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The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Climbing Packs Part 2

“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

The very first model Karrimore pack, the Grimpeur, on a snow arete low on the Innominata route, Mont Blanc © rif, Aug 1967
Climbers: Rob Ferguson  (photo by Pete Cartwright)

The Grimpeur pictured above is not a lot different in design simplicity from what I am using for a pack today.  S. House and C. Haley are using similar, very basic pack designs as well.

Two recent posts on one of the climbing forums this past week...

"SO you ask what is so great about a $500 pack that falls apart then? The ride and the W/NW Dyneema material. Despite one of the lower ice axe buckles coming clear off, one of the buckles on the lid snapping in half when i was unlatching it, the buckles that hold the lid on coming undone along with various other buckles just coming undone for no apparent reason and loosing them in the snow...."

and my  totally biased response....
"Man that is so pathetic it makes me want to actually just give you a quality made pack. But then you could buy one for $150 delivered so I'll restrain myself."

What I didn't want this series of  blog posts to be was a advertisement for the custom packs I use.  They are after all custom packs.  But then all my packs I pay retail for and have yet to pay more than $250 for any one of them, including delivery.   Generally the packs I use the most are about half that price, including the ones Dave and I are using and pictured below.  So it is hard to ignore the stark differences in price and quality.   I'm not here to  bash anyone either just a little reality check from the packs I saw being used in the last month or so.  That said I will eventually point out some pretty bad examples imo of current packs.  So don't kill the messenger here.   I have no dog in the fight just reporting what I saw and my opinions on the topic. My suggestion to you as a smart consumer here is read between the lines...take a close look at what you see and  decide according to your own needs.

I have seen and used a lot of packs over the years.  The design and workmanship I still find fascinating.  If you are new to climbing specific packs (yes there is such an animal) or have yet to find one that really fits you hopefully this group of blogs on climbing packs will help you get more for your dollar and the best pack for your own needs.

As I repeat often and honestly mean,  "what I use may not be what you want to use and what works for me may not work for you."      And it pays to remember I am not trying to sell you anything.  The info and opinions here is free.  The real question the information useful to you?

The same custom CCW packs are pictured here made from different fabrics.
2lbs 7oz. for the red ballistics cloth below and  2 lbs. even for the black Spectra ripstop pack pictured above.

Mark Twight @

"June 24-26 Steve House, Scott Backes and I climbed the Czech Direct on Denali. The first ascent, in 1986, required 11 days and approximately 1000' of fixed rope. Kevin Mahoney and Ben Gilmore made the second ascent over 7 days in May, 2000. We climbed it in 60 hours non-stop. We carried no bivouac gear apart from a 2lb Down or Polarguard jacket each and two MSR XGK stoves in order to melt snow fast enough to stay hydrated. Starting with just 22oz of fuel for each, these ran out of gas at hour 48. A total of 55lbs was split between two packs, (18lbs were water), leaving the leader pack-free to move fast.

The Czech Direct is 9000' high but only 5500' present any climbing difficulty: ice climbing up to 90°+ and rock to UIAA V+ (USA 5.9). We belayed 31 (60m) pitches, simul-climbed some terrain and soloed the rest including the first 1000' where the Czechs belayed 9 pitches. After crossing the bergschrund at 6am, we passed the Czech's 2nd bivouac site at 8am and their 3rd bivy by 11 and reached their 4th at 2pm where we brewed and ate. The climbing was fantastic and there was a lot of it. The Czech topo showed 24 pitches of UIAA III (USA 5.4) or harder. Ice conditions were such that we never holstered our tools -- but we did have to file them twice during the climb."

In his book Extreme Alpinism, Twight for better or worse defined how much a climbing pack should weigh.

The magic number?  Less than 3.8 pounds. 

Twight also said, "frameless packs work fine for loads up to 35# and carrying more than 35# usually guarantees failure" 

There are two points I am trying to make here.  The first is most of us carry too much crap around and don't pay attention to what it is we put in our packs.  The other is the pack materials (fabric used ), the weight and the costs don't have to be exotic or astronomical to have a awesome climbing pack.  Here is why.

The pack I am using today is based on a 70's vintage Chouinard FISH pack.   The FISH name came from the smell of the early ballistics nylon used for that pack's body.  When I finally retired the pack in the '90s the shoulder strap seams were literally rotting and falling apart.  But the pack body was still intact and usable after hundreds of miles of hiking and thousands of vertical feet of climbing and hundreds of feet of hauling.

The heavily modified FISH pack's weight in ballistics nylon with a foam pad?  1lb 15oz.

Bottom line?  Nothing wrong with good pack cloth fabrics even today.  Yes they add some weight to a climbing pack compared to the super lwts.   But in a 35/40 Liter sack size like what I am using it is 7 oz of long term durability.  It is easy to get well under 3# on a realistic climbing size pack these days.

My personal climbing pack and its design here:

More on climbing packs in general here:

I like most I suspect I have been easily swayed by the outdoor industry and their paid advertising.  I see gear being used on hard climbs, I want to emulate those climbers and their climbs and a good place to start I figure is having like gear.  Right?  Well it turns out that much of that gear is either given freely or given at such discounts that it is hard not to accept the favor if it is something you will use.  So the guys with the biggest budgets get their products show cased more often in the climbing rags, climbing forums  and on places like this,  climbing blogs.  That gets spun into the best makers even adding labels from the biggest players on to some of the highest quality goods.  Or the weakest attempts at gaining credibility simply claiming it is your product being used when it clearly (to those who really know) it isn't. 

OK lets talk a bit about pack design.  Climbing packs should be simple and sturdy in construction.  The design and pattern for a good climbing pack is how ever pretty complicated.

Just one example of pattern cutting and complicated or simple design efforts.  A pear shaped pack on top and a cylindrical pack shape on the bottom.  Each has its place.

Good look at the S shaped curved back panel pattern from a BI Warthog.   Simple pack complicated design.

All three of  these packs have only two main vertical seams and are made from two main pieces of fabric (front and back)  plus the bottom piece which is the third.  

No where near the total but try counting the load bearing seams on this pack.  The number of pieces of fabric and the resulting seams left untaped in this particular pack surprised me.

Try counting the number of seams and fabric pieces in your favorite pack.  Every seam is a weak point in the pack's design.  It is much better to cut a perfect pattern than it is to build a shaped pattern by using many different pieces of fabric and sewing them together.  Even the very best fabrics easily fail at a poorly sewn seam.   Use a poorly designed pattern, add bad sewing and quality control and you end up with packs that fall apart in use.

This from an email exchange earlier in the week with one of my climbing partners:

"I bought my white one 30L NWD (which is now tearing apart and all taped up) in April 2010. Its my "go to" alpine multi day pack pretty much in summer in Cascades.  Oh, did I tell you what I found the other day?  One of the shoulder straps attachment seams is half torn apart which implies I need to fix it (again!). I am afraid it would not survive another trip."

Mind you this is a less than 2 year old,  current production, $500 retail pack the owner is discussing with me!   And it is not the same $500 pack being discussed on an Internet forum at the top of this blog!  Just the same US domestic manufacturer.  I've seen this particular $500 NWD pack in person and is duct tape holding it together.   I wouldn't personally take it on another climb.  Happily it is not my pack or my choice.  'Cuz I would be pretty pissed.   I'm being kind here by not posting the pictures.

Take a look inside your favorite pack.

Here are some examples of well built packs and their stitching and tape jobs.   The FISH pack not so much.  But hard to argue its durability after 20 years of hard climbing and ZERO required repairs.  I included the last pack pictured from a Canadian manufacture that uses multiple seams and fabric pieces with an exceptionally well fitting pattern that is sewn extremely well.  Lots of ways to build a quality pack.  Pick your own wisely.

It is worth noting the bit of fabric here to back up the externally sewn accessory box/X  sewing pattern.  The tape job on the seam is also well done imo.

 This one's sewing is very clean and much more likely to hold up because of multiple stitch lines.  These are the shoulder strap tacks.  It is also a well worn 3 year old pack.  In fact it is the the red ballistics nylon one I have posted any number of pictures of in the past.  The clones to this pack in Spectra and Dyneema ripstop look the same internally.   All the sewing and taping is very clean and tidy.

Clean taped seams here.  And just as likely cleanly sew seams under the tape.  Note the dbl seams under the tape and the double sewn over seams just outside the tape on this pack bottom.  All of that is why these packs will take year after year of abuse and stay usable.  Not a season or two of use and a roll of duct tape to keep them just functionable. 

Here is my 30+ plus year old Chouinard FISH pack.  Good enough sewing and no taped seams...which was the norm for a $40 pack in the late 70's.   The sewing looked like shit but lasted  through 20 years of hard use.  But why would you put up with this level of  workmanship today at 5 or worse yet 10 times the price.
I won't. 

This one is from a Canadian manufacture that uses multiple seams and fabric pieces with an exceptionally well fitting pattern that is sewn extremely well.  This one is 5+ years old and used hard.  Internally it still looks new.

A climbing pack in use!

Alley Swinton climbing, Dave Searle photo

Let me leave you with some facts.  The actual weights of packs I have had here on my digital scale.

CCW 35l custom climbing sack, Spectra rip stop, 2# even (based on a Ozone)
Same CCW in ballistics nylon 2# 7oz
Same CCW in Dyneema r/s 1# 12oz
REI Flash 18L 9.2oz 
Arcteryx Khazri 35l  2# 13oz 
CCW Chaos, custom 21" back, Spectra r/s, 3# 10oz
Jensen 4oz. red pack cloth LG 1# 11oz
Jensen green 8oz Cordura 2#3oz
Cilo 30L in 210d Dyneema r/s 17" back  2# 9oz

Part 3 of "climbing packs" will be a discussion of what IMO you really need on a alpine climbing specific sac.


PurpleJesus1994 said...


I have been reluctant to respond to your response to my comment regarding my 30L Cilo W/NW pack on MP.

To be perfectly honest for two reasons. One your response to my comment makes perfect sense and i really can't argue with it one bit.

The other is not wanting to start some shit show or diminish Cilo's reputation. The fact is i purchased my back off MP or BPL used but brand new. It was not purchased directly from Cilo. I therefore feel it unfair to really stick it to them that hard as who really knows the real story.

On the other hand the points you make are all valid and have made me think. When i first got the pack one of the first things i noticed was the clearly hand sewn workmanship. Although it seemed pretty bomber it did seem very very sloppy executed. Add to that if you wanted the pack to hold a warranty you must seam seal the whole dam thing. It took me forever to do so! I did do ever darn seam on the bag twice but it still took forever and i really did not enjoy it one bit. I do remember thinking"I am really glad i did not pay $500 for this thing or i would be freaking pissed". I also thought this thing is pretty pimp. Pimp only gets one so far though right and this is climbing gear not club wear so? Since i have got over all that and for the $250 i am happy with the bag. $500 no freaking way and i would be pissed pulling a hissy fir had i bought it directly from Cilo.

All problems aside i still can not say i don't really really like this pack! Yeah it has had it's problems but all have been easily repaired and caused no real problems in the end.

On other hand with all the valid points you have made the gear dork in me will give both CCW and Blue Ice a shot. I suppose then i will be able to make a fair distinction in regard to how nice of a pack my $500 W/NW Cilo pack actually is?

I sent Blue Ice a Email to see if they would make a few changes to a Warthog for a small fee and i will try and make a in person appointment with CCW being they are local to me and work on a custom sack.

Go ahead let her rip i am sure i still got it coming to me for some reason or other. The fact is i like my Cilo pack enough that i would be hard pressed to not carry it.

Dane said...

Purp! Thanks for the commment. I typically ask as a professional courtesy before I quote someone on the blog. My apologies for not making the effort this time. Send me a PM. I have an idea you might really like.

The Blue Ice packs are made in Asia and in bulk so no way to get a custom one. I'd already have one if it was possible.

But get a hold of me when you get time. Your time with Randy at CCW will pay for itself many times over.

Logan said...

I agree re the build quality of some other brands which look good enough off the shelf but after use/closer scrutiny you don't really get how they can be so expensive when someone like Randy can build them that much burlier and lighter for less! The stitching coming apart at the shoulder strap on that brand is not uncommon unfortunately and this is one straight from the factory. No rough use besides what is to be expected for such end users.

I've got one (Valdez) on the way from Randy which I can't wait to try out. If I'm happy will have to get a lighter version for the alpine, and can relegate/sell the other brand to others.