Lessons 28 - 33
This is the fourth part in my Lessons posts. I’ve learnt a few more things which might be useful or interesting, including how to spend less time waiting for the stove, the Micro Traxion and the 'duffle shuffle.'
#28. Stove Efficiency - How to heat a gas canister.
At higher altitudes or in colder temperatures, the potential power from standard (iso)butane/propane gas canisters is significantly reduced.
I’ve found normal stoves (such as the Jetboil Flash or Primus Eta Lite+) to go from a hearty roar at sea level, to a meek whisper at altitude. They operate at a fraction of their power - and this is due to the gas canister.
This dramatically lengthens the time it takes to melt some water, and produce hot water for a meal, wasting a lot of time when one could be climbing. I haven’t researched too much, but basically it’s because in cold conditions the canister pressure decreases, particularly when there isn’t much gas left. Cold and low gas levels means poor pressure, which in turn means poor heat output.
It’s worth noting that Primus has a Winter mix gas canister, which is supposed to improve efficiency. I’m sure I’ve used it but I can’t remember much about it. I think it’s a good idea, but it’s not widely available at the moment.
Over the years, people have experimented with different methods of heating the gas canister - from holding the canister with bare hands (unpleasant), to having multiple small canisters and swapping them regularly, warming them in your jacket. Below are two of the most successful methods.
Hammered flat and then bent into a U-shape, with the ends poked into the stove burner, the copper piping transfers heat to the gas canister. I’ve heard some people use foam mat to add extra insulation.
Uisdean and I tried this method (but with copper wire, which was the only thing available) in Alaska, without success. The wire was too thin to transfer heat.
Freeze-dried meal pouch
Gilbert Chase and Chantel Astorga showed us their method, which I really like and now use. It’s lighter than copper pipe, too.
Clean and cut down an empty freeze-dried meal pouch. Warm a few millimetres of water on the stove, then pour it into the freeze-dried pouch. Place the gas canister and stove in the pouch. Top it up with warm water every now and again. Insulate the freeze-dried pouch from the ground by placing it on a rucksack or foam.
Note: only some pouches fit medium and large canisters, so try before you take it into the hills. Trek ’n’ Eat size work well.
Look at this website for plenty of information about stoves, cold weather performance, gas and more. It’s pretty comprehensive:
On the subject of stoves, Calum, Tony and I were in South America and were searching for white gas. The information on the MSR website (below, and linked) would’ve been very useful! The Summit Register section also has info on how much fuel to bring, and more. There doesn’t seem to be any info on India/Pakistan/Nepal/Tibet (Himalayas), but I guess you can google that, or bring it from home.
Finally, find the best mix of propane/butane you can. Aim for 20% propane, 80% isobutane. We saw some shonky mixes in Patagonia.
#30. Alpine Climbing in Alaska - Expedition Beta
After my recent expedition to Alaska with Uisdean Hawthorn, I wanted to help others by sharing some knowledge I’d learnt. The Central Alaska Range, with Denali as the crown, offer some brilliant alpine climbing in a ‘Chamonix-style’ setting. Access is quick and easy via ski-plane, the approaches are minimal, and the climbing is mostly on high-quality ice and rock.
If the West Buttress is your objective, a two/three week trip will be adequate (allowing for a few days of bad weather).
Despite bailing from the Slovak Direct this spring, I’m keen to return. Next time, I’d leave all my climbing kit at Base Camp, then travel light to 14k camp and continue to acclimatise via the West Butt. When a weather window arrives(?!), ski back to Base Camp, rest, then skin up the East Fork (7/8 hours from BC). We spent nearly seven weeks on the mountain, and I’d go for 6/7 weeks next time. It’s cheap once you’re on the glacier so you might as well maximise your chances of success.
We descended the Wickwire/Seattle Ramp this spring, then rappelled down to the East Fork. It was quick and relatively safe, but also took 8 hours and meant we had to haul all our shit up to 14k camp in the first place. Remember, sled hauling sucks.
Flights, Visas, Permits etc.
Ideally, schedule your international flight to arrive in Anchorage at 8am. Get your food shopping done straight away and arrange a transfer to Talkeetna that afternoon. Fly onto the glacier (weather permitting) the next morning. This minimises faffing and maximises time in the mountains.
The main expenses are international flights (e.g. £800 pp return from UK, blag your ski bags), TAT flights onto the glacier (e.g. $610 pp, return, including 1 x Coleman gas, 1 x sled, 1 x Base Camp Fee), and food on the glacier (we spent $700 but should’ve only bought $300 worth). Fly with TAT because they’re ace, and can operate when other companies can’t due to bad weather.
Note: we had very poor exchange rates on our trip, which made everything 30% more expensive than my trip in 2012.
Remember to apply for National Park Permits 90 days in advance. These are flipping expensive. Don’t forget your ESTA visa stuff for the USA.
Get a Monzo Mastercard - use this bank card abroad without being charged. It saves a lot of fees.
The most commonly asked questions are about equipment. Climbing on Denali is considerably different to going up the West Buttress route, and the weather and conditions can vary immensely.
Look at this kit list for ideas on a Cassin Ridge trip, (http://alpineteam.co.nz/2013/alaska-expedition-2014) and Tom Ripley’s gear blog on the Cassin Ridge (http://tomripleyclimbing.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/the-gear-for-cassin.html).
We found Dan Joll’s kit list useful to work out how much food to bring, but we should’ve halved everything! (http://alpineteam.co.nz/2013/alaska-expedition-2014).
If going up the West Buttress, you can travel very light, don’t need any technical climbing gear, get food and fuel from teams descending from 14k camp, should take a Megamid teepee for cooking, can get Verizon network phone signal at 14k camp.
I would totally recommend skiing. Snow shoes are slow shoes. It makes the rest days more enjoyable.
Take lots of spare parts, such as crampon straps, picks, tat and webbing, multi-tool, camera batteries, baby wipes, tent poles, lip balm, lighters, hot sauce, cable ties, repair tape… etc etc etc.
Get an Anker solar panel and battery pack. Uisdean had one and it was very impressive - much better than Goal Zero ones.
Buy a £10 multi-tool from Amazon. Very useful for repairs.
If you take a walkie talkie to listen to the weather (it’s all lies, unfortunately, but the trivia is entertaining), make sure you buy it in the USA. British radios/walkie talkies don’t work over the pond.
Get an MSR Reactor stove. Much more efficient than a Jetboil, more wind-resistant, and better at altitudes/cold temperatures. It’s a bit heavier but it’s worth it.
Bring more than 3 pairs of boxers and socks!
Bring a Kindle or several books.
I’d recommend having a large and bombproof tent. It’s got to be roomy and have a large porch (e.g. TNF VE 25 or Hilleberg Nallo 4GT). Having a B.D. Megamid teepee works really well for cooking in, and is warmer than a snow hole. It also doesn’t take two days to dig! Ideally, get a Hilleberg Nallo 4GT and just take the outer. But then again, who’s got two Hillebergs?
#29. The 'Tin of Beans' Massage and Stretching
I've realised that stretching and massaging are super important. They help prevent injury and speed up recovery.
When my forearms feel like they’re filled with cement, I'll find a tin of beans and roll my forearms along it. A 15 minute video helps with the boredom. This is a poor man's foam roller and seems to do the trick. I've had a lot of benefits from using the Arm-Aid but I won't be spending £60 on one any time soon! I find the 'tin of beans massage' makes my arms feel a lot fresher on consecutive climbing days.
I aim to stretch and complete a yoga routine every day, particularly on rest days, but the reality is more like twice a week. I know some people do this: https://vimeo.com/10692202 but I just find a 30-minute routine on YouTube.
#31. The Duffle Shuffle
American Tad McCrea introduced this phrase to me in Patagonia. With typical energy and enthusiasm, he described his constant travelling and climbing trips over the last few months: ‘oh man, it’s been hectic! I’ve been busy, you know!’
He’d been living like many climbers, packing and unpacking giant duffle bags for work and trips, thinking months in advance. Tad’s smile faded slightly as he described negotiating airports, train connections and taxis with 30 kilo bags. It’s become a painful game of load-unload, load-unload… One, two, three, four, five… where’s the fifth?!
I’m sad enough to have a few spreadsheets for big trips. Once you’ve made one, you can just refer back to it. Scotland, Alps (summer and winter), Alaska, Patagonia… etc.
I write this from Chamonix, where I’ve enjoyed a swift duffle shuffle from Patagonia to Home to North Wales to Scotland to North Wales to Home to Chamonix. I’ve checked my spreadsheet, collected kit from Scotland and North Wales on my way home, and then traveled to Chamonix. Next up is Alaska, via Manchester and North Wales.
Next time you’re packing for a trip, or loading your many duffle bags into the car, remember to smile. You’re doing the duffle shuffle!
#32. Micro Traxion
This isn’t a plug for Petzl, just a useful tool for the mountains. It’s a little overkill for UK trad climbing, but has a few handy features which saves energy or adds safety on alpine routes. Colin Haley also raves about them. Below are some of the ways I've used it.
Firstly, and most obviously, it’s an auto-locking pulley. On alpine rock routes such as the American on the Fou, or Divine Providence on the Grand Pilier d’Angle, hauling a pack (instead of the second climber carrying) saves loads of energy.
Tony Stone and I used it on the Fou. We had a 20L pack with food, 2.5L water, topos, headtorches, and a warm jacket. It didn’t weigh much, but it all adds up, and you wouldn’t want to be wearing it on the 7c pitch! We needed a rappel line to get to the base anyway, so we then used it as a tag line and pulled up the bag on the micro traxion once we’d led a pitch.
Make sure the bag comes up before the climber, so they can flick/kick/shove it if it gets stuck.
If you need a break, the locking cam takes the weight and you can rest. Wearing gloves stops your hands getting trashed, too.
A micro traxion also adds safety when moving together on classic alpine terrain. When the leader places some bomber, multi-directional kit (e.g. a cam), you clip the micro traxion onto the rope, upside down. The rope will pull up through the device, allowing the leader to keep climbing, but will lock if the second weights the rope (such as falling off). This means the leader has a slightly more comfortable experience, instead of worrying about being pulled off the route. It also means the second can climb quicker and ‘less cautiously.’
Prussiking Icy Ropes
When Will Harris and Alistair Robertson made the first British ascent of Depravation on Mt. Hunter to the top of the buttress (good effort!), their descent sounded pretty gnarly. They were served some bad weather and got a rope stuck on abseil. Because the ropes were icy, prussik cord wouldn’t grip and they used a Ropeman to ascend the rope, and it sounded very handy. Have a read of Alastair Robertson’s blog: http://alastairrobertson.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/alaska.html
Since then, I’ve carried a Micro traxion and hope I never have to ascend another stuck rope!
Top Rope Climbing
This tactic has been used around the world, from alpine rock climbing in Patagonia to sport climbing at the local crag. Used with a back up, it can be used as an auto-locking device which rolls up the rope as you climb, and allows more freedom of movement than a Shunt. It’s great to fix a rope down a project and work the moves without a partner.
Crevasse Rescue Pulley
Again, hopefully it won't be used like this, but if you need to haul someone out of a slot, use this in the correct manner to do it quickly.
There are other ways to use it, and you’ll work it out if you need to. Note which uses Petzl doesn’t recommend, for example:
During a recent trip to the Alps, we hauled a light a rucksack on many pitches - hence the tagline.
#33. Monzo Card
Last year I was charged £160 on debit card fees for using it abroad. In places like El Chalten, only cash is accepted so I had no choice but to withdraw money. Endless notifications about ‘non-sterling transaction fee’ and ‘withdrawal fee’ from my bank made me get a Monzo card. I’d recommend anyone who travels abroad to get one - you can use this card around the world without being charged. It’s based around a mobile phone app. Check it out: https://monzo.com