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Gear Junkie: Tips on going fast and light up high

Gear must be judiciously selected
Gear must be judiciously selected

While touring Europe recently, a jutting limestone peak in Austria’s Kaisergebirge Mountain Range was on my schedule. But a problem: I had only one day to climb it.

The circumstances required I obtain a guide. And so I met Tom Müllauer, a certified Austrian climbing guide and a stout mountain man who’d ascended my desired peak, the 7,400-foot Maukspitze, more than a dozen times.

“Most clients require two days to reach the top,” Müllauer told me.

Our trip – a fast-and-light ascent that the guide led at a blistering pace – would, in the end, be measured in hours, not days.

I am not a bona fide mountain man like Müllauer. But I am a climber, and I also know how to move quickly – and safely – in steep terrain.

Gear, technique, physical conditioning, mountain knowledge, and a solid mental attitude are pieces of the puzzle.

On the Maukspitze, Müllauer and I climbed thousands of feet and traversed alpine forests for miles. But we made the top of the mountain and back in just over five hours from our start.

Here are a few tips – hardly comprehensive, but perhaps unique – for the next time you’re seeking to go “fast and light” in the high country on your own.

Lose the boots. Climbing boots are heavy and stiff. Sure, you need them for winter ascents. But for moderate routes, look to lighter trail shoes that have been upgraded for climbing with waterproof uppers, integrated gaiters, or sticky rubber on the soles.

Don’t skimp on clothes. Although “fast and light” was our theme, I brought enough clothing on the Maukspitze to stay warm even if it snowed in July (and it did). Beyond the simple equation of staying comfortable, having the right amount of clothing keeps you moving faster by alleviating the fear factor of anticipating getting cold.

Choose lightest gear. Ultra-light is a term most often associated with backpacking. But climbing companies now take advantage of lighter materials and better design to offer “ultra-light” products for the vertical set. For the Maukspitze, I packed a minimalist harness and tiny carabiners. The guide brought a thin rope that coiled in a bag no larger than a loaf of bread.

Nourish often. Energy food, including bars and gels, are your friend for any high-output activity. Quick energy – and small, convenient sizes – make concentrated energy food perfect for fast climbs. I stocked a supply in my pack, eating about 200 calories each hour for energy on the Maukspitze.

Keep good vibes. High spirits and a healthy, gung-ho attitude keep me fueled as much as energy food on some routes. The mental side of any activity should not be overlooked. Find a partner who perpetuates a positive vibe on your climb. If he or she triggers a competitive streak in you by racing on the approach trails, then all the better.

Know the mountain. Getting lost or spending time searching for a route kills any fast-and-light effort. For maximum speed, bring someone with you who knows the terrain, or study maps and a guidebook diligently before you step a foot onto the trail.

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