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The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Dear Lord? Please, just five small things?

*Five things I want for the new year *

*By Bruno Schull*

Climbing technology is advancing rapidly. Almost every week, we read about new high-performance clothing, footwear, hardware, and so on.  However, before we get carried away with all the possibilities, I think it would be a good idea to focus on the basics.  If we can’t get these simple things right, how can we make the most of new  technology?  So here is my list of five things I want for the new year.

*Zippers that work*

Let’s start with a fun experiment: collect all the gear you have with zippers—clothes, tents, sleeping bags, and so on.  Then, one by one, run all the zippers back and forth.  How often do they get stuck?  I’m willing to bet the zippers get stuck at least half the time, probably more.  It’s even worse when you’re tugging at your jacket in the wind, struggling to open your tent in the dark, or climbing into your sleeping bag in the cold. What’s the problem?  Why can’t we fix this?  In my experience, the most reliable zippers are the slightly-larger, squared-off, plastic models, like those on the Arcteryx Atom LT jacket.  But of course that won’t work everywhere or for everybody.  In any case, I would be willing to give up a lot for zippers that actually zip!

*Climbing jackets for climbing*

Here’s another experiment.  Put on your climbing jacket (hard shell, soft shell, whatever).  Stand in front of a mirror, and see how it fits.  Try out all the pockets, zippers, features and so on.  Seems OK, right?  Now, put on a helmet, pack and harness.  Does the jacket still fit well?  Can you reach all the zippers and pockets, or are they blocked by the straps?  Can you put on the hood?  Next, do some lunges, like you’re hiking.  Do some pull ups, like you’re climbing.  Swing your arms around, like you’re warming up your hands.  Now does the jacket fit?  Again, I’m willing to bet that your jacket is hanging out of your harness in the front, bunched around your pack in the back, and pulled tight around your helmet.   In no particular order, here is a list of some common problems with climbing jackets: pockets low down where they are covered by harnesses or waist belts, pockets high up where they are covered by shoulder straps, hoods that don’t work with helmets, hood draw cords concealed inside collars, hem draw cords that tangle in gear, sleeves that are too short, and hems that don’t stay under harnesses.  For me, the worst problem is harness fit. Granted, I’m a tall guy, but I don’t think most jackets are long enough; they just don’t fit under harnesses, and I wish they were all one or two inches longer.  I can’t think of a jacket that solves all of these problems, but one tip I can offer is to look more closely at mid-range jackets, which are often much simpler (and often better for climbing) than top-end jackets.  For example, the jacket I use most right now is the Marmot Tempo Hoody, a mid-range soft shell.  Can’t we have real climbing jackets for climbing?

*Practical boots*

Modern alpine climbing boots are made with lightweight materials, carbon fiber reinforcements, rocker soles, asymmetrical profiles, and ever-narrower toe boxes, for improved climbing.  But are these really advances?  I always think about something written by climber and guide Kathy Cosley, based in Chamonix, France.  She observed that many if not most alpine climbs involve up to eighty percent hiking and scrambling, and only twenty percent actual climbing.  Considered this way, when we talk about alpine climbing boots, maybe we should really talk about alpine hiking boots.  And for hiking in the mountains, many new boots feel strangeto me.  The platform does not feel stable, the toe boxes and volume feel cramped, the rocker makes me feel like I am balancing on edges.  I fall at the far end of the range, with big feet, but I imagine I am not the only one who would benefit from more stable and comfortable boots.  Ask yourself, what is really going to cause problems on a climb?  Having cramped, cold, painful feet?  Or having boots which may not allow you to climb at the absolute highest level?  For a general alpine climbing boot, I don’t think you can do better than the La Sportiva Nepal Evo, perhaps the most popular boot in the Alps.  That’s about as far as I want to go with alpine climbing boots.  Unfortunately, the market seems to be going in a different direction.

*Crampons in different sizes*

This seems like the most obvious thing in my post: crampons in different sizes.  I’m not talking about many sizes, just a few options, such as S/M and M/L.  How can we expect the same crampons to fit on boots from sizes 38 to 48?  At both ends of the spectrum, fit is a real problem, and can become a safety issue.  On my big boots, crampons are often so narrow they feel like ice skates—definitely not  confidence inspiring.  And from what I understand, fitting crampons on small boots, especially small boots with asymmetrical soles, is no better.  In some cases, the crampons extend past the boot soles…would you want to catch them on your pant cuffs?  Of course you could go even further with crampon fit: different center bars, different toe bails, different heel levers.  It would be great to have all these options easily available.  But just a few sizes would be a huge step forward (so to speak).

*Tethers, pommels and spikes *

At this point, most climbers seem to have abandoned old-style leashes, and many have adopted tethers to prevent themselves from dropping their ice tools (and to add a margin of safety in case of a fall—more on that later).  To be honest, I keep going back and forth with tethers; I have tried them several times, but I always return to leashless climbing.  You just can’t beat the fun of pure leashless climbing.  However, as I get older, I find myself looking for more ways to make climbing safer, and that includes moving to tethers.  Part of the problem is that I don’t think we have yet seen a fully-integrated tether/pommel/spike system.  Each component is important.  Let’s talk about tethers first.  As most people are probably aware, tethers aren’t designed to hold falls, or even to hang from ; instead, they are designed to keep you from dropping your tools.  The Black Diamond web site make this abundantly clear.  On the other hand, as Dane, the owner of this blog pointed out, while tethers aren’t designed to hold falls, it’s nice that they sometimes do!  I suspect that, while many people know that tethers aren’t designed to hold falls, they secretly hope/wish/pray that tethers will help keep them alive (I know this is true in my case!).  So why not make tethers full strength?  It wouldn’t be too difficult.  Here are some things to consider.  First, in a fall, the forces would be very high, so perhaps a set of load limiting folds and stitches could be incorporated into the design.  Second, it would be really nice to have simple loops midway along each strand, which could be clipped into ice screws or tools to provide resting points.  That would make tethers even more useful.  However, the limiting factor is not really tethers, but rather the attachment between tethers and ice tools.  Which brings me to pommels and spikes.  Design is often characterized as a compromise between different competing requirements, and, in truth, we ask a lot of pommels and spikes.  Here is a short list: 1) a smooth rounded shape that rotates well in the hand, 2) a functional spike, 3) a full-strength clip-in point for carabiners, and 4) light weight to improve swing.  I don’t think there is an existing ice tool which ticks all these boxes.  Rather, there are a variety of tools, which emphasize one or another characteristic.  For example, the old Petzl Nomics had smooth, rounded, light pommels, and a great swing, but they had no spikes, and the best way to attach tethers was with small pieces of cord.  The new Black Diamond Fusions can be set up with a real spikes and clip in points, but rotation in the hand is limited, and the spike is heavy.  The Grivel Quantum Tech swings well, but the pommels and clip-in points are made from plastic.  Finally, while the spikes on some tools are pull-tested to high loads, to my knowledge, no spikes are designed to support the kind of forces that you could generate in a fall with tethers.  The new DMM Switch might have a full-strength pommel, but you still need to attach your tethers with small pieces of cord, so you’re back to square one.  Just to think outside the box, check out the Edelrid Rage.  I have no idea if the Rage climbs well, or if the spike is full-strength, I just think that the design might be a step in the right direction, basically a rounded spike with a simple clip in point.  So, although it might seem like an impossible task, I would love to see an integrated tether/pommel/spike system.  Put a carabiner hole in the bottom of the Nomic?  Round off the Fusion spike?  Enlarge the hole on the Switch?

Make the Rage full-strength?  These changes would make alpine climbing safer and more enjoyable, and that, for me, is the best definition of high-performance.

There is my list.  Of course, I could go on: harnesses that fit, simple packs, the cuff question, the hem question, better ways to carry ice screws, and so on.  But with a good climbing jacket, solid boots, crampons that fit, and tethers and ice tools which work together, I would be happy in the new year.  Don’t forget zippers that zip!


Unknown said...

Dear Lord!

Don't forget about socks which do not compress lower leg with their upper part, limit blood circulations and make my feet fell cold!

Dersu said...

What ice tools are you using in the second picture? They might be orange, but they're certainly not Ergos :).

Dane said...

Trango Raptors....great tools!

AHEM! on the dang socks!

Graham said...

Hear Hear!!!

Ryan Corry said...

They are called Darn Tough...and they are gods gift to your feet. Lots of different types available as well. Check them out. Vermonters know cold feet.

Damien Gildea said...

Thanks Bruno,

I agree with a lot of your comments, particularly as I am 199cm tall (6'7") with a 47" chest and 34" waist, so fit is a big issue. I guess companies have to make one product in one pattern to fit an infinite number of bodies. But beyond a point, if there is no fit, there is no function.

I have been saying and posting for years about more comfortable and flexible boots. This is even more the case for expedition climbing than climbing in the Alps. Most expedition climbing is hiking, with very little - often no - frontpointing. Our feet would be warmer and more comfortable in more flexible boots and we would probably move faster too. I know Salewa has their switchable model, but it is not an expedition boot.

Crampons, yes. How narrow some crampons are on big boots (EU47 for me) is almost criminal. I don't know the answer on that one.

Bruno Schull said...

Thanks for the comments everybody. @ Damien, yes, crampon fit is a real problem. I wear size 48...and some really nice crampons are very narrow gives a kind of "ankle-rolling" feel. I thought I would add the following to my post: check out Google pictures of another Edelrid tool, the discontinued Katana Pro, for a pommel/spike/tether possibility. Again, I have no idea how the tool climbs, but if you could make a pommel and spike like than full strength, it would be great.

Unknown said...

Good thoughts. Nice to hear you confirm two things I've been thinking (which have been reinforced after demoing lots of gear at the ouray ice festival this past week): 1) My nepals are great! I'll keep climbing in them till THEY quit (although walking a trail is a bit of a chore still). 2) I LOVE my marmot tempo hoody! Pockets are in the right place, fit is perfect for broad shoulders with narrow waist, stays put under harness, sleeves nice and long, helmet comfortable under a hood. There isn't another jacket on the market that "works" this well (for me/my body). My one semi-major complaint? It's about as windproof as fleece! Oh well, at least snow slides off easily...My second complaint is that it weighs over 20oz. Come on, the old patagucci readymix had the material dialed for breathability/windproofness and came in at 15oz...but it wasn't nearly as stretchy (another thing that makes this jacket so awesome).