High Design: Mountaineering's Trick New Tools

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, September 1999

High Design: Mountaineering's Trick New Tools

"I guess the Everest fascination has gotten folks interested in climbing," says Tracy Roberts, "and now they want to get a good snootful of it." As a guide on Washington's Mount Rainier, Roberts knows what he's talking about. The most popular glaciated peak in the Lower 48, Rainier is a bellwether of the burgeoning cache of mountaineering throughout North America. Last summer, 11,188 people tried to reach its 14,410-foot summitùa record that will probably be broken again by the end of this fall. RMI, the largest of the four guide services on the mountain, had filled all of its slots by the beginning of June and is now running a waiting list for the first time in its 31-year history. Alpine Ascents International, a rival Rainier guide company, has nearly 2,000 applicants vying for its 36 openings next year.

These arrivistes are fueling a demand for cheaper and more elegant hardware for nearly every facet of climbing, from camming devices for sport climbers to hypoxic tents for high-altitude mountaineers. During the past three years Omega Pacific, the largest manufacturer of carabiners in the United States, has introduced more new products (25) than it did in the previous decade (ten). Meanwhile, Vermont-based supplier Climb High has watched the sales of its most popular ice axes and crampons shoot up more than 140 percent since 1997. Herewith, a glimpse at what's taking place on the innovative edge of mountaineering gear.

ASCENDERS ($19) "A cool little gizmo!" says high-altitude veteran Ed Viesturs of Petzl's Tibloc. It may look like something you'd see hanging on the beer-fridge door, but it's a big leap forward in emergency ascenders, which climbers use to extract themselves from tight spots like, say, the inside of a crevasse. The Tibloc is elegantly simpleùyour carabiner presses the rope against teeth running along the inside of the deviceùand it weighs a scant 1.37 ounces (compared with 9.16 ounces for a Jumar).

ROPES ($119) "Any time a new product weighs less," says sixtime Everest summiter Pete Athens, "it definitely gets climbers' attention." This summer, Beal is turning everyone's heads with its 9.4-millimeter Stinger, whose braided nylon sheath is bonded to the core. Result: thinner, stronger, andùtipping the scales at 0.65 ounce per footùthe lightest single rope of its strength thatyou can buy.

BOOTS ($595) One Sport's Everest is the lightest high-altitude mountaineering boot on the market, and it offers the sort of insulation that no other clodhopper can touchùa Kevlar-reinforced supergaiter, a layer of Aveolitefoam, and a loose fit to provide wiggle-room that helps keep extremities warm. Downside: Lacks the support necessary for technical ascents. Advantage: You get to keep your toes.

ICE SCREWS It's been 18 months since Black Diamond introduced its Express Ice Screwsùat $52.50, a twist more expensive than the old tubular screws. What you pay for is a coffee-grinder handle that will enable you to drive your anchor home in less than half the time. On a vertical wall of ice, faster equals safer. Similar models are available from Charlet Moser.

PULSE OXIMETERS($395) Just this April, Nonin introduced the SportStat, a handheld device that uses infrared rays to monitor oxygen in blood pulsing back and forth in the tip of your index finger. SportStat enables climbers to monitor their acclimatization to high altitude and helps guides determine the fitness of their clients.

ICE AXES ($300) In the past 15 years, axes have evolved from tools with straight wooden shafts into ergonomically designed fetishes that look like something a Jedi Knight might use. Recent tinkering has yielded subtler tweaks, mainly involving the incorporation of superlight materials such as titanium and carbon fiber. Current state of the art: Black Diamond's Cobra.

HELMETS This year manufacturers started borrowing polystyrene foam technology from the biking world to create climbing helmets that are lightweight and adjust to the shape of your head. Grivel's Cap, at $79.50, is only 11.8 ounces. One drawback: Most of the new models are one-hit wonders. Take a rock on the top of your head, and you'll have to buy a new lid.

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