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Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Part 2: Review of gear and equipment used on a recent expedition to an 8,000m peak (Mt Makalu)

Following my recent expedition to Mt Makalu I thought that it might be useful to review some of the gear and equipment used in order to help others planning similar expeditions in the future.

I also use most of this gear on trekking peaks like Mera Peak so this discussion should have wider interest (btw Roland is leading The Mountain Company's Mera Peak expedition in November 2009, it is now guaranteed to run and there is availability).

I have no sponsors so this is an impartial discussion of gear selected for this expedition and how it performed...click on the links below the photos and you will be directed to the manufacturer's website.

Rucsac
On previous 8,000m expeditions I used the excellent Berghaus Extrem Expedition pack, this is super lightweight with a large capacity so ideal for carrying loads on the mountain. I had to retire my Expedition pack after six years of sterling service and then sadly found out that Berghaus no longer sell this model.

Shortly before departure to Nepal I made a visit to expedition outfitters Peglers in Arundel to collect my La Sportiva Spantiks. While in the Pegler's shop I explained that I was also looking for an expedition pack and their recommendation was to try the X Pod by Pod Sacs.

At 2.36kg this is a heavier pack than the Extrem Expedition, however it is contructed from tough hardwearing materials so will probably last longer. The capacity is 80 litres plus overload of 20 litres so more than enough space for carrying loads between camps. Overall I thought the X Pod was an excellent pack on the Makalu expedition, very comfortable to wear and stable even when carrying heavier weights.


Gloves and mitts
Usually I take three types of gloves and mitts, firstly a fleece glove with Windstopper secondly a warmer mountaineering glove and lastly a super warm mitt.

I used my North Face Pamir fleece glove for 95% of the time on the Makalu expedition, I prefer this glove when not too cold as it provides better manual dexterity. It is important that the fleece glove has Windstopper fabric as this blocks the wind thus reducing wind chill and keeping the fingers much warmer.

When the conditions were too cold for the fleece gloves I used my Mountain Hardwear Cima gloves.On the mountain I always had Mountain Hardwear Absolute Zero mitts in my pack, in fact I did not use these during the expedition but good to have in reserve just in case.


Warm hat
I also recommend bringing along a warm hat again with Windstopper fabric. I like the Mountain Hardwear Micro Dome hat as fits well underneath a climbing helmet.


Sleeping mats
Following my discussion of sleeping bags in Part 1 of my review, the selection of sleeping mats is probably just as important for keeping warm while sleeping overnight. While on the mountain I prefer to use two mats, one a RidgeRest and the other a lightweight Thermarest.

From experience this combination provides adequate insulation from the snow and ice underneath the tent. I would not want to risk having two Thermarests just in case they both became punctured or failed to inflate. My Thermarest is a three quarter length Ultralite, however I do not think this model is still available so I think the equivalent is now the Prolite in a small size.

Food
Of course during a two month expedition eating good food is essential to avoid weight loss, maintaining energy reseves and keeping up morale. At Base Camp we had a kitchen crew who provided all our meals whereas on the mountain we cooked for ourselves. Our cook, Sonam, was excellent and produced a wide variety of tasty meals including a good supply of fresh vegetables and meat.

For evening meals on the mountain I always use Wayfarer Ready to Eat meals, it is possible to get a wide range of menus such as Beef Stew, Chilli Con Carni, Chicken Dopiaza curry and Lancashire Hot Pot, Beans and Sausage among others.

Eating "real" food helps nutrition and energy levels, Wayfarer meals taste far better than rehydrated meals. Also one does not have to wash any pans as Wayfarer meals are cooked in their sachet and then aftewards you can use the hot water for a brew.


A new find on my latest expedition is the excellent isotonic Go Gel from Science in Sport. Previously after eating a sport gel one had to drink at least 1/2 litre of water to derive any benefit, however Go Gels are isotonic so drinking water is not required for them to be effective. On summit day I ate Go Gels whenever I felt my energy levels dropping and immediately felt a real boost.

It is worth noting that one can purchase many imported food items in Kathmandu, at Bhat Bateni or Blue Bird supermarkets.On expedition I brought along a blue barrel containing food for the mountain and some luxury items such as cheese slices, salami, Ryvita crackers, tinned tuna, soups and hot chocolate drinks, assortment of nuts and dried fruit, chocolate and Haribo sweets.


Stoves and gas
We used Jet Boil Personal Cooking System (PCS) and Group Cooking System (GCS) stoves. I loved the PCS design, it is a super lightweight stove and worked fine at Camp 1. Higher up we used GCS, it worked well at Makalu La (7,300m) however we noticed that the performance declined at High Camp during the night when temperatures dropped.

Jet Boil have recently released a new stove called Helios designed for lower temperatures, I would definitely purchase this if I went back to another 8,000m mountain. There have been good reviews of Helios especially due to its innovative inverted canister system (see photo below):



As for gas, we purchased imported Primus gas (butane/propane mix) in Kathmandu however it is worth noting that this worked fine at Camp 1 at 6,500m but was completely useless at Camp 2 on Makalu La at 7,300m (we could not even light the stove). I recommend using Everest Adventure gas imported from Korea this worked very well at all camps (you can buy from Mountain Hardwear store or Shona's shop in Kathmandu).

Communications
Thuraya SO 2510 is the smallest satellite phone in the world weighing only 130g, I carry this phone in my pack throughout the entire trek and expedtition. The reception is good in the Himalayas & Karakoram, the only time I was unable to get a signal was a few years back when in a deep narrow gorge on a section of the Manaslu Circuit trek.

A top tip is to use FoneRecharge to recharge credits on the SIM, once you have registered your credit card via their website you can recharge by calling from the satellite phone itself. You will never run out of phone credits while on expedition if you use this system!

For communications on the mountain we used VHF radios for radio calls between Camps and Base Camp.



Duct tape
And of course do not forget Duct tape one of the most important items on any expedition kit list. This is an all purpose tape designed to fix, bond, repair, mount and seal anything under the sun. As the saying goes if it cannot be ducked then it must be f*cked!


Recommended gear shops
I purchased my gear from Cotswold Outdoor (where The Mountain Company clients are entitled to a 15% discount) and also Peglers based in Arundel.






If you enjoyed reading these articles why don't you sign up to The Mountain Company's quarterly e-Newsletter? Click here to sign up and here for our e-Newsletter archive.



Roland Hunter


Sunday, 28 June 2009

Part 1: Review of gear and equipment used on a recent expedition to an 8,000m peak (Mt Makalu)

Following my recent expedition to Mt Makalu I thought that it might be useful to review some of the gear and equipment used in order to help others planning a similar expeditions in the future.

I also use most of this gear on trekking peaks like Mera Peak so this discussion should have wider interest (btw Roland is leading The Mountain Company's Mera Peak expedition in November 2009, it is now guaranteed to run and there is still availablity).

I have no sponsors so this is an impartial discussion of gear selected for this expedition and how it performed....click on the links below the photos and you will be directed to the manufacturer's website.

Boots
I brought along two pairs of mountaineering boots: a new pair of La Sportiva Spantiks and an older pair of OneSport (now Millet) Everest.

For the Makalu expedition I was looking for a more technical boot than the pair of Everest boots that I had used on other 8000m expeditions to Everest, Broad Peak and Kanchenjunga. I researched a number of options and finally decided upon the Spantiks. I was certainly not disappointed as they are a superb boot. The Spantiks are very precise and work well on steeper more technical ground.

I was a little concerned that they may not be warm enough for summit day as designed more for a 7,000m peak rather than climbing above 8,000m (especially with no supplemental oxygen). In the end we left High Camp far later than expected and only climbed during daylight from 6am to 7pm. I suspect they may not have been warm enough if we had left camp at 2am as originally planned.



For the trek from Tumlingtar to Base Camp I used a pair of trail shoes called Salomon Elios.

Tents
Our main tents for the expedition were Mountain Hardwear Trango 3.1s purchased from the Mountain Hardwear store in Kathmandu. These are not the lightest tents at 5.28kg however are spacious and very strong. We left two Trangos at Camp 1 for 5 weeks and they survived the battering from the wind. Inside there are lots of pockets on the sides and ceiling so good for stashing gear and also have a large vestibule for cooking.

The Mountain Company uses Mountain Hardwear Trango 3.1s for all of our treks and expeditions in Nepal.


On our summit push we used a lightweight tent, Black Diamond Firstlight. In fact we were orginally planning to use a Bibler although this was blown off the mountain at Makalu La and never seen again! The Firstlight tent has the same design as the classic Bibler (Black Diamond purchased Bibler a few years back) although the Firstlight is constructed from far lighter materials, the tent only weighs 1.22kg!

The disadvantage of the Firstlight is that it does not come with a vestibule as standard. It is possible to buy a vestibule as an extra and I would recommend getting as makes cooking easier and provides extra space. It was just possible to squeeze two people into this tent with gear although it was tight.

We were lucky as the weather on our summit push was good with low winds so we did not put this tent to the test, being a lightweight tent I am not sure how well it would hold up to the strong winds such as normally experienced at the Makalu La.


Ice axe
I brought two ice axes: Black Diamond Venom (493g) and Camp Micro 2 (400g). I agree with the description of the Venom on Black Diamond's website "the choice for technical mountaineering routes where performance, light weight and durability are paramount". Overall a superb ice axe that can be used for general mountaineering and also with an agressive pick for steeper ice.



My second axe is a Camp Micro 2, often called a "third tool". This is a lightweight axe that can be used as a second tool on steeper ice or as a back up in case the main axe is breaks or is lost. My Camp Micro 2 has a hammer rather than an adze so can be used for hammering in pitons.


Crampons
Grivel G12 New matic crampons with antibotts. I have always used these crampons for general mountaineering, they fit securely and are reliable (several others on our expedition experienced issues with crampons falling off…). I strongly recommend getting the antibotts, without these snow that can ball underneath the crampons reducing their effectiveness and significantly increasing the weight.


Trekking poles
The only poles worth getting are the Black Diamond Expedition, these use the simple but effective FlipLocks rather than the unreliable twist mechanism that other companies use. The Expedition poles have two FlipLocks so the poles can be reduced to a size small enough to pack away if not being used.

Harness
I always use the Black Diamond Alpine Bod, this harness has a minimalist design and is super lightweight at 395g.


Duffel bags
Over the years I have used a number of different types of duffel bags, often I purchased cheaper bags however they would not last for more than one expedition then in 2003 I bit the bullet and bought the more expensive Base Camp Duffel by The North Face. Since then I have used and abused this duffel and is still holding up fine, overall a worthwhile investment.

Sleeping bags
I brought along two sleeping bags, my approach was to use a warmer (and heavier) bag at Base Camp then use a lightweight one on the mountain as I would also be wearing a down suit. I left my bag at Camp 1 so did not have to carry it up and down between Base Camp and Camp 1 during the course of the expedition thus saving a lot of effort.

Both of my sleeping bags are made by Peter Hutchison Designs (PHD), my Base Camp bag is the Xero 1000 Down Sleeping Bag:

And on the mountain I use the lightweight PHD Minim 400 Down Sleeping Bag in conjunction with my downsuit (shown below):

Down clothes
I used The North Face Nuptse jacket for the trek and also for time at Base Camp. I have never been cold while wearing this jacket and is not too heavy so often carry in my day pack.


While climbing above Camp 1 I used a PHD down suit Omega Down Suit. This is a super warm downsuit, in fact for most of our summit day I wrapped the arms around my waist as it was too warm!


Fleeces and soft shell
I use a fairly typical layering system starting with a long sleeved baselayer Berghaus LS Tech T, a long sleeved micro fleece Mountain Hardwear Microchill Zip T, a vest fleece Berghaus Spectrum Gilet IA and heavier fleece like Mountain Hardwear Monkey Man jacket.

At lower elevations on the trek into Base Camp I used a lightweight trekking trouser, however as it started cooling off I changed to soft shell Mountain Hardwear Navigation pant.

Recommended gear shops
I purchased my gear from Cotswold Outdoor (where The Mountain Company clients are entitled to a 15% discount) and also Peglers based in Arundel.

For Part Two of "Review of gear and equipment used on a recent expedition to an 8000m peak (Mt Makalu)" ...discussion of rucsacs, shell jacket & trousers, gloves & mitts, stoves, cooking gas, expedition food and communications.

If you enjoyed reading these articles why don't you sign up to The Mountain Company's quarterly e-Newsletter? Click here to sign up and here for our e-Newsletter archive.

Roland Hunter

Monday, 1 June 2009

Our Summit day on Makalu

Photo: climbing ridge to Makalu summit

Mick and myself left Base Camp on May 17th however were forced to spend an extra night at Camp 1 before moving up Makalu La because 18th was a very windy day. On May 19th the weather was more settled and we climbed up the ropes to the Makalu La for the third time on the expedition. On the way up we passed the Indian group from HMI Darjeeling coming down off the summit from earlier that morning.

On arrival at the Makalu La Mick was disappointed to find no traces of his Bibler tent that had been left from our earlier visit, it had been blown off the mountain by the strong winds of the last few days. Luckily we had brought with us another tent (Black Diamond Firstlight), this is a super lightweight tent at only 1kg and we hoped would provide us adequate shelter!

May 20th we moved up to High Camp on the edge of the summit icefall at around 7,800m, we were feeling confident as knew if the current good weather held we should have a good chance for the summit tomorrow. After digging out a platform for the tent we settled into the tent to start hydrating and resting before our anticipated departure for the summit in the early hours. During late afternoon we had no problems melting snow with our stove, however as the sun set and temperatures dropped it took longer and longer to get a pot of water ready until it stopped working completely. Eventually we gave up and tried to get some sleep.

The original plan was to leave High Camp at 2am although after coaxing the stove back to life for a few hours we managed to get another litre of water and then while waiting for another brew both Mick and myself fell asleep! We woke when it got light around 5am and thought that maybe it was time to get moving….

Just after 6am we started out from High Camp, we climbed quickly through the icefall and then started on the very long snow slope towards the French Couloir. We experienced wind slab on top of loose snow that made for difficult conditions for Mick breaking trail. It was a relief to finally finish the snow slope and then enter the French Couloir, the route soon heads to the left and onto mixed ground until reaching the corniced summit ridge at 8,300m.

The false summit can be seen along the ridge, this is climbed via a snowy gulley then there is a further corniced ridge to the true summit at 8,462m. We arrived to the summit at 4pm in the afternoon and then after photos and admiring the view we quickly descended to High Camp getting in just after 7pm just as the sun was setting.

We had not planned these timings however as it turned out we were only climbing during daylight hours so we experienced warm & sunny conditions throughout the day with very light winds. We were very fortunate to have Makalu to ourselves there were no other climbers on the mountain that day especially when considering Everest across the valley was heavily crowded on one of the busiest days for commercial expeditions.

On May 22nd we descended to Makalu La where the weather rapidly deteriorated with poor visibility and high winds, we had a cold descent down the ropes to Camp 1. We were pretty tired when on arrival so decided to spend the night and continue to Base Camp on the next day. Getting to Base Camp on 23rd we had to quickly pack our gear as porters had been arranged, after lunch we walked down to Hilary Base Camp. From there we walked to the airstrip in Tumlingtar in four long days.


Photo: Roland and Mick back in Base Camp

I would like to thank Jamie McGuinness from http://www.project-himalaya.com/ for providing weather forecasts during our expedition that proved to be very accurate.

Thanks also to Mike Farris from
http://www.thealtitudeexperience.com/ for his SMS texts from Everest Base Camp with information on weather forecasts and his plans for summit day dates & timings.

Finally many thanks to our Base Camp crew for looking after us so well, danyibad Dendi Sherpa, Dawa Sherpa, Sonam, Dawa and Pudam.

The Mountain Company