What would you take on a last-minute invitation to join a five-day “commercial feasibility” backpacking expedition with a bunch of Polish explorers to the source of the Amazon, in mid-winter high in the Peruvian Andes? We put our feelers out for gear that could withstand hiking and camping at 16,000 feet (including a side jaunt up 18,363-foot Mt. Nevado Mismi), and keep our tester warm enough to still jot down notes. If you ever find yourself in the same boat (contact www.classic-travel.com if you want to), here are some Cliff notes on what we discovered:  


SmartWool’s PhD Mountaineering sock

SmartWool’s PhD Mountaineering sock
With a new 4 Degree Elite Fit System, featuring two elastics for greater stretch and fit, the PhD proved invaluable—especially when pulling on climbing boots at 3 a.m. Their mesh ventilation zones provided ventilation when and where needed—like when crammed inside a tent with smelly Polish adventurers—and a heavy-cushioned heel helped for descending the cobblestones of the Incan trail. $25.95, www.smartwool.com

Honey Stinger
Note to self: Next time, acclimate. Honey Stinger’s Cherry Chews and Honey Waffle were the only things I could keep down after hurling three times right before our 3:30 a.m. departure to climb Mt. Mismi. I went from a quick night at 12,000 feet to the next at 16,200, my innards expressing their disapproval. But Honey Stinger powered me up the peak. And the next morning, Honey Stinger gel never tasted so good when dissolved into a cup of coca tea (mate del coca). Box of 12: Chews: $26.28/Waffles: $22.24, www.honeystinger.com

Puffies
Sierra Designs Gnar Lite DriDown Jacket/Westcomb Cayoosh LT Hoody
Okay, so I was a weenie. Instead of just bringing one puffy, I brought two. But I still remembered freezing my ass off the last time I did a trip with the Poles in Peru, and I actually wore them both at the same time (after all, it was mid-winter at 17,000 feet in the Andes).

Sierra’s Gnar Lite jacket (gotta’ love the name) was que bueno for its 800-fill hydrophobic DriDown. It was my go-to puff, complete with hood in a light (12 oz.), compressible package. And its elasticized cuffs with thumb holes kept my hands warm when slashing my ice-ax through those confounding penitente ice formations. $229, www.sierradesigns.com


Westcomb Cayoosh LT Hoody

Westcomb’s Cayoosh LT Hoody had the benefit of stretch side-panels for ease of motion—especially handy when swinging my hiking pole and when, after the climb, I swallowed my pride and climbed onto a horse for the final push to Camp Two. Made from Polartec WindPro and hand-picked 850-fill Hutterite down (from mature Embden geese), it comes with a 20-denier Pertex Quantum exterior for strength and abrasion resistance, perfect for errant scuffs along the Incan trail. It was also the perfect weight for the descent back into the Colca Valley to the hot springs waiting below. $260, www.westcomb.com


Westcomb Switch Shell

Westcomb Switch Shell
I usually hike hot, stripping down to the bare bones, but I wore the minimalist Westcomb Switch LT Hoody all the way to top of Mt. Mismi, with nary a bead of sweat. At 15 ounces, the Switch is the lightest NeoShell jacket in the market. After testing its breathability, its waterproofness came into play when I hunched over to fill my water bottle from the ice-lined waterfall at the Amazon’s source. Its pockets were perfectly placed for easy access to items like sunscreen, camera and shades. I also liked the one-handed hood operation when I had to keep hold of the horse’s saddlehorn while fending off an Andean snowstorm. $430, www.westcomb.com


Woolrich Cross Country Tech UPF Shirt

Woolrich Catalyst/Cross Country Tech UPF Shirts
There’s nothing like feeling a bit stylish when you’re out in the boonies. Such was the case with the moisture-wicking, quick-drying, wrinkle-resistant Woolrich Catalyst (short-sleeve) and Cross Country Tech (long sleeve) shirts that made the list. Made from 65% nylon/35% polyester, the Catalyst’s plaid was handy when it got hot, with a back vent and mesh inner back. Bonus: its Pee Wee Herman-like plaid hid stains from hypoxic eating sessions. The Cross Country got more use, if nothing else for its long sleeves. Made from 100 percent peached nylon, it has a cool pocket configuration with a right zippered chest pocket and dual-entry left chest pocket. My iPod fit perfectly into its breast pocket to drown out snores from the Poles, though my camera fell out of said pocket when I bent over to tie my boots. $59, www.woolrich.com

Gerber Instant
The Gerber Instant knife was an instant success, especially when I chipped in with the cooks to help carve up some alpaca steaks in the cook tent. With a stainless steel blade length of 3.33 inches and overall length of 7.75 inches, there was plenty of purchase for everything from the last meal’s mystery meat to cutting shock cord for my crampons. Its Assisted Opening 2.0 mechanism made for easy, one-handed blade opening—a bonus in the frigid temperatures – with its thumb plunge easily unlocking the blade for closure. $49, www.gerbergear.com

Big Agnes Fly Creek Ultralight Solo Tent
When I finally set up the Big Agnes three-season, free-standing Fly Creek tent, I had my first dreams of the entire trip. Night one I was sandwiched between snoring Poles in another tent for our crack-of-dawn climb. Night two I was too busy hurling. Finally on night three I had my own breathing and bedding room. It was a breeze to set up sight unseen, even in an Andean breeze and my hypoxic state, and my feet settled into its tapered shape perfectly. It also had enough room for my pack to the side of me. On the aesthetic side, its yellow fly augmented our last night’s Andean sunset. $319.95, www.bigagness.com

Big Agnes McAlpine Sleeping Bag/Air Core Pad
On my last trip with the Poles, a few years earlier on a first descent down upper Colca Canyon, I froze my butt off in Yurek’s “40-degree” bag. The Big Agnes 0-degree McAlpine bag was my ace in the hole, far warmer than anything the Poles brought. The traditional mummy bag features DownTek water repellent down, useful for when condensation from ice crystals on the tent ceiling melted and dripped. It’s also anti-microbial and anti-bacterial. Making matters warmer: a no-draft collar seal around the neck, a no-draft wedge between the bag and pad, an no-draft zipper tube. $359.95 – $379.95, www.bigagnes.com
    
Helinox Trekking Pole
It’s funny that I brought a trekking pole when trekking with Poles. But the Helinox Passport Twist-Lock worked out great, and I’m now a convert. They broke down well into my pack for the flight, were easily adjustable, and helped stave off boredom on the incessant hike by stabbing dirt clods. I used it up Mismi, to the source and over the Contintenal Divide, and would have felt naked without it. It was easy to adjust to different heights, and stayed in place, even on errant full-weight leans. The only knock: that same soft foam grip that feels so good in your hands is also a magnet for thistles. $119.95, www.helinox.com

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