Astronauts, Mountaineers and Socks

Andy trying to sleep whilst hanging from a rope tied to a pair of socks, four thousand feet up Changabang north face, Himalayas.

Before leaving for the Himalayas in 1976, Pete Boardman and Joe Tasker spent a night sleeping in a giant freezer full of frozen food in Manchester.  They wanted to test their clothing and sleep in the hammocks they intended to use on the west wall of Changabang, a 6,864 metres high peak in India. The aim was to see the whole system working in a safe environment, allowing any adjustments to be made in advance. The men succeeded on the groundbreaking climb, and having the right equipment  – properly built and tested – certainly contributed to their achievement. Boardman’s account of this expedition in The Shining Mountain is still one of my all time favourite climbing books Today, equipment for mountaineers is significantly lighter, but any further reductions is always welcome as weight impacts so directly on performance.  A couple of years ago at Lowe Alpine we started work on the new Alpine Attack pack and set a target weight of 1kg or under. We knew the pack needed to serve two distinct functions: carrying a large load to base and then to work with the climber as he or she negotiates steep ice and rock. Carrying a heavy pack means wearing a waist-belt, which is fine during the non-technical approach to a climb. But waist-belts often interfere with the climbing harness beneath, hindering access to the ice screws etc that are needed for protection once the technical climbing begins. The designers did some focused prototyping, producing a number of packs with different waist-belt systems. I joined some of the team for a couple of days testing in Scotland in winter. At the end of each day we fed back our results to the remaining team in Kendal. Early feedback is crucial, allowing incremental reviews. Finally, one system stood out as being the best. The ‘tuck-away waist-belt’ that the design team chose is simple, effective and easy to operate with gloves. Sometimes, even with the best planning in the world, mountaineers find themselves in a difficult situation. On day seven of our own groundbreaking climb on the north face of Changabang, we found no ledges to sleep on. I suddenly remembered a tip someone had shared a few weeks before in a pub in Snowdonia. I had never tried it (neither had he), but I was desperate. Let’s call it the ‘sock bivouac system’. Many people have asked how this is done, so here is a quick rundown. Obviously you keep your harness on throughout. 1. Place a sock (rolled into a ball) on the inside of the bivouac bag, towards the feet and on the upper piece of fabric. 2. Hold with one hand and with the other hand on the outside wrap the fabric around the sock and then place a loop of prussik or sling over the bag and sock and pull it tight (clovehitch), like a noose. 3. Clip this cord into a piton, ice screw or whatever. 4. Place another sock in the bivouac bag this time towards where the chest will be and do the same. 5. Then place the sleeping bag inside the bivouac bag. 6. Finally, get in and go to sleep – perhaps. (See image attached!) As in the famous Apollo 13 story, where astronauts improvised a way to reduce carbon dioxide using canisters and duct tape, that night in the Himalayas I had to act fast. I think you will see in the photograph that I haven’t had the best night’s sleep, but I survived. Let’s  call it ‘prototyping at the sharp end’.

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