Saturday, April 30, 2011

Aconcagua: Gear Issues

More on Aconcagua, this time about gear. This post covers a few of the surprising and obscure gear-related things I discovered on the expedition. In another post I'll go more systematically through the various gear categories.

Get to grips with your balaclava

Some of the trickiest items of gear to get right are the ones you never need until you're in really extreme conditions. For example, the balaclava. This is something you might not pay much attention to. Everyone's used to jackets, sleeping bags, boots, and it's easy to imagine them needing to be bigger and warmer high up on the mountain. But needing to cover your whole face is a little harder to envisage until you're actually being battered by freezing winds and horizontal snow. At this point, you really want your balaclava to fit well, and to let you breathe.

A couple of days before our summit attempt. I was pretty sure I would need to wear a balaclava for good part of the ascent, especially on the stretch from Independencia to the Cave where the wind is usually relentless. I hadn't got used to wearing either of mine in a way that I felt comfortable with and was panicking slightly. On the climb to camp 3 in fine conditions I experimented with wearing my buff over my nose and mouth. I found that to be ok when walking slowly and steadily, but rapidly ran out of breath whenever I had to make an effort. How would I manage on the summit climb? Would I be forced to choose between running out of oxygen or getting a frostbitten nose?

Fortunately, we were blessed with a summit day of unusual calm; on the infamous traverse (see picture) there was hardly a breeze. I wore my balaclava in the morning cold up to the rest stop at Independencia (6,400 metres) and then dispensed with it. But when we are eating dinner on our arrival back at Penitentes, we sat next to a group of Polish climbers who had summited on a different day than us: several of them had painful-looking swathes of windburn across their faces, rather like protagonists of that joke where you answer the phone while ironing.

Kill two birds with one pair of sandals

There's little doubt that on Aconcagua you'll need two main pairs of footwear: regular trekking boots for the walk in and double plastic boots from base camp. The gear list from Adventure Consultants also recommended: 1) some old running shoes for wearing around camp and using in river crossings and 2) down booties for wearing around camp and in your tent/sleeping bag. Based on my experiences, I would scratch both those items and replace them with a good lightweight pair of sandals. The running shoes were comfortable to wear around camp on the walk in, and I did use them on our one (brief but stunningly cold) river crossing. However, from base camp space and weight were at a premium and there was no way I could justify taking the shoes. I did squeeze in the down booties, but found they weren't up to the task of tramping round camp in the deep snow. Their role inside the tent is limited, since you mostly just put your feet in your sleeping bag to keep them warm.

After many occasions battling to get my double plastic boots on and off just to get in and out of the tent, I was looking enviously at the sandals worn by a couple of other expedition members. Small and light enough to carry, they can be worn with socks (there are no fashion crimes above 5,000 metres) and are a good option for short trips around camp. Sure, they're not the best in deep snow either, but are more robust and more easily cleaned or dried than the booties.

Yes, you need those water bottle jackets

Another obscure item you might not spent much thought on is the insulating "jacket" for your water bottles. While I researched and fretted about many of the items on the gear list, I had completely forgotten about these, and was fortunate enough that my sister Terri threw a couple in with some other things I borrowed off her just before I left. They aren't always sufficient to stop your water from freezing, but they are necessary.

Also, one area where I felt the pre-trip advice was wide of the mark was the recommendation to take two 1-litre drink bottles (plus one pee bottle). Most days you want to drink at least 3 to 4 litres, and for much of the expedition there's no chance to refill. We had to use coke or mineral water bottles for the additional water, which was not ideal. I would recommend taking at least 3 dedicated, wide-mouth 1-litre water bottles on the expedition. The softer plastic Nalgene bottles are probably better than the hard plastic ones, since they squash down better when empty.

Hand warmers are worth it

When I looked at the suggestion of hand warmers on the gear list I was a little sceptical. Surely if you got the right gloves and mittens you wouldn't need them? Well, yes. Top-line mittens will be plenty warm enough if you have them on the whole time. But to do anything like opening your pack, getting water, or even adjusting your hood, you need to strip to liner gloves or even, as in my case for about 15 minutes on summit morning, your bare hands. Your mittens might not be enough to warm your hands back up, and a throwing a couple of toasty hand warmers in them gives you extra security. On the other hand, there's not much point in getting specialist toe warmers: there's generally no space for them in a well-fitting pair of boots.

Try it all on

As I gradually accumulated gear in the months before the expedition I on various occasions got myself dressed up in layers of thermals, jackets, pants and socks. I felt rather stupid as I tried out my down jacket in the middle of summer, sweat pouring off as I fiddled with various chords and zips. Ultimately, however, I probably didn't do enough of this. You really should know exactly how everything zips, buckles and fastens, what can be worn with what, the best way to adjust your hoods, and so on. And you should practice doing it all with gloves on. For the same reason, as much of the gear as possible should be your own. Most items can be hired in Mendoza, but renting an item from a limited selection with 15 minutes to choose is not ideal. I got pretty much everything except crampons and ice pick. I did generally get to grips with the crampons in my hotel room in Mendoza, but on summit day I realised that I'd never tried them on with my snow gaiters and insulated pants. The extra bulk under the already short straps meant I had a panicky 5 minutes or so wrestling to get the crampons tightened in -15 degree conditions on summit morning.


Vince said...

I am enjoying these discussions, Simon, and look forward to more details.

Simon Bidwell said...

Glad you find them interesting! More to come.