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Alpinism: what does "Fast & Light" really mean?

What is Fast & Light? The latest fad? A dangerous and reckless style? Or an inherent necessity for peace of mind when high-alpine climbing? These questions prompted us to think about the change over time in our approach to the mountains and the improvements technical gear. During the 2016 Arc'Teryx Alpine Academy, Pierre Plaze, sports product manager at Petzl, and Colin Haley, a professional alpinist, presented their vision of Fast & Light and the key questions to ask before launching out of the starting gate.

October 12 2016


Colin Haley

Colin Haley's philosophy of "Fast & Light"

"Moving faster in the mountains means spending less time exposed to the risks of being in the mountains, but it also means having a smaller margin of safety should something go wrong.

In the mountains, ditching a heavy pack to climb fast & light can be a fantastic experience. Not only do you gain the benefit of spending less time exposed to objective danger but you also experience the sheer pleasure of moving in the mountains and climbing over terrain with less effort.

Moving quickly primarily comes from your physical condition as well as your level of experience moving in the mountains with a small pack. For someone who is already a good climber, reducing the weight of the gear will help you to move faster. However, you should be aware of the risks involved when lightening your pack. Certain weight savings have little to no downside, whereas others mean a very big trade-off in terms of safety.

For example, the replacing steel with aluminum ice screws will significantly reduce weight without any impact on safety and very little impact in terms of technical performance. However, choosing to leave your bivy gear at home in order to climb a route in one day instead of two will probably work in good weather and good conditions, but you are goal taking a much greater risk. If unforeseen elements, such as climbing slower than planned, forces you to spend the night out, what could have been originally a comfortable bivy, will turn into a serious condition where you risk hypothermia.

Most people find it beneficial to reduce the weight they carry in the mountains. To climb fast and light, it is important to remember that the gear you choose depends on the skills and experience acquired during time spent in a high-alpine environment. Best start in a more conventional style, and over time learn how to lighten your pack while maintaining a comfortable margin of safety."

Colin Haley

The evolution of climbing gear: lighter weight, better technical performance, and more comfortable.


During the Fast & Light conference in Chamonix, Colin Haley and Peter Plaze explain what weight gains are feasible with climbing gear.

Climbing and mountaineering gear has changed as much in terms of weight as in technical performance and comfort. If you compare the weight of two individual carabiners, for example, the difference is minor, but when you multiple dozens of grams saved across your entire kit, it translates to shaving several kilograms off the overall weight of your pack.

Changes in equipment performance have had a direct impact on weight savings out in the field. For example, the technical innovations in rope production have led to dry treatments that not only improve a rope's performance but also keep it lighter in the field. 

Below is a comparison between today's gear and gear from the past.

Technical mountaineering gear: -5 kg 


Technical ski mountaineering gear: -2 kg 


Key Questions When Deciding If Fast & Light Is Right For You

As Colin Haley explained, your choice of gear depends first and foremost on your skills and physical shape, as well as on your experience in the mountains. The choice to move towards a fast and light approach should be made with the full knowledge of the consequences and tradeoffs. This will allow you to tackle more challenging projects and to improve risk management of objective of hazards such as rock fall or avalanches; however it will reduce the backup options available to you.

Here are a FEW key issues you should you ask yourself before deciding whether or not to take a fast and light approach. 

  • Is the weather forecast good and steady? 
  • Is the climb in good condition?
  • Are my partner and I in good physical condition and acclimated?
  • Am I well within my physical abilities?

Now it's up to you to decide!

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