Kit List - a vintage rant
It's that time of year when people are getting geared up for the alpine summer. The text below is from an article I wrote for the influential Mountain Review in 1993. While some minor details date it a little, the essential theme remains valid.
A long time ago I chaired a symposium on equipment failure. Manufacturers, test laboratory scientists, mountain guides and other august representatives of the industry cited the strengths and weaknesses of gear from harnesses to helmets and karabiners to crampons. I remember none of the data, the graphs, and the reports - just one single 35mm transparency projected on a screen.
The slide was of a mountaineer somewhere in the Himalaya about to abseil off a single ice screw placed at an incorrect angle with the rope pulling outwards instead of downwards. “Look at this” said the speaker. “A perfect example of what I’m talking about. You can have the best equipment in the world, rigorously tested and plastered with stickers warning of the dangers of incorrect use but equipment hardly ever fails - it’s climbers that fail. By the way, that's me in the picture”. The speaker was Andy Fanshawe, and the talk he gave concluding the symposium was delivered with that punchy enthusiasm, wide grin and authoritative certainty that cut through all the facts and figures and set the whole business in context. It’s not what you've got, its what you do with it that really counts. You only have to see the eastern Europeans, whether it’s the Czechs in their galoshkies or the Poles with antiquated ice gear - and Andy had met both - to know the truth of this. Surrounded as we are with the latest gear designed to make us better, safer, faster, drier and even more photogenic climbers, this truth is often forgotten.
I’d like to share a few general thoughts on technique. In no way do I claim them to be original; most are startlingly obvious. Nevertheless, they bear restating, as it is their obviousness that tends to leave them submerged beneath the hype of today's gear market.
Buying the right gear
Decide what you really need. For example, Pertex is more than adequate for most situations in the Alps, a lot cheaper and more importantly, smaller in volume and weight. Huge down jackets are a thing of the past with the light smocks that are now available. But if you really need that piece of kit, take out a second mortgage. Halfway through a gnarly bivvy is no time to decide you should really have replaced your waterproofs last weekend.
Get to know it or, if all else fails, read the instructions. Being in the harness business, I spend a fair amount of my time on the crag looking at other climbers' harnesses. Apart from getting thumped for examining men's crutches or women's bottoms, the one thing I tend to notice is the high proportion of wrongly assembled harnesses.
No doubt the wearers complain of discomfort, difficulty of buckling or blame the manufacturer, so read the instructions and practise using it. In my first season in Yosemite, I met Duane the Wall Monster who taught me the fine art of environmentally sound defecation: “See - what you do is, man, you go to the store and keep the brown paper grocery bags. Then at 6am each morning before you rack up you squat over the bag, then throw it off so as the bivvy ledges don’t get covered in turds. But you gotta practice, man, ‘cos you may think you know where your asshole is, but actually you don’t.”
Practice. Then practice with your eyes shut until interaction with your gear becomes intuition rather than conscious thought, then try it after a few drinks — altitude simulation — but check with your house-mates before going out for ten pints and a curry and then coming home to crap into a paper bag in the front room.
Concentrate on the hill
In 1991, I climbed the hardest route of my life — almost. Brendan Murphy and I spent seventeen days on the north-west face of Cerro Kishtwar (6200m) in capsule style. From the start we were operating in an unforgiving environment 24 hours a day. We remained clipped to anchors at all times, even while asleep in our wall tent. Getting up and dressed, exiting the tent, reascending the ropes to our previous day's highpoint was a complicated sequential operation involving jumars, foot-slings, cow's tails and so on. It was vital to be methodical, concentrating on one step at a time.
Likewise, passing items to each other outside and inside the tent, it became routine for the receiver to acknowledge he had firm hold before relinquishing anything. This habit became so ingrained I found myself doing it on return to Britain when handing Brendan a pint in the pub.
Although we ran short of food , it was not that which made us retreat with only two or three pitches between us and the summit. There were lapses of concentration. After mantling onto my axe, I'd forgotten to re-sling it and it had dropped a hundred feet up through the roof of the tent. Brendan nearly let go of one of the leading ropes.
These were warnings that our guard against gravity and cold was failing after over two weeks of non-stop effort. We elected to descend. The 1,000 metres of wall took two days of complex ropework and at dusk on the seventeenth day, we abseiled over the bergschrund to apparent safety. Our concentration must then have lapsed, for the hour's walk to advanced base took three.It was firm evidence that we had overstepped the mark and we were lucky to get away with it. As Winthrop Young put it look well to each step'. As Tommy Curtis puts it 'Maximise your shit-together coefficient.'
To the limits
Pushing limits is what you're about; you wouldn't be reading this if you weren't. There are two specific areas of limit-pushing that I'm concerned with. First, push your gear to its limit. The reputable manufacturers, most of whom are climbers like yourselves, spend days dreaming up new ways in which their gear can be used so that you can benefit. In addition, a more radical approach is to take your gear beyond its limit, People have been known to prusik on their bootlaces, hammer drive-in ice screws into rock, even torque picks into cracks. Creative deviation from standard practice can often be the way forward out of a sticky situation. Bear in mind that manufacturers will not guarantee their products when abused in this way.
Second. when you are at your limit concentrate fully on the use of your gear. Remember the practice that you did in your front room after ten pints and keep it together. Don't trip over your crampons, ensure your screwgates are done up, check the belays before every abseil. This sounds like a dose of instructoritis', I know, but so many world class mountaineers have blown it during relatively easy descents while out of their boxes that it bears repeating.
After the ball Is over
When you've finished all that and you're sat back in your living room basking in the afterglow or brooding over what went wrong, think about how your gear performed. What was perfect? Could any of its features be incorporated into other equipment? What was a real pain and why? There are usually reasons why gear is designed in one particular way rather than another, but constructive criticism is always well received.
They may know a better way of using it, or suggest a more applicable piece of equipment. Or they may suggest that you make it yourself, which is a polite way of saying bugger off, it's not economically viable. So go away and do make it yourself; that's how they started.