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Backpacker Magazine – August 2001

Ultralight vs. Ultranormal

How light can you go? Six friends face off to determine whether carrying less gear makes you half as macho, or twice as smart.

by: Andy Dappen

PAGE 1 2 3 4 5 6

At the col, we all also don crampons. My strap-on aluminum crampons (1 pound 4 ounces) are a pound lighter than Marc's steel points, yet for nontechnical travel across blue-ice glaciers or up icy snow slopes, they provide equal bite. In fact, because slips on snow cause many backpacking accidents, I contend that wearing light shoes and carrying aluminum crampons is not only lighter, more versatile, and cheaper, but also safer than heading into the high country outfitted only with stiff leather boots, as some hikers might do to "save" the weight of crampons. My shoes and crampons weigh only 3 pounds 6 ounces, considerably less than Marc's big boots alone, which weigh 4 pounds 8 ounces.

We make a mile-long traverse of the Butterfly Glacier and, though the ice is hard and the pitch very steep, Steve and I have no trouble with our light footwear. An hour later, we downclimb glacier-polished slabs with greater ease and safety than do the Heavies, thanks to the improved balance afforded by our light packs and flexible shoes.

Late in the afternoon, we reach a ridge above Moth Lake, a glacially fed tarn where we will camp. The Heavies are feeling their extra pounds, but the Lightweights are still fresh. Steve tells me he used to pack heavy like the others, and "8 to 10 miles was a big day then." A paradigm shift made him realize he could get by with leaving much of his load behind. "Traveling light has eliminated neck problems backpacking was causing me. It's also made 25-mile days no big deal," he says.

While the Heavies trudge on to camp, Steve branches off for a side trip. He jogs along a broad, scenic ridge and gradually climbs 1,500 vertical feet to the summit of an 8,000-foot peak overlooking Moth Lake. At camp, Marc drops his pack; watching Steve's upward progress, he mutters, "No way I want to do that now." It's a convincing win for the lightweights.
Lightniks 5 Heavies 4


The morning is spent sidehilling steep slopes and scrambling over cliff bands blocking our progress. The light packs make boulder hopping, scrambling, and climbing simple. Steve and I scamper over boulders up which we must sometimes help the Heavies.

After lunch, we move onto the Honeycomb Glacier, a 3-mile-long river of ice, and begin climbing. The Heavies lean into their loads and frequently stare down at their boots. Steve, by contrast, is looking everywhere--up at the spires flanking us, sideways at the volcanic hulk of Glacier Peak, backward at the green lake below the terminal moraine--and snapping pictures as he walks.

At 7,400 feet, the party splits. The three hikers wearing the biggest packs exit the glacier and make a beeline to camp. Chris, with his middling weight, joins the lightweights, and we shift into high gear. Adding a few hours to the day, we climb a peak feeding this glacier, drop off the peak's far side, and follow a circuitous return that has us reaching camp just after dark.

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Reader Rating: Star Star Star Star


Star Star Star Star Star
Feb 14, 2013

Less weight = less calories burned = less food needed.

Less weight = better = funner

If you hike for 8 hours, go light, I run circles around my friends and they are more in shape than me!

Sep 25, 2008

i never knew people packed so much crap. in my 20 years of backpacking (i'm 28) i've never carried more than a 25 pound pack on 3-4 day trips in the high sierra, grand canyon, etc. - but as a girl who gets cold, i say don't skimp on warmth, skimp on food. i've never carried a stove or all the gear associated with that. so, i'd suggest skipping that for sure.

Sep 18, 2008

two words. soccer shorts. light, dry fast, look more acceptable than boxers, and most of all, don't hold odor like boxers do.

juan lopez dungog
Jul 16, 2008

more than 15 years ago, i have insisted that trekking should be done as light as possible, today it is still a matter of how much money to spend on this ultralight

greg richmond
Apr 21, 2008

I'm 59 and just did the Grand Canyon (South Kaibab and Bright Angel) with a 42 lb. pack. It was very tough for me at 195 lbs. I will go light.


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