Gear: Guide Picks

By January 5, 2020November 8th, 2020Articles, Gear Tips, Ice Climbing

Few aspects of mountaineering inspire as many questions as gear. Before every trip, our guests ask us what qualities to look for in individual items, and for specific purchasing recommendations. To help, we compiled this list of our guides’ top picks. We update it every season – sometimes adding the latest products, sometimes sticking with old standbys. When it comes to gear, the rabbit hole can feel bottomless. With our picks, we prioritize durability and versatility in the mountains.

For your convenience, we sell gear through our Guide Hut in Sedro-Woolley, Washington. Place your order via our online Gear Shop and pick up your purchases on the morning of your climb!

Ice Axe

For the vast majority of our expeditions, you’ll need a general-purpose mountaineering ice axe. These usually have a straight shaft between 55 and 75 centimeters, and a head with a pick and either an adze or a hammer. For most new climbers, an adze will be more useful than a hammer. Your ice axe should be the right length – long enough so you can use it for support while ascending, but not so long that it is cumbersome or unnecessarily heavy. When you hold the axe by the head with your arm relaxed at your side, the spike at the bottom of the shaft should dangle near the cuff of your boot. Be sure to read the manufacturer’s usage and sizing recommendations before purchasing.

For the past few years, our Guide Pick has been the Black Diamond Raven. The Raven has a simple, durable construction ideal for glaciated climbs. For slightly more challenging terrain, we suggest the Petzl Summit. Its slightly bent shaft is useful on short sections of ice and steep, firm snow.

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Crampons

We probably get more questions about crampons than any other piece of gear. For our complete rundown, take a look at our Crampon Guide. It’s critical that your crampons have the right straps to fit your boots. A step-in crampon with a wire toe bail will provide the most secure fit. If your boots don’t have toe and heel welts, you’ll need a model with straps instead. Be sure to buy 12-point crampons made of steel. Aluminum may be slightly lighter, but it doesn’t hold up when walking on rocks and ice.

Our Guide Pick is the Petzl Vasak. The Vasaks come with a variety of toe and heel attachments, allowing them to be used with many styles of boots. To learn more about mountaineering boots and crampon types and sizing, read our Boot Guide and Crampon Guide.

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Helmet

Protecting your head from falling objects is paramount in the mountains. Your helmet should be lightweight, comfortable, and able to withstand the normal wear and tear of travel. Pay attention to the size as well. Most helmets come in smaller and larger versions. Keep in mind that you may have to wear it over a warm hat or baseball cap.

We have always recommended the Petzl Boreo. The Boreo’s plastic exterior makes it slightly heavier than helmets with foam on the exterior, but it is durable, lightweight and effective.

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Harness

Most conventional rock climbing harness may be safely used for glacier mountaineering. However, they usually have features – such as extra padding and large gear loops – that aren’t ideal for long days walking on snow and ice. Rock climbing harnesses can also be hard to put on while wearing crampons. Several manufacturers make lightweight alpine climbing harnesses ideal for glaciated peaks. These harnesses come with leg loops that open fully, allowing you to put on your harness while standing in your crampons with both feet on the ground.

Our guides are big fans of the Petzl Altitude Harness. It’s lightweight, with a low profile that stays comfortable during long days, and it’s easy to put on while wearing gloves. It weighs only 150 grams!

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Buff

Buffs are small, lightweight, and an essential piece of clothing for mountaineering. The protect our heads and necks from wind, sun and cold. By breathing through them on long expeditions in high, dry, cold places such as the Andes and the Himalaya, we can help safeguard ourselves from upper respiratory infections.

Our guides wear our Mountain Gurus Honeycomb Buff by Himali. It’s available in blue or black and features our logo.

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Glacier Glasses

Why can’t I use my normal sunglasses? It’s a valid question, and we hear it all the time. Here’s the answer: Most sunglasses don’t provide enough protection for your eyes. While mountaineering, we spend many hours on extremely reflective snow and ice at high altitudes, where solar radiation is more intense. Most sunglasses fail to protect your peripheral vision or block enough of the UV spectrum. Glacier glasses with side shields and Category 4 lenses are essential for climbing, skiing, and other mountain sports.

For function, affordability and durability, our Guide Pick this year are the Julbo Montebianco and the Julbo Monterosa, depending on your face size. Julbo’s REACTIV lenses, which automatically adjust to the light, are handy but not essential.

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Headlamp

As with most climbing gear, there are many options on the market. When shopping around, make sure your headlamp has at least 300 lumens, a red light setting, and a dimmer to conserve power – and to avoid blinding your tent mate!

The Petzl Actik Headlamp has been the gold standard in lighting for many years.

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Base Layer Top

On your expedition, you will live in your base layer shirts. Make sure they are comfortable and suit your needs. Like all of your clothing, your base layers should be synthetic, not cotton. Long sleeves protect your arms from sun and abrasion. Hoods are very useful to protect your head and neck from the intense UV radiation we encounter at high elevations and in glaciated terrain.

Our guides almost exclusively wear the Black Diamond Alpenglow Hoody or Crag Hoody while in the field.

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Softshell Pants

Our guides live in softshell pants for more than 200 field days each year. In other words, this is an important piece of clothing. Good softshell pants should be durable, flexible, breathable and made of synthetic, water-resistant fabric. Look for reinforced material on the inner ankle where crampons often snag, and pockets that will be accessible while wearing a harness. Lightweight, zip-off style trekking pants may be comfortable while traveling and approaching base camp, but they usually can’t stand up to the rigors of mountaineering.

The Black Diamond Alpine Light pants are an excellent choice. Designed for both climbing and skiing, they’re lightweight, durable and packable, with reinforced inner ankles and spacious pockets.

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Hardshell Jacket

Hardshell clothing is indispensable in the mountains. On fair weather you may never need to take your hardshells out of your pack, but in rain, snow and wind, proper hardshell clothing can be the critical item that protects you from hypothermia and allows you to touch the summit.

Your hardshell jacket should be made of waterproof, windproof material such as GORE-TEX. Softshell fabrics such as schoeller are not sufficient. Your jacket should be a bit roomy, since you may need to wear it over other clothing layers. Choose one with a hood spacious enough for a helmet, and pockets that you can access while wearing a backpack and a climbing harness. Armpit zippers are useful for ventilation because waterproof fabrics do not breathe very well.

Our Guide Pick is the Himali Monsoon Hardshell.

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Hardshell Pants

Like a hardshell jacket, hardshell pants are a critical piece of gear. You won’t use them on every climb, but in inclement weather they provide crucial protection for your lower body.

As with a hardshell jacket, look for a waterproof, windproof material such as GORE-TEX. Your pants must have full side zippers from ankles to waist, which will allow you to put on your pants while wearing boots and crampons. Look for pockets accessible while wearing a climbing harness, and reinforced panels on the inner-ankles to protect your pants from your crampons.

Our Guide Pick hardshell pants are the Marmot Precip Full Zip Pants. They’re lightweight with full-length side zippers and available at a reasonable price.

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Softshell Jacket

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we climb through a very wide variety of temperatures and weather, requiring us to frequently adjust our layers. A high-quality softshell jacket is an essential part of that. Softshell jackets provide insulation and breathability, but they aren’t as weatherproof as hardshell jackets, or as warm as down jackets. In many situations, they are an excellent jacket to where while climbing.

Our Guide Pick softshell jacket is the Himali Annapurna Softshell Jacket or Himali Ascent Stretch Hoodie Softshell Jacket.

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Down Jacket

Layering is an essential part of mountaineering. On every expedition, you should bring a high quality jacket to keep you warm on the summit, in serious weather, and while hanging around camp.

Down jackets are the best option for this. They provide excellent warmth at relatively little weight. Many manufacturers provide “down fill power” ratings for their products. Be careful: this refers to the insulating power of the down itself. It doesn’t tell you how much down is actually in the jacket. A big down parka filled with a lot of low-power down will be warmer than a light down sweater filled with a little bit of high quality down. On our gear lists, the down jacket is our layer of last resort – the jacket that keeps us warm in the worst conditions the mountain can throw at us. So read the manufacturer’s description and make sure the jacket you’re buying is appropriate for your trip.

At Mountain Gurus and Northwest Alpine Guides, we use the Himali Altocumulus Down Jacket in our rental fleet and for our guide uniform. For higher, colder, international ascents and for winter climbs in the Pacific Northwest, we recommend the Himali Altitude Down Parka. Both of these jackets have great weight-to-warmth ratios. They’re filled with enough high-quality, 850-fill down to keep you warm on your way to the summit. HIMALI

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Softshell Gloves

Layering isn’t just important for your legs and torso, it’s important for your hands, too. You should bring lightweight gloves for warm weather, and heavy Gore-Tex gloves for snowy weather and cold, summit ascents. However, we often find ourselves climbing between those two extremes. This is where softshell gloves shine. Softshell gloves are our go-to hand protection most of the time we’re in the mountains. Look for a pair made of schoeller fabric with leather palms.

Black Diamond’s HeavyWeight and MidWeight Softshell Gloves are two of our favorite models.

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Backpack

On every mountain adventure, your backpack is your constant companion. Take the time to choose one that fits your body and fits your needs.

Most backpacks come with two size measurements: one for the pack’s capacity, and one for the size of the person wearing it. For example, a 65-liter pack may come in small, medium and large sizes. For most of our expeditions in the Pacific Northwest and abroad that require us to sleep in the backcountry, a 65- to 75-liter pack is essential. You must be able to carry your personal gear, plus a share of group gear. For trips that don’t involve camping, such as our rock climbing courses, you can use a pack with less volume.

Choose a pack with a waist belt in the right place to distribute some of the load onto your hips. Look for a detachable lid, easy ice axe attachment points, and padding that is sufficient but not too bulky or heavy. An external pouch for crampons can be useful, too. If you’re going to use your pack for ski mountaineering, look for ski attachment straps and reinforced side panels to protect your pack from sharp ski edges.

For many years, our guides and rental customers have relied on the Black Diamond Mission 75 Backpack for mountaineering expeditions. The Mission’s rugged, lightweight, simple design is hard to beat. If you’re looking for a lower volume pack for rock and alpine climbing trips that don’t involve camping, we recommend the versatile Black Diamond Speed 40 or 50.

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Trekking Poles

Trekking poles help us keep our balance while carrying a backpack on uneven terrain. They let us use our arms while we trek and climb, taking some of the load off our legs. Pole length is a matter of personal preference, but most people adjust their poles so their elbows are open at slightly more than a right angle while standing on level ground.

When choosing poles, look for a pair that easily adjusts to the length that is right for you. They should be lightweight, with interchangeable snow baskets, and comfortable hand grips and wrist straps. Poles that collapse to a short length can be particularly handy, since you will sometimes need to stow them on your backpack or in a duffel bag.

Our Guide Pick is the Black Diamond Trail Sport 3. They’re made of lightweight aluminum, and easily adjust to a wide range of lengths.

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Locking Carabiner

Choosing the right carabiner can be a challenge. There are many models on the market. No matter why you’re buying a carabiner, make sure it is designed specifically for climbing by a mainstream climbing manufacturer. Other carabiners may not be strong enough, and are not to be trusted. For most of our mountaineering expeditions you’ll need two, pear shaped, “HMS style,” locking carabiners. We’ll use these to connect you to the rope while we’re climbing as a rope team. For versatility, we recommend screw gate carabiners, but other locking mechanisms, such as a spring-loaded twist lock, are excellent, too.

Our guides recommend the Black Diamond Vapor Lock screw gate locking carabiner. The Vapor Lock is lightweight and large enough for harnesses with belay loops. If you’re using a harness without a belay loop, such as the Black Diamond Alpine Bod, we recommend larger locking carabiners such as the Black Diamond RockLock or Petzl William. Any of these locking carabiners can also be used for anchor construction during our rock and alpine climbing courses.

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Non-Locking Carabiner

Non-locking carabiners have many uses in the mountains, from building anchors, to setting up crevasse rescue systems and clipping protection. They should be lightweight and, critically, strong enough for climbing. D-shaped carabiners are appropriate for our climbs and courses. Wire gate models will save you some weight, and keylock designs are less prone to snagging while clipping.

Our Guide Picks are the Petzl Spirit and the Black Diamond Hot Wire. Both of these ‘biners are popular models that have stood the test of time. The Spirit features a keylock nose to prevent snagging, and the Hot Wire is particularly lightweight.

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Prussik Cord

Cord is an essential piece of every climber’s kit. On our climbs and courses, we use it to build anchors and to tie the hitches, knots and hauling systems we use to safely rappel, ascend ropes and rescue our partners from crevasses, among many other applications. Cord is lightweight, inexpensive, and indispensable.

There’s a great variety of cord on the market. Make sure the cord you buy is designed for climbing and can handle the forces you will generate. Companies such as New England Ropes, Maxim, Sterling and BlueWater all make excellent products. If you’re just starting out in the mountains, we recommend that you purchase 30 feet of nylon cord between 6 and 7 mm in diameter. Some companies offer narrower cord in the 5-6 mm range, made of extremely strong materials such as Technora and Dyneema. These “tech” cords are lightweight, but we don’t recommend them since they are also more expensive and may be difficult to cut with a knife in the mountains.

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First Aid Kit

All of our guides carry well-stocked first aid kits, but it’s important for you to carry your own small kit, too, with a few essential items for common problems such as blisters and minor scrapes, aches and pains. We encourage our guests to consult our guides before they begin treating a problem. Many people then prefer to work on their blisters or other issues in the comfort of their own tents. Your first aid kit should contain a basic blister kit with mole skin; band aids and antiseptic wipes, and a selection of over-the-counter painkillers. Athletic tape and tweezers can be useful. If you’re climbing internationally or at high altitudes, be sure to consult your doctor and our staff for additional recommendations.

It’s possible to assemble your own kit from scratch, but that’s usually more expensive. For trips shorter than a week, we recommend the Ultralight Watertight .3 Medical Kit from Adventure Medical Kits. For multi-week expeditions, consider bringing a slightly larger supply of the essentials, but remember that when it comes to your personal first aid kit, small and lightweight is the way to go!

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Water Bottles

Staying hydrated is crucial while climbing. We require all of our climbers to bring two, durable, wide-mouth water bottles with at least 1-liter capacity each. Your bottles should be plastic. Metal bottles provide less insulation and may freeze to your lips in cold temperatures. It may be tempting to buy a couple of single-use water bottles from a gas station while driving to the trailhead, but such bottles ultimately create headaches for you and your guides. Their small mouths make them difficult to fill, and they rarely survive even one trip in the mountains before disintegrating into trash.

You may choose to bring a hydration bladder in addition to your bottles, but bladders are not sufficient on their own, and we do not allow our climbers to rely on them on summit days. They pop easily and the hoses freeze in the cold.

For decades, the Nalgene 32oz Wide Mouth Bottle has been the standard. If your expedition will take you into very cold temperatures, we recommend insulators for your bottles, such as the Nalgene 32oz Sleeve.

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Cup, Bowl, Spoon

We take pride in the excellent meals that we serve on our expeditions, and we want you to bring a cup, bowl and spoon so that you enjoy them! As with most items in your backpack, your cup, bowl and spoon should be lightweight and packable.

Our Guide Picks are the GSI Outdoors Table Spoon, the GSI Outdoors Escape Collapsible Bowl, and the GSI infinity Backpacker Mug. If you’d like to save a few more grams, the GSI Escape Collapsible Mug is a lighter weight, uninsulated option.

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Sleeping Bag

When choosing a sleeping bag the most important consideration is the temperature rating. Bring one that’s not warm enough and you may shiver through the night. Bring one that’s too warm, and you’ll use up space in your backpack and carry useless weight. You’ll find sleeping bag temperature recommendations on the gear list each of our trips. Keep in mind that nighttime temps vary by season. If you climb Mount Baker in the early spring or fall you’ll need a warmer bag than in mid-summer. Some sleeping bag manufacturers include “comfort” and “survival” ratings for their bags. It’s best to use the comfort rating. Though you can always wear warm clothes while sleeping if necessary.

You’ll also have to decide between a bag filled with synthetic down or real goose down. Goose down is lighter and more packable, but loses more of its insulating power when wet. Synthetic down bags tend to be bulkier, but they’re less expensive and stay warmer when wet.

If you’re looking for a top-quality sleeping bag warm enough for expeditions to moderately high elevations abroad and early-season climbs in the Cascades, we recommend the Marmot Lithium 0° Fahrenheit bag. If you’re on a tighter budget, the Marmot Never Summer 0° provides similar warmth at a lower price. The Therm-A-Rest Questar 0° is another excellent, durable option at a reasonable price. For a lighter bag ideal for mid-summer climbs in the Pacific Northwest, consider the Marmot Never Winter 30°.

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Sleeping Pad

Mountaineering lore is filled with stories of forced bivies, with climbers huddling through the night using their backpacks or their ropes to insulate them from the ice and snow. Those nights make for great stories, but if you’ve ever experienced one, you’ll try your best to remember a pad in the future. Sleeping pads provide padding, but more importantly, they insulate us from the cold ground. Without a pad, even the thickest sleeping bag may not keep you warm enough. For trips when you won’t sleep on snow, one inflatable pad is usually sufficient. If you’re going to sleep on snow, bring a foam pad to put underneath your air mattress for extra insulation.

A wide variety of inflatable pads are on the market, from ultralight models that pack down to the size of a beer can to plush, super-insulating models. You should choose a pad somewhere in the middle: warm and durable, but also lightweight and packable. Our Guide Pick is the Therm-a-Rest Prolite Plus. For a foam pad, the Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite SOL has been the standby for many years. Many people also like to bring along an inflatable pillow. The Therm-a-Rest Air Head Lite is one of the most popular choices.

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