Are you looking for equipment for your next tour in the high mountains? Finding the right ice axe, helmet, crampons and sleeping bag is important as well as difficult. We will look at what product features are essential and which products we recommend.
The importance and difficulty of choosing equipment
The technical equipment is crucial for climbing high mountains. It gives you safety and comfort. It makes hard routes accessible. Together with the right clothes your equipment lays the foundation for your tour. However, getting adequate technical gear is almost a whole science of its own. That’s because it’s very specialized and there is a mass of supply. Nevertheless, it’s worth it – or even necessary – to take some time getting a profound overview. This article is supposed to navigate you through the jungle of technical equipment.
Certifications and brands of your equipment
When buying equipment for mountaineering quality is key. With low quality you lack security. That’s why you need superior products, although that often means a higher price. How can you distinguish good from bad? One important indication are official certifications. The most popular ones are CE and UIAA. CE is a certification mark that shows accordance with several European health, safety and environmental standards. UIAA is an international quality certification specifically for climbing and mountaineering equipment. As consumers we can use these marks for orientation in the flood of products.
Another indication are the brands behind the products. Although a brand can have quality differences inside of his own product portfolio, these differences normally aren’t that big. Usually, it’s useful to categorize the quality of products by their brand. That gives you a first impression of what standard you are dealing with. Before buying a product look up the brand on the internet and ask your friends if they have experiences with it.
Buying from a high quality brand has the additional advantage that they generally organize a retrieval when a material or production mistake is noticed. Getting a poor material delivery or having an error in the fabrication can happen to every company. The question is only if it informs the customer and exchanges the product. High grade brands normally do that.
The ice axe has become the most iconic element of mountaineering equipment. It fulfills several functions. The ice axe works as a walking cane, supports climbing on ice and helps to cut steps into the ice. Furthermore, it’s an instrument of safety. For example, it can help you to arrest a slide on a snow or ice covered slope after falling (called “self-arresting”).
By now there are many different forms of ice axes on the market. Which form you choose depends on the tour you take. The classic mountaineering ice axe has a straight shaft and is quite long. That makes it a useful walking cane for low-angle terrain. However, there are also more technical axes with short angled shafts. Generally, the more extreme the terrain gets the shorter and more curved the shaft should be. That allows an easier pick placement in the ice and spares the hand from getting in the snow when picking.
For the common tours like Cotopaxi, Cayambe or Chimborazo we use long classic ice axes. However, for more technical tours like Antisana or Illiniza Sur we often take shorter and more curved axes.
The shaft of the ice axe is generally made out of aluminium or steel. Aluminium axes are lighter but more difficult to strike with. That’s why steel is the better option for beginners.
Moreover, there are different forms of the pick. The classic positive curve bends slightly downward. It performs very well at self-arresting and climbing steep ice. The neutral curve is straight. This is perfect for self-arresting, but not very stable when stroken into steep ice. That’s why it isn’t used a lot. Last but not least, the reverse curve is very easy to remove from the ice. It predominantly comes to use at very technical tours.
Tips for your ice axe
How do you determine the right length of a classic mountaineering ice axe? First, grasp the head of the axe with the adze forward and stand in an upright position. Let the spike of the axe hang to the ground. Now the tip of the spike should be at the height of your ankle or slightly above it.
The pick is the most charged part of the ice axe. As a consequence you should choose an ice axe that allows you to change the pick when it’s shabby or broken.
The helmet protects the most important thing we have: Our head. Without it, we would be very vulnerable to rockslide and falling down on our head. In general, there are two types of helmets. On one hand, the hard plastic shell helmet. This is a good shield against rocks but it has limited protection when you fall down (especially on the side). Moreover, it is quite heavy.
On the other hand, the shelled foam helmets. They consist of impact-absorbing polystyrene (also called EPS) or polypropylene (also called EPP) foam encased by a thin polycarbonate shell. This lightweight version protects very well against falls on the head but isn’t strong against rockslide. Due to its high sensitivity a shelled foam helmet can be inappropriate on long journeys because on the road they are often exposed to rougher conditions (like bumps on the backpack). Furthermore, you can buy hybrid helmets which offer a combination of both versions.
It’s crucial that the helmet fits the form of your head. Before buying, try it on in a store. It has to be tight but comfortable. Additionally, air should be able to enter your head through the helmet (that is achieved with some openings in the helmet).
Choosing the colour of your helmet goes beyond aesthetic considerations. For example, white is more pleasant than black when the sun is strong. Moreover, red or orange makes it easier to find you in case of emergency.
Normally, you can find the average durability of the helmet in the manual. If not, you should change it after four to five years. Other reasons for a new helmet are a successful protection against rockfall or major dents on the surface.
Crampons are attached to your boots in order to give you traction on snow and ice. Thus, they are very important for your security. There are different crampons for different terrains and boots. That means, your crampons have to be compatible with two things: Your tour and your boots.
How does the terrain impact the choice of crampons? First, crampons are offered in different stiffnesses. The more difficult the terrain the more rigid the crampon.
Second, the terrain influences the choice of material. For easy tours you can use lightweight Aluminium crampons. However, for more technical tours you need steel which is more stable and resistant. On our tours we normally use steel because we prioritize solidity over weight.
Third, your points (spikes under the crampon) have to be adequate. Crampons are available with 8 to 14 points. Our team normally uses 12 points. Moreover, they can have horizontal or vertical front points (the one or two forward facing points). Generally, the more extreme the ground the more points you need. For waterfall ice and mixed climbing vertical front points are preferable. Although they have an increased problem with snowballing under the crampon you need that extra aggressiveness for traction on very technical tours.
Three types of bindings can be differentiated for crampons. Step-in bindings are easy, fast and safe. The strap-on mechanism is more versatile, it fits nearly every boot. However, it’s also more complicated to put on and a bit less reliable. Therefore, strap-on is inadequate for very technical mountaineering. Hybrid bindings (also called semi-step) are a mixture of step-in and strap-on.
Before buying you should inform yourself about the terrain you want to access. Then, you should try the crampons on with your shoes. Remember: Your crampons have to fit your tour and your boots.
It is cold in the high mountains of Ecuador, especially in the night. However, a good sleeping bag will keep you warm. When buying one you can orient yourself on the temperature indications of the bag. They normally give you a realistic sense of the temperature the bag can be used for. Nevertheless, you should take these rankings with a pinch of salt because sometimes they are too optimistic. When you sleep in a hut the comfort temperature rating should be at about 0°C (32°F). In a camp at about -10°C (14°F) to -15°C (5°F).
You can choose between a natural down or a synthetic filling. Down is very light, compressible and has a long durability. It is also pretty expensive. Like for a down jacket you should look for the product’s cuin. That is a number that measures how well the down expands again after being compressed. The down’s ability to enlarge is crucial for keeping you warm. More than 650 cuin is considered to be very good quality. Due to different measurement methods the same fill power gets a slightly higher cuin in North America than in Europe. The biggest disadvantage: humidity is harmful for the down’s thermal efficiency.
A synthetic filling is much better for wet conditions. It is bulkier and heavier but also cheaper and maintenance-friendlier.
Furthermore, you can choose between different forms. The mummy form has a tapered cut through the legs. That decreases the interior space and makes the isolation more efficient. In addition, it has a small pack size. The rectangular form is not as thermally efficient, because it has a bigger interior space. However, that makes it more comfortable, especially if you move a lot while sleeping. The semi-rectangular is a mixture of both forms that offers a compromise between warmth and roominess.
Take care of your equipment
As the technical equipment for mountaineering can be expensive it’s in your interest to keep them as long as possible. The right maintenance and storage can significantly prolong the lifespan of your gear. First of all, follow the producer’s usage guidelines. Don’t use your gear for purposes that it isn’t built for. For example, don’t use your crampons on rocks. Don’t let your down sleeping bag get wet. Don’t use a CEN-B ice axe for very technical tours where you put a lot of weight on the axe.
Besides, clean your equipment after using it. Carefully remove all the dirt. Before washing your whole sleeping bag, try to clean only the dirty spots with a rag. If it’s very filthy, wash it as stated in the instructions on the etiquette or let it get professionally laundered. You can use a special down detergent. Never use fabric softeners, since it will let the feathers stick together. Furthermore, don’t spin-dry down products.
Finally, keep your mountaineering equipment in a cool and dry surrounding. Put your down sleeping bag in a special storage sack. Keeping it in the compression bag can harm the down. Caring for your stuff may take some extra time, but your gear will reward that by lasting longer.