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The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Climbing packs part 3

"I have a seam ripper, a pair of professional sewing scissors, a hand awl and a Swiss Army knife. Generally the tools required to turn a production pack into a "alpine climbing" pack that I can live with."  db

That was a thought I have had on a regular basis from the '70s on.  Same thought that occasionally runs through my mind today on occasion.  I know better now (and have a deeper set of pockets) so instead I prefer to sit down and design a pack that I don't have to cut up.  Trick then is getting a skilled set of hands to make the thought a reality.

© rif, Aug 1969
Climbers: Rob Ferguson (photo by Pete Cartwright)
The basic kit for alpine climbing hasn't really changed in the last 50 years.  The smart guys getting things done, haven't carried more than 20% of their body weight.  As time has passed the gear has gotten more durable, warmer and much, much lighter.

What I used on Deltaform's Super Coulior in 1976 isn't any different than what I pack today for A-Strain.  Sure the gear has changed but the basic items, rope, tools, boots, hardware haven't.  We can climb faster (even old guys like me) and do harder technical routes with ease because of the new gear.  But the human powering the effort up hill hasn't changed much.  Smarter may be from the experience of generations before us but certainly no better than the guys suffering it out on the European North faces during the '30s.

Jack with a simple pack sans lid and his typical smile, 2009.

The reason I want to go down memory lane here is this blog series discusses climbing packs accessories.   What I am about to suggest as a  climbing pack and show you is not the norm.  Every climbing partner I have was at first extremely reluctant to steadfastly against using this style of pack.  They aren't for everyone and they aren't for every trip.

But with a little imagination and some thought you might find this is the best pack style you have ever used for actual technical climbing.

Canadian ice, 1978, no lid on Chouinard's Baltoro pack.

Below from Dow Williams, April 2012 on the Mnt. Project forums,

"hmmm, been climbing a bit...full time for the past 15 years, guiding, alpine V and VI routes, ice, rock, you name it....can't say I own a "leader" this something dead bird came up with to sell a new expensive pack that is suppose to make one climb better?

In any regard, keep in mind, you are only as fast as your second....don't load him/her down with a non-"leader" pack, whatever that might be and expect to move any faster because you have a cool "leader" pack on...a classic route where you need to use low profile packs is Beckey Chouinard in the Bugaboos...I have guided this route...and can assure you...that if your partner is not experienced enough to swap leads and is going to serve as a 2nd for the entire better make sure his/her pack is no more cumbersome to climb with than whatever this "leader" pack business is....or you won't make the route in a day which is much preferred....unless of course you want to carry a bigger (I presume non-"leader") pack and bivy."

Climbing is..."a thinking man's sport."  Dow has much of the details already covered above.

Remember the 20% rule.   There are no leader's packs because you carry a climbing sac that first, fits you.  The pack size is defined by your body size and what kind of weight you can actually climb difficult technical ground with.  You should build or pick out a pack that fits YOUR body size perfectly first.  Then you can climb with it loaded with as little as required or as much as you can realistically carry. 

This from my 'friend" Tom Ripley over on the UKC web sit last month.

"These days do you actually use any gear enough to wear it out though?
Or just buy the next gimmick when you got bored? "

Kinda a funny question coming from a 20 year old kid. (and no offense to 20 year old kids) So we will give Tom a little slack here. In my climbing career I don't think I have ever tolerated a "gimmick" and I am never bored. Most of my gear from the '70s I still own. Including my Chouinard FISH pack I still used when very long in tooth and well past needing to be replaced. There is a reason for that. Some gear is hard to come by and difficult to replace with anything remotely usable.

The original Karrimore Grimpeur in the first picture of this blog was used, abused and never replaced. Just as my FISH pack was used, abused and only recently replaced with the same. (or damn close anyway) As I said really good kit is hard to fine. Gimmicks..they come and go without hesitation or afterthought. Our young Mr. Ripley will given enough time in the sport eventually figure that out.

More here on the story of the very first Karrimore Grimpeur:
If you are not into really basic climbing sacks or want to learn about what I think is a better climbing sac stop here. The sizing and fit for a true climbing sack have been covered. The rest is again personal opinion. Likely $150 or so will get you a duplicate of the pack I use. IMO it is a good bet that it will be the best climbing sac you'll ever own. But there isn't much to them. And they don't climb by themselves.
But if you aspire to emulate this style of climbing in the mountains..... read on.

John Bouchard climbing on the Grands Charmoz, August 1975 photo by Steve Zajchowski.
The pack is a Karrimore.

"A rope, a rack, and the pack on your back, is Alpinism!"

To the uneducated eye the climbing sacks I use are really simple.  As I have said previous, simple sacs but complicated designs.   The packs show above are all the same basic design,  A single daisy chain stitched up the front to ease the strain of hauling the pack.  The pack is uncluttered so it hauls well.  The down side (if there actually is one) is everything needs to go in the pack and not hung from the outside.  Minimalistic indeed.  The lid is detachable on these particular packs.  There are two pockets in the lid plus strap on patches sewn to the top.  The main pocket in the lid will hold two, 1 liter water bottles.  The smaller bottom pocket it a typical map or guide book size.  The single lid attachment buckle on the outside is covered to protect it if you need to haul the sac.  The dbl Fastex buckles above the shoulder straps that latch on the lid from behind are not covered.  Velcro seals the lid between the shoulder straps in the "short" position.  The lid snugs down tightly above the Velcro in the extended position on an overly full sac.   I will interchange the terms *sac* and *pack* a lot from here on out.  A proper climbing pack to me is a "climbing sac".

All good to this point right?  And likely what is pictured above is as stripped a pack as most will ever want.  But it is not the pack I climb with generally.  This little internal pocket opened a lot of options and ideas for me to use a even simpler pack.  Funny how this all works. A tiny bit of design effort changed how even I looked at this decades old design.  And it changed the packs I climb with and has made them even more useful to me and simpler yet.

My ID, the car keys, the camera if it isn't in my jacket, some extra GU and a headlamp go in this pocket.  Spare socks or gloves sometimes and a hat as well when I think about it.  Basically anything I don't want "lost" and rolling around in the bottom pack.  The pocket is big enough...but not that BIG.

2 liters of water is most easily replaced with a stove.   Or just as easily carried in a hydration bladder internally.   So the importance of having a top pocket can be easily forgotten...then left behind all together.

So here is my current climbing sac.  Not to every one's taste for sure.  But something to think about when you decide a new "climbing sac" is required.   Built right you'll own it a long, long make sure it is a design you can live with.

Full of ropes the pack weights in at 25#.  A full compliment of actual alpine climbing kit?  Right at 30#.  Just under my 20% self imposed 38# limit.

It should be no secret here at Cold Thistle that the majority of what I write is simply me slogging through the piles of gear I have an interest in and by doing so hopefully it enables me to make the best decisions and selections for my own use.

This three part series started because I was appalled at the pack fit and quality of some of my partner's packs.  Enough so that I have bought and given away packs.  It pays to remember that if you aren't soloing, your partner and his gear are actually a part of "your kit".

What I learned from this exercise it I want a really basic pack  Since it is what I use the majority of time anyway.  So last week I placed another order for a pack sans lid or any way to add a lid.   It is very similar to the pack pictured above just no Velcro or the extra set of straps to latch the lid down.  The daisy chain and lid tie down is simply bar tacked at the packs opening.   But other than that it is really the same basic alpine sac I have been using for 30+ years. Just a more complicated design.   Old habits die hard I guess.

Here is my new build sheet from Randy @ CCW:

Pack 1 OZONE 210d Spectra (Dane)

1. Custom sizing 21" back (+2.5")
2. Fish bottom pattern
3. No lid or attachments of any kind
   (-front daisy but without top strap)
4. pull down shoulder straps instead of "pull up"
5. main bag has a zippered "guide book" pocket...with a little clip for
6. thicker shoulder straps foam- 2" longer
7. Perlon haul loop
8. dbl rope straps across the top of the pack
9. half length extension with draw string
10. no double bottom

And the specs for my original CCW alpine sacs:

Custom sizing, 21"
FISH bottom pattern
2 liter+ water bottle size top pocket
2nd zippered pocket in bottom of the lid with key holder
Zippers reversed on the pockets for use on hanging belays
pull down shoulder straps instead of "pull up"
main bag has a zippered "guide book" pocket
covered lid buckle which protects it while being hauled
removable foam pad
oversize/thickness on the shoulder straps
Perlon haul loop which is easier to clip on and off the anchor in difficult stances
dbl strap patches on lid
dbl rope straps across the top of the pack
dbl bottom
10" extension with draw string
lid is extendable and removable
bar tacked daisy chain on the bottom of the lid strap

Finally for those interested.   I took my pack and loaded it with the typical gear I would take waterfall cragging or alpine climbing in Canada.  Loaded it a bit heavy @ what ended up being 35# even to make a point.  Typically I don't carry all the hardware and the rope.  Or this much hardware very often.  Everything pictured is gear that was sitting waiting to be put away from out last trip to Canada so not unrealistic either.    Helmet or rope and may be both could just as easily go inside the pack.

ready to close it up and strap on my 1/2 twin ropes and helmet

above and below:
Not my best pack job but easy enough to carry

Here is what went into the loaded  pack pictured above:

13 food and GU packs
2 dozen Advil
Metolius gear sling
12 Grivel Helix short and med screws and one 22cm in a cover and with caps intact
8 sewn QDs and 16 biners
Locker and Reverso
6 cams various sizes form 1" to 3"
4 Large stoppers
5 pins, knife blade to 3/4" baby angle
Petzl harness
Grivel Umbilicals
2 ?
2 head lamps
2 spare battery packs
3 lighters
Snow Peak stove
med MSR fuel canister
GSI cook kit
spare scarf and Buff
2 spare gloves
one 60m Beal Ice Twin
Patagonia Knifeblade pullover
Patagonia Nano Puff pullover
RAB Generator Alpine Jacket
1 liter Nalgene bottle
a pair of Petzl Dartwins
a pair of Petzl Nomics

James Blench on the hourglass of Deltaform, early '80s.
Gregg Cronn photo


Unknown said...

Do you use the same pack for ski touring? How do you carry your skis if so?

Dane said...

Ya, obviously these are VERY specific climbing sacs. Only one use for them. As with most most use specific techical gear. This pack design is a no compromise climbing pack.

I use several different packs for skiing and another for heavier loads when required to walk into to an objective.

But as the title suggests..the topic was "climbing" packs"...nothing more.

Anonymous said...

Dane-With all of the climbing gear removed (crampons, axes, harness,etc.), don't you need some compression to reduce the volume of the pack? I would think that all of that loose pack fabric would be just as likely to snag on something as compression straps or tool holders.

Dane said...

Compression? Good question. Yep that seems like a reasonable observation. One might even bet it is true and compression straps are required.

I've seen pictures of House's pack of similar design and his doesn't have them either. ("Alberta" 2008 issue of the CAJ has a great picture of House's pack in the back Patagonia ad) Haley's which I have seen in person doesn't but he has the ability to carry skis on something similar that would likely work as compression straps.
But didn't see any specific compression straps.

I even have the exact same pack pictured here with compression straps I use if I want to carry skis.

But as a climbing sac...never needed them with the pack almost empty or partially full.

I think the bag shape allows that much better than you would think at first glance.

YMMV..but that is mine.

Anonymous said...


During your stay in Chamonix last winter, have you seen any such packs being used or being available in sport shops there (other than Blue ice).I would also like to hear your suggestion on similar packs that are available in Europe.


Steve said...

Have enjoyed reading your practical thoughts on backpacks. Recently picked up a BCA Squall for 50 bucks. Pretty simple, 27 Liters and meets a lot of your criteria. Have used for day backcountry ski trips and would consider for the alpine.

Dane said...

Chamonix? We looked. Four of us did and didn't find anything similar. One of my partners ended up with a nice Grivel sac...which seems as close as we would get.

Only the Wart from BI fills my requirements as a pure climbing sac. The other BI offerings are intentionally compromises.

Anonymous said...

I thought so. I´m also looking for a very clean sack and all that I could find is this :


Eric said...

Have you looked at the new Mountain hardwear packs? They seem very light and basic. From the pictures online it looks to be a similar compared to what you describe as a "climbing pack", and they are clearly advertised that way.

SweBrian said...

Some great posts about packs, it has been eye-opening to see what you can cram into a 35L pack. I've had the same Gregory pack for the last 17 years and it's been all over the world with me and up a bunch of routes too, but it's always been too big.
I'm interested in knowing what would be a "rock" pack in your opinion? I think a lot of the ideals you mention for alpine would easily transition for a crag pack that would need to double as pack one could wear on long (24 pitches for example) climbs where you don't want to haul and you need to carry water/food/clothing. What have you seen that fits that bill, or what would some suggestions be?

Ryan Corry said...

Thanks for the thoughts on the climbing sac. CCW is quickly moving to the top of my list for a custom pack! On another note, where did you get your screw wrap shown in the pack contents picture? Looks like a nice 12+ screw wrap. Would love to get my hands on one like that.


Dane said...

I don't have a "rock pack". If it is long enough and I require a pack I take a "climbing" sac :)

The idea of these set of blogs is to get you guys to start looking at the issue differently. No "leader", no "rock", just a climbing specific pack that works every where. I'll eventually do a part four from the questions and comments readers are making.

Screw bag? It is made by ACE Anker..from cordura. Canadian I think. 10 or more years old.

MTN Hardware? Nice packs and a screaming deal on Dyneema at a more logical price point under $200for either. I really like the 30. The 40 not so much. But the real question is will they fit you?

Tetrachion said...

Hi Dane
Do you have any experience with Crux Backpacks?
I'm looking for a new climbing pack and I'd certainly consider either an AK 37 or AK 47(-x). I'm partial to the 47-x at the moment since it has to be large enough for an extended climbing trip (+- week in the mountains).
Crux backpacks seem to fit your criteria and they are easily available in belgium.

Edvin Mellergård said...

3.8 lb for a pack, that's crazy! Mr. Twights achievements sounds even more astonishing now :)

Anyway, great posts, pretty much agree with everything you say here except for the fact that you put a pockets against your back, doesn't your head-torche, food etc poke you in the back?

I took some pictures of my homemade, sub 200 gram climbing bag and put on my blog, looks pretty similar to your custom made bags. A bit simpler design(hey, it's homemade after all!), a slightly different cut and a few different features but overall we seem to have the same idea of how a pack should "work"!

Dane said...

I doubt Mark ever used a 3.8# pack but he seemed set on coming up with a production pack number for weight bitd. CCW packs (what I use) have either a dbl fold or triple foam pad between the internal pocket and your back. So nothing short of my Darts or the Nomics have a chance to poke me :)

Nice pack and write up Edvin.

Ryan said...

Regarding the MH packs, I picked up a Scrambler 30 on the REI Outlet site for $56. It fits most of the criteria except (like many off the shelf packs in this size) the top lid is sewn on. Seems well built and fits my 17.5" torso perfectly. Relatively light weight and durable. Don't really care for the mesh back panel padding as it tends to retain snow but realize that for $56, there will need to be some compromise and it does fit me very well.

Anonymous said...

Dane. Did you ever consider Dimension Polyant vx-21 instead of dyneema grid for the CCW packs?

Dane said...

Dimension Polyant vx-21? No clue what it even was until you mentioned it and I typed it into goggle..thanks.

Anonymous said...

Vx-21: wild things makes their packs from it. Fully Waterproof laminate, stiffer & thicker than dyneema grid stop. Be interested to hear your thoughts.

Dane said...

No clue at the moment. Likely have to get a pack made from it first and see. But thanks for the heads up.

Edvin Mellergård said...

Tetrachion: I have an Crux AK47-x, awesome pack except for a couple of details which really ruins it for me. I find the shoulder straps too wide, too stiff and the fabric isn't "slippery" enough, together that really restrict my arm movements when I'm climbing and therefore I only use it to carry gear in to the climb before whacking out my small pack for the climb itself. The other issue I got is with the compression straps, there is just one long on each side that goes in a Z-shape, it makes it faster to compress the bag BUT after a while all the stuff tends to end up in the bottom of the bag and nothing at the top. Two seperate compression straps would keep the shape much better.

Having said that it got the by far best fabric I've ever seen, kevlar reinforced nylon with a thick PU-coating making it nearly indestructible AND waterproof. There is no wear at all on mine after maybe 100 days of use, a bit dirty yes, but that's all.

It's also super light, carries extremely well and I have several friends who use it with no complaints what so ever so try it on, maybe you don't have any problems with the shoulder straps at all in which case I would consider it probably the best pack out there.

Brandon U. said...

Hey Dane, great series on climbing packs, I learned a great deal that I want to implement into my next pack. I don't really have any experience with spectra or dyneema fabric. How do they compare to the ballistics nylon in terms of durability? I was also wondering what is your go-to pack for longer trips where you need bivy gear, more food/fuel, etc?

Also a question on sizing...if you want the pack to sit on top of your ass but the torso size is measured from the top of the iliac crest, do you have to factor in that extra few inches?

Dane said...

Hi Brandon, and thanks. For a bigger pack I use several..this one in particular with for hiking and without the lid for climbing:

I will have another made shortly that is even less complicated and more simple.

Or the 35L Arcteryx shown inside out on one blog which is inbetween for sizes depending on the trip. Dyneeman and Spectra rip stop both seem really good and light enough for the price. NWD I won't own having seen too many of them falling apart. Vx-21 I have seen in the WT's packs. And will likely have a mid size pack made from it in the near future once I find soem of the fabric.

The ballistic nylon is my favorite for a lot of reasons. The best is I have a 30 year old pack in the stuff and the pack body is still in decent shape. I'll be dead before I wear my new one out!

Sizing? I didn't use the published sizing guide lines but used a pack that I knew fit me and used that actual back measurement, shoulder strap to bottom seam. So yes by the numbers I would likely add an inch at least to the iliac crest number. Astute observation btw. Good on ya!

Jon said...

Hi Dane, great series of articles on packs. Sorry to go off topic, but from looking at your pack contents photo, there were a few pieces of kit that could be substituted to lower the weight/bulk.

Swap the GSI cookset, Snowpeak stove and MSR canister for a Jetboil Sol Ti cook system plus a 100g gas canister.

Swap your BD krabs for DMM i-beam versions, e.g. Spectre 2 or Alpha Trad?

Finally you could swap the friends for the new 'Helium' version, the Reverso 3 for the 4, and maybe even the harness for an Arc'teryx M270.

All together I think you would be saving over a pound in weight.

Of course there would be no point in any of this if the new pieces of kit didn't work for you! What are your thoughts?

Thanks, Jon

Logan said...

Sorry but I disagree re a rock pack...that can and should be lighter as you generally carry less gear. I'm assuming by a rock pack someone who is just multipitching or not involving overnight/glaciated-involved approaches where you need to carry extra gear just to get there. Why not have a smaller bag, a lighter bag and one that makes it easier to climb with?

Dane said...

Rock pack? Ya, I don't get the "rock pack" thing. I will generally want to take with me on route my approach shoes, water and a bit of food and may be a windshell or sweater. Shoes can sometimes easily be ditched and picked up later. Water is always a problem.

I have done a lot of grade IV and a few V pure rock routes in a day and seldom taken a pack. A Mono might work on any of those or even a Dbl Mono if your approach shoes are small enough. Generally my size 12 aren't even if I start with flips. Body size will define what size of pack will be useful to you as a climbing pack. I do really like the REI Flash 18 for something similar though. Couple of good reviews/comments on the Flash 18 here on the blog being used on long days for rock. But I'd generally rather just add gear to my harness and/or go with less water on route where possible.

If I can't lead in the pack why bother? Longer (VIs) rock routes or alpine routes done in a day generally need a different kind of pack. Either bigger for more gear or something I can haul easily. Or both. Either way I'll be climbing in them a LOT. Then you are back to a true "climbing sac" design. If it is the second's responsibility then I'd want the pack that is easiest to climb in. Flash 18 which is a scaled down version of these packs is my first choice for a "rock" pack @ 9oz or so. Not very durable and not very versital but a decent "rock" pack that will fit most. YMMV of course.

Anonymous said...

I note you carry no food. GU is not food. Its sufferage. =)

I also note you carry no camera. Why bother going without a real camera. Yea, its fun, but 2 years from now you completely forgot what was what and have no pics/video's for screen saver or wall hangings.

For those two main reasons above, why most will want a +40L pack and not 35L or smaller.

Dane said...

GU is calories nothing more. If I want a cafe I go to a cafe. This is a climbing pack not a lunch bag after all! Cameras? there is a Panasonic Camera on top of the green jacket in the picture. I sometimes even take two cameras...easy enough to do as they are so tiny. Where do you think the blog pictures come from? Pack size? of course that is always up to you...and thankfully, me :)

Anonymous said...


I thought it might be helpful to your UK readers to point out that Aguille Alpine of Cumbria handmake off the peg (& produce custom) rucksacks not dissimilar to those from CCW.