Every year, we get questions about gear. Our guests ask us what they should look for in specific items and to recommend our top choices. With that in mind, we compiled a list of our top picks for the pieces of gear that prompt the most questions. We update this every season. Sometimes we add the latest models, sometimes we stick with old standbys that have proven the test of time. When it comes to gear, you have many options based on price, style, weight, durability, etc. The rabbit hole is bottomless. With our picks, we prioritized durability and versatility in the mountains.
When buying an ice axe, it is important to understand what length is best for you. Your axe should be long enough that you can use it for support while ascending, but not so long that it is cumbersome or unnecessarily heavy. Be sure to read the manufacturer’s recommendations before purchasing. Choose a model with a durable, dependable head (the top assembly that includes the pick and the adze or hammer). We recommend that you buy a model with an adze, which will be more useful for new climbers. Our guide pick has been the Black Diamond Raven for the past few years. This axe has a simple, durable construction that is ideal for glaciated climbs. For a tool suitable for steeper mountaineering terrain, we suggest checking out the Petzl Summit ice axe. Its bent shaft allows it to be used for short sections of ice or steep, firm snow.
Most conventional rock climbing harness are perfectly adequate for alpine and glacier mountaineering. However, they tend to be bulky and hard to take on or off while wearing crampons. For this reason, we’re a big fan of lighter and more adjustable models such as the Petzl Altitude Harness. The buckles on the leg loops allow you to put it on with both feet on the ground while wearing crampons or skis. It is easy to put on with gloves and only weighs 150 grams!
Protecting your head from falling objects is paramount in the mountains. Having a helmet that can withstand the normal wear and tear of travel and take a few hits is key. We have always recommended the Black Diamond Half Dome Helmet. Though a little heavier than foam-based helmets, the Half Dome excels at reliability and dependability. Just remember you may be wearing a ball cap or beanie underneath, so get a size that accommodates both.
Layering is an essential part of travelling in the mountains. On most peaks, it’s critical to have a warm jacket to count on while hanging around camp and when the weather gets serious. 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, and come with 850-fill down. HIMALI
You will live in your base-layer while on expeditions and climbs. So make sure it is comfortable and serves as many purposes as possible. When in the field, our guides almost exclusively wear the Outdoor Research Echo Hoody. Lightweight, hooded base-layers not only act as your primary layer of insulation, they also protect your head and neck from the intense UV rays we encounter at high elevations in large glaciated terrain. Long sleeves protect your arms from the sun and abrasion.
Here in the Pacific Northwest we climb through a very wide variety of temperatures and weather conditions, and we constantly adjust our layering combinations. A solid softshell jacket provides wind and water resistance with breathability – a very useful combination when on the move. Our go to has been the Himali Ascent Stretch Hoodie Softshell Jacket.
As with most climbing gear, there are many options on the market. When shopping around, make sure your headlamp has at least 200 lumens, a red light setting, and a dimmer to conserve power – and to avoid blinding your tent mate! The Petzl Tikka has been the gold standard in lighting for many years.
We probably get more questions about crampons than any other piece of gear. For a more complete rundown take a look at our Crampon Guide before your trip. Broadly speaking, it’s most important that your crampons are the correct size and have the right straps to fit your boots. No matter what style works for your boots, make sure to buy 12-point crampons made of steel. The Petzl Vasak is a great option. 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, check out our Boot Guide and Crampon Guide.
Why can’t I use my normal sunglasses? It’s a valid question, and we hear it all the time. The answer is that most sunglasses don’t provide enough protection for your eyes. Glaciated climbing involves hours spent on highly reflective snow and ice, usually at high altitudes where UV rays are more intense. Most sunglasses fail to protect your peripheral vision or block enough UV radiation. Glacier glasses are specifically designed with Category 4 lens for climbing, skiing, and other winter sports. They include side shields and special lenses for UV light. For function, affordability and durability, our guide pick winner this year is the Julbo Montebianco, and Monterosa for women.
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, and breathable. If you are looking for a new pair, the Outdoor Research Cirque Pant is an excellent choice. These pants were designed for climbers and skiers alike. They feature reinforced areas on the inner ankle where crampons often snag, ample pockets, and durability.
Layering isn’t just important for your legs and torso, it’s important for your hands, too. You should bring lighter gloves for warm days and approach hikes, and beefier gloves for colder weather. Often though, we find ourselves between those two extremes. This is where softshell gloves shine. In fact, for more than half the time we’re in the mountains, softshell gloves are our go-to hand protection. When choosing softshell gloves, look for leather palms and Scholler fabric. When climbing in the Pacific Northwest and other wet environments, stay away from Gore-Tex fabrics, they don’t just repel water, they keep it in after they get wet. One of our favorite models is the Mountain Hardwear Torsion Insulated Glove.