Last week we talked about how October is one of the best months for alpine climbing and with some sun left in this month’s forecast, there’s still time to tick off a few objectives. If you’re new to climbing or mountaineering, the equipment, skills and physical exertion required to make it to the top of a mountain can seem a little daunting at first and likely, outside a lot of people’s budgets.
The great thing about mountaineering gear is that it’s built to last; stainless steel teeth, aircraft aluminium shafts, nickel-plated threads. Hardware may need some sharpening after a couple seasons of heavy use, but otherwise it won’t deteriorate at the same rate as skis and outdoor clothing.
If you’re in the market for some tools to get you climbing up more technical routes, take a look at these pieces of essential mountaineering gear.
The Ice Axe
Contrary to popular opinion, the mountaineering axe (or ice axe) isn’t used for climbing as much as it’s used for walking on glaciers. By grabbing the axe by the head and plunging the shaft into the snow it can be used as an extra point of balance, ready for the climber to dig in the sharp end to self-arrest a fall (for a proper description of ice axe self-arrest check out this video). When the going gets vertical, the climber can swing the axe to gain purchase on steep slopes. Axes have a multitude of uses beyond climbing itself; pegging down a tent, building an anchor, cutting steps into ice or digging a snow cave.
For around 90 per cent of the technical terrain that skiers attempt during the winter, a straight shaft axe should suffice. The Black Diamond Raven Pro and Camp Corsa are light, strong and affordable ice axes. If you’re looking to ascend more vertical terrain, then a curved shaft of an alpine axe such as the Camp Corsa Nanotech or Alpina models give better purchase when swinging into steeper slopes. The curved part of the shaft is near the head of the axe so it can still be used to plunge, but not as comfortably as a traditional straight-shaft mountaineering axe. But in the unfortunate scenario that you do fall into a crevasse and need to climb out without assistance, an alpine axe will make life easier. Mountaineers attempting vertical ice walls will usually use two ice climbing axes.
A piece of essential mountaineering gear that has changed little over the last century, the Grivel 10-point crampon has been copied by countless manufacturers and was included as part of “The Most Influential Gear of All Time” by Outside Magazine in 2012.
The important choice when purchasing crampons is whether to go for step in (more sturdy for hard-soled mountaineering and ski boots) or strap on (can fit a regular hiking boot). That will depend on how aggressive you intend to climb – are you heading up near-vertical walls or just hiking on glaciers? Ski mountaineers will generally opt for step ins, but these won’t work if you are climbing in the summer without specific touring or mountaineering boots. If you do plan on using your crampons mostly for winter ascents, make they come with anti-balling plates to avoid snow caking underneath the crampon. Alpine climbers will normally use crampons with a harness on the front (strap on) with metal bailing to secure to the back of the boot.
When there’s no rock outcroppings around to set up a safe anchor point, these handy pieces of hardware can be a mountaineer’s saving grace. Remarkably strong when tapped into suitable ice, having a couple of these dangling from your harness can take a lot of stress out of making the situation safe, quickly. Screws with crank knobs such as the Black Diamond Express and Petzl Laser Speed are more of a desirable feature for ice climbers who need to be able to quickly place screws with one hand, so regular ice screws will more often than not do the trick.
Harness, rope and helmet
Probably the most important pieces of kit on this list, a harness, rope and helmet will let you rescue your friend out of a crevasse, let you rappel down treacherous descents and belay party members who may not have the same skill level and experience with climbing, all while keeping your head safe from rock/ice fall. The length of rope needed depends on the objective, but 30 metres is the absolute minimum for crevasse rescue. The 8mm gauge is strong enough to withstand wear and tear without adding too much weight to the pack. A belay device should come part and parcel with your harness (with a couple carabiners) and mountaineers will also carry a pared-down climbing rack with nuts, cams, pitons and anchor material (climbers tat).
This essential mountaineering equipment may not join every mission in the backcountry, but it’s worth having these tools in the closet for when you need them.
Interested in learning more? check out our courses on mountaineering and mountain safety we hold in both Banff/Canmore and Whistler/Squamish.