The gear in action on Northside of Everest, 2016
Some people want the details on gear and some people don't give a $#%T. So if you fall into the latter category, stop here. Otherwise, we're getting into the nuts and bolts of what it takes to actually make this expedition possible for a 21st century human.
This is one you don't want to forget. Unless you've been training for months or years to summit without supplemental oxygen, this is the one thing that will get you to the top and back in one piece. Oxygen keeps your brain, internal organs and muscles firing properly and helps the body to generate heat. Oxygen makes everything easier, from developing appetite to climbing to thinking. Without supplemental oxygen at these extreme altitudes, it's much easier to get cold injuries, like frostbite, and hypothermia.
Supplemental oxygen gear includes a mask, regulator and pressurized oxygen bottles. Each bottle holds 4L of oxygen pressurized at 300bar or so. We climb on a flow rate of 4L/min, which gives us 4 hours from a full tank. During the summit push, we sleep on oxygen at 1L/min, which is sufficient while we're at rest, and tanks last around 16 hours. The amount of oxygen needed for the climb is carefully calculated and oxygen tanks are carried up the mountain and cached at each camp by our climbing Sherpa. Western climbers use 8 bottles while Sherpa, who have evolved to excel at altitude, require around half the oxygen.
Masks are similar to chemical respirators. They have a reservoir, an intake and an outlet. O2 flows into the reservoir where it is stored until needed. When a climber inhales, ambient air is drawn in through the intake and mixed with pure oxygen from the reservoir. Exhaled air is pushed out of a one-way valve on the outlet.
photo: Oxygen Apparatus: Regulator, O2 Bottle, and O2 Mask by Summit Oxygen
The Down Suit is the piece of gear that allows humans to stay warm enough to survive in the world's most inhospitably cold environment. It is a down parka meets "one-zee": a sleeping bag with arms and legs.
Apart from being an incredible fashion statement, the down suit is a high tech insulation layer that adapts to its environment. At extreme altitude, temperatures can change from freezing cold to sweltering hot in the drop of a dime. Many suits, including the Eddie Bauer Down Suit that I use, have features to account for the mountain's temperamental thermostat. Full side zips on the legs make it easy to get the suit on and off and allow for venting while climbing. An internal set of suspenders allows the wearer to take the upper half off and tie the arms around her waist. A large rainbow zipper across the butt makes it easy to answer when nature calls. The flap left behind (no pun intended) has a handle to help avoid the ultimate 8000 meter faux pas: pooping in your down suit. Sounds like an easy one to avoid, but with all that lofty down, it can be hard to see what's happening in the wag bag department.
photo: Mingma headed down from Camp 3 back to North Col with a huge load, Marmot Down Suit
La Sportiva Olympus Mons 8000m Boots in action on the fixed lines below North Col.
These are the ultimate in extreme-cold climbing footwear. Designers have tweaked every detail down to the compound of the sole to keep feet warm on summit day. Also known as triple boots, 8000-meter boots have a liner boot, a warm outer boot and an integrated "super-gaiter." The liners are a lightweight booty designed to function as a camp shoe as well as a warm liner. The outer boot is a thick, well-insulated boot, often substituting a light foam out-sole for the typical rubber one to add R-value and decrease weight. The theory is that, most of the time, the boot will be used on soft snow or with a crampon, so it is unnecessary to have a heavy, durable rubber sole. The super-gaiter adds insulation and protects the fragile fabric of the down suit while climbing with crampons. I love my La Sportiva Olympus Mons, which is probably the most popular 8000m boot. Like all footwear, it's more about the fit than features and there are four or five great options out there if you can't cram your foot into a Sportiva.
OK, I hear you already: "Boooooo-ring...” They might not seem like the most glamorous piece of gear, but high quality socks are a huge part of keeping your toes on extremely cold climbs. For high expedition climbing like Everest or Denali, I keep a pair of socks fresh for summit day. I have four other pair I can wear on alternate days and wash while on the mountain. High stitch count, Merino wool blends are what I prefer. Darn Tough socks (pictured above) are the best, 1340 stiches per inch, and they're made in my home state of Vermont.
On summit day, I pair my Darn Tough's with a high tech, heated option made by Lenz. They are battery powered and perform similarly to Hot Tronics. They're expensive, but it's a nice bit of additional insurance to prevent frostbite.
Just like socks, having a high quality set of gloves can literally make or break this climb. I bring four sets of gloves. A lightweight set for use on hot days, while hiking or handling ropes. My favorite is the Outdoor Research Lodestar (pictured on left): expensive, but incredible dexterous after breaking in. The Mountain Hardwear Fireball (pictured on right) is my mid weight, do-everything glove. It's moderately insulated so I can keep my hands warm while handling ropes and ascenders, descending with arm wraps, opening backpacks or using my smartphone. When the temps get too cold for the mid weights, I change to my heavyweight gloves. The Black Diamond Guide Glove used to be a useless item with a horrible fit, poor dexterity and no redeeming value of warmth. After a recent redesign, I've found it to be one of the better performers on all these fronts for this category. Lastly, if the heavy gloves don't cut it, I have the "oh-shit-kit": the Outdoor Research Alti Mitt. The big, clunky, in-case-of-emergency mitten. Always comes with, "hope to not use it!"
Crampons are used every inch of the way from crampon point at 6,500m to the summit at 8,848m. They take a beating, digging into miles of snow, ice and rock so they have to be high-quality steel with 12 points. I find the Black Diamond Sabertooth Pro to be a good option. They're sturdy, but fairly light for a 12 point steel crampon. I prefer the fully automatic style with a metal toe bail and lever-lock heel because they're quick to get on and provide a solid interface with my boots.
Harness and Ascender
A Sherpa team throwing peace signs and showing off their ascenders
These are the two tools that keep us anchored to the mountain throughout the climb. Everest has miles of fixed line and miles of places where one could fall thousands of feet if not clipped to the rope.
An ascender (also known as a Jumar) is a camming device that grips the sheath of the fixed rope with a set of sharp teeth. Once the ascender is on the rope, the spring-loaded teeth automatically set into the sheath and grip when the ascender is pulled. When pushed, the ascender's teeth disengage and the device slides up the rope. This provides a point of balance for a climber as he moves up moderate terrain using mostly the power of his legs. On steeper terrain, the climber can pull directly on the ascender and lift himself on the rope while he moves his legs up.
The harness goes around the climber’s legs and waist and is where the ascender is attached to the climber. The key feature for a harness on a climb like this is it must be easy to get on and be lightweight. My preference is the Mammut Zephyr Altitude. It weighs less than 8oz and is easy to put on before or after I have my boots and crampons on.
The unsung hero of high altitude climbing, the pee bottle is an essential item. Nalgene makes a collapsible "Cantene" that holds 96oz of whatever liquid you want and it makes for a perfect midnight urinal. As the body adjusts to altitude, a byproduct is urine production, so climbers pee much more than normal as they gain elevation. The last thing you want to be doing at 8300m is crawling out of your tent three times on summit night to relieve your bladder. Women can take advantage of this system too, using skills beyond my comprehension, or a product called a She-Wee.
Sun Glasses and Goggles
Solar radiation is intense at high altitude and vision is paramount for climbing well. I love the Julbo photochromic lens system and find that they perform well in a range of lighting. Typically I take three sets of photochromic eyewear: one light lens sunglass (Julbo Dirt with Zebra lens) and one dark lens sunglass (Julbo Stunt with Camel lens) and an all-purpose goggle (Julbo Universe with Zebra lens). This keeps my eyes protected in all conditions from low light storms with nasty wind and blowing snow to intensely bright clear days.
First Aid Kit with High Altitude Drugs
We're a long way from help when we climb above 8000m. I bring a first aid kit that balances being prepared to deal with a serious injury with minimizing weight. Essential items included are a trauma/bleed kit, high altitude drugs and miscellaneous drugs.
The bleed kit is basic: band aids, a few sterile dressings, compression bandage, irrigation solution, steristrips, antibiotic cream, eye drops and a roll of medical tape.
For miscellaneous drugs I carry: Ondem anti-nausea, Zpack course of antibiotics, Tramadol for pain, Loperamide (Imodium) for unexpected diarrhea and for use on summit day (you don't want to drop your down suit mid climb!), Ibuprofen, Aspirin for heart issues, Tylenol (paracetemol).
High Altitude drugs include: injectable dexamethasone with two 24gauge syringes, oral dexamethasone, viagra (vasodilator helps with High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) and diamox.
We're packing as light as possible on Everest, so here's an image of most of the gear in one place: