I have been contributing to The Update since I qualified as a Mountain Guide back in 1992. I was recently reading some of the articles I wrote in the early days, and there was one article in particular which explained about how to keep the weight of your rucksack to a minimum. Nowadays, the most Googled page on my website is ‘equipment lists’.
“A mountaineer’s competence is inversely proportional to the size of their rucksack”, said Reinhold Messner.
One of the major problems people face is knowing what NOT to carry in the mountains. The natural consequence is that they tend to carry everything, just in case something goes wrong. The challenge is getting the balance right. Choosing whether to carry bivouac equipment is often a difficult choice that British mountaineers struggle with. Some French alpinists believe the word ‘bivouac’ is synonymous with ‘mistake’. They think that if you carry bivouac equipment, you will end up bivouacking because the extra weight of equipment will slow you down. The result of travelling slowly can mean you run out of daylight, or get caught in afternoon thunderstorms and have to spend the night out.
It is imperative that you keep weight down to a minimum. The lighter your load, the faster you can travel. The often-used mantra is; “Speed is your contribution to safety”.
What this means is that you must keep within (or close to) the guidebook times for a route. Being late to the top of the mountain means you will have to descend with deteriorating snow conditions, falling rocks and a building thirst. Clearly experience counts for a lot, but you are far more likely to get it right and stay close to guidebook times if you are not carrying what feels like a bag of wet sand on your back.
In the last fifteen years things have changed still further, with a new generation of alpinists climbing mountains in mind-boggling fast times. The most well known would be the late Ueli Steck, who became famous for his fast ascents such as the North Face of the Eiger in under three hours, and Kilian Jornet who has claimed astonishing speed records in the Alps, Africa and the Himalayas. Plus there has been an explosion in mountain races, both on foot and on skis. Ski mountaineering racing, in particular, has spawned a sub-sport where super-light gear is necessary for success. This equipment is only any good if you intend not to stop, because it offers no warmth. There is no margin for error in case of bad weather or the unforeseen.
What we now see are people who are not just content just to have climbed Mt Blanc, but are only happy if they have run up in nothing more than training shoes, t-shirt and shorts, in many cases emulating their hero, Kilian Jornet. Last summer a man did just this, but slid off the summit ridge and fell down the slope only to be gobbled up by a crevasse. It took the Mountain Rescue teams several fraught hours to find him, but not before he unsurprisingly had frozen to death.
This led to the head of the Chamonix Mountain Rescue (PGHM) to term this the ‘Kilian Effect’. In a highly unusual step, he lambasted the victim for being so ill prepared and risking the lives of his rescue team. In response to this incident the mayor of Saint Gervais, Jean-Marc Peillex, issued an edict that establishes an obligatory equipment list for climbers looking to undertake the ascent of Mt Blanc. Peillex has made it compulsory to carry proper clothing, boots, harness and helmet. It has even got to the farcical step where there is a police checkpoint which all climbers have to pass through on the ascent.
In what can only be described as an ill-considered and insensitive response, Kilian Jornet climbed to the summit of Mt Blanc and stripped naked for a photo which he then tweeted. In the tweet, Jornet proclaimed that it was not a problem of equipment; rather, he says, it is about the experience of climbing and the proper knowledge of the material itself. What Jornet seemingly forgot to remember was that he, too, was rescued when he and his climbing partner misjudged a climb and found themselves stuck at the bottom of a steep ice climb in trainers, unable to climb the route or escape. They had to be helicoptered off the north face of the Aiguille du Midi.
As the famous British climber Don Whillans put it; “All the gear and no idea”. Well, we now have the other extreme; “None of the gear and no idea.”
Pack thoughtfully, pack carefully but also pack for a possible plan B. My suggested equipment lists can be found at markseaton.com