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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 on the links below the photos and you will be directed to the manufacturer's website.

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.

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).

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.

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Roland Hunter

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