STOVES FOR ALPINE CLIMBING
At 4.30 pm I negotiate the final jumbled, insecure groove, loose snow and shattered limestone to arrive at Death Bivouac. Despite its sombre name, it’s briefly basking in the late sun of a perfect alpine afternoon. It’s the end of a fairly short day of climbing, although an extra long day in real terms. We’d kicked off at midday the previous day; it involved lots of driving, an early morning arrival in Switzerland, a hasty packing session, an expensive train ride, and a nervy step onto a big face. I look forward, step onto the neatly-sculpted flat platform in the snow, anchor to the stainless steel expansion bolts and prepare to bring Dave up, basking in those last warm rays, skiers making last turns, the chink chink, crunch crunch of Dave’s progress. Sheltered under my ceiling of overhanging rock, Death Bivouac – that notorious place where in 1935, the two Bavarians Karl Mehringer and Max Sedlmeyer both perished – felt far from deadly. Dave arrived and joined me. It’d been a long day and after arranging a spot to sleep, our thoughts quickly turned to dinner.
Let’s rewind 48 hours. The Eiger North Face was a boyhood dream, and one for which I had the greatest respect. Dave and I were both experienced, but respecting such environments keeps you alive. We were both keen to climb the route as quickly as possible, as speed is one of the keys to safety on climbs like this. However we also wanted to take in some of the history and planned to spend one night on the face, with perhaps another on the summit if we felt it was necessary. In the planning stage we talked much about kit. What to take, how much food, how much water? How much is too much, and how little is not enough?
Staying hydrated and sustained with sufficient calories and nutrients is tricky on a climb like this. To make water, snow must be melted. This requires fuel and a suitable stove. Considerations about hot food and drinks also need to be taken into account. How many calories per day, what kind of food, bars, gels, freeze dried, dehydrated, sweet or savoury? Anybody who’s managed a full day on only energy gels and bars and not felt like they were ready to projectile vomit has a constitution made of sterner stuff than mine. It’s a tricky balance getting a mix of food that has sufficient calories, is nutritionally sound, and that you can actually stomach during one of these sleep deprived roller coaster rides. A balance of sweet and savoury with some real food (such as cheese, salami and salted nuts) to snack on definitely help the gels and energy bars go down for me. However, a degree of experimentation is required to find what works best for you.
Sitting on my 4mm foam pad, I scoop cups of snow into our MSR Reactor stove, its usual roar rendered a mere splutter as we’ve made the rookie error of not insulating the gas canister and instead placed it straight in the snow. Sipping Ainsley Harriet’s finest packet soup from my Nalgene bottle, I watch as the bubbles start to rise up the side of the pan, slowly at first and then with more vigour. Pouring half the contents into a packet marked “Beef Hotpot” I stir, reseal and wait. Ten minutes later I open the pack, dip my spoon in and take a mouthful. It’s not exactly the beef hotpot I’ve had at home, and definitely not going to win any Michelin stars, the saltiness overpowering and the consistency of over-hydrated SMASH is less than inviting. But it’s warm and full of calories, and I devour it greedily.
Cooking, eating and drinking in the mountains doesn’t have to be a mediocre experience, though, as there are a wealth of products out there to ensure you can stay hydrated and well-sustained.
But what are the best stove systems for climbing?
On an alpine route, to stay hydrated you often need to melt snow to make water. To rehydrate your packet meals or cook your pasta or noodles you need water. For this, you need a stove. For simplicity, I’ll classify stoves into three categories: Multifuel stoves, Micro Burners and Compact Systems.
Multifuel stoves are just that. They run on gas canisters, white gas, kerosene, unleaded and various other variations. They have the benefit of being able to run on a variety of things, particularly if you’re visiting somewhere where gas canisters are not readily available, like The Greater Ranges. They can accommodate proper pans but are heavier and bulkier, yet they are usually pretty efficient boilers. They do need regular maintenance to avoid clogging up if you’re using kerosene (or unleaded in particular). They are generally heavier and more bulky than compact systems but very versatile and reliable if you look after them. Also remember that liquid fuels offer much better cold weather burn reliability, which is a definite concern for winter alpinism.
MSR Whisperlite Universal
I’ve been putting the MSR Whisperlite multifuel stove to test over the last few months and it really is excellent. It’s a classic workhorse and won’t let you down. Running on gas canisters, white gas or kerosene it performed excellently. It roars when you need it to, but also has excellent simmer control, which some of the other stoves lack. It does need care when changing from liquid fuels to gas canisters as a small, important component becomes exposed and could easily be lost.
Micro burners are super light, simple and compact: just screw on a canister and off you go. They’ll take any pans, your favourite espresso pot or camping kettle; there’s usually no windshield, heat exchanger or integrated pots. They are very versatile in lots of ways, and have certain limitations, namely a lack of heat exchanger and windshield for efficiency.
The Optimus Crux (and Crux Lite which weighs 11g less) is light small and dependable. Great for everything from car camping to backpacking or emergency brew kit when the power is off at home. Boasting 3000W of output, great stability and a compact size, you can use this with any pan set up, and most importantly your favourite espresso pot (try the GSI Espresso maker and double walled espresso cup). There is an optional windshield system, too, which expands its usability.
The first of the compact systems that I can remember (and still one of the most popular and successful) is the Jetboil. With compact systems, you get an insulated pot, burner and heat exchanger all in one package. The gas canister usually sits inside the pot with the burner and hanging kits and canister stands are useful optional extras. It’s designed to save space and maximise efficiency when melting snow and boiling water. Just don’t expect to be cooking up a 3 course meal for 6 people.
The Reactor is aimed at alpine climbers and mountaineers. This is my favourite stove for these applications, as it’s simple and super-efficient. I’ve used this on everything from the Eiger North Face to the service station car parks, and it really is a trusty workhorse. I did have one problem with get-ting it lit in high winds but this seems to have been an isolated incident, and when I spoke to MSR they told me that a steel and flint was the best way of lighting it in these (or any other) conditions. The Reactor has no integrated igniter, and I’m glad about this as in my experience they generally just break. The Reactor has a huge burner, quality pot and very efficient heat exchanger. It’s a great snow melter. It comes as standard with a 1.0l pan but a 2.5l one is also available for wider cooking applications larger teams. There is even a coffee plunger kit available [LEFT].
I owned one of the original Jetboil stoves and it did its job very well. I recently tested the Jetboil MiniMo, which is based on the same proven Jetboil technology but offers a wider pot to make eating easier. Basically, it’s more like eating out of a bowl than a cup. It is definitely a great stove although doesn’t melt snow as quickly as the Reactor. It also feels less simple and less solid. It has an integrated igniter, but I find this temperamental so generally just use a lighter or flint and striker. The wider pan is definitely a bonus when you’re eating out of it, too.
GSI Pinnacle Soloist Complete
This is an interesting system from GSI. It’s best described as modular, and sits between the light-weight simplicity of a micro burner, the functionality of a pan set and the efficiency and compact-ness of compact cooking system. You can use the burner on its own, add a windshield system, carry or leave the accessories, and use standard pans. The whole kit fits together incredibly well and is very versatile and light. Once again, a canister will nestle inside the pot. It’s a great system for versatility but again, not quite the efficiency of the Reactor. The kit is also available without the burner and windshield (Pinnacle Soloist) so you can just use your own micro burner.
Gas: the beta
Canister stove performance is greatly affected by temperature and altitude. Insulate the canister if possible, and keep it off the cold ground. Shaking and inverting canisters can greatly increase performance, and some stoves have a pre-heater system which increases burn efficiency. Tricks like keeping canisters warm inside a jacket or sleeping bag before use then insulation with a home-made foam jacket and accessory stand to keep them off the ground are useful things to aid performance. Different mixtures of Iso-Butane and Butane-Propane work best in different conditions and some companies offer special “winter mixes” that perform better in colder conditions.
An extended version of this piece appeared in Climb 137