Field Tested: Best Big Wall Climbing Gear


What do you bring up the northwest face of Yosemite's Half Dome in early October? Answer: not much. It’s a 1.5-mile approach gaining 3000-feet in elevation with multiple class 4-5 scrambles, followed by a 2000-foot wall of sheer granite. My climbing partner cut his toothbrush in half to shed weight. I left mine at base camp.

Climbing isn’t—and shouldn’t—be about the coolest newest gear. It’s about what works well. That’s why we brought whiskey.

Below is some of the essential non-technical gear I used. Whether you’re an ultralight backpacker, big-wall climber, or just happen to like stuff that works, this gear will deliver:

SmartWool Adrenaline Light Crew Socks ($18)

Since I wasn’t planning on bringing a second pair of socks up the wall, I needed something that would keep my feet warm and comfortable in a variety of conditions; from hiking in 80 degree weather down in the valley to subfreezing bivouacs on the wall. And, they would have to handle my notoriously sweaty (read: stinky) feet. This light, half-cushioned merino wool-and-nylon crew sock stayed fitted without bunching up, even after several days of heavy use. My partner also commented on the improvement of my foot odor when we were bivouacking. I’ll pack these again the next time I go play in the mountains, for sure. Tip: turn them inside-out to get an extra day of use out of ‘em. You won’t even notice the difference.

Five Ten Marvel Trail Running Shoes ($115)

No hiking boots? Damn right. They’re heavy, and generally totally unnecessary for everything but carrying a pack that’s probably too heavy for you too far. Stealth Rubber, on the outsole, stuck to the granite slabs like suction cups, and the low-profile upper of the shoe made working with the aiders more bearable—especially in high winds when they would flap around like Buddhist prayer flags. Before the trip, I had been running three to eight miles every day in the mountains near Santa Fe in these shoes. Snow, mud, scree, goatheads—they handled everything, without making me feel like I was wearing too much shoe. Mesh panels and breathable lining helps the shoes dry fast, and the ultra-light compression molded EVA midsoles have a shock absorbing heel wedge that eats up shock, letting you play hard all-day.

Patagonia Simple Guide Pants ($125)

I’ve used these pants for everything; mountaineering, cross-country skiing, hiking, whitewater canoeing, yoga, climbing—the first good date I had, I was wearing these pants. These pants are versatile! After four years and three different continents, I’ve only put one hole in them. And that came from a 20-foot upside-down lead fall while wearing crampons. The double-weave of all-recycled polyester and spandex with DWR-coating offers remarkable durability and weather-resistance while remaining lightweight. Water-resistant zippers close the pockets: two welded-in front, one thigh and one rear hip. And my favorite features: a draw-cord elastic waistband that eliminates the need for a belt, and a two-way zip fly for easy use with a harness.

Mountain Hardwear UltraLamina 15 degree bag ($205)

My hat is off to Mountain Hardwear on this one. I could have sworn I was using a down bag.  With a solid (and accurate) 15-degree rating, this surprisingly light (2 lb 14oz ) synthetic bag somehow compressed down to the size of a loaf of bread. My partner’s synthetic bag took up twice the space. How is this bag so miraculous? Mountain Hardwear took their old synthetic insulation and cut it into a million pieces. Poof! Down-like synthetic insulation. Why didn’t anyone think of this sooner? And you can’t beat synthetic insulation for reliability. Even when my bow-hatch flooded during a multi-day kayaking trip through the Apostle Islands in late September, this bag kept me warm, despite being soaked through.  The dual side zips allowed me to stay in the bag while cooking supper, and the rip-stop nylon shell repelled even the heaviest dew. This is the bag you want if you need to go light, fast, and warm—no matter what.

Black Diamond Big Wall Hooped Bivy ($230)

Bivy sacks are simple; think of them as waterproof, breathable shells for your sleeping bag. Staying in the shell is surprisingly hard to achieve without poles, though. Honestly, a tent is best. But sometimes, like on the northwest face of Half Dome, you can’t have one. I found that BD’s Big Wall Hooped Bivy was the closest thing to a tent that I could hope for. It's a good option if you’re going ultra-light and plan on encountering some weather. A sewn-in flexible wire creates much appreciated air space around your head (enough to read a book in!), and the single-wall fabric, with its taped seams, can handle a serious beating—even a hailstorm— and worked just as well as Gore-Tex. If you need a bivy sack to save your ass, this one will.

Mountain Hardwear Direttissima ($200)

This 50-liter pack proves that it’s not about what a piece of gear is designed to do, it’s about what it can do. Turns out, this thing can get dragged up 2,000 feet of granite. Not bad for an alpine-style pack that’s not necessarily designed to be used as a haul bag. With an approach that could kill me (literally) if I didn’t keep my feet, I didn’t want to be mucking around with a boxy haul bag. So, I found the best of both worlds with the Direttissima; a solid alpine pack that could—in a pinch— handle getting hauled up a massive rock face. The hipbelt, framesheet and lid are removable, and the compression straps tuck away allowing it to glide over rocks and shard edges. With 3,200 cubic inches of storage available, this pack is good for everything but only the longest, most drawn-out expeditions, yet it compresses down comfortably for day-trips. Only complaint: the white color shows the dirt as one might expect. –Dave Costello

Check out a photo gallery of editorial intern Dave Costello's trip up Half Dome, here.