Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Gear for The Cassin

This is an unashamedly geeky post about the gear I took up the Cassin Ridge on Denali. I'm not good enough at climbing just to throw some stuff in a bag and get on with it. Before a big climb I spend an unhealthy amount of time thinking about what I'm going to wear, the rack and food. Thanks to all my partners for putting up with my over thinking and constant chattering about my latest lightweight idea. If only I put as much effort into training!

Why we do it - Livingstone high on the Cassin.
Last June Tom Livingstone and I made a two day ascent of the Cassin Ridge. The normal ascent time for this route is four or five days. Although being fit and acclimatized played a large part in our success, so did our choice of equipment. We stripped everything down to the bare minimum which allowed us to move quickly over the terrain. The post below reflects on the equipment we took, what worked well, what didn't and suggests what I would do again differently.

Please be aware this post is just my opinion from my ascent in good weather. Don't just blindly copy what I have done, come to your own conclusions and use your own judgement before deciding on what to pack.

Goodnight Alaska - Livingstone struggles to put his psyche to sleep!

Sportiva Spantiks - These worked really well, being warm and supportive. As long as they fit you I think they're a brilliant boot for such a climb.

Teko Expedition Socks - These also worked really well, but I wish I'd taken a second pair for day two. I was unable to dry my socks out overnight and as a result had really cold feet as I broke trail in the shade towards Kahiltna Horn. The sensation went very strange and it felt like there was a large amount of fluid on my feet. I was extremely worried that I had frost bite. Thankfully the stumble down to 17k warmed them back up.

A pair of merino boxers - the Rab ones are good value for money.

Powerstretch Bibs - Although these look pretty silly they are great for cold weather climbing. They keep everything tucked in, which eliminates cold spots. Mine are an old Patagonia pair. Rab and Outdoor Research currently make them.

Softshell Trousers - I wore ME G2 trousers, which worked well. They're made from Gore Windstopper which means they're completely windproof (unlike most conventional softshell trousers, which are only wind resistant) and very breathable. They also have internal gaiters, which meant proper gaiters weren't necessary. I'd probably take a pair of softshell bibs if I was going again. If using a pair of bibs (or trousers with braces) make sure they have a drop seat so you can go for a dump without taking off your jacket and harness.

Wool Zip Tee - I used an icebreaker that worked well. I would be interested to try one of the Brynje string vest thermals that Andy Kirkpatrick raves about. 

Patagonia R1 Hoody - this worked exceptionally well. Its' long body tucked into the Powerstretch Bibs, together with the long arms and thumbs loops we brill for eliminating cold spots.

Hooded windshirt - This was my outer layer low down on the route and on the apporach.

Thin synthetic jacket with a big hood - This was the outer layer for most the technical climbing. It's warm, breathable, competely windproof. As it isn't going to be raining up there you don't need an expensive and heavy shell jacket. The Rab Xenon is a good jacket.

Down Jacket - This is is probably the piece of clothing I speant the most amount of time fretting about. Denali has a reputation for being the coldest mountain on earth (It isn't) and concequently I thought I needed a massive box wall down jacket, with so much down in it that I'd end up in the Hague accussed of goose genocide, to survive. Thankfully the nice people at Mountain Equipment didn't have any box-wall jackets to give me, so they sent me their excellent stitch-through Vega jacket instead. This was a lighter jacket, with a water resitanct outer and helmet compatable hood. It prooved to be plenty warm enough for my ascent in late June.

Livingstone on the summit at sunset - wearing all his clothes.
Hats and gloves

Mountain Equipment Randonee Gloves - These are an excellent pair of dextourous, leather palmed gloves, pile lined gloves. They are very warm and good for technical climbing. They need to be bought tight as the pile beds in with wear. However I probably wouldn't take any gloves if climbing the Cassin again as the climbing isn't really technical enough to need them. If leaving the gloves behind I would take a pair of lightweigh mitts like dachsteins incase I dropped my main mitts.

Gore-tex Mitts - I took an old pair of Marmot mitts with a leather palm and fleece inner. These are lightweigh and very warm. I wore them most of the time. Adding chemical hand warmers high up on the mountain. The mitts are fairly dextorous but I added elastic idiot loops so I could whip them off, to place or remove gear bare-handed, without fear of dropping them.

Synthetic overmitts - I took the outers of a pair Mountain Equipment Fitzroy Mitts to wear over my climbing mitts on high on the mountain Together they worked really well and I didn't have any problems with cold hands. I also wore them on my feet during the bivis. The plan being that I would dry my socks on chest and the mitts would keep my feet warm. This didn't really work and I ended up with cold feet and wet socks. TAKE TWO PAIRS OF SOCKS!

Powerstretch Balaclava and buff - In addition to the myriad of hoods. These worked well keeping my head and face warm. I took a neoprene face mask with me to basecamp, but found that a growing a great big bushy beard was a better option. I also took sunglasses with a nose guard, normal glasses and ski googles. You could combine the sunglasses and the ski googles together if you got a pair of  something like Adidas Terrex Pros.

Bivi gear

I'm pretty fortunate that I can sleep practically anywhere. The first night, camped beneath the Jap Couloir I was warm and slept well. The second at 5000m on a sloping ledge I had cold feet but slept ok.

Karrimat - You could risk taking an inflaitable matt, but karrimats are warm, comfy and practially industricable. They only disadvantage is they are fairly bulky and have to be strapped to the outside of your pack. I wouldn't reccomend cutting your karimatt down much as they provide a massive amount of insulation and the weight saving is neglible. If you don't beilve me spend a night on snow with a cut down matt and another with a nice thick full length one to expirence the difference.

Sleeping Bag - I took a PHD bag with fill of 500g of down and a water restiant outer. I found it worked ok, but was a little on the short side. I wore all my clothes on both nights. I would probably take a slightly lighter sleeping bag. An long zipless bag with a fill of 350g of top quality down would be my ideal choice. As well as a spare pair of socks I would also take a pair PHD Down Socks as these weigh bugger all but will make a massive difference to your comfort.

Black Diamond Firstlight Tent - This was a good warm option, but I'm glad the ledge we found wasn't any smaller otherwise we'd have struggles to fit our tent on it! It seemed silly to take bivi bags, when the Firstlight is lighter and offers so much more protections. I wouldn't like to use a petrol stove inside one, but a Jetboil or Reactor would be fine.

Trying to get into bed - this photo doesn't really show how small the ledge is.

Having heard horror stories about friends whois Jetboils froze halfway up the Cassin I was reluctant to take one. Instead we took a MSR XGK stove and two full large fuel bottles. Instead of using a stopper we put a pump in each bottle in case one failed. By the time we got back to 17k Camp both had. I would probably take a MSR Reactor Stove next time as these are unbelivable fast at boiling water but also incredible efficient. Also gas is much easier to use.

Me brewing up in the heat - low down on the route.

We also took a small trangia pan and lid, which was both cheap and very lightweight. Most of the food we ate was freeze dried meals, which you eat out of the packet, so we didn't need a bowl.

We took a nalegene bottle in a Forty Below cozy each. It is worth clipping this to your harness with a spare krab so it easy to access and you drink often. I kept mine in my sack for the first part of the route and didn't drink enough.

Climbing Gear

60m 8mm rope - I would take a shorter 40m rope if going again. It would be pretty difficult to descend the Cassin above the Cowboy Arete and none of the steep sections are longer than 20m. You would have to do a bit of down climbing and leave a lot of gear but I could be done.

The climbing on the Cassin is generally fairly easy. With a four or five short pitches that might get Scottish V, lots of grade II-III scrambling, topped off with endless trail breaking at 6000 metres. You don't need a big rack.

Me leading the "crux" above Cassin Ledge.
4 Ice screws - We took 2 16cm and 2 13cms. In good ice I will abseil off a 16cm V thread and in bad ice I won't abseil off one at all.

6 Wires - a random seclection of the years crag swap up to Rock 8.

Camalots - Grey, Purple, Green and Red. Colin Haley told us we didn't need a Gold and he was right.

1 Knifeblade - Didn't place it and wouldn't take it again.

Slings -  8 60cms and 2 120cms.

20 wiregate krabs - This seem like a good number. We were a bit short at times, but never too short.

V threader and 15m of 5mm tat - We drilled one v thread on the descent down the wickware ramp to abseil over a big crevasse.

Personal Climbing Gear

Simple harness with fixed legs loops
12 point crampons with anit bailing plates
Spring leash
Reverso and and 2 extra small screw gates
2 extra biners for clipping my water bottle and gloves to my harness.

Tom L leading a steep section in the Japanese Couloir - I found this bit harder than the "crux" above. 
Other stuff

30 Litre Rucksack - I took a Aiguille Alpine Cirrus, which is a simple, lightweight and durable sack. It was just big enough on the walk in with a few things hanging on the outside. Livingstone took an even smaller Arc'teryx Pack. Both of us had a short length of tat with an old krab looped through it so we could clip it to belays easily.

Livingstone about to leave our camp at 14k.

Suunto Altimetre Watch - Set to feet. Good for morale so you can work how much further you have to gain. The alarm clocks on these are pretty quiet. It would be worth one of you taking a second watch and sleeping with it tucked into your hat. Casio Classics are loud, cheap and reliable.

Small pen knife for cutting tat -  Attached to this was my one luxury item: Ueli the fast and light wolf my girlfriend gave me!

Ipod shuffle - I've got one of the old ones the size of a pack of gum. They're good to escape when you're cold and tired.

Topos - Laminated topo and route description from the Supertopo guide each.

Lighters - Take 4 or 5 and put them in lots of different places so you can't lose/break them all.

Camera and spare battery - Get one that is small enough to life round your neck. That way it is always handy and doesn't get cold. Top tip. Take lots of memory cards on a trip and change them after each new route. That way if you drop your camera you haven't lost all your pictures.

Spoon - each.

Radio - It was nice to know what the whether was going to do every evening and play trivia with Lisa!

A small first aid kit - with a roll of tape, head ache tablets, strongish pain killers, a bandage and some Diamox in it.

Sun cream - Small tub of high factor children's sun cream and a lip balm each. 

Map and Compass - I think we took one anyway...

Ueli and I - Psyched off our faces!

Food and fuel.

We were away from our camp at 14k for three nights. It took us two full days to climb the route a half day to get to it and a half day to get back to camp.

We took two large MSR fuel bottles full of white gas, plus an extra 400ml plastic pep bottle so we could melt extra brews in the 'shrund at the base of the Jap Couloir. We had more fuel than we needed and I reckon it would have been five days before we ran out.

We took snacks and a big evening meal for the approach day. Then two days worth of food for the route. Generally I was pleased with how our food worked, but would probably do things slightly differently if I was to do the route again.

We took something along the lines of this each:

Approach day
5 bars - a mix of cliff and snickers
1 bagel with cream cheese
Mountain House freeze dried meal

Climbing day
2 sachets of instant oat meal
6 bars - mainly Cliff plus a couple of Snickers. The Cliffs were fine low down on the mountain, but when it got cold they went rock hard and were difficult to swallow with a dry mouth. I wouldn't take as many next time.
7 GU gels. These were pretty sickly but easy to get down and they made me feel like Mark Twight.
Bagel, cream cheese and a big chunk of salami. Real food was amazing for energy. I should have taken twice as much and cut down on bars.
Mountain House freeze dried meal. These were excellent, tasty and packed full of energy. I can't recommend them enough.  I think we took one extra one between us just in case.

What we didn't take...

Toothbrush - My mouth felt pretty minging at the end of it and cleaning my teeth back at 14k was semi-orgasmic.

Walking Poles - Although they are heavy they would make breaking trail on the upper Cassin much easier.

Spare socks - JUST TAKE THEM!

Drinks powder - I think we just drank melted water on the Cassin. We might have had a few tea bags, but we didn't have any energy powder. Back at 14k we blagged some GU brew from a departing team. It tasted great and apparently helps with recovery. I'll take some next time.

Loo Roll - There is an abundance of snow on the route! 

GPS - I took one to 14k Camp, but couldn't be bothered to learn how to use it.

Me on the Cowboy Arete - some years this is crux of the climb. We had good conditions.
Below is Livingstone's video he made of our climb and Joshua Lavigne ace video from single-pushing the Cassin the year before. Not quite Alaska but Colin Haley has written this interesting piece on the Patagonia blog about the clothes he wore during his very productive Patagonia season last year.

Cassin Ridge, Denali - Livingstone/Ripley from Tom Livingstone on Vimeo.

Cassin in Under 24 hrs from Joshua Lavigne on Vimeo.

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