Most of the people involved in regular sports do not realize about the difficulties that we mountaineers find along the way to the summit when it comes to having drinking water available at all times. During approach is normally easy to obtain water from rivers or springs, and in some civilized areas you’ll be able to get it in teahouses or similar places. Most of the time, these water sources are contaminated with various bacteria, viruses and protozoans. This becomes a real risk on areas where there is a prominence of farms and domestic animals, such us cows or yaks. Even in virgin mountain ranges like Jemtin Bel in Kyrgyzstan, where I was doing several unclimbed peaks this year, you might find the rotten body of a wild horse contaminating the pristine water sources. Microorganisms generally come from human and animal waste and are spread by rain and run-off.
Boiling is one of the oldest and most effective methods for sterilizing water, but it requires sufficient time and energy in the form of fuel. Boiling only eliminates micro-organisms. It will not cause the water to become clear, and chemical substances will remain inside. The various pathogens in water have different heat sensitivities, not all of them will be destroyed within the same time. At sea level the boiling point of water is 100°C. Boiling it for five minutes is adequate. At 4000 meters above sea level the boiling point drops to 86.8°C. At this altitude water must boil for 20 minutes. Therefore boiling water is normally not a completely safe option on high altitude expeditions. At Jemtin Bel basecamp I was provided with boiling water that was stored in barrels after treatment. These barrels were exposed to high temperatures and constant handling by expedition members that showed episodes of diarrhea. I felt like drinking water from the river was even safer than from these barrels…
Disinfectants destroy micro-organisms and thereby prevent the transmission of pathogens. The following substances and processes are allowed in the treatment of water: chlorine, chlorine gas, chlorine dioxide, iodine, ozone, silver and ultraviolet (UV) sanitizing. There are different products available in the market, but the one I found more effective and convenient is Micropur Forte disinfection tablets produced by Katadyn. These can be found in many places, but my favorite megastores are Decathlon and Globetrotter.
Decathlon is a major French-based sporting goods retailer operating hundreds of stores worldwide and serving 100 million customers every year. The start in France was with a shop in 1976. In the 90s, Decathlon expansion covered the rest of Europe and almost two years ago, in December 2010, the first Decathlon store in the Middle East was opened at the Mirdif City Centre in Dubai. Decathlon in Dubai is managed by the Azadea Group, a leading fashion and retail company present in the Middle East and North Africa, managing more than 45 international brands.
After few years using it, I find Micropur Forte the best water disinfection solution for the following reasons:
Silver ions combined with chlorine.Its technology is based on silver ions combined with chlorine, but it also contains Sodium dichloroisocyanurate wich is more expensive but more efficient than formerly used halazone water disinfectant. Mechanism of action is the release of chlorine in low concentrations by constant rate Chlorine disinfects water quickly and safely, and silver ions preserves water for up to 6 months.
Silver ion/chlorine dioxide based disinfecting agents will kill Cryptosporidum and Giardia, which neither chlorine nor iodine alone can be considered completely effective against. Boling will kill these microorganisms but with Micropur Forte there is no need to boil before treating.
It’s fast compared with other products and has a very long lasting effect. Eliminates bacteria and viruses in 30 minutes, amoebas and giardia in 120 minutes. Conserves drinking water for up to 6 months
It is very simple to use with high degree of user safety. Use one tablet for one litre of clear water, wait 10 minutes until the tablet has dissolved, shake well and wait another 20 minutes before using the water.
Small and handy packaging that fits everywhere. The tables are tiny and they come packed in two small blisters of 50 each, allowing for treatment of 100l
The light taste of chlorine is almost unnoticeable, and can be completely neutralized with Antichlorine produced by Katadyn other manufactures. I personally find it tasteless when using plastic bottles, metallic ones can become an issue after long periods of time due to the silver ions.
It is also ideal for conserving water free of micro-organisms in water tanks, water baths, air conditioning systems, heating systems, humidifiers, etc.
Micropur Forte has however some drawbacks:
The size of the tablets is so small that sometimes is impossible to handle them with globes. Many times I’ unsure I’ve actually dropped one tablet in the bottle or it got lost in between my fingers. Once in the water they are difficult to see. In most scenarios is quite handy to have very small size tablets, but when conditions harden, having big tablets will make things easier. I’d advise Katadyn to produce an alternative version in bigger sizes.
If the water is very cold the disinfectant effect slows down noticeably and then it’s important to wait up to two hours.
On non-clear water, suspended matter can weaken the effect of chlorine and silver ions. Therefore it’s advisable to use a microfilter like the one produced by Katadyn to treat cloudy water, which is the one commonly found around glaciers.
The cost of chlorine dioxide treatment is about four times higher than the cost of iodine treatment.
The use of metal container such us the classic aluminum bottles is not recommended since it can interact with the active components altering their properties. I used brand new aluminum bottles with Micropur Forte during my Island Peak expedition, and I noticed changes in the taste and smell of the water after couple of weeks. I used plastic bottles for my Khan Tengri expedition and I see difference, with none of these effects being noticed in four weeks or usage.
The maximum amount of silver in drinking water is 0.1mg/l. When this one is exceeded there is a risk of deposition and accumulation of silver compounds in various body tissues leading to a rare condition called argyria
At high elevations the water is normally found only on it solid forms. This for obvious reasons becomes a serious challenge when we need to drink big quantities but we don’t have liquid water sources for quick refill, disinfect and drink. Under these circumstances we have to be quite meticulous when calculating the amount of fuel plus treated water to take in our backpacks. Carrying an insufficient amount of water will lead to dehydration and all risks derived of it, as I explained in a previous post. Carrying a large amount of water will go to the detriment of food and fuel to be carried up the hill. Not enough fuel means little possibilities to prepare water and food, which by all means will have disastrous consequences. There are different factors that can be considered on our attempts to resolve the equation:
- Using a light system to prepare water will allow you to carry more fuel and drinking water.
- Using an energy efficient system to prepare water will allow you to carry less fuel and more drinking water
- Improving the water rehydrating characteristics by adding electrolytes will allow you to carry more fuel and less drinking water
During my last few expeditions where we climb alpine style, we used gas cylinders and very light stoves. We also used heat deflective panels to improve the efficiency, by protecting the stove from the wind and concentrating the heat in the pan. In my recent speed ascent to Mt Damavand in Iran I used a Vango Ultralight Gas Stove with a large gas cylinder (propane and butane), and a mid-size aluminum kettle and pan. Since this was a fast ascent and we planned to spend the night in a shelter, we decided to save some grams with this system, but when camping outdoors it will be ideally complemented with the Vango Windshield, and bringing two or three small gas cylinders will make more sense. In my Khan Tengri Expedition we opted for the MSR WindPro II Stove with small gas cylinders (propane and butane) for improved cold-weather and low-fuel performance, combined with the Alpine 2 Pot Set that allows preparation of large amount of water for cooking and drink. The decision of using this system was made considering that in this climb we were looking at splitting food, gas and group gear in between teams of two. The Alpine Pot Set is ideal to prepare cooking water in the 1l pan, and once this one is boiled you can quickly switch to the 2l pan to melt snow to refill drinking bottles.
For the hardest conditions and lightest ascents there is a product that I have not had the opportunity to test yet, and it’s growing its popularity worldwide. I’m talking about the MSR Reactor, which features a radiant burner enclosed by a unique heat exchanger for the best performance in windy conditions. It has an advanced pressure regulator which provides optimal heat output over the life of a fuel canister. For maximum portability, the stove and fuel stow inside of a high-efficiency 1.7liter pot.
Both MSR and Vango products are distributed in UAE by Global Climbing, the main distributor of outdoor adventure brands in the Middle East. Global Climbing is also the regional representative of Walltopia climbing walls and HRT, two of the worlds largest and most innovative companies working with artificial climbing structures.
As for which gas to use, Butane or Propane, there are important differences to consider even though the physical properties of the two gases are similar. Butane is less toxic and contains around 12% more energy than Propane, and so you can squeeze more running time into the same sized bottle. It is heavier, but can be stored in light containers. There is only one disadvantage on the use of Butane against Propane, but for us mountaineers it a big one. The liquid in the bottle must be able to boil into a gas. In the case of Butane, this will happen at any temperature above -2°C, whereas with Propane, this figure is much lower, at -42°C. This means Butane will be useless most of the time, but propane requires heavy steel canisters to safely contain it due to the high vapor pressure at common ambient temperatures. A good compromise between burning efficiency at low temperatures and weight, is the use of blended fuel. The thinner canisters can handle up to about 30% propane, with the remainder being butane. The propane in blended fuels drives the system with its low boiling point, providing vapor pressure while the butane gas is carried along and burned with the propane. However at very low temperatures the propane burns off first, causing performance to drop for the last third of a canister. High altitude however offsets the effect of cold temperatures. The lower atmospheric pressure makes it easier for the liquid fuel to vaporize in the canister and supply the burner with gas.
In high altitude there are two things we can do to improve the efficiency of our canister stove system. Use blended fuel, and under freezing temperatures try to warm the canister to temperature over above °C. This can be achieved in many different ways, but always with extreme care to prevent disasters from happening, such us globes or tents going up in flames. Storing a gas cylinder in our sleeping bag will secure a good fuel performance in the morning. When we are about to finish a canister and before we switch to a new one, we can place it on top of the pan and some heat will transfer from the lid to the canister. Using some heat deflective and wind protection system, such as the Vango Windshield we already mentioned, will help heating up the canister during the process of burning. In case of emergency it is very useful to light up a small candle and use it to heat up the canister. In all cases we have to make sure the temperature of the canister doesn’t get too high. If it feels hot when touching, then we are crossing the limits…
One important point many people don’t take into consideration is that piezoelectric lighters do not work at all at moderate to high altitudes. Some gas stoves include one, but the spark won’t light up, making the system unusable. The voltage produced by the quartz crystal when deformed is too low with low air pressure, thus the spark is not lighted up. Always carry classic lighters, especially the ones producing lots of sparks, such as the old Zippo. Having waterproof matches as a backup is always a life saver.
One more thing that worth commenting in terms of efficiency when using water sources, is the type of food we bring up the mountain. I will write a separate article on this, since it a pretty extensive subject, but to for now I just want to mention few points. Food has to be tasty and energetic but we have to be cautious with certain aliments that require big amounts of water to be digested, such as those with high protein/fiber content. And of course avoid the consumption of foods and drinks that force the body to dehydrate, such as alcoholic drinks. If carrying extra weight is not a point of concern, it’s always a good idea to eat food that rehydrates you at the same time, allowing you to safe fuel on the process of preparing food and drinks. This is the case of almost all fruits and vegetables, but in high altitude expeditions it worth considering packed meals that are not freeze dried, but instead they only need to be heated for few minutes or can be eaten cold. During my recent Khan Tengri expedition, along with the popular Mountain House and extraordinarily delicious yet expensive FuiZion freeze dried food, we had Wayfayrer Meal Pouches ready to eat. I found them very convenient because you can eat them hot or cold as all contents are fully cooked. What you do is melting the snow, removing pouches from protective over-pack and putting a couple of them in the water to warm the food. Then you bring the water to boil, removing the pouches from the pan, and you can eat the food with its liquid contents while drinking the water you boiled in the process. In an emergency, when there is not water or fuel to prepare the classic freeze dried food, you can eat Wayfayrer Meals and that will rehydrate you and give you energy for few hours. These guys have also an alternative packaging for the Hot Food Kits, featuring a Heater System that is triggered when adding water. These are more expensive than the standard one we used, but surprisingly they weight the same, 300g per packet.
Coming back to our main subject, once the water is treated it has to be stored and transported. There are important points to consider here if we don’t want to end up with surprises when climbing high altitude. Water bottles and containers have to be selected according to different requirements. First the material must be strong and light and able to protect the water from the environment. Metallic bottles fulfill these entire requirements. They do not deform or brake with temperature changes or small impacts. This is extremely important as some other materials can become unusable very easily, which will force us to abandon our climb before finding a replacement. All parts in the bottle must be strong and preferably not detachable. Losing the bottle cap while handling with thick globes will make the bottle unusable. Classic aluminum and steel bottles are quite popular, but they have some problems. Fist the disinfectants, as we already discussed, can react with metal and the water properties will be altered or not sanitized properly. Also the bottlenecks are normally thin which make quite difficult and dangerous pouring boiling water from the pan, or adding purifying tablets or other additives. The caps tend to freeze easily, and those with flip straw become useless below 0°C. Plastic containers such us the Lifeventure Tritan® Flasks are more convenient. They are strong, with wide mouth and attached loop-top that never gets lost, screws on and off easily and rarely freeze. They are made of BPA free translucent copolyester, which is almost impossible to break, odourless and tasteless, allows you to see the contents, and do not interfere with the chemical sanitizers. They are also my favorite pick as pee bottle. For long and demanding expeditions I carry two 1l flasks in my backpack along with a small 500ml Lifeventure Tritan® Bottle. This one I keep it warm and accessible in my down jacket, and I refill it with the contents of the big flasks. It’s easier to drink small zips constantly if the liquid is accessible and not too cold to scare your taste buds. Drinking small zips constantly will keep you hydrated as I discussed in a previous post. The only problem I see with these water containers is that the contents tend to freeze easily, including the one in the pee bottle… A frozen pee bottle cannot be emptied, and believe me, in a very long and cold night in your expedition tent that is not fun at all! There are thermal covers that can be used with these flasks and bottles, such us the Lifeventure Thermal Mug Jacket that fits the Tritan Bottle. For the pee bottle, a good advice is to use one of these covers for your 1l flask, and after you take the first leak, unseal one chemical foot warmer, stick it to the bottle inside the cover to keep the liquid nice and warm till the morning. Leave some room inside the sleeping bag for water bottles and all gadgets, and use my trick to leave the potty outside.
For my Jentim Bel Unclimbed Peaks and Khan Tengri expeditions this year I used a totally new product that is designed by Zefal to keep your drink at an optimal temperature for over 2 hours and a half. And it really worked well! The Zefal Arctica bottle is strong and flexible, with wide opening that hardly freezes, and the insulation is optimal. It’s BPA free, odourless and tasteless, with a capacity of 700ml. Once you fill the bottle with hot liquid, you can leave it outside your sleeping bag, and after ten hours sleeping you’ll find the contents ready to drink. Close to the mouth where the insulation is minimal, you can find some ice, but that can be avoided by adding extra insulation to that part with a cover you can make yourself with neoprene. The inner tank is removable, and between this one and the outer tank there is the same material used in the insulation bags you can buy in the supermarket to transport frozen food. Removing these parts however is not advisable in my opinion, since they are partially sealed at the mouth, and I suspect we can alter the thermal properties of the system. There is something to take care with when using these bottles. The plastic is strong and flexible, but when you pour boiling water in, the inner tank deforms due to the difference of temperature with the outer. The volume then tends to shrink, meaning that we reduce it from 700ml to something around 500ml as per my calculations. When this happens you can always unseal and remove the inner tank and bring it back to its original form using your hands and some heat.
Zefal products are distributed in UAE by Sport In Life, distributors of Polar Heart Rate Monitors, 2XU Performance Gear, Nathan Sports, GU Energy and Aqualyte. They have a nice online shop SportSouq.ae and Facebook page to keep us updated with events such as the recent Warehouse Sale or Wadi Adventure competition.
All products distributed by Global Climbing and Sports in Life can be found in many places in Dubai, but the one shop stop for outdoor enthusiast is Adventure HQ. Located at Dubai’s Times Square Centre, it is the ultimate destination for outdoor adventure gear. They also have an Adventure Zone featuring the Cable Climb and Climbing Pinnacle, as well as a The Chill Chamber where you can experience -25C temperatures. I was lucky to have Adventure HQ allowing me to use such facility to test my brand new equipment for few days before departing to my Khan Tengri Expedition, and I look forward to get help from them again as I prepare for my next extreme challenge. I totally recommend all adventure junkies in UAE to visit the store and sign up for the free Adventure Club membership. This give us access to special member only offers and keep us up to date with cool events, promotions and other benefits. From time to time we get things like 100DHs vouchers!