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from Namche to Thyangboche
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The Gear
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Between Namche and Thyangboche
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Trek photos by Peter Potterfield, © 1997 The Zone Network. All rights Reserved.

The Mountain Zone

The Gear That Got Us There

I traveled to Mount Everest in the spring of 1997 to report on climbing activity and coordinate The Mountain Zone's live cybercast of Todd Burleson's Alpine Ascents International Everest Expedition. Since I was in the role of trekker, not climber, I used this opportunity to review a wide range of mainstream climbing and backpacking gear loaned to the Mountain Zone for the purpose of field testing. The trekking gear I took was all four-season climbing and backpacking gear — exactly the kind of stuff that is useful to most climbers, hikers and backcountry users. (The high-altitude equipment used high on Everest is so specialized that it's functional for only a handful of people for a few days a year.) Our experience with the trekking gear follows.

Dan McHale Packs: Critical Mass SARC

As seen on the backs of guides all over
We expected a high-performing pack from Dan McHale, and we got one: a single compartment, highly evolved and meticulously constructed climbing rucksack that was never really challenged by the conditions or trekking loads we encountered on the walk in to Everest. This is McHale's Super Alpine Rock model, perhaps the epitome of simplicity, ruggedness and performance. I first became aware of McHale's custom-made packs when a brand new mountaineering backpack self-destructed during a mid-80s Mount Rainier climb with Scott Fischer. Fischer looked at my unraveling pack straps and shook his head: You should go see Dan McHale, he said.

Pack maker Dan McHale's reputation has been hard won over more than a decade of building custom made packs for professional climbers and serious amateurs. Scott Fischer climbed exclusively with McHale packs, as do other high-altitude climbers. But increasingly his business comes from demanding weekend climbers and backpackers who want an extremely well-designed pack that fits comfortably and will stand up to hard use for years.

The details make the SARC so useful. Small exterior pockets are just big enough to hold a water bottle, or to keep wands, pickets, trekking poles and other hard-to-lash items from sliding off. Yet the slim profile is maintained, so the pack doesn't snag on rhododendron bushes or yak horns on Nepal's narrow trails. And while the pack is a simple "bag" design, a mid-point zipper permits access to the lower reaches of the pack without dragging everything out of it. A top compartment converts to a fanny pack when you're just roaming the hills around camp and need only a camera and a jacket.

But the heart of the pack is its unique suspension system; both shoulder rig (including hand-bent aluminum stays) and waist belt are custom fitted, which makes for a surprisingly comfortable burden. Fine adjustments can be made to subtly shift the load from hips to shoulder, increasing the level of comfort to such an extent that people who tried the pack out of curiosity were blown away.

REI Minus 20° Sleeping Bag

REI's Minus 20° bag:
good value in a down sack
The trek to Everest encompasses a wide range of conditions, from the relatively balmy temperatures found at the 9,000' level near Lukla and Phakding to the hostile, frigid reality of base camp at near 18,000'. Many trekkers underestimate the demands they'll make on their sleeping gear at the higher end of the journey. As a result, these unfortunates spend cold, miserable nights at Dingboche and Lobuche and base camp, the insulating ability of their three-seasons bags unable to haul the freight, even with the help of hot water bottles from the kitchen crew.

The REI Minus 20° bag was a good compromise between weight and cold-weather capability: it was warm at the highest elevations, but weighed in at a reasonable four pounds. The two way zipper permitted plenty of ventilation lower down, and the dry loft outer fabric kept the 600-fill down protected from spills and dampness. We thought the black cover looked really cool. This is a good value in a high-performing down bag, a good choice for serious hikers and climbers.

REI Trekking Poles

At age 35, a lot of climbers and backpackers start hiking with ski poles to save their knees. I was no exception, and in the past decade or so I've become addicted to carrying a strong ski pole on long hikes or approaches. But as I prepared for the Everest trek, an unexpected dilemma emerged: all my gear had to fit into a big Sun Dog duffel bag, and the ski poles were way too long to fit in any duffel. The solution was an REI three-section telescoping trekking pole.

REI's telescoping trekking poles
The REI poles closed up to a convenient 29 inches. Yet even when elongated at a comfortable length for a six footer, these cool-looking poles were sturdy and exhibited none of the annoying vibrations other poles are prone to when fully extended. The REI trekking poles proved very hardy under the most demanding conditions. A long trek will really beat up a collapsible pole, bearing the weight of the hiker on steep downhill sections on the rough and rocky trails of the Khumbu trek.

Telescoping trekking poles have become a de rigeur piece of equipment for globe trotting trekkers and climbers. The poles are an absolutely indispensable piece of equipment in Nepal, where everybody uses them. Some people get by with one (like me, I like to have one hand free) while others prefer poles in both hands. On the Everest trek, one essential use is protection from yaks. Often the route to Everest follows narrow trails above steep gorges, where meeting a string of five or six big-horned yaks is no joke. A yak horn or, or even a pack bag or barrel lashed to the animal's flank, can knock a dull or unsuspecting trekker right off the trail, right into the gorge, and kill him. It happens.

So if you ever find yourself on a steep trail in Asia with a string of pack animals approaching, here's the drill: Get on the uphill side of the trail and plant one's trekking pole directly at one's feet. The yaks seem to respect this demarcation, and plod placidly on without encroaching further on one's space. In the lodges, tales of outright combat with the big beasts is standard fodder over beers, so go armed with a good set of poles.

REI Geo Mountain Four

A spacious and beefy abode
When expedition leader Todd Burleson told me I'd have my own tent at base camp but might have to share one on the trek — I needed a new plan of action. With three laptops and three satellite telephones, I needed space, reliably dry, protected space. It came in the form of REI's new Geo Mountain four man tent, a spacious and beefy abode that became a cherished shelter and refuge, and command center for The Mountain Zone during our coverage of Everest '97. This is a great tent — especially if you don't have to carry it. At eleven pounds plus, it's not lightweight, but yaks and porters made that a moot point. And if one spreads the weight around two or three people, the poundage becomes reasonable.

Sun Dog All Sports Duffel

Not the least of my problems was how to get six weeks worth of personal gear to Everest Base Camp and back in one piece. Whatever I chose would have to survive an airplane trip halfway around the world on three airlines and one old Russian helicopter, then some very rough treatment by both porters and yaks on the forty mile trek through snow, rain and mud to base camp.

The Sundog solution
The solution turned out to be the Sun Dog All Sport Duffel. I took two sizes: The large duffel was big enough to handle all my traveling and climbing clothes and other gear, including telescoping trekking poles, thick sleeping pads, down jackets and summit banners. The medium duffel was big enough to hold the delicate equipment but small enough to use as a carry-on. It was perfect for carrying the laptop computer, the digital cameras and a compact disc player for those long, cold nights.

The arrangement worked well. Everything fit, and in a pinch I could even carry both bags myself for short distances. The PVC pocket even made it possible to separate my dirty stuff from the clean things. But I was a little worried when it came time to leave Kathmandu and start walking . The hills of Nepal make for a hostile environment, and when everything you need and care about is in one bag, the bag needs to be up to the challenge.

To my relief the absolutely crammed All Sport stayed in one piece despite some incredibly rough handling by yak wranglers. Even the yaks themselves seem to have it in for my stuff, scraping the duffel against the gorge walls or stepping on it while it was in line to be loaded. But the All Sport hung in there, and thanks to the PVC outer coating it kept the gear dry through days of rain and snow, and protected from the constant menace of mud and yak dung.

After the two way trip, my once new All Sport Duffel had been through the mill, and frankly looked like a candidate for retirement. But I was surprised to find a little soap and water restored it to its former glory. It's ready and waiting for the next big adventure — a return to Patagonia.

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