What did you find out? It seems to me you want an 11-32 cassette, but (if I remember) you told me you had an 11-28 (same lowest gear as mine). I'm thinking of switching too so that I can do climbs like Greylock, or in the Whites, without panicking that I'll croak.
She's looking into the possibilities. Not room for 11-34 without a different rear derailleur, but 11-32 should be doable.
Correction: I have a 10-sprocket 12-30 cassette. But I'd like to extend it a bit on both ends to 11-32 if I can put a 11-sprocket cassette on. Maybe do it in conjunction with a wheel upgrade :-)
I rode across the US with a four sprocket freewheel that was something like 14-28. I think 52-45 on the front? I'll try to remember to look when I get home next week. But I was a lot younger then.
Today compact chainsets with 50-34 are pretty standard for touring, i.e., non-racing, bikes. Gives a lot lower gearing on the small ring.
When I was a teenager, it was all about "10-speed" bikes. (I had a Schwinn! They dominated the market back then, but today I think they just sell cheap crap at Walmart.) Then the "standard" number of speeds just seemed to keep going up every few years. After college, I had a Bianchi for many years that was a 12 speed. (One of the Bianchi's that were made more cheaply in Asia.) The Canondale I got about 20 years ago was an 18 speed. The carbon synapse I got two years ago was 20 speed. Today, 22 speed seems to be the norm.
Do you have a triple up front? I don't know much about trying to shoehorn more cogs than originally intended, but adding a "granny" gear up front can greatly increase your range of gear ratios (translates to ability to climb inclines more easily).
You just need to be able to stand up to any "fitter-than-thou" criticism from purists who would pooh-pooh you for having a triple. [Full disclosure: I have triples on both my bikes.]
Bianchi's: cut it out. :-)
Philosopher's can't help it.
I really don't see the point of an 11 tooth gear, I certainly can't push that with anything like a 52 tooth big ring in front. What speed are you going at 90 rpm in that gear? I would have to be going downhill, and I don't pedal downhills, I go fast enough using gravity!
Going from 28 to 32 is a 14% lower gear, noticeable, but not a big gain ( a big gain is 20%. If it's all you can do, then go for it. The real gain can be made in the front rings. As Phil says 34 inner rings are common these days, that's the first place to look.
And I totally agree with Sam, triples are wonderful, you can really lay on some low gears if you go with a 24 or 26 inner ring there.
My Vent Noir still has the original crankset, 42/53, originally a 14-22 rear! now a 13-30 I think.
And changing the rear derailleur is no big deal, sometimes only the shift cage can be changed.
I don't pedal downhills, I go fast enough using gravity!
I pedal on moderate downhills, and sometimes my 12 cog is topped out even though I would like to go faster. (I'm not efficient enough to go 90rpm; I'm usually around 80 or less.) So I would get some use out an 11 cog. The 11 cog with my compact (50 on the big ring in front) is similar to the 12 cog with the 53 I used to ride; so really the 11 cog would just be to get the high gear back I used to have.
The problem is, I have a 10 speed, and to get the 11 I would have to lose the 14; and no doubt the 14 is overall a more useful gear, and would be missed.