daytime temperatures are hovering around 12c at 2200m and hitting 0c on the 3000m peaks, so with the shortest day soon things will get cold fast. being in the cold sink between peaks and in the shade, as usual the ice forms fast, with the first alpine routes doable in about 4 weeks and Ice Candy ready to go in about 6 weeks.
inadvertently by tradition, we are usually the first and the last to climb on it, having earned a bit of approval over the winters. time to start making plans now.
yatsugatake’s Ice Candy ice wall: seems like only a week ago when they pulled it down…
this is the first post in a series of ten with Will Gadd. the rules were simple: no editing, no word limits, no punches pulled, no need to even be coherent. shoot from the hip straight to an audience who want to know. as usual Will delivered 110%.
Q: where was ice and mixed climbing 10 years ago, where is it now, and what’s happened in between?
WG: Ice and mixed climbing are both healthy and going strong. Not a ton of development there in the last 10 years, just a lot more potential globally. More climbers, more areas, more farmed ice, more towers, it’s going great! I’d say it’s another golden age for ice and mixed, just tremendous opportunities globally, from China to South America, just lots to do!
What has changed is dry tooling. Ten years ago it was headed toward being its own sport, now it is its own sport entirely. Ice tools are used, but increasingly it’s done in steep caves on drilled holds, or with bolt-on logs and other features. Drtoolers have gotten good enough to hang onto ice tools for hours at a time even in a flat roof, which is awesome, but if you can hang on forever in a flat roof it’s hard to make routes harder. The grades from about M12 on are basically meaningless these days, more about ego and length of horizontal climbing than difficulty. Some of the harder routes are hard, but a lot of them are just endurance events without any hard moves, especially in Colorado’s Vail area.
To make the drytooling routes harder we’re cutting off more points. Back in the day we cut our spurs off because it made the routes boring and easy, but now some people are cutting off the “rake” points to make it harder to get rests, leaving only a single frontpoint. This actually doesn’t make things tons harder if you can hang on forever, so we’ll need to cut some more points off to make it harder again… At some point it’s going to make sense to just use rock shoes, and then that will probably get too easy so we’ll just have to use our hands again with a chalk bag. So I think drytooling has gotten to the point where it’s basically rock climbing with hooks. I’ve lost interest in this game. I also don’t like the chipped nature of the harder routes, just seems odd to me even though I’ve done a lot of it…
contrary to what the climbing media will show you, expedition climbers are not usually the coiffed, logo-laden, high tech, well spoken ambassadors they are made out to be. after 20 years going on prolonged trips to places barely on the map, weve come across enough of the real thing to recognize it when we see it.
superficially, expedition climbers fit a Jungian archetype somewhat different from ‘trip’ climbers, tho of course theres a lot of overlap and its natural to be both. for this blurb we will define ‘expedition’ as being an undertaking in an area removed by degrees of magnitude from any form of climbing industry. basically its climbing somewhere outside of where climbing usually happens and the industry that provides to it has no sway. by example the Khumbu, Charakusa, Fitzroy or the Alps usually dont qualify, whereas the North side of the Karakorum, Baffin, the Altun Shan and many of the sub-ranges of the Himalaya, Andes, Pamir, Tien Shan, Hindu Kush do. if Global Rescue has an off-the-shelf plan and youre not packing your own toilet paper and paramedic supplies its not an expedition.
what makes the expedition climber is the expedition. the omega point of the expedition objective throws into context all other activity and pulls together the pieces to make it happen. people dont end up on expedition by accident, via haphazardness or wishing and dreaming. expeditions are the result of intent and hardwork and theres a certain character that fits that.
if eating unidentified food from a bag excites you, you are one big step towards expedition climbing
expedition climbers dont come from nowhere. they are not born as such and no one hands it to them. to climb in expedition style requires developing the physical capacity, motivation, technical ability and thought process – and making the sacrifices – to be the type of person who does that sort of thing. it doesnt suit everybody. the commitment over large loops of time to many is not realistic. many simply dont believe in their ideas enough to let it happen. to some the idea of being that off the grid is frightening.
expedition climbers see a process. that its a large loop of feedback is understood and that all the steps on the way are not always glamorous is accepted. expedition objectives are rarely the result of fairweather preparation – if you cant cope with a weekend in the rain its unlikely you be solid on a ledge in a storm.
expedition climbers have the guile to channel valuable resources towards a grand objective. $1000 airfares, $800 boots, expensive permits and destroying ropes is accepted as the entry fee. long periods in obscure areas never has been a cheap undertaking and thats simply that. actually work it all out and it maybe comes to $100 a week over a year, making it cheaper than its ever been, but the value has to be there to start with. some people think $100 a week on beer or weed is justified.
if you like hanging out with a crowd in a big warm mess tent with a crew cooking regular meals then real expeditions might not be for you
expedition climbers live in the tunnel of expedition thinking. this is a general way of living where excitement, curiosity, a work ethic and an objective process applies to everything. the ideas of new places, thoughts of new activity, a penchant for logistics, acceptance of a level of base knowledge area paradigm to view life thru that means the actuality of going on expedition scratches all the little itches of day to day living. more than one climber on expedition has announced a sense of being where they know they should be, at least for part of the time.
expedition climbers know its not about the gear. of course gear is part of the equation, but at a similar level to how craftmen use tools. specialist expedition gear is seen as a series of gateways that let certain things be done. the fetishes for nylon, aluminium, carbon fiber, dyneema and plastic dont last long over function. expedition climbers are the only climbers who find sponsorship a hindrance rather than an accolade.
expedition climbers dont demand a set course of actions. if anything expedition climbing can be defined as the opposite – to go where no prefabricated set of rules exists. if your life revolves around morning emails, dependable weather reports, known approach times and detailed topos, adaption to expedition living may be hard. if any paradigm is central to expedition climbing it is that at any moment it all can change to something totally unexpected. entire sides of mountains can prove unapproachable, complete weather patterns can be found to not apply, unforeseen bureaucracy can scuttle whole schedules, accidents and coincidences can open up bizarre outcomes.
expeditions tend not to include the concept of a nice warm hotel room at the end of each day
expedition climbers are discontent with having followed. the shock of the new is fundamental to the expedition mentality, at near-addictive proportions. the buzz of climbing new terrain supersedes any emotion of standing at a high point and its shadow – the act of following established ground – is seen as a form of failure. by definition its a neuroses, but one that drives a grander vision rather than one that backs into a corner. the association with unknowns and unexplored areas is integral to planning, objectives are decided equally by avoiding known factors as by attraction to unknown ones.
expedition climbers have a solid ability to research. from nutrition to training to languages to geography. by their nature expeditions take place without an industry to fill in the gaps. basic factors like sourcing food, navigating towns, negotiating with locals and making decisions are profound enough to get bogged down in without a large degree of pre-knowledge. obscure places are obscure for a reason and often once there an ability to communicate with the greater world diminishes, meaning information from a bigger scale is not apparent. locals can have entirely alternative ways of determining weather, gaining access, perceiving risks. their perspectives and demands are unlikely to have much in common with a team of foreign climbers, more so when communication is alien.
the basis of expedition climbing is making uninhabitable places habitable, even if just for a short space of time.
expedition climbers understand allocating money. expeditions cost hard cash, and that cash translates into unique experiences. for those experiences to be real the money needs to reflect that. cheap boots save $100 but compromise the $1000’s spent on other aspects. expensive gadgetry can introduce complexities and problems analogue solutions can avoid. dollars spent on preparation can reduce dollars spent on wasted time, other factors cant be changed no matter what amount is thrown at it. take away an industry of guides, porters and liaisons and you cant pay your way to the top of a mountain – let alone home again.
expedition climbers train. you cant get good at expeditions by going to the wall, gym or trail 3 times a week and calling that enough. the basic demands of expedition climbing covers a spectrum of effort far broader than climbing alone that a base of general capacity for suffering accounts for maybe 75% of it, with the remaining 25% being the specific machinations of climbing. you are just as likely to be battered, tested and exhausted by days on bad roads, sleeping in cramped places, hauling big loads and belaying from nasty positions as you are from hard edge climbing, and you dont proof yourself from all that by doing 4x4s and crossfit. expedition training is pure blue-collar grunt work of which the only thing that sucks more is not doing it. a large element is in digging out existing weaknesses and chronic problems so they can be managed, as well as incrementally developing the capacity to push against gravity and the weather for weeks on end.
expedition climbers get the cultural aspects – not necessarily the host cultures, but the process of being out of their own. its ignorant to expect the locals in a barely known place to understand, accept, align to or care about your visiting values. minus a climbing industry it fast becomes apparent just how pointless expedition climbing is. in places that see few travelers provisions for them are not default, and often are viewed as decadent or a novelty. if you cant be bothered to decipher your presence in a culture with minimal place for you then you may need to look at your motives. despite a media telling us otherwise, expedition climbers are guests in foreign lands, interacting with landscapes in alien ways that can range from uninteresting to sacrilegious to those whos backyards it happens in. combined with the subtleties of communication between vastly different cultures and its not difficult to see why so many great alpine objectives are off limits.
when weather reports dont exist you have to roll with the consequences
expedition climbers engage the process of problem solving well beyond the climbing. expeditions deconstructed are a matrix of problems requiring solutions. these problems are a continuum that exist long before the actual climbing phase and continue long after, to edit your perspective to just the romantic stuff is to miss the implications throughout. skip a problem early on and it both snowballs the matter and decreases the contingency to fix it. a snapped boot lace is tiny out on the weekend, but on a huge frozen wall the odds are dramatically changed.
expedition climbers are attached to a broad range of goals. standing on top of an unclimbed feature is a feat that takes hundreds of small goals to get to. to place gear properly, to be precise with navigation, to buy the right food, to be fit enough, to pack properly, to make a good tent ledge – to nail the foundation of subsidiary goals is to set up the primary goals, making them possible. looking back at any failed climb, the failed sub-goals are often the cause of greater failures. wrong boots, lack of ability, lack of clarity, lazy choices….when these goals are not made the vectors that allow big objectives to occur are not present.
expedition climbers get hard work. all of the above covers aspets of character that define an archetype that puts into action the process of going far away to do something pointlessly risky for the sake of a unique experience. its the stuff of life and heroic in its own little navel-gazing, Campbellian way, but without the connective element of elbow grease still comes to nought. in the end its grimy blue collar work that makes it happen; carrying loads thru rivers, lugging boxes of groceries up stairs, decanting kilos of oats into little ziploks, suffering bad roads and delays, weeks without washing, ropes that need coiling, ground that needs covering, snow that needs melting, boots that need drying, weather that needs recording, decisions that need making.
now these things all seem obvious, and most people have degrees of these qualities already – the difference with expedition climbing is that defining and clarifying these characteristics extends very realistically to the sharp end. you dont come home from an expedition by chance, so all of these attributes need to be clearly cultivated.
4 years ago we stood in the base of a volcanic valley in North East Japan, stared up at dozens of ice lines that dripped down the weird volcanic flutings, and knew in the hands of the right climbers it would work. we knew a smattering of routes had been done thereabouts, but we also knew huge sections of the valley walls had nothing done on them. asking around told us that decades before during a peak in Japanese climbing the hard mixed climbers of the day had done what they could for the era, putting up steep routes onto connecting ice with leashed tools as part of the wave of mixed athletic climbing. several M8 lines – test pieces for Japanese climbing – went up before things fizzled out and interest went elsewhere. What was done became obscure classics, novelties mostly forgotten, repeated rarely. meanwhile mixed climbing elsewhere surged and a core of hard climbers lead from the front, pushing both abilities and concepts ever-higher.
when iceclimbingjapan came into being we soon found limitations in the well known ice locations in Honshu and Hokkaido. interaction with international climbers in places like Shuangqiaogou and Hyalite, and discussions with Japan’s top climbers showed the idea was worth pursuing and over the intervening winters iceclimbingjapan made a series of trips up there, putting up new lines, mapping the blank areas and trying to make sense of the weather anomaly that allows ice to exist there at all. despite some uncommitted interest, nay saying and disbelief, those who actually went there all saw the potential and it was obvious it was much more than just throwing a rope up – most route possibilities were huge, bold and with a lot of objective issues – and it was clear this place would not be for everyone. during tent-bound and espresso-fueled pipe dream discussions we chewed away at ideas, and always one name kept coming up.
Will Gadd, the godfather of stoke, and Sarah Hueniken, the pillar of womans hard mixed climbing, gambled a big chunk of their winter to head into a part of Japan even most Japanese climbers know nothing about. their capacity to climb hard, develop lines, see potential where others dont and fuse possibilities into realities are the foundation that frontier climbing is based on. Will and Sarah both know they are ambassadors of the sport both to its adherents and on the industrial stage, and both get that coming to Japan will trigger more attention than simply putting up new routes in already well-know places. Will had been to Japan several times before and had a handle on what could be done. We threw ideas and logistics about but it took time to coalesce with the right people and an angle from the industry to see the value.
having a hotel with hot springs to return to each day keeps the psyche higher longer than a frozen tent
over 8 winters the idea ebbed and flowed, thru tragedies, tsunamis, changes in life and dozens of other projects. in late 2015, just as we stepped off the first winter attempt of Tibet’s Se’erdengpu big wall, Will’s email came thru; ‘This winter it’s on!’ and that means all systems into overdrive. Will knows the risks and variables that go with these things. several trips to Japan and a lifetime of trips to obscure places means that the vision warrants the uncertainty. like Spray ice, Niagra, Kilimajaro and the frozen mines deep under Sweden show when the work ethic, concept and risks align the results are always game-changing. to be part of the Gadd-Machine is to be strapped into a torpedo of potential that fuses insane ability with the alchemy of energy and inspiration that makes possibilities emerge where before none were obvious – at a rate even Red Bull barely keeps up with.
Raising the bar in so many ways is about more than just the climbing and demands quality documentation for all sorts of reasons. the climber-photographer interaction needs to function seamlessly far beyond the final act of just shooting the magic moment. compressed into the process of obscure locations, tight schedules and serial unknowns, capturing the process realistically demands an eye and a work ethic unwavered by the intensity of frontier climbing – a sense of humour and pragmatism is mandatory. when picking the team Will Gadd makes attitude the defining factor and everyone involved has to be 100% switched on the entire time and all channels need to be open, making John Price one of the handful of photographers up to the task. hooked on Japan long before this trip, John’s capacity to balance and integrate what others may find distracting allowed the perfect combination of his Rockies ice composition with Japan’s very different conditions.
to clarify the swirl of possibilities the plan was distilled simply: climb the most radical new routes possible. away from the expectations of well established mixed areas, in this case ‘radical’ meant the old school version of the term – fundamental and drastic changes from the root of the process. and with a resume covering ice bergs, spray ice and years at the leading edge of the grade game Will is the best guy to know what that means.
Tohoku as the location was the perfect stage for Will and Sarah. obscure and far from the well trodden ice locations of central Honshu they could get on with the job without the attention and complications their climbing celebrity brings. aside from a single day at Zao, we saw no other climbers the entire time. beyond climbing, Will’s connection to the region goes even deeper, back to the 2011 Great North Eastern Disaster where his immediate interest resulted in critical telecommunication equipment being sent over that directly impacted a wide spectrum of response applications and had very real outcomes. to be up in the region with Will had a lot more meaning than just putting up new routes, especially as we passed thru former nuclear exclusion zones, Sendai’s once destroyed airport and the quake-scarred Tohoku freeway. tourism of any sort hasnt been exactly thriving in that area recently so foreign visitors are already well outside the cube.
in Miyagi we met up with Aiichi Chiba, the name associated with climbing up there and author of the chapter for the area in the long-out-of-print guide to Japanese ice and mixed climbing. immensely strong, welcoming, knowledgeable and enthusiastic, Chiba-san resolved a lot of unknowns that set the course from which the final routes emerged. the connection between the old guard locals and the new wave linked things culturally, ethically and profoundly with a lot of positivity, and Chiba-san‘s connection became the element we needed to anchor things amongst the Japanese community both in Tohoku and Tokyo.
Chiba Aiichi, John, Sarah & Will in one of many morning car park gear up sessions
compared to central Japan, Tohoku is quieter, less populated, less commercial and wilder. forming a plan was dictated as usual by weather forecasts and predictions based on wind direction, altitude and travel time – nothing unusual aside from the fact barely any specific data existed. as true frontier climbing dictates, you cant just look on a website to answer all the questions so we had to get deep into the valleys to verify what was going on. initial recon in Futakuchi showed huge potential but the weather anomaly needed to catalyze the ice hadnt quite stabilized and the symphony of crashing ice was far from enticing. hours in slush, wet from warm snow, jet lagged and wondering if the gamble was worth it things became gloomy, buoyed only by possibilities in the forecasts and Chiba-san‘s optimism for other areas on the other side of the range. it wasnt what we came for but till conditions settled the idea of somewhere new was the best option.
the approach to Zao Ice Garden
long established as the place to go in Tohoku, Zao Ice Garden has enough stunning vertical ice lines for the potentials for overhanging mixed to be overlooked. despite an easily accessible cave with wild lines itching to go, none had been done. the obvious feature is a beautiful 30m blue pillar whos beguiling presence belied huge objective dangers that almost put an end to the trip and seriously affected group psyche. when things slip under the Gadd/Hueniken radar the shock waves are real and dont settle quickly, but the potentials opened up by the process of analysis and rethinking are amazing. in hindsight, the process of adjusting our perspective – as hard as it was – became fundamental to the routes that were done. without this the chance of just copy-catting the process and results of the Rockies may have been too easy. Japan deserves its uniqueness and to see how Will and Sarah switched the paradigm was as big a deal as watching them sequence the moves.
Sarah Hueniken making the step onto the hanging dagger on Fun Chimes M9, 40m, Zao Ice Garden, Yamagata
Fun Chimes (40m, M9) went up as the first route out there to engage the hanging ice and the roof of the cave. placements into the roofs iced-out cracks is true 45o overhanging ice climbing and the signature move out onto the suspended dagger is the set up for the thin frost, earth and ice above. its a Canadian-style mixed line reworked with Japanese features and doable enough to set the potential for the rest of the crag into motion. with a healthy Yamagata scene, chair-lift access and Chiba-san’s thumbs up, for the Ice Garden to become a Mixed Garden would be a straightforward and positive thing. from this our psyche started to lift and the temperatures stabilized, and this put our original ideas for Futakuchiback on the table.
Will’s idea of a rest day
that Futakuchi ever comes in is a result of a weather pattern that in normal years is solid but this winter was hard to predict. when it happens it happens and if youre not good to go it can pass you by. hourly scrutiny of the forecasts showed the pattern emerging later than usual and entering the final days available we scraped in at the start of the main cold plunge. literally overnight it all tightened up, froze and consolidated and the ideal lines could be tried, proving doable. its one thing to walk from the car and get on a world class vanguard route, its totally another to pull together the wherewithal, experience, attitude and work load and jump into a weird weather window and make it happen. its not just athleticism that sets great climbers apart from the rest.
Frozen Gold WI7, 100m
at the other end of the spectrum from Fun Chimes – which went up as a cool, fun, direct line linking charismatic features – Frozen Gold was the product of intensity, guile and vision. at over 90m and deep inside a volcanic flute formation, its an imposing line however you look at it. bizarre golden mantles are linked by small blobs that get smaller and line up directly beneath a large suspended icicle with nowhere to hide. at 75m you pull 2m out over air from the underside of the ice. situated at the valley head of a large buttress, dozens of these huge flutings exist, most with ice formations in the back and many much bigger. that none have been done previously is testament to the psyche needed to make them reality.
Will between the ice tiers on the first pitch of Frozen Gold WI7
neither of the 2 new routes came easily yet both went up in record time even with the extra levels of diligence put into making them safe. the nature of the underlying geology meant bolts were used where screws couldnt be, and the first ascents of both went unrehearsed and were photographed – profound for an M9, off-the-scale for a WI7 and an indication of the tightness of the whole operation. when Frozen Gold was done we stomped out, got in the car and drove directly to Tokyo. blitzed on coffee as we soared thru the tunnels and suspended freeways across Tokyo, Will jumped straight into his Arc’teryx presentation 6hrs after pulling the icicle on the FA of Frozen Gold. John had edited the images in the car on the way and the impact on the small audience was direct. Will didnt mince his words when telling them what was possible.
Will Gadd at the Arc’teryx store in Tokyo, 6hrs after doing the unrehearsed first ascent of Frozen Gold WI7
Sarah getting into the transition from frozen wilderness to digital wilderness on the Yamanote Line, Central Tokyo
in the end the world is left with 2 mixed routes that push the edges of skill, composition, location, style, vision and definition. these are not standard mixed lines where a sequence of dry moves end with a few moves on ice. harnessing the unique conditions and formations we found in Japan, the boundaries between ice and mixed are blurred and in flux. as Will stated at the Arc’teryx presentation, they are among the top routes he has done and the potential for more is vast. both routes exist in places with dozens if not hundreds of options right around them, and with the lid off the possibilities, both present the development of a unique type of ‘Japanese mixed‘. after a long time at a ceiling of old school M9 and WI6, Japan now has the doors open to what lays beyond.
so after a long time transmitting requests to help resolve Japan’s ice climbing deficiencies the wheels are now in motion; 2 new world-class routes put up by A-list athletes, dozens of new options thrown open, approval from the heart of Japan’s climbing scene and documentation by one of the best photographers for the job. repeats will be welcomed and new routes encouraged.
Mt Fuji as we do it is a single huge push up and back in a day. we start at the bottom and return to the bottom, hopefully via the summit. at its most streamlined its still a 10hr round trip, covering 2500m of vertical gain, and all of it is cold, wind-strafed and upwards. most trips take about 12hrs. add it all up and its a 4500kcal day.
the effort is a constant slow grind forwards and cold becomes the major factor. without adequate kcal intake the chances of topping out are small. now those 4500kcals dont need to be consumed on the mountain. with a 750kcal breakfast, another 250kcal snack in the car and 750kcals waiting for the return, theres about 2750kcals left and less again if you apply the idea that replacing at least 50% will get you thru.
lets say consuming 1500 – 1750kcals over the +10hrs is the goal.
800kcals of liquid energy + 1200kcals of salami, nuts and bars. chocolate coated coffee beans added for the hell of it.
to consume that amount of kcals in that time doesnt happen by chance. a couple of snickers or Clif bars and a bottle of water wont do it. to get it right means a constant flow of carbohydrate into the bloodstream, and after a while replenishment of fat and protein. efforts that long push well beyond what simple carbohydrate consumption serves, not to mention that amount of kcals in carbodydrate form is pretty bulky.
food works best when it is real as the balance of nutrients tells the metabolism and brain it is satisfied or not. gels are fine for a few hours, but aside from solidifying they throw the bodies sense of satiation. carbohydrates in the form of dense bread and quality bars contain a good amount of bang for the weight. complex sugars in the form of dried fruit comes buffered in fiber that makes the brain happy, slowly releases the sugars and gives the bowels something to work on. fats in the form of nuts trickle easily into the system with less of the digestive burden of saturated fats. and salami as a source of protein, extra fat and sodium keeps the body ticking nicely. along with being ‘real’, these foods can be easily found, and picked up 24hrs a day at Japanese convenience stores. 1000kcals from a balanced mix of these things is easy to throw together in a ziplok bag and fits easily in a pocket or top of a small pack.
liquid kcals can come in the form of weight gain powder, endurance concoctions or meal replacement drinks. dumped into a 1L sports bottle its easy to carry 750 – 1000kcals in fluid form. good liquid kcal mixes contain fat, electrolytes and protein in proportions close to what your body will need replacing. you wouldnt want to live on these powders, but for occasional use they fill a gap easily worth their refined natures.
those attempting the Asama-yama-Fuji double header will need to consume like this on both mountains, as fueling (after endurance training – but its too late by then) is the biggest factor towards both safety and success.
the recent trips in China/Tibet were at opposite ends of the expedition spectrum: minimalist & aerobic, and grinding & loaded. both trips had almost identical timelines, altitudes and temperatures, but engaged in different ways that had different effects on the metabolism. and just as each trip required very specific equipment, methods and timelines they also required very different eating.
when not climbing eat!
Trip 1: Mt Asura North Face, Alpine mixed
this trip was always about having minimal footprint, and as a team of 3 we had very efficient carrying-capacity. we also knew we would cover a lot of ground and need to consume a high-carbohydrate diet for constant fueling.
breakfast / 1000 kcals
consumed whilst gearing up: 1 cup of quality muesli loaded with seeds, coconut flakes, coconut oil and weight gain powder + instant coffee with butter
day food / 750 kcals
eaten as snacks at belays or brief rests, this was an equation set against time – longer climbing days pushed the envelope: salami, muesli bars, nuts + 1L water mixed with weight gain powder
night / 1200 kcals
eaten as leisurely as possible, usually in 2 installments: instant rice with coconut oil & Chinese meat sauce + soup with dried vegetables + weight gain powder + muesli bar + salami
at just under 3000 kcals a day i was consuming about 2/3 of what i was spending and in the end i came back with only 2 nights food remaining – the 2 nights i could barely eat from the effects of altitude. i was hungry but not crazily so, and probably could have extended the diet another 2 or 3 days before feeling it. i get the feeling beyond about 10 days the need for the enzymes, beta carotene and folate from fresh food gets critical (as also evidenced in the second trip).
eating properly is time well spent: simple food like a tub of cream cheese and a loaf of good bread goes a long way to keeping you moving forward
Trip 2: Se’erdengpu West Face, Alpine Big Wall
Big Wall style is slow. add +5000m of altitude, temperatures consistently below -5c, almost zero direct sun and only 2 climbers to carry the loads and it gets really slow. unlike Mt Asura where kcals were being burned moving fast, on Se’erdengpu the kcals were being burned shuffling slowly in the cold and moving big loads. for this we needed much more fat and ‘real’ food to make it digestible and we knew that with colder days we would make the time to cook properly rather than just boil water.
breakfast / 1000 kcals
1 cup muesli loaded with seeds and nuts OR wholegrain bread with cream cheese and bruschetta paste + weight powder + real coffee with butter + peanut butter
day food / 1200 kcals
muesli bars & protein bars + 1L water with weight powder
night / 1600 kcals
eaten leisurely: spaghetti with pesto, olive oil, salami, cheese OR laksa with noodles, coconut cream, coconut oil + freeze dried chinese soup + 1 square of chocolate + almonds + peanut butter
at nearly 4000 kcals a day we felt we were near the capacity of what we could consume compared to what we could carry and had time for, which was probably about also about 2/3 of what we were spending. being a slow style of climbing we werent burning at a higher heart rate like at Mt Asura. after coming down from the wall after 9 days we were hungry but again, not ravenously so. neither of us had lost our appetites, but we were wanting variation.
what made the big difference was 2 things:
1) the weight gain powder – the same stuff body builders use. drunk from a valve-topped squeeze bottle also like body builders use it keeps a good dose of carbohydrate, protein, fat and sugar trickling into the system. in nearly 20 days cold climbing at altitude i never once felt the sharp pang of being too depleted. what seemed to also help was a nightly dose of multivitamins, dietary fiber, magnesium/calcium, vitamin E & BCAAs.
2) having a cooking system capable of real cooking in the cold, ie a pot that could be cooked in and a stove that allowed gas canisters to liquid feed. this meant we could adapt our food as we needed to, adding and tweaking what we wanted rather than being slaves to the packet. it meant we could eat fresher, tastier food than what dehydrated allows.
a ‘real’ stove is the key to ‘real’food: being at the mercy of dehydrated food has its outcomes
what didnt differ between the 2 trips was minimizing the refined sugar – aside from a single square of chocolate each night on Se’erdengpu and what came in the weight powder, peanut butter and on the muesli bars (the latter we would have avoided if feasible) we carried no candy, no sugar to add to anything, no sugary drinks, no junk food – and we never missed it. if anything we avoided the hormonal slumps and peaks that seem to come with it and also seem to carry a sharper edge to the feeling of hunger.
we also took care to eat decent amounts of fiber to keep our systems moving (another reason to avoid refined sugar) and shat well the entire time – much more important than some people realize.
to do it again i will change these things:
1) scrape more refined sugar out of the daily intake, possibly making custom bars. keep a small amount of complex sugar snacks for when needed
2) more fat in the forms of mozzarella, cream cheese and salami
3) less coconut oil and whats carried take in a better container for the cold – it freezes too hard
4) more bread – it survives better than we expected and combined with cream cheese and salami is a better breakfast than muesli alone
5) more insulated water bottles and a larger pot to melt more snow more efficiently
>>>this information violates just about every warning issued by stove manufacturers, tent manufacturers and compressed gas manufacturers. we know that. we also feel that if you have the wherewithal to climb hard, cold routes you also have the wherewithal to manage other dangers. proceed at your own risk<<<
there isnt really a cold-specific stove out there. companies will say there is, and lots of stoves will burn in the cold, but set into the demands of high, cold climbing none tick all the boxes. its not enough for a stove to just burn at low temperatures and/or high altitude, it has to function for the realities of climbing which means inside a tent, being powerful, being as fuel and heat efficient as possible, being safe, being light weight, being tough and actually being able to cook – not just boil water. as yet nothing offered by the makers of stove systems does all that.
liquid stoves solve much of the power and low temperature issue. and thats it. they are heavy, dangerously cumbersome, suicidaly fire-hazardous and offer you a world of mishaps with toxic fuel. in a storm-bound tent they may melt water fast but compromise the tent as an environment of shelter. even the innovative design from Soto, that flares less, is still lacking. good in large base tents or snow shelters, taking one into a portaledge or single-skin on a chopped slope raises more problems than it solves.
canister stoves have come a long way in the last decade but still dont nail all the factors, tho they do come closer. the canisters can be inefficient in the cold, they can lack power, most lack the flame variability to really cook and some – most famously the Reactor – produce dubious levels of carbon monoxide. lighter and more compact they lend themselves better to cold climbing, but when it comes to turning ice and dehydrated matter into nutrients they lack the power.
winter after winter we had suffered the limitations of several different stoves, including Reactors, Jetboils, XKGs, Mukas, Whisperlites, Pocket Rockets and weird things from Snowpeak. not everything, but enough to see the problems were everywhere. so we sat down and made a list of the things needed and simply decided to hack it together ourselves. the lists were (based on things were had seen fail or succeed over the years):
safe. no flaring, no spillable fuel, safe levels of CO emission, low center of gravity
powerful. enough Kcal/h output to really melt snow
variable. we want to really cook as nutrition demands it
wind resistant. for obvious reasons
packable. light, compact, damage-resistant and easy to use
functional. hangable, canisters manageable in the cold, reliable to light, stable on the ground.
efficient. drain as much liquid gas from the canister as possible, burn as much of the available expressed gas, capture as much heat as possible
reliable. no flimsy bits, no complex components, no special ignition, few moving parts, adaptable to other pots
what wasnt on the list was;
expense. as a tier one bit of gear that lives depend on we will pay what it takes
gimmicks. after seeing all the little add-on bits of junk either fail or get lost we ignored them
brand loyalty. we figure if the big players can fill the gap then theres the right to go cowboy.
‘integrated’ designs. this stove would go round the world – it needed to work with whatever bits were available.
some factors were obvious;
the pot is half the issue. no matter how good the stove you need to an equal pot to harness it – it may well be a good pot does better with a bad stove than vice versa
‘remote canister’ stoves are the only real solution. they have the low center of gravity, canister manageability and damage-resistance. liquid stoves are bulky, toxic, complex and fiddly.
efficiency demands a preheating tube combined with a flux ring / exchanger system. not many canister rigs have this.
durability = simplicity. clunky, basic designs last longer – most systems fail due to damaging complex parts
enter the FRANKEN-STOVE (Mk I).
and this was the result, as tested over +50 winter days/nights, trying expeditions to altitude, a dozen fuel choices, the rigors of logistics and travel. elegantly simple, we used minimal skill and tools to build what far out-shines any other system. it cost – all up it could go at nearly $300 if you bought all the bits new – but if you measure value by performance its worth 10 x that.
the Frankenstove happily melting snow for 2 people at 4900m.
we took a Primus Eta Spider stove because it has the best Kcal/h output-to-least CO output available. this stove is so low-CO it makes Jetboil look dirty and the Reactor look like nerve gas. aside from that it sits low with a wide pot base, and has a remote canister to milk more gas. we usually have it hanging so the canister either sits under in in an inverted helmet, or by using a magnetic hook dangles from the bottom of the rig.
as a pot we (after lots of testing) scavenged an MSR Reactor pot. its heavy but the flux system is efficient, the clear lid fits well and allows a view of the water, and the long handle makes it good for scooping snow. its also strong and a decent profile being relatively wide at the base.
what makes it all pull together tho is our home-rigged wind shield/reflector that keeps so much heat from bleeding away you can put your hands right around it (ie same efficiency as a Jetboil) but allows access for lighting (unlike the Reactor/Windburner). this we made from a titanium UL cup-bowl thing, chopped a slot into it and punched a few vents holes. we sized it magically to fit perfectly inside the 3 pot stands and it slots in/out nicely. again, dozens of tests have shown it works. as an excellent touch, being titanium, it cools fast.
to hang the rig we bought, cut and swaged some thin cable, stuck one of those silly ‘S’ shaped novelty biners on the top and a tiny biner on each end that clips to the 3 stands of the stove. it balances well, but mishaps can happen especially in a tent being nailed hard by wind, so we string a bit of shock cord around it. the S biner was chosen because the top clips to the tent/branch/belay and the bottom clips to both the stove and assorted paraphernalia like igniters, spoons, knives, cups etc. its a little thing that goes a loooong way to making confined and dodgy living spaces manageable.
the Bialetti test: if it doesnt take a moka pot its not even in the running – a major Reactor fail.
to top it all off we use the Primus igniter thing thats long so you dont need to take the pot away to light – tho we have found every Piezo lighter to fail above 4100m for some reason.
it’s stable enough to take any pot you want, including the new collapsible silicone ones (tho the large size distorts a bit) AND vitally, it handles a Bialetti coffee espresso pot. we have cooked tagiatelli, laksa and chinese noodles in it perfectly, no damage to the pot and no cleaning/burning issues. despite digging snow with the pot there is no damage that affects its cooking. over the year of trialing it would have melted literally hundreds of liters of snow and ice.
it’s not perfect tho.
what failed was, unlike a Jetboil, Windburner or several other designs, it doesnt clip together. that would be nice. and with that it’s not holdable like a jetboil, so balancing the thing on your knee would be very sketchy. the other side of that issue is its the clip-together element that limits the other pots that can be used – either nothing will fit, the adapters are crap or the area to fit a pot is too small
stable on frozen, pebbly ground with a Tibetan wind blowing
and if you like that wait till you see Mk II. being tested now, early vectors point at being a remarkable 35% better across the board (power, efficiency, weight, function). stay tuned.
finally Chimpanzee bars have arrived.
in the world of energy bars its hard to stand out, with most bars following the McClif Bar model and just rehashing the same old stuff. but Chimpanze bars take a different approach, producing a less tiresome, more multiday friendly nutrition source. not all that sweet, with a high raw and fibre content, Chimpanzee bars dont clog the system as much as more procesed bars. the flavours are bit left of center (beetroot? surprisingly good) perhaps reflecting their Czech origins and the protein content is really good.