Mountaineers have long been approaching mountains dressed lightly. Shod in lightweight trail shoes, wearing shorts and a t-shirt, as if they were going for a casual rip on some local trails. But sadly, they cannot run, they must walk. Why? Because the pack they are carrying is far too heavy. They are weighed down by heavy boots, heavy steel crampons and a heavy ice axe they carry for the snowy mountain. As a result, the approach takes a full day, so they must carry a sleeping bag, maybe a tent & sleeping matt, gas, cooker, and an extra day's food. As a result, they also need a big heavy pack to fit it all in.
Welcome to the exponential spiral towards a slow and heavy ascent. What if it were possible to reverse this exponential spiral towards the light and the fast?
Imagine yourself jogging up the Matukituki Valley with a 3kg pack, cresting Bevan Col, donning light crampons on your running shoes across the Bonar Glacier, taking a late morning snack at Colin Todd, scrambling the Northwest ridge of Aspiring, and ripping it all the way back to the car in time for dinner in Wanaka.
Welcome to the exciting world of Trail Alpinism, or 'Trailpinism': combining trail running gear, tactics and efficiency with alpinism for a different way of tackling higher peaks.
Firstly, this article is not intended to diminish or look down upon the classical, traditional approach to mountaineering, which has so many advantages - a higher safety margin, the ability to spend many days and nights out enjoying the hills, and the ability to tackle higher, longer, more technical peaks.
The aim is to explore this new way of climbing mountains, for those who wish to take their climbing & scrambling skills and fitness to new heights. But it requires a careful, measured approach in gear selection, timing and conditions for a safe trip.
In this article we will analyse each different component of the system, and it should become apparent that many of the gains come from careful gear selection which results in improved efficiency, rather than only a huge gain in fitness. That said, everyone should choose objectives relative to their own fitness level.
Starting with feet, the point here is to complete the entire trip in a single pair of shoes that you can both run in and climb in. The challenge is to find a shoe that is also rigid enough to work well with crampons, yet still be flexible enough for running in. Stiff approach shoes won't work if there's 20km of trail running involved, unless you want shin splints!
I recommend the La Sportiva Bushido II, or the La Sportiva Urgano GTX which has an inbuilt gaitor for snow. These shoes are intended for trail running, but have a rigid enough frame and carbon footplate to support crampons.
It's a continuum: the better a shoe is at climbing, the worse it will be for running, so try and strike the best balance for your objectives in mind. Try fitting your crampons to the shoes before purchasing to ensure a good fit.
There are several tiers of shoe traction devices available which you can select depending on the steepness and snow conditions. For hard packed icy trails or low angle/soft snow, Kahtoola MicroSpikes are great. But for more serious snow terrain, the Kahtoola K10 or Kahtoola KTS steel crampons are better.
But for the maximum security a running shoe can afford, go for the Petzl Leopard aluminium crampons. With dyneema cord linking the front and back sections, there is little front pointing ability as the crampon offers no rigidity in itself, but the advantage is the crampons flexes with the shoe better which makes running in the crampon easier, and it is also lighter and more packable, which is important with such a small running pack.
Tip: with basket style crampons, thread the straps towards the front basket in both directions, rather than directly across the ankle as you would with a boot. Low profile running shoes have no padding in this area above the tongue, so the strap will dig into your ankle. Threading twice through the front basket eliminates this problem.
Running through snow can be cold! Depending on the snow quality, it may be dry or frozen snow and therefore very cold, or warm wet snow and therefore very wet. Neither are ideal without appropriate socks. One tactic is to wear a thin running sock for the lower elevation running, to avoid overheating and sweating, then once at the snowline, supplement with a thicker wool sock. I did this for a recent trip up Mont Blanc, and to save further weight I just took a thick ankle high Merino sock, rather than a normal calf/knee high mountaineering sock, because the legs don't usually need that extra insulation. Even at 4800m I was comfortable enough with this system, albeit with a bit of toe wriggling.
For wet snow, such as a typical summer-time glacier crossing, consider waterproof socks. Bridgedale Storm socks are excellent - waterproof, but also comfortable to run in and don't cause blisters - a far better solution than wearing plastic bread bags on each foot.
Legs need surprisingly little compared with the upper body to stay warm. On a recent run of the Matterhorn I was comfortable on the summit in just a pair of running shorts. But in cold, windy or wet conditions consider either full length tights or thermal leggings.
For variable conditions look at a light pair of over-trousers such as the Macpac Hightail pants, which are easy to put on and take off without removing shoes.
Shorts with high and tight pockets around the waist will allow you to redistribute some food weight (gels, bars) from your pack onto your hips rather than it all being in your chest pockets.
Starting in the valley you'll typically be in a t-shirt, sweating hard on the trail. A few hours later, a stiff chill whips into you from above the bush-line. You stop for a minute and quickly your sweaty shirt is frozen. You could throw on your thermal over the top, but you might also end up fighting a losing battle in heating up that cold sweat against your skin as you layer up. I prefer to take off the wet shirt and wear it over the top of your thermal base layer. You'll have a dry layer against the skin, and your body heat will dry the shirt on the outside. The shirt will still add some insulation, instead of being dead weight in your pack or chilling you from the core.
I use the Macpac Prothermal because it has a good amount of warmth while still being quite breathable, and the integrated hood is invaluable - I'll rarely need an extra buff or beanie because of this feature. It also doubles as sun protection for the neck later in the day.
For many ascents you the only other layer you will need is a light waterproof shell such as the Macpac Tempo jacket which has the level of breathability demanded by trail running. If it's colder, swap the rain shell out for a synthetic pullover jacket or light down jacket such as the Macpac Icefall jacket. The insulation jacket will be most necessary if you are with someone else and ever have to wait. If you are alone, you will never be stopped waiting for anyone and can dress slightly lighter. That said, an emergency warm layer may be prudent, so consider something like a lightweight Macpac Nitro Pullover midlayer.
This is the essential piece that will make it or break it. The most important thing with the pack is that you can do almost everything without taking it off. Look no further than a robust trail running hydration vest/pack. With a trail running pack, you are able to access all your food, check your phone (use Gaia GPS or NZ Topo mapping apps), fill up your water bottles, deploy or stow poles, and put on/take off your jacket.
If you need to take off your pack to do any of these things, it's valuable time wasted - every second you're stopped, a more efficient version of yourself will be striding further towards the summit. The only time you should need to take it off is for major transitions i.e. donning crampons & ice axe.
On the back of the pack, stash the jacket such that you can pull it out while moving, and wear it over the top of the whole pack. When it heats up again, you can reverse the process, stash the jacket into the back. All without breaking stride. Tie your thermal layer tight around your waist to take some weight off your pack and onto your hips. This will make running easier. However, with some very thin running vest packs, you might want to use your thermal inside the pack to cushion your back against your sharp crampons.
Many runners are familiar with the 1-2L water reservoir and hose system for hydration. This is the old school way. The new school way is to carry two 500ml soft plastic flask bottles on the front of the running pack in long tubular pockets. This also balances the weight on your back so you can run less hunched over. Lighter than a reservoir, infinitely quicker to fill up during stream crossings, and having two allows you to add electrolytes to one and keep pure water in the other.
For sections with frequent water refill opportunities, you can quickly dump most of your water and regularly top up. What's the point of counting grams on an ice axe if you carry 500-1000g in excess water for much of the day? Flasks allow you to easily optimise your water carrying capacity.
This does assume water access is fairly frequent, if you're in a desert or need larger capacity, a 2+ litre bladder can be a good idea.
Most mountain approaches involve steep trail hiking, so a pair of carbon hiking poles will improve efficiency incorporating your upper body. For two-hands scrambling, or downhill running, stash them on the front of your pack using elastic loops (check your pack for this feature, or add your own loops). Recommended models are the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z or Leki Trailstick.
Most peaks for which this technique is applicable will not involve any great technical difficulty on snow or ice, think MC grade 1/1+, so get the lightest aluminium ice axe possible. Recommended models are the Camp Corsa 50cm, which is the lightest on the market and weighs only 200g. For slightly higher performance and minimal extra weight, the Petzl Ride is excellent (240g), or for more security on the odd steep section, look at the Petzl Gully (280g) which includes a pinky trig rest for a better grip.
Beware of the limitations of an aluminium axe, it will not penetrate hard ice. Practice with your gear before taking it onto something gnarly.
The first question you should ask is, do I need a helmet? Is there a chance of something combing down on me from above? If yes, then obviously get the lightest one available, such as the Petzl Sirocco. For the approach, you may be able to tie it onto the back of your pack without it banging around too much, but this may be difficult for the thrashing descent, so just wear your helmet all the way back to the car. With such light helmets you hardly realise you're wearing one!
It's up to you how light you go for glacier travel. A minimalist setup could be 10 metres of 7-8mm cord or rope between you, with a harness made from a 120cm dyneema sling and a small locking carabiner to clip in with. Of course this would not allow a 3:1 style extraction, but it could prevent an unroped fall.
Possible New Zealand "Trailpinism" Objectives
Here are a few ideas for possible objectives in NZ, to get you scheming and dreaming.
- Tongariro 3 Peaks: a traverse of Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro. Early winter or late spring.
- Mt Murchison, Arthurs Pass. A long flat run up the Waimakariri with a scramble up to Barker Hut, and an easy glacial ascent.
- Philistine - Rolleston Traverse, Arthur's Pass
- Mt Somers in winter - only microspikes may be required
- Crossing of the Gardens of Allah and Eden, from Erewhon to Harihari.
- Sebastopol Ridge - Mt Annette - Mueller, Aoraki/Mt Cook
- Mt Aspiring Northwest Ridge. For less distance, consider walking into Aspiring hut and making this the start/end point.
- Traverse of the Olivine Ice Plateau...
... there are so many more possibilities. Just make sure to research recent conditions, the level of technicality.
The process of honing your gear and strategy for each different trail running ascent, executing your plan, and then refining your system for the next trip is very satisfying. Take it easy at first while trialling new gear to learn its range of limitations, especially on snowy or icy terrain.
Don’t feel like these techniques are reserved for elite athletes. You will find the largest gains are reaped from simply replacing a pair of boots and steel crampons that weigh 3000g (Nepal Evo + BD Contact 10pt + gaiters) to a pair of running shoes and aluminium crampons that weigh only 900g.
That said, choose objective relative to your fitness, and you'll soon discover how much terrain you can cover in a day with your new systems. Gradually increase in distance, elevation gain and technicality.
By incorporating all of the efficiency strategies noted here, you will cut your times in half or thirds, enchain more peaks, reduce wear on your knees, fit more family time into your weekends, and have a whole lot of fun in the process. We can't all be like Kilian, but we can at least try. Just remember - safety first, safety second.