Being a sociable sort of a chap I join in discussions on various newsgroups and on-line bulletin boards. A commonly recurring question is along the lines of “Can anyone recommend a rucksack for (among other things) alpine climbing”? The request then continues that something in the region of 45 to 50 litres (or larger) in volume is what they are looking for. The “conversation” continues with respondents offering various models and manufacturers, all the while ignoring the fact that the request is for a rucksack that is probably 50% (or more) larger than the original poster really needs even if they do not realise it! As an aside most current models sold as “alpine” are far too fussy and over complicated. A simple tube with lid and ice axe loops is all that is really needed.

The thinking behind such a request would appear to be along the following lines: I need to carry X (where X is a list of equipment); since this is the alps I also need to take Y & Z. My normal cragging sack is 30 or 35 litres in size so I must need something bigger.

There are several things wrong with this reasoning. Firstly the alps is not just a crag writ large. The range has its own peculiarities and requirements. Secondly the list of required materials often only just stops short of including the proverbial kitchen sink. This list is usually taken from some book providing an introduction to alpine climbing and the reader has decided to be “on the safe side” and take everything.

As an example I present something I observed at the Grands Mulets Hut on Mt Blanc whilst waiting on to descend to the valley.

A steady stream of climbers was ascending from the general direction of the middle station of the Midi téléphérique. They were slowly snaking their way upwards, avoiding the crevasses on the lower section of the glacier. I noticed however that there were two climbers who appeared much larger than the rest who were being overtaken by all the other parties. As these two came closer and I was able to distinguish their features I realised that they were not giants but human snails labouring upward under huge, and I mean huge, rucksacks. “Got to be British”, I mused.

Eventually, about an hour after the other climbers had arrived, the two climbers crawled up to the hut. “What are you planning on doing?” I asked. “Mt Blanc” came the reply, “you?” “Just come down” I replied.

A perusal of their sacks showed that, whatever size the sacks were, they were obviously not large enough since hanging from the outside were ropes, helmets and various other paraphenalia. To my astonishment they were also stopping in the hut thus they didn’t need sleeping bags or karrimats.

Now the route from the Grands Mulets up to Mt Blanc is, in reality, little more than a steep and, in places, exposed walk. The communal gear needed for this route may be summed up as:

  • one rope;

Err that’s it. Personal gear would be: crampons; one semi-technical axe; helmet; harness; some prusik loops (for crevasse rescue). In addition to this each would also need appropriate clothing - shell garments; an extra shirt or thermal; gloves and glacier goggles.

It should be obvious from the above list that a rather small rucksack could be employed to take this equipment, indeed most would be worn on the route itself with only the spare clothing, water bottle and camera (for those all-important summit shots) in the sack. This brings out the other reason for having a large rucksack: “I need it to get my gear to the start of the route”. Not so! Careful packing will ensure that your small rucksack will suffice for that need as well. The argument that it takes time to carefully pack a small sack is erroneous - you only need to pack the sack once per day, if it takes five minutes longer then this is more than saved over the course of the day by the sack being less effort to tote around. Note that the argument that a large rucksack will compress down to a small size can also be applied to a small sack which compresses down even smaller!

Personally, if I was to use the available huts and so avoiding taking sleeping bag & associated paraphenalia, I would use a 20 or 25 litre sack for day routes. This is almost heresy to some, yet look at the continental climbers, to a man (or woman) they have sacks that most British climbers would only consider suitable for walkers out on the south downs. Yet they are up and down most routes before the Brit has reached the summit.

For multi-day routes I would only go upto 30 or 35 litres. The reasoning is as follows: a 20 litre sack is more than adequate for single day routes when starting from a hut so I need extra room for sleeping bag; sleeping mat; stove & fuel; food and extra gear such as rock or ice protection. Let’s consider these in turn.

The sleeping bag
Depending upon the route and the area it may be better to take a bivvy bag and an extra thermal and be prepared to suffer. If this is too much for you then summer nights in the alps are not that cold. Besides, you will be sleeping in all your clothes anyway. Thus a lightweight 2/3 season bag is more than adequate. This will typically pack down to a couple of litres in size. Allow 3 litres.
The sleeping mat
Always a good one this. The British climber will take his full closed cell foam sleeping mat, roll it up and strap it to his pack and head to the hills. This is way over the top! Find a sack that has a sleeve compartment on the side next to your back. Cut two or three sections of mat to fit into this. At the bivouac site lay these end-to-end and they will be more than enough to ensure that you do not lie on cold ground with no insulation. This will take up a couple of litres, maybe 3 litres.
Stove, fuel and food
You are not cooking a three course Cordon Bleu meal! All that is needed is enough fuel and stove power to boil some water for a brew. Most hill food should be edible cold or able to be cooked with next to no fuel once water is at boiling point, instant mashed potatoes or couscous for example. A lightweight gas stove with the smallest cylinder you can find should be enough for a one bivvy route. The stove and bits will pack into the single pan saving space if not weight. Here is the biggest saving on volume and hence sack size: make sure that there are no empty voids in what you pack. Allow 2 litres space for this lot.
Climbing gear:
Alpine routes tend to be done with much less gear than a traditional British rock climb. Also try and have items that may be used in more than one situation: using a belay plate for abseiling rather than taking a descendeur as well; glacier prusik slings can be used as normal slings for putting on spikes and threads; etc. Of course the rack is usually split between the party so it should be even smaller than this. Allow 2 litres volume.

So the sum total for this little lot is around 10 litres over and above the basic kit. I.e. a 30 litre rucksack.

The attitude should be not “do I want this?” but “Can I do without this item of equipment?” If the answer to the (second) question is YES then it does not belong in the sack for that route.

The following list would be a typical set of kit for a route such as the Swiss Route on Les Courtes in summer with a bivouac rather than stopping in the Argentière hut. Items marked with an asterisk are shared between the party

  • Sleeping bag: 2 season synthetic
  • Sleeping mat: two sections kept in sleeve at back of rucksack
  • Bivvy bag
  • Rope: 9mm x 50m
  • Helmet
  • Lightweight waterproof jacket and trousers.
  • Extra fleece (thin)
  • Water bottle: one litre size.
  • Harness
  • Stove pans and fuel (*)
  • Food (*)
  • Slings: 4 off, will double up as Prussik loops for glacier travel. (*)
  • Ice screws: 4 off (*)
  • Hexes #1-#7 (*)
  • Tie-offs: 6 off (*)
  • Crampons
  • Ice axes

As an experiment (all right, just to prove my point!) I managed to get all of this lot (including the shared equipment) into a 30 litre rucksack with only the last two items in the list on the outside of the sack. These would go on the outside anyway. I didn't pack such things as a camera or glacier glasses but these are relatively small items that will not take up much room and anyway the sharing of gear will release some space.

As a final example, I used a 35 litre sack when I climbed the North Face of the Eiger when we took food for three days. The only items on the outside of the sack when walking up to the foot of the route were crampons, axes and helmet. The first two of these are normally on the outside anyway. I still felt as if the sack were too large. I used the same sack on a winter ascent of the North Face of Les Droites, i.e. using a four season sleeping bag, and still didn’t need to carry anything else on the outside.