We spend a great deal of money buying kit for the adventures we have. And if you are anything like me then you spend a lot of time deciding what kit is the best. I have my own equation which usually involves my bank balance and the degree of suffering I think I’m likely to experience without the item, combined with how many more days of actual climbing I could afford with the same money. Once I have convinced myself that I really do need the kit I feel a lot happier with parting with the money.

 

While it is worth noting what Mark Twight said; that no one piece of equipment will cause the success or failure of your objective. It is worth thinking about which pieces of kit are the most important to your performance. Some may have more of an impact than others, and by knowing which ones these are we can focus our attention and possibly a limited budget on them.

I’m going to be using some data from a study on runners to illustrate points about our kit[i]. If you are a runner then this article will be particularly useful to you anyway. But while we look at this example we will consider how that data can be used to help us in other situations. We will look at the implications that this study has on mountaineering.

Over the years a number of studies have been done to work out the effects of different clothes worn when running. Some of these studies have suggested a more significant effect than others but all agree that an addition of weight will slow the athlete down. As will drag from different articles of clothing. For instance, having long hair causes a 6.3% increase in aerodynamic drag[ii] which equates to about 15 seconds added on to your marathon time (yeah I don’t care that much either, I’m still not breaking any world records). Baggy clothes will also slow us down, but this is common sense anyway, this is why we won’t be wearing leather jackets as wind proofs when we climb mountains, opting instead for a much lighter, modern option. Long hair looks cooler too and when plodding up a mountain we aren’t really cutting through the air so let’s not get hung up having a wet shave each morning.

The really important findings for runners, and for us come from studies which judge the increased difficulty associated with weight being added to specific areas of the body during exercise. I’ll briefly explain how we are able to assess the efficiency of the athlete when they are exercising:

When we exercise we use utilise Oxygen. Through various methods we are able to assess how hard a person is working through the variability in the Oxygen use. The more Oxygen that is being used by an athlete implies a higher rate of work. So imagine a runner on a treadmill at 10km/h is using 50ml of Oxygen per kilogram of bodyweight per minute (we usually write this as ml.kg/m). If we then put a weight on a part of their body, we can judge how much harder they are having to work to run at 10km/h based on the amount of Oxygen they are now using. Ie. If they now use 55 ml.kg/min then we can say that the added weight is now costing them 10% more.
A study[iii] shows us some interesting figures which can be concluded as this: For every 100g on the foot our running efficiency decreases by 1%[iv]. For a runner who is going to be training or racing for a number of hours this is an important figure. Now we may not be running up mountains but when you think about the weight of a boot and a crampon on each foot we can easily be talking about 2kg of weight! If we apply the same figures then we are suddenly 20% less efficient than we were! This coupled with altitude and the added loss of efficiency this promises, means that unless we come up with something, we are going to be in a very “character building” environment for a while. Now we aren’t running but still… I would say that walking uphill in boots and crampons is going to be a similar enough experience to running a few marathons and this lesson is something we should take on board!

So as this evidence tells us; the weight on our feet is far more important than the weight on our back which has much less of an effect on our efficiency.

Let’s think what this means for a mountaineer pushing uphill through the snow. From my experience this can be one of the most difficult parts of mountaineering, getting to the bottom of a route steep enough to shed the snow. Now a runner is on a hard surface, ours collapses. A runner skims their feet just inches above the road surface, we have to lift them knee high just to be able to wade forward again. Now with an extra Kg on each foot we have the recipe for a long, hard day out. Not to mention the fact that snow can build up on each foot, adding to this weight.

The message is pretty clear.

  • Think about your footwear, the weight of it could cripple you.
  • Break trail now and again for your guide, it will go down well.

Boots and crampons could well be the key piece of kit for your successful expedition, a light weight pair could mean the difference between you getting to a safe haven or being left hours away while the light fades. If we are going to commit ourselves to fitness let’s not waste it picking our heavy boots and crampons up.

My final thought on this piece is this: Although when you are on your objective you want the lightweight, high performance kit, it may not be necessary for training. I’ll give you an example:

I worked with a guy once who was a bit over weight, not massively but certainly could have lost a few Kg and not had any health problems…

This guy once saw me returning from a bike ride on my knackered old road bike which is by no means even middle-of-the range let alone hi-spec. After pointing out how terrible my bike was; he wheeled his pristine, carbon racing bike out of the garage to show me what a real machine should look like. It was very nice and I asked him how often he raced it. He didn’t. He only ever used it as a training tool. It seemed absurd to me that someone who only wanted a bike to train on would get a model so efficient that they were out-performed by it. The bike is designed to make travel as efficient as possible, unless you are competing with others then this is irrelevant to your training. In fact, it means you will get less out of your session.

 

Written by: Chris Andrews

[i] Noakes (2003)

[ii] Kyle, Caiozzo (1986)

[iii] P.E Martin (1985)

[iv] D.A Jones, Newham et. al (1986)