sportiva Nepal Evo GTX boot.

La Sportiva Nepal Evo GTX

This is not quite La Sportiva’s top of the line, but it’s relatively close. It’s expensive (subjective, of course) at roughly $375-$475 (depending on the retailer). But these boots get seriously good reviews from every website that I’ve checked (REI, SummitPost, MooseJaw, Amazon, Hudson Trail, EMS, Backcountryetc). The ratio is nearly 20 to 1 (good reviews to bad reviews). So, what’s not to like? They get great reviews, and they come recommended. The issue, though, is that they aren’t the only option. In fact, another boot that is pretty close (if not equal) is the Scarpa Mont Blanc GTX.

Scarpa Mont Blanc GTX

The Mont Blancs get good reviews as well, but not nearly as many (the ratio is about equal, just a smaller number of total reviews). Maybe that’s because fewer people have purchased them, or the people who have purchased them aren’t inclined to provide reviews? It’s hard to tell.

This gets harder because I can’t really try either one on…since no one sells it locally. Plus, this is the first time I have ever purchased a boot like this, so I am not a sizing expert. The only logical option is to order both, in different sizes, from an on-line retailer and then try them on at home, returning the ones that I don’t like or don’t fit. This seems like a decent plan, but it’s far from ideal.

Then what? The climb isn’t for another 8 months…but of course I want to break the boots in long before I get on a plane to Seattle. So once I get and pick the boots, it’s time to walk and hike in them as much as possible to get everything broken in and happy before the big show.

So which way do I go? Anyone got suggestions (they are very welcome here)? The Spotivas are recommended by the guide (though they even made it clear that there are other alternatives that are equally good). I like Scarpa (my rock climbing shoes are Scarpa) and aesthetically I prefer the Scarpas. Price wise, the Scarpas are a tad less expensive, but by a practically negligible amount. Just because it should be harder, I also took a look at the Mammut Mamook Thermo boot, or their Fire. Both boots look nice, and seem to somewhat compare to the above…..

This looks to be the most expensive (and arguably most important) piece of gear I’m going to buy. I’d like to not screw it up.