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Climber, Guide, Gear Geek: Gear Design Advice from Peter Whittaker

Calling all equipment designers: Everest summiteer and Rainier veteran Peter Whittaker has some advice.
fall gear guide 09 peter whittaker 445x260Whittaker nears Everest's Khumbu Icefall (Jake Norton/First Ascent)

In the past year, Whittaker, co-owner of Rainier Mountaineering, Inc., the largest mountain-guiding company in the country, has summited the world’s highest peak and South America’s (Aconcagua). But he says those climbs pale in comparison to his other recent accomplishment: designing high-performance mountaineering apparel and gear for Eddie Bauer’s new First Ascent line. In field-testing from Vermont to Colorado to Virginia to Washington, we’ve found the jackets, layers, and packs to be some of the year’s best. Whittaker, also a longtime sponsor with BACKPACKER of Big City Mountaineers, dropped by our offices recently to chat gear design. Here’s what he’s learned in his new career:

  • Follow the four-second rule. “There are zillions of zippers out there. Here’s how you choose: If it takes you longer than four seconds to get your jacket zipped, it’s not going to work on the mountain. Try another zipper–or if you’re a consumer in the store, try another jacket.”

  • Strip away the doodads. “Most new, whiz-bang features just get in the way. You don’t need a pocket on your forearm when you have a Napoleon pocket. And I have no idea why glove designers insist on putting that webbing loop on the back of the middle finger–I’ve heard it’s so you can hang them to dry, but tell me–who does that at 17,000 feet?”
  • Kill the pit zips. “If you’re using pit zips on a big mountain, then you shouldn’t be wearing a jacket anyway. As mountain guides, when we look back and see clients fiddling with pit zips, we see people not paying attention to the climb and compromising safety. Too hot? Pull up your sleeves or unzip your shirt to get some ventilation.”

  • Don’t be afraid to scrap a bad idea. “On Everest, we watched our prototype tent flapping in the wind, and Ed Viesturs and I dived into a competitor’s tent instead. We killed that design and are spending another year in development rather than putting out a subpar product.”

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