Alpine Pack Review – No 230 – April 2004
Arc’teryx Needle 65
Black Diamond Shadow 55
Cold Cold World Chernobyl
Granite Gear Alpine Light
Lowe Alpine Mountain Attack 50
Marmot Alpinist 55
MontBell Lightweight Alpine Pack 60
REI Talus 50
Vaude Expedition Rock 50
Wild Things Ice Sac
The finest mountaineering pack in the world doesn’t even belong to a climber. Of course, this wasn’t always the case. The Greatest Alpine Pack Ever once lived out its days neatly swallowing ropes, cams, and other bulky alpine paraphernalia and ferrying them to the bases of shadowed mountain gullies and thrusting ridges. There, after disgorging these items, the magic sack would collapse to a fraction of its previous dimensions to cleanly convey the few remaining alpine essentials up steep rock and ice. And always, regardless of the angle or terrain, it hugged my back securely without being an impediment, like the welcome and familiar embrace of a lover. Until one fateful day, en route between French granite and English grit, when I made the critical mistake of bivying on the street in a particularly unsavory district of Paris. Today, the Mother of All Packs is owned by an opportunistic French thief, who doubtlessly finds it a brilliant piece of luggage for muling cases of contraband Bordeaux or hustling purloined masterpieces out of the Musée d’Orsay.
The reason I can say without reservation that this particular pack was the best ever made is simple: I designed it myself. A good climbing pack should fit and function like an extension of the body; it should mate with the shoulders rather than grapple rudely; it should nestle the spine like an extra lumbar — not lumber. And after being Heimliched and full-nelsoned nearly to death by the various commercial offerings that, at the time, were largely multi purpose, featured only minimal adjustments, and were really the only options available, I was determined I could do better. I sacrificed endless hours, along with my mother’s sewing machine (which evidently was never intended for bar-tacking two layers of heavy Cordura sandwiched around seatbelt webbing), but in the end, I had a climbing pack that rode like back-butter and sported every feature my heart desired. I still grieve its loss: the way it slipped through my fingers is something I think about whenever I close my eyes in the mountains — or Paris.
And yet I never made another. Partly because there can only be one Great Pyramid, but mostly because by the time I needed a replacement, the market was evolving, climbing was an expanding niche, and the manufacturers could justify taxing their own sewing equipment turning out packs that were more specialized and custom fitting. Today, there are alpine packs aplenty from which to choose, and only a lunatic (or a designer) would invest the time and effort required to tailor-make a pack to his or her personal specifications. But the goal is finding one that feels and performs like it was. And lest the modern climber think that choosing a suitable mountain pack is as easy as bellying up to the dessert trolley and grabbing a plate, heed the warning of someone with considerable experience in these matters and beware the pitfalls of excess. Having so many models, sizes, and options to choose from is great, but it can also lead to bewilderment, overindulgence — even regret.
Never fear, however — we’ve got your back. To ease the burden of finding your Greatest Alpine Pack Ever, we’ve scrutinized the newest generation of high-tech rucksacks, assembled a choice selection, and field-tested the lot on a variety of torsos and on terrain ranging from long marches to vertical rock and ice. Here’s how we culled the pack(s).
Capacity and weight. “A good size is 21 inches wide and 21 inches deep, the bottom and side walls 4 inches wide, as this gives a flatter sack. Two outside pockets with flap and button — the carrying straps of woolen webbing 1-1/2 inches wide — the whole made of waterproof sailcloth with a flap.” So wrote the Englishman Geoffrey Winthrop Young in Mountain Craft (1920), the original alpine how-to manual. Except for his generous allowance for width (a curious bit of advice during an era when tight chimneys were all the rage), Young’s dimensions for a climber’s rucksack are still a decent template. Large expedition packs may be the ticket for humping the kitchen sink on extended trips, and smaller packs are perfectly suited to toting a raincoat and water bottle up day climbs, but for streamlined climbing performance on snow, ice, and rock while carrying a night or two’s worth of bare essentials, a capacity between 3000 and 3800 cubic inches is key. There is always a temptation to go with a slightly larger pack with the justification that it can be compressed. Just remember, if you have the extra room, you will use it — guaranteed. But no cushy belay or bivouac, no matter how decadently outfitted, will balance the suffering endured and the energy thrown to the wind from hauling too much weight. How much is too much? That’s open to individual interpretation, but keep in mind that the fastest and most successful alpinists embrace fanatical minimalism.
For the same reasons, the weight of the pack itself is another important consideration. When mere ounces matter, the fact that you’ll save over a pound choosing one pack over another (18 ounces was the variation within our survey) must factor into the
decision. Of course, there’s often a tradeoff; lighter-weight materials may or may not be as durable as those used to construct a beefier pack. Also, the lack of an internal suspension system might shave ounces, but make certain it’s not at the expense of comfort and stability. For the purposes of our review, we rejected any packs weighing over four pounds (two and a half kilograms).
Suspension and comfort. An army may march on its stomach, but it carries its load on its back. Like other military innovations subsequently adapted by climbers (e.g., nylon ropes, Vibram soles, synthetic fabrics), the evolution of packs has marched in step with the tackle of war. An early photograph of Edward Whymper, who ushered in the Golden Age of alpinism with his 1865 ascent of the Matterhorn, shows him posed in a haversack, a small kit bag supported by a single shoulder strap that predates the Roman legions. In the early twentieth century, as the individual soldier’s field gear grew in sophistication and weight, dual-shoulder-strap packs were supplemented by wooden packboards that offered greater stability and comfort with heavier loads. It wasn’t long before alpine specialty shops in Europe begin marketing “a very light frame which goes between the back and the sack.” In 1952, when the late Dick Kelty introduced his revolutionary waist belt (along with a nylon packbag and external aluminum frame), it was the refinement of an idea used by the Norwegian infantry.
Today, however, many army packs have borrowed a page from the alpinists in the form of an internal frame — an idea first engineered in 1967 by Greg Lowe. By incorporating a pair of aluminum stays within the sack, Lowe melded the best of two worlds and created a pack that was practical for hiking and climbing. Although the current crop of alpine packs utilizes everything from straight to Y-shaped stays to contoured plastic sheets, the goal is the same: support without bulk and placed nearer to the body’s center of gravity. In addition, many of these components have the option of being removed for climbing to further reduce weight and bulk. Once again, however, the voice of the mountain minimalist cries out to be heard: If the application is strictly alpine, don’t be seduced merely by the promise of a suspension system designed for heavy loads. The approach hike is an important consideration, but several of the packs we tested had no rigid components whatsoever in their suspensions, and were still able to handle up to 35 pounds of gear quite comfortably.
If there is one overarching consideration for choosing an alpine pack it is that the suspension should conform to the body like a skin graft. There’s enough discomfort in the mountains without chafed shoulders and bruised kidneys, and there’s enough challenge trying to stay in balance on an icy pitch without a slumping pack flopping side to side. Some suspensions are available in various sizes, but most have very limited adjustability (much less than on a typical expedition pack), and so fit is notoriously hit or miss. We tested these packs on men and women, large and small, and came to some solid conclusions, but blindly purchasing a pack without first loading it up the way you will use it, tweaking the fit to your frame, and moving around with it the way you move is cruisin’ for a bruisin’, literally. Pay heed to any hotspots, rough seams, or stiff edges on the hipbelt and shoulder straps. See how stable the pack rides even without the hipbelt (some alpinists prefer to climb with the hipbelt unbuckled or removed so they can turtle up under the pack in the event of rockfall). Finally, take a good look at the zippers and buckles. Small or complex closures and fasteners can be a bear to operate with gloves on, and stripping down to bare hands is annoying and a good way to drop a glove.
Features. Assessing the value of an alpine pack’s various bells and whistles is hit and miss. Bivouac enthusiasts may insist upon a removable foam pad and a generous sack extension. Things like daisy chains, a hipbelt racking system, or a pouch for a hydration bladder can add greatly to a pack’s appeal, but the alpine purist may reject some or all on the grounds that they add frivolous co plexity and weight. In general, a good alpine design should address the needs of the climber without going overboard. No alpine pack should be without the following features.
Compression straps. In backpack mode, an alpine pack will likely be stuffed to the gills. That’s when compression straps with Fastex buckles are handy for exterior lashing of bulky items like a rope or a foam pad. Later, as the climbing gear is emptied out and the sack deflates, compression straps will trim up the pack’s profile. Some packs feature three compression straps per side while others make do with only two. Your emphasis should be on finding a system that collapses cleanly and without fuss.
Tool and crampon attachments. Since ice tools are carried on the pack’s exterior, the attachment scheme must be straightforward and bombproof. Two methods are popular, the first being the time-honored loop and lash. This option is basic and solid, as long as the lash point doesn’t loosen or stretch (if the manufacturer has used bungee cord, it can do both). An even easier, very secure system uses integrated tool tubes. The tender underbelly here is the Fastex retaining buckle that keeps the tool holstered in the tube; if it’s mashed or broken there may be no easy fix — especially in the field. All the tubes we tested were roomy enough to accept curved shafts, but if you’re sporting something really radical or leashless, try before you buy. The crampon attachment systems range from bungee cords (easy to rig, but less secure) to straps (very secure, unless mounted on the pack lid, where constant readjustment as you remove or stow bulky items will be necessary).
Lids. A pack lid serves a dual role, first as a compartment for stowing small, important items like sunglasses and chocolate bars. As with the main pack bag itself, a lid with a brightly colored interior makes it easier to locate specific items quickly. Second, the lid functions as a storm flap that caps the main sack. All packs tested feature floating lids that adjust to accommodate brimming (or bursting) loads. But in climbing mode, some sort of attachment system (Velcro is simple and effective) is desirable to anchor the hinge to the main pack and keep it from flopping forward every time you open the pack. Most important, a lid must be designed with generous head clearance; smacking your helmet up against the pack lid every time you crane to scope the route ahead will kink your neck and dent your chocolate.