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Fast and Light with Gary Scott: Lightweight Backpacking and Climbing Strategies

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by Gary Scott | 2004-05-04 03:00:00-06

Fast and Light on the Khalde Peak
Fast and Light on the Khalde Peak

Publisher's Note: I had the pleasure to sit outside the GoLite warming hut at Brighton Base Camp at the Winter Outdoor Retailer Show and talking ultralight with one of the world's foremost practitioners of the game: Gary Scott. Over coffee, we compared notes on our expeditions. I learned more in talking for thirty minutes with Gary than I have by reading any book. Gary walks the talk - he carries packs to the top of the world's highest and most hostile peaks that weigh less than those carried by many lightweight backpackers on summer backpacking trips. Gary has tested ultralight backpacking equipment to its limits, and understands the rationale behind our activities and choices as well as anybody. Enjoy, it's a great honor to have Gary as a contributing writer to Backpacking Light Magazine. - Ryan Jordan, Publisher

It’s a beautiful sunny and hot Southern California day. I can see sailboats and luxury yachts of all shapes and sizes cruising out towards the open ocean. And I am inside! Why? Well, I’m packing! I’m surrounded by seemingly endless piles of gear, attempting to make some order out of it as I prepare for my next trip; I will be guiding climbers on Mexican volcanoes. I could be enjoying myself at the beach right now (very tempting) and leave all this till the very last minute before I leave. However, I know that when I take my time to pack for a trip and to think through the climb, I always end up traveling with far less gear. This Mexico trip will be more of a car-and-hut-camping type experience, but even so, the more time I spend planning, the greater the chances of an enjoyable trip for everyone. After Mexico I’ll be packing for a fast solo climb of Denali where I will need to carefully plan and prepare. This will include thinking deeply about what I'm going to take and what I should leave behind. The success of any climb depends on my attention to detail during the planning phase.

“I try to look at my gear and clothing as tools to help me perform, rather than as a crutch to lean on.”

In climbing and in life, I follow a philosophy of believing in myself, having confidence in my experience and ability, and following my intuition. We all rely heavily on our gear in the mountains, but I try to look at my gear and clothing as tools to help me perform, rather than as a crutch to lean on. When I pack for a trip, I plan for things to go right - I neither plan, nor pack, for things to go wrong. Carrying gear to cover every eventuality can actually increase the risk of mishap. The extra pack weight makes me slower and less able to maneuver out of danger. As Yvon Chouinard once wisely said, “If you take bivouac equipment along - you will bivouac.”

Every ounce you carry or wear (remember to count the weight of your clothes!) adds up tremendously when you are at high altitude. Many folks have failed on climbs, blaming the weather, or their health, or the fact that they got a sore stomach or altitude sickness, when the real issue was that they simply carried too much stuff. Yes, you can go light and do everything right and just have bad luck and hit bad weather and have to turn back. You can also travel "too" light and get caught with your pants down, which only needs to happen once for serious consequences. I assess the likelihood of events happening to help me strike the right balance. I try to take just enough gear to achieve my objective and to have fun, but not so little that if I get caught out in bad weather I’ll get hurt.

Let’s take a look at some of the things to consider in gear selection:

Durability

“I trust and believe that my gear will last and not fall apart. More importantly, I trust myself to deal with, or fix, anything that breaks.”

Many people buy gear that is triple-welded at every joint and made with bulletproof fabric because they are afraid of the consequences if their gear fails. But gear like that is heavy! Manufacturers have convinced the public and shop owners that gear needs to be absolutely bombproof for the outdoors, which simply isn’t true. The new wave of strong, light fabrics and gear will last you as long as you need it to if you’re reasonably careful with it.

An example: Wild Things, of North Conway, New Hampshire made me a super-light “throw-away” Andinista pack for my 18½ hour solo ascent of Denali in 1986. I’ve used it on many long trips since, and it’s still going strong, 18 years later!

I trust and believe that my gear will last and not fall apart. More importantly, I trust myself to deal with, or fix, anything that breaks. I had a client break a crampon on a 20,000-foot peak in Nepal, so I gave her one of mine and continued the climb with only one. On Denali a few years ago, one of my own crampons broke. I could have stopped and fixed my problem but this would have delayed our ascent and everyone would have gotten cold. Instead, since it wasn’t that bad - I just kept going and walked funny!

Repair and First-Aid

As far as repair kits go, above base camp I usually carry a small amount of duct tape on my trekking poles and some dental floss and a needle for sewing - that’s it! If you take a repair kit that’s fine, but make sure it’s a tiny one.

I also take only a tiny first-aid kit. Many people want to carry their own complete kits, but again, that is based on fear of what “could happen.” You should consider pooling group medical supplies to reduce the weight each climber is carrying up the mountain, while still covering individual and group needs.

Climbing Gear

When I attended the Ouray Ice Climbing Festival this year, I was amazed to see how much gear people wore on their climbing harnesses. I have found the same thing on big mountains such as Denali, which really amazes me. I’ve seen climbers on summit day on Denali with more crap hanging from their waists than some big wall climbers I know. Do they ever use any of it? Some of these ice climbing harnesses and the gear hanging off them can tip the scales at close to 10 pounds! Have you ever tried to do pull-ups with an extra 10 pounds around your waist?

You can eliminate a lot of weight by carefully selecting climbing hardware. CAMP USA has an amazing array of very light ice axes, harnesses, crampons and helmets for the alpinist and high-altitude mountaineer. Saving a pound on your feet can be a huge advantage at altitude. I used CAMP’s lightest crampons on Everest and wore them up and down the Lhotse face on hard ice, over ladders in the Khumbu Icefall, and over vertical rock pitches on the Geneva Spur and Yellow Band. They performed so well that I wore the same pair on Elbrus and Rainer. Choosing lightweight, modern equipment, the weight of your crampons, harness, ice axe and helmet can be less than 4 pounds.

When I guide the high peaks I walk my clients around (after they have all dressed and are ready to go) and pull any extra gear off them, repeating methodically, “you don’t need this, you won’t need that.” I try to get their gear down to the exact number of biners and slings that they will need, with maybe one spare. Why carry any more than you really need? Climbers’ favorite heavy gear includes excessive lengths of 1-inch webbing and 20-foot lengths of 5 or 6 millimeter cord. What will they use it for on Denali? I simply don’t know!

Think about the specific needs of your climb, and pack accordingly. Pare your rack down to the minimum and enjoy the freedom it brings.

Food and Cooking

When I pack for a climb, I lay out my food and go through in my mind exactly what I will eat during the climb, down to every meal and every single food bar. (And yes, I’ll take a few extra bars in case I get caught out overnight.) I always take less than a full day’s food for the last day of the climb. I know I’ll get out that day and be stuffing myself on a huge Mexican meal somewhere. You’ll be surprised how little food you need in order to perform well. Most people take way too much food, adding a lot of unneeded weight to their pack.

Any food you bring that doesn’t require cooking will save fuel weight and the time needed to cook it. Take all the food out of its packaging and you’ll not only save a ton of weight and space, but you won’t leave behind all that waste on the mountain, and you’ll spend less time packing and unpacking at base camp. An hour spent planning and packing back home will save you many hours of time and energy (a huge commodity you don’t want to waste) at your base camp.

I grew up with Bluet gas stoves and am very partial to them. Rarely, if ever, do I have any problems with them; just turn them on and light them. No filling fuel bottles, screwing parts together and getting fuel all over the place, no flare-ups and no spills.

A new stove that I like even better, however, is the Jetboil. It’s easy, compact, predictable, it has a built-in igniter, it is fuel efficient, and it weighs around a pound. The forthcoming hanging Jetboil stove will improve the concept even more.

Whatever stove you decide to carry, sharing it with another climber will help you save weight.

Packs and Sleeping Pads

McKinley
McKinley

On Everest this past spring, I climbed though the icefall and up to Camp IV at 26,500 feet with my GoLite Gust pack, which weighed only 1¼ pounds. So, right there I was 5 pounds ahead of most people. On Rainer or any other two to four day ascents, the vast majority of climbers carry a 6 to 7 pound pack, plus a 3 to 4 pound daypack. Compare that to a GoLite Gust which doubles for both and you save nearly 10 pounds right off the bat!

 

Besides being much lighter than a typical pack, the Gust has the added advantage of a built-in one-quarter-length foam pad. This pad, combined with a three-quarter length Therm-a-Rest UltraLite, which weighs only a pound, will replace your regular full length, 3 plus pound Therm-a-Rest on a short trip. If it’s really cold, I’ll add another ½ pound to that with a closed-cell foam Z-rest pad for added insulation from the ground. If I’m on an extended trip (e.g., Denali) where the extra comfort justifies the weight, I’ll take the thicker pad.

Sleeping Bags

To save weight, take a sleeping bag rated for warmer temperatures than you’re expecting and use your clothing for additional insulation. Nearly every gear manufacturer makes great lightweight and warm sleeping bags now. I have been more than warm on Rainer with a 20°F bag. I used only a -10°F rated bag on Denali, and I used a super-light and compact four-pound Montbell sleeping bag on Everest.

I’ve also used a 7-ounce bivy bag from Equinox to add quite a few degrees of warmth to my bag. The bivy also helps keep my bag clean and dry. You can also use a silk sleeping bag liner, which weighs around 7 ounces, to increase your bag’s warmth by up to 9 degrees.

Tents

Tents weigh a lot, especially when they get damp or icy. You have to balance safety and weight, since you don’t want to have your tent try to blow away in the middle of the night and leave you holding onto the floor. The standards in the mountains for years have been the North Face VE 24 and VE 25. Each weighs around 12 pounds and sleeps three. Many newer two or three-person mountaineering tents weigh between 5 to 8 pounds. Single wall tents such as those from Bibler, come in at an amazing 4 to 6 pounds. Bivy tents although very light, are neither much fun nor conducive to sleep in bad weather. Check out solo tents from Hilleberg or Montbell instead.

When choosing a tent, weight is not the only factor. Make sure you have enough room to cook in the vestibule or inside the tent (hanging stoves are the key). Also, make sure you have enough room inside so that you won’t constantly brush up against the tent walls and get soaked. Tents that you can set up quickly give you more flexibility when bad weather rears its ugly head.

Clothing

“I climbed to 26,500 feet on Everest in a few thin layers passing people who were weighed down and sweltering in down suits.”

Another way you can reduce weight is to carefully consider the clothing you wear. Most people over dress and over pack due to fear of being too cold or of getting caught out over night. I climbed to 26,500 feet on Everest in a few thin layers passing people who were weighed down and sweltering in down suits. Overdressing burns valuable energy and dehydrates you making you feel sluggish and tired. On serious climbs, my philosophy is that I’m either moving or in my sleeping bag and therefore don’t need a lot of extra clothing.

I start off the day - even if it’s in the middle of the night - dressed lightly, as I know I’ll warm up. I can move more freely when I feel less constricted and I move faster which keeps me warmer. Most people start out wearing too much and very quickly have to stop to shed a layer or two. Their climbing partners get cold while they stop to wait for them. One of the tricks I use now with layering is adding or removing long-sleeved zippered lightweight tops. I’ve worn as many as five layers of them. I can incrementally change my temperature quickly by stuffing a layer into my pack, or tying it around my waist. Never hesitate to stop for a second to change clothing to maintain comfort when you climb, but make sure your gear is easily accessible or else everyone - including you - gets cold when you stop.

Another great weight saving product is a facemask from Psolar. It’s a heat exchanger that warms cold air before you breathe it. I need less clothing to stay warm when I use the Psolar facemask. I also swear by lightweight polypropylene balaclavas from Maxit Designs. They weigh next-to-nothing and can add many degrees of comfort when I get cold. Glove liners also keep warmth in and add little weight.

Wrap Up

Your pack, pad, sleeping bag, and bivy bag, if carefully chosen, can weigh less than 6 pounds. If you share a tent, stove, and fuel, your core gear can weigh less than 10 pounds; half what many people are carrying. A 10-pound difference may not sound like a lot, but if you pick up a 10-pound weight and carry it around for a while, you’ll see that it can begin to feel cumbersome.

A lot of people say, “but I can handle the weight.” So could I, when I was younger and dumber. But now my knees creak, and I want to have more fun - not show off my machismo. Carrying more than you need to will catch up with you in some way, shape, or form. You will sprain an ankle or strain a muscle, get altitude sickness, or fail to move fast enough on summit day and need to retreat. I had a guy bail on a climb once because he got badly sunburned. The real issue was he carried too much into base camp and it took him longer than normal to hike in, and that’s what caused his sunburn! I don’t know how many times I’ve almost had to turn around near a summit because my client was too tired, only to pick up his pack and find out he’s carrying a piano!

The most important piece of gear you should own is a scale. Obviously, you can’t know how much your stuff weighs or compare one piece of gear against another unless you weigh it. I try to have a target pack weight for each trip. For a three-day Rainer climb, for example, it’s 35 pounds; perhaps half what some folks carry for the same length of time! And that’s fully packed, with water and everything. Many times people, having the best intentions, pack their gear, but at the last minute start to freak out and throw a bunch of junk in the pockets of their pack - just in case! I’ve seen people going for the summit on Mount Rainier with more weight and bigger packs than I carried to the Rainier base camp at Camp Muir - I just don’t get it.

Before any trips, whether with clients or friends, we all get together at my home in Colorado and have a packing party. At the end we all know what gear we have and what we are leaving behind so we don’t carry duplicate gear or leave anything vital out. We order pizza and have some beers and make it fun. And doesn’t it make sense to take a few hours to make sure you aren’t all carrying an extra 5 to 10 pounds you don’t need!

One time we were packing for a Rainer trip and five guys all pulled 1-pound multi-tools from their packs. So, we picked one and took that. I had to laugh, as in 35 years of climbing I’ve NEVER used a multi-tool! Since we are climbing as a team I mandate that we carry the least amount possible so we can all share group gear. I’ve heard of adventure racing teams that hand around their packs after they are packed and allow everyone else in the team to toss out whatever they think is excess! Let’s face it, if your climbing partner carries too much stuff it can affect the success of your climb too.

“Think about one thing when you pack - do I really need this item or piece of clothing? If you only think you might use it, leave it behind.”

Another example is a friend who recently walked into my house with his pack at 45 pounds and walked out with a GoLite pack and a total load of 19 pounds - less than half of his starting weight! He had a lot of things he didn’t need, most of it back up or extra clothing. We threw out three of his five pairs of pants and left him with two. I suggested he use a T-shirt instead of taking a pillowcase (he was sleeping in a hut for three nights) and use a bandana as a hand-towel and leave that behind as well. He didn’t need a spare headlamp, and it went on like that. Think about one thing when you pack - do I really need this item or piece of clothing? If you only think you might use it, leave it behind.

I’ve always been into traveling light. My mother recently told me that when I was ten years old I was weighing food from her pantry to figure out which was the lightest to take on a “bushwalking” trip. Since those early days I’ve continued to pare down, taking the minimum that I can get away with and using the lightest gear available.

In places like Nepal where there are yaks to carry your gear, I don’t have a problem having them carry extra gear and luxury items to base camp, but above BC is where I draw the line and go light. Once again, planning plays a huge part in traveling lighter.

So, the bottom line is to spend some time thinking and planning before your trip. If you have the space, lay all your gear out on the floor a few days, or preferably a few weeks, before a trip. Look it over every few days and think about what to carry. Go through the entire climb hour by hour and think about what you will need. Make two piles. One with only gear and clothing that you KNOW without a doubt you will use, and everything else to the side in another pile. Now, keep whittling down the main pile as the time gets closer to your trip. It’s this thinking process that is so important and will allow you to get closer to what size your pack should be. When you get back from each trip, dump everything back on the floor and go through it all and note what gear you didn’t use.

So, now you are ready to travel lighter in the mountains, and you can focus more on what you are there for. You can reach more summits with less body and knees stress, be safer, and overall have more fun! Go for it and don’t forget to have fun!

Gary Scott is a professional mountaineer and adventurer, and has just written a book titled: SUMMIT STRATEGIES - Secrets to Mastering the Everest in your Life. He has led over 50 high altitude expeditions, been on Everest twice, and holds the world-record for the first one-day ascent of Denali from the base camp to the summit in 18½ hours. He also runs an adventure travel company and international guiding service called Gary Scott adventures. Check out his website at SummitCoach.com or email him at mysummitcoach@yahoo.com


Citation

"Fast and Light with Gary Scott: Lightweight Backpacking and Climbing Strategies," by Gary Scott. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/gary_scott.html, 2004-05-04 03:00:00-06.

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