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Much climbing gear can be rented in either Courmayeur (better), Chamonix, Zermatt or Saas Fee. Grindelwald has no good rental options. Boots are the biggest challenge for rentals as different boots fit different feet, and any one shop may only have one or two models in their rental lineup. A better plan is to own your own. If you plan to rent, give yourself enough time to get the job done (a couple hours should do it), possibly visiting several shops to find what you need.
Courmayeur and Chamonix is probably the single best place to shop for climbing gear in the world. Selection is wonderful. While prices are steep with the current strength of the Euros vs the dollar. The price of European brands of climbing boots is generally competitive with what you will pay in your country. On most trips we are available to help you with purchases and rentals the late afternoon or evening preceding your trip. Please let us know if you need help with this. In Courmayeur and Chamonix, stores usually close at 19:30 (that’s 7:30 PM, for us foreigners), in Zermatt about 19:00. We encourage you to go shopping! Especially with us. We are happy to help you decide what gear will be best for your trip.
This section offers a few very general guidelines. For more specific discussions of equipment selection please see the lists we create for each trip we do. One basic concept…. Go light! Climbing with a light pack is much more fun, uses less precious energy, and is safer than climbing with a heavy pack. Do your best to minimize weight. Also, alpine climbing sometimes uses different gear than say, waterfall climbing, expeditions or winter mountaineering. And the various types of gear are not always interchangeable, especially when it comes to crampons and ice tools. Here are a few things to think about.
Boots can be categorised into 4 categories – trail shoes, hiking boots, backpacking boots and mountaineering boots. In winter only consider the use of mountaineering boots. This type of boot can be made of leather, fabric, plastic or a combination of any of the three.
There are 4 categories of mountaineering boots: B0, B1, B2 and B3. Boots for mountain climbing are the categories B2 and B3. Examples for category B3: for mountaineering in the Alps are SCARPA Mont Blanc GTX or Phantom Tech; for expeditions around 6000m are SCARPA Phantom 6000.
The best alpine crampons use a flat frame. Examples are the Simond Makalu mixte, Petzl vasak or the Grivel G12. You will also need rubber anti-balling plates, called antibottes, specific to your type of crampon. With many crampons, they are included when you buy the crampons.
There are lots of good all-around ice axes. A great light weight example is the Grivel Air Tech Evolution. For length, go short. 58 cm max if you are over 6’4″ feet tall, 53 cm for everyone shorter. Mark uses a 53cm model and he is about 5’10” and thinks that anything longer is just too long.
Using trekking poles usually helps you save energy, protects your knees and speeds you up. Get adjustable length poles, and keep them short, so that when you’re standing on flat ground your hands are below your navel. Leki makes a great super-compact version called the “Super Short” but it can be hard to find. Keep the baskets on. Avoid poles with shock absorbing springs, as they are not needed and only increase weight, length and cost.
About 30 liters is the right size. Avoid packs larger than about 40 liters. A big pack carries poorly, impacts your climbing more and saps energy. You should be able to find a good pack of the correct size that weighs no more than about 2 pounds, by avoiding excessive “features” such as crampon panels, integrated pockets or big suspension systems. Both Chamonix and Zermatt have great selections of climbing packs.
Try to avoid bringing a lot of extras. Food can be purchased in the huts, so we usually carry only pocket snacks and bars or Gu. While climbing we can usually stay quite warm through movement and the huts are warm, so fleece pants and big down jackets are excessive.
There are a range of good boots on the market. Generally, the lighter boots are more comfortable for walking, while the heavier boots are not quite so comfortable but provide better downhill skiing support.
In different states it can be difficult to compare fit from one brand or model to another as few shops carry more than one kind of randonnée boot, if they carry them all.
Scott, Dynafit, Black Diamond, Scarpa and La Sportiva seem to be the most popular brands these days. Most, if not all of these companies have models specifically designed to fit women.
Beware of touring boots that fit both touring bindings and regular alpine downhill bindings. These boots greatly compromise walking comfort in exchange for the ability to fit downhill bindings. Good touring boots have a rocker in the sole, and a tread with aggressive lugs for hiking. Avoid flat bottomed boots that lack a significant rocker. Unfortunately, these flat-soled boots are becoming more popular in various states, used especially by “side-country” skiers who don’t really need to walk very far. However, for most European ski tours you’ll be happier with a boot that allows some comfort on the hiking approaches.
Despite the ever-increasing width of skis in today’s market, there is a limit to how wide is sensible for a good touring ski. Unfortunately, one ski can’t be good in all conditions. Fat skis (more than 100mm underfoot) don’t do well on hard pack, are very poor for skinning on firm snow, and are heavy. And narrow skis (less than 80mm underfoot) while light and fun on firm, lose points in deep or difficult snow.
Choosing a ski is an act of compromising.
Avalanche Transceiver – If you are considering buying a new beacon, there are a number of good options. The latest, most advance beacons have 3 antennas. A few good models include the the Barryvox Element or Pulse, the Ortovox S1+, or 3+, the Pieps DSP Pro or Sport, or the Arva Neo.
Avalanche Probe – Avalanche probes have, for many years, been the forgotten stepchild of the avalanche
safety kit. Backcountry enthusiasts know they must carry a beacon if they want to be found and a shovel if they want to dig someone out. A dedicated avalanche probe is just as important. In a companion rescue, the three pieces of safety equipment (beacon, shovel, and probe) function together; without any one of these, recovery time goes up dramatically.
Avalanche shovels – Once you locate your partner with a beacon and pinpoint him with your probe, you still need to dig him out. The only effective way to uncover your partner is with a portable avalanche shovel Studies show that the shoveling phase takes the majority of the time in a recovery The moment you need to use your portable shovel in a rescue situation you’ll immediately yearn for a full-sized steel shovel not unlike the garden shovel in your garage.