Review: Gear For Climbing Mount Whitney
By Michael Lanza
For our spring ascent of the Mountaineers Route on California’s 14,505-foot Mount Whitney—highest peak in the Lower 48—my 15-year-old son (in lead photo, above, approaching our high camp below Whitney’s East Face) and I used technical gear that you would use on many classic snow and glacier routes up peaks from Cascade Range volcanoes like Shasta, Hood, and Rainier to Mount Olympus, the Tetons, and the Alps. Here are my from-the-mountain observations about the gear that got us up and down Whitney, including backpacks, a mountaineering tent and boots, climbing hardware, super warm sleeping systems, and technical apparel.
I’ll post complete individual reviews of many of the items below later at The Big Outside, and link to those reviews from this story.
The Jansport Tahoma backpack ($310, 70L/4,270 c.i., 4 lbs. 11 oz.) is built not just for climbing, but also for comfort while backpacking many miles to and from the mountain. With a plastic framesheet and two aluminum stays, plus thick, dual-density padding in the hipbelt and shoulder straps, it can handle at least 40 pounds (my son carried about 25 pounds, which is a quarter of his body weight). But thanks to the two horizontal compression straps on each side and across the front, and the pack weighing well under five pounds, it’s a reasonable size for doubling as a summit pack from high camp; plus, the removable hipbelt and dual-pocket lid let you drop some weight and bulk.
The shoulder straps are adjustable for torso length and shoulder width. Besides a dedicated, hypalon-lined front crampon pocket, the pack’s carrying system secures two ice axes, trekking poles, snowshoes, and pickets and wands in the side straps and pockets. The hipbelt sports a rubberized gear loop on each side, and the nearly waterproof pack fabric could take a bullet.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a Jansport Tahoma backpack at backcountry.com.
Call the Mountain Hardwear South Col 70 OutDry backpack ($300, 70L/4,270 c.i., 3 lbs. 13 oz. S/M, two sizes) the Transformer of climbing packs. Its minimalist weight, modularity, and feature set are ideal for multi-day mountain climbs. I carried it with over 40 pounds inside on our Whitney adventure, and used it as Nate’s and my summit pack on a nine-hour day from our 12,000-foot high camp. The OutDry membrane makes the main compartment completely waterproof; no moisture got inside, despite being repeatedly dropped in wet snow. The featherweight framesheet and wire perimeter stay, plus the hipbelt and lid pocket are all removable, letting you strip it down for a summit push. (The pack comes with a webbing belt to substitute for the hipbelt.)
It has all the features you’d need: tool attachments; a spacious, zippered front pocket and lid pocket; side pockets for pickets and wands; and loops for carrying skis. The extra-long, dual compression straps on each side wrap around to shrink the pack or attach oversized gear like snowshoes. X-Ply Ripstop fabric in the crampon pocket and front panel withstand the sharpest crampon points, and the 400-denier HD nylon fabric in the body and 840-denier HT ballistic nylon bottom are also bombproof. The tradeoff for the pack’s low weight, though, is less support and padding in the hipbelt for carrying loads over 40 pounds.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a Mountain Hardwear South Col 70 OutDry backpack at backcountry.com.
Even with a forecast of four days of sunshine on our Mount Whitney climb, I knew we’d encounter winds that will test any tent, especially for two nights at our high camp at 12,000 feet. But I didn’t want to haul a heavy shelter. The Big Agnes Battle Mountain 2 mountaineering tent ($700, 7 lbs.) solved our problem. With lightweight but strong, DAC NSL hubbed pole plus two other poles supporting the tent canopy, the Battle Mountain shrugged off strong gusts. And we compromised little on living space: The pole structure lifts the walls outward, creating great headroom all around and a 42-inch peak height, making the interior feel even roomier than its 31.5 square feet.
Doors and vestibules at each end give options for exiting and entering when the wind shifts direction, and the 13.5 square feet of vestibule area easily stores boots and provides cooking space. Even on calm, cold nights, we got no condensation inside, thanks to rainfly vents paired with large, zippered wall vents, and doors with half-moon nylon solid panels that unzip to mesh. Materials are lightweight but not flimsy, including a Cordura ripstop nylon rainfly and floor, both with a 1200mm waterproof polyurethane (PU) coating and solvent-free, waterproof PU tape.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a Big Agnes Battle Mountain 2 mountaineering tent at backcountry.com.
In big mountains, spring is still winter: You need a warm sleeping bag and a pad or air mattress with enough insulation for sleeping on snow or frozen ground. (With pads and air mats, look for an R-value rating over 5.) For three mid-April nights of temps as low as the teens at Mount Whitney, including two nights at our high camp at 12,000 feet, my son and I took turns using these two 0-degree, down sleeping bags and the two air mats reviewed below. He and I also swapped these bags and air mats during three mid-February nights of tent camping in Idaho’s Boise Mountains, with unusually mild lows ranging from just below freezing to the mid-thirties.
The Feathered Friends Snowbunting EX 0 ($599, 2 lbs. 12 oz. regular, two sizes, featheredfriends.com) is possibly the warmest bag I’ve ever slithered into, period—remarkable, considering its low weight and bulk. Packed with 25 ounces (in the regular) of some of the highest-quality down feathers you can get, rated at 850-fill power, this mummy’s so toasty that I opened the zipper a bit on nights in the teens; I sleep warm, and I’m sure this bag would keep me warm at 0° F. The well-insulated hood is plush and adjusts from wide open to blowhole-tight—although it’s a bit on the shallow side when closed up, the only strike against this bag—while a fat collar and draft tube along the zipper shut out drafts. The Snowbunting’s trim dimensions (60x56x38 ins. for the regular) provide adequate space for average-size people. The waterproof-breathable Pertex Shield EX laminate shell fabric with a DWR (durable, water-repellent treatment) shakes off dripping condensation inside a tent or falling snow if you bed down outside, but breathes well enough that the bag never got clammy on milder nights.
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If you find many mummy-style bags too constricting, the semi-rectangular Big Agnes Storm King 0 bag ($380, 3 lbs. 9 oz. regular, two sizes) may be your dream come true. Its roomy dimensions (70x65x53 ins. for the regular) gave me plenty of space to sleep in more natural positions and get dressed inside it. Under the hood is 24.5 ounces (in the regular) of water-repellant, Downtek down feathers, which resist absorbing water and dry fast once wet, compensating for the non-waterproof shell. Like many Big Agnes bags, the Storm King lacks insulation on the bottom; it’s all on top, where it’s most functional (rather than getting flattened underneath you), and a mattress slides into a sleeve on the bag’s bottom to insulate you from the snow or frozen ground and prevent your bag sliding off your pad. The fat hood, collar, and draft tube along the non-snagging zipper keep warm air in and cold air out. While the 650-fill rating makes this bag bulkier and heavier than models with higher fill power down, it’s also less expensive, and the regular bag still compresses to a manageable 8×9 inches.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a Big Agnes Storm King 0 bag at backcountry.com.
Air mattresses for sleeping on snow or frozen ground have always been heavier and bulkier than three-season air mats, but not the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xtherm ($200, 15 oz. for the regular, two sizes). With the weight and size of some of the smallest three-season air mats—packing down to roughly the size of a liter bottle—it has an R-value of 5.7, making it a true four-season mattress with an unparalleled warmth-to-weight ratio. ThermaCapture Radiant Heat Technology uses reflective layers that bounce heat back to your body, and the Triangular Core Matrix construction traps air in dozens of tiny cells, restricting air circulation that conducts heat away from your body. The construction also creates baffles that make the air mat fairly stable, so you don’t bounce off its edges, and more comfortable than some other air mats that are two-and-a-half inches thick.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xtherm air mattress at backcountry.com.
You don’t see air mats made for the backcountry that are as thick at the Big Agnes Double Stuffed Double Z ($150, 1 lb. 8 oz. for the 20x72x4-inch mummy, three sizes). Filled with two layers of PrimaLoft Silver Hi-Loft synthetic insulation, with an R-value of 5.8, it proved more than equal to the challenge of insulating me from snow. The two-piece valve has separate inflation and deflation positions: It predictably takes a lot of breaths to blow it up, but it deflates in seconds. Although it certainly feels bouncier than thinner air mats, its edges are stable, so I didn’t find myself falling off the side when shifting around. One drawback: At 6×10 inches when packed, it’s bulky.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a Big Agnes Double Stuffed Double Z air mattress at backcountry.com.
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For four days of an approach hike, climb, and descent off Whitney, the new, remarkably lightweight La Sportiva Trango Cube GTX ($375, 3 lbs. 3 oz. men’s US 9/Euro 42) worked as well as a trekking boot as it did as a climbing boot, walking very comfortably for hours on trail and low-angle snow. This boot is all new-tech, with seamless, durable uppers made from waterproof, QB3 and Flex Tec2 fabrics and an injected-TPU lacing harness. The midsole is a blend of more-durable PU at the toe and heel and softer EVA in the mid-foot, with a TPU insert for the rigidity needed to hold a non-automatic, strap-on crampon (the boot lacks a toe welt). A full wrap-around rubber rand offers superb protection, while the Vibram One outsole, with its deep, widely spaced lugs and smoother tread under the toe for smearing, shed wet snow and gave me confident grip when scrambling steep rock ledges. The Gore-Tex lining kept my feet dry even through hot afternoons in soft, wet snow. It’s best for temps not much below freezing: My toes felt slightly cold for the first couple hours of summit day.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase the La Sportiva Trango Cube GTX mountaineering boots at backcountry.com.
Taller, burlier, and warmer than the Trango Cube GTX, the classic Scarpa Mont Blanc GTX mountaineering boots ($479, 4 lbs. 1 oz. men’s US 6.5/Euro 39) did the job for my son through four days of sunshine, periods of strong, cold wind, and cramponing on snow almost the entire time. The one-piece, siliconized, 3mm Italian leather uppers conform naturally to your feet, and are backed up by a waterproof-breathable Gore-Tex membrane plus Duratherm insulation. They kept my son’s feet mostly dry (his socks got damp with sweat) and warm, except for having cold toes for the first hour of our below-freezing dawn start on summit day. The TPU midsole—with a full shank, and thicker in the mid-foot but thinner at the toe and heel—delivers stability under a load as heavy as you probably want to carry. But these boots are comfortable walking for miles, thanks in part to the flexible upper collar, which gives the ankle a natural range of motion. Multi-directional lugs on the Vibram outsole gave excellent traction on firm or wet snow and dirt, and the boots have a toe welt as well as a heel welt, for use with crampons designed for more-technical climbing.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase the Scarpa Mont Blanc GTX mountaineering boots at backcountry.com.
For standard routes on Whitney, Shasta, Rainier, and other snow and glacier climbs where you’re using one axe and not getting into steep ice, non-automatic, strap-on crampons offer the versatility of fitting boots with a heel welt but not a toe welt. My son and I used these two excellent, 12-point models on Whitney.
The new Black Diamond Serac Clip crampons ($180, 1 lb. 14 oz. to 2 lbs.) come in three configurations, each compatible with a different type of mountain boot—covering the gamut of boots with or without a toe welt, and even non-technical footwear. I used the Clip version for boots that lack a toe welt (the La Sportiva Trango Cube GTX). The stainless steel construction is tough, and the anti-balling plate shed the sticky, wet snow that we encountered every afternoon of our four-day Whitney climb.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase the Black Diamond Serac Clip crampons at backcountry.com.
The Petzl Sarken Leverlock U crampons ($200, 1 lb. 15 oz. to 2 lbs.) have a rigid frame and razor points that penetrate hard ice and bite securely into firm snow, while getting solid purchase in soft snow. The Leverlock binding comes with interchangeable components to fit the toe of any mountain boot, with or without a welt. The snow plate prevented soft snow from balling up underfoot.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase the Petzl Sarken Leverlock U crampons at rei.com.
For general mountaineering on snow or glaciers, you want a sturdy but basic piolet, and the Black Diamond Raven ice axe ($80, 1 lb., sizes 55-90cm) is a classic workhouse and a good value. (The photo above of our climbing team on Mount Whitney’s Mountaineers Route shows my son holding his Raven.) The aircraft aluminum shaft and stainless steel pick are indestructible and ready for duties from serving as an anchor on a crevasse rescue to saving your life self-arresting a slide, which the serrated pick handled effectively when we practiced self-arresting. The flat-topped head and hourglass shape at the top of the shaft feels comfortable to hold onto for long periods, and allows a grip that facilitates a natural transition into an arrest. Tip: You don’t really need an axe long enough to use like a trekking pole when climbing; just get a short one and save weight.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a Black Diamond Raven ice axe at backcountry.com.
Besides using it on Whitney, I’ve adopted the Petzl Adjama harness ($75, 14 oz.) as my primary harness for cragging and the gym. Designed for all-around rock and ice climbing and mountaineering, it has adjustable leg loops, a belt with balanced weight distribution around the waist for all-day comfort, and four sturdy gear loops. Plus, Petzl uses high-tenacity polyethylene at the tie-in points for added resistance to wear and tear from rope friction. The women’s version is the Luna ($75, 14 oz.).
The Black Diamond men’s Momentum harness ($55, 12 oz.), BD’s affordable, entry-level, all-disciplines harness, served my son well on Whitney and is his gym and crag harness. It has leg loops that adjust quickly and let Nate fit pants over long underwear on summit day, a comfortable waistbelt made of foam and two bands of webbing that distribute weight to eliminate pressure points, and four reinforced, semi-rigid gear loops. It comes in six sizes, including one (XS) even smaller than the small harness that fit my 100-pound son’s 28-inch waist. My daughter uses the women’s version, the Black Diamond Primrose harness ($55, 12 oz.) for gym and crag climbing; it comes in four sizes.
Insanely light, the Petzl Sirocco helmet ($130, 6 oz.) nonetheless delivers top-notch protection, thanks to one-piece construction using strong expanded polypropylene (EPP)—the same material used in car bumpers—which allowed Petzl to forego a hard outer shell. My son wore it for several hours on summit day on Whitney, with a thin beanie underneath, and found it has enough padding to remain comfortable all day. Two easily adjustable sizes fit a range of noggins. With a magnetized chinstrap to clip one-handed, headlamp clips, and 360 degrees of ventilation (everywhere but on top), it crosses over from mountaineering and ice climbing to rock climbing on warm days.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a Petzl Sirocco helmet at backcountry.com.
The Black Diamond Vector Helmet ($100, 9 oz.) has a polycarbonate shell and EPS foam inside to guard your skull against falling rocks and ice, but it’s still light enough for warm-weather rock climbing, and wide vents on the front, sides, and back provide excellent air flow. Clips hold a headlamp securely, and the ratcheting adjustment system gave me a stable, comfortable fit for hours on Whitney (much more comfortable than I ever found BD’s Half Dome to be). Plus, the adjustment system tucks inside the helmet when storing in a pack. It comes in two sizes.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a men’s or women’s Black Diamond Vector Helmet at backcountry.com.
You might need snowshoes for the two-day approach hike to high camp for Mount Whitney (and the descent from there) and other peaks, and a versatile choice is the 22-inch MSR Lightning Explore Snowshoes ($260, 4 lbs./pair). The bindings adjust quickly and easily while wearing gloves, without having to take the snowshoes off, and are designed to keep the snowshoes tracking parallel, not turning toe-in or toe-out. The toe cleat and frame are outfitted with sharp teeth for biting into snow and ice, whether moving straight up or down or traversing a slope at an angle. Built for a combined body and pack weight of 180 pounds, they can be mated with the MSR Lightning Tails ($60, 9 oz./pair) to add five inches of length when you need extra flotation in deep powder or are carrying more weight (up to 250 pounds combined, body and pack). And when you don’t need that extra flotation, the tails pack away, preserving for you the maneuverability of shorter snowshoes.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase the 22-inch MSR Lightning Explore Snowshoes at backcountry.com.
Your choices of technical apparel and accessories make a big difference on a big mountain or in winter, spring, and fall, when cold temperatures and wind pose real challenges to comfort and safety. My son and I used the following items on Mount Whitney; look for complete reviews of them later at The Big Outside.
I expect a lot of a shell jacket in extreme conditions: total weather resistance, exceptional breathability, highly functional features, and modest weight. And I got that in the new Outdoor Research Realm Jacket ($279, 10 oz. men’s medium), which I wore quite a bit in cold wind on Whitney. OR’s AscentShell fabric combines excellent breathability—it moved moisture out nearly as fast as I produced it—with fully waterproof construction and very light, 20-denier ripstop fabric that has mechanical stretch. In lieu of pit zips, the underarm panels have some stretch for mobility that complements the jacket’s athletic fit. Features include an adjustable hood, two zippered front chest pockets, laminated and seam-taped construction, elasticized, adjustable cuffs, and an adjustable hem. The whole package weighs in at just 11 ounces and packs into one of its pockets.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase an Outdoor Research Realm Jacket at backcountry.com.
For climbing uphill in periods of strong, cold wind alternating with hot sun and dead air on Whitney, I needed a jacket with insulation and good breathability. Fortunately, I had it in the L.L. Bean Primaloft Mountain Pro Hoodie ($129, 1 lb. 6 oz. men’s medium-regular). A mesh-lined middle/outer layer, it has stretchy Primaloft Active Gold insulation in the front, back, and hood, for warmth while moving on the coldest days, and enhanced breathability in the fleece side panels and sleeves, so you don’t overheat. The adjustable hood stays put in wind, and the jacket has four spacious pockets: two zippered hand pockets and two deep, inside pockets that will dry extra gloves or hold climbing skins for backcountry skiing. Downside: It’s bulky and heavy.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase an L.L. Bean Primaloft Mountain Pro Hoodie at llbean.com.
While we carried waterproof-breathable shell pants in case of severe conditions, they stayed inside our packs. For four sunny, windy days ranging from freezing mornings to hot afternoons, we wore soft-shell pants that shed snow and light precipitation and breathe really well.
I lived in the Black Diamond BDV Pants ($189, 14 oz. men’s small) not only for four days on Whitney, but also on winter days of ski touring in Idaho’s Boise Mountains and throughout a two-day backpacking trip in Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains in early October. The Schoeller soft-shell fabric, treated with NanoSphere for water repellency and durability, repelled rain showers and wet snow while breathing so well I rarely felt even damp. The crotch gusset and articulated knees let me scramble steep rock ledges. They have an adjustable waistband that negates the need for a belt and sits flat under a harness, three pockets (two hand and one rear) with zippers, a thigh pocket with a hook-and-loop closure, a two-way fly zipper, and adjustable cuffs.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase the Black Diamond BDV Pants at backcountry.com.
Similarly, the Patagonia Simul Alpine Pants ($139, 11.5 oz. men’s size 28) served my son well on Whitney. The polyester stretch-woven fabric, with a DWR (durable, water-repellent treatment), breathes well and sheds light precipitation, and a stretchier fabric at the yoke and crotch gusset allow for a natural freedom of movement. The hand, right rear and billowed right-thigh pockets all have zippers. The adjustable cuffs are useful, but the on-the-go, OppoSet waist adjustment tends to slip out of position.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase the Patagonia Simul Alpine Pants at backcountry.com.
I get cold fingers very easily and like to employ a glove system in winter temps. On Whitney, I used these gloves:
For much of our four days on Whitney, the Arc’teryx Lithic Glove ($249, 7 oz. men’s medium) was on my hands. Lacking a removable inner glove, the Lithic stands out for having better dexterity than many gloves with this much warmth—good for fumbling with carabiners, buckles, and rope knots—thanks to Arc’teryx Tri-Dex technology’s three-lobe finger pattern and the use of minimal seams positioned out of the way. Water-repellent TPU laminated to the fingers and palms provides not only enhanced grip (thanks in part to the lamination), it doesn’t wet out, meaning you don’t get the kind of heat loss that can occur with wet leather. Two types of Gore-Tex technology and taped seams make the gloves absolutely waterproof—my hands stayed dry despite repeated contact with wet snow. The Lithic Glove uses three types of PrimaLoft insulation to balance warmth and dexterity. One demerit: The thin, removable wrist straps loosen too easily to keep the gloves secured to forearms.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase the Arc’teryx Lithic Glove at backcountry.com.
When I didn’t need a full-on winter glove during our four days at Whitney, but needed more warmth than provided by most liner gloves, I slipped my hands into the Outdoor Research PL 400 Sensor Gloves ($38, 2 oz. men’s medium). Made with stretchy, 300-weight fleece and a 100-weight fleece liner, they’re perfect as a single glove in temperatures from just above to below freezing, balancing good warmth with optimal dexterity for delicate tasks like firing up a stove. But you can also wear them under a warmer glove or mitten in colder temps. The fabric breathes really well, wicks sweat, and dries quickly, and they extend slightly beyond the wrist for better warmth. The forefinger and thumb are reliably touchscreen compatible, though you have to tap a little more deliberately than with bare hands.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase the Outdoor Research PL 400 Sensor Gloves at backcountry.com.
NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See all of my Gear Reviews at The Big Outside.
See also my stories:
“Training For a Big Hike or Mountain Climb”
“10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit”
“10 Smarter Ways to Think About Your Layering System”
“The Simple Equation of Ultralight Backpacking: Less Weight = More Fun”
“Buying Gear? Read This First”
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