What should the well equipped UK winter climber be using this year
29 November 2008
Note: Many of these articles are very old, and although the technical information is still relevant the equipment mentioned may not be (for example a Stormy cooker was state of that art in 1995, but not in 2021).
It’s that time of year again; time to dig out all your winter kit for another season of chasing conditions. It’s now that you begin to wonder if you’re kits still up to the task, or if there are alternatives on the market that may make things easier this season. Well this months Gear section is dedicated to UK winter gear, and is designed as a kit list both the beginner and the experienced winter sufferer. The article is primarily aimed at UK winter climbing, which unlike many foreign winter designations, tends to be more on the adventurers side, but most of the gear is transferable onto winter climbs anywhere. This article don’t cover the whole issue of what clothing the wear as this was dealt with in the last issue, or the winter rack due to a lack of space (see further reading).
If you’re climbing roadside ice or bolted mixed climbs abroad then you can get away with very lightweight footwear, including ‘Fruit’ style boots with the crampons being bolted to the soles of your rock boots. Many of the top end performance winter boots are designed for this type of climbing, being like formula one racing cars; fast, light and not very waterproof. For UK winter climbing you really need more of a 4X4 boot, as the demands placed on your footwear are far higher in every respect apart from climbing, but if these demands aren’t met then you probably won’t be climbing anyway. So here’s a quick checklist of things to bear in mind:-
Most winter climbs in the UK require a long approach of at least an hour or more, often involving steep climbs and perhaps more importantly steep descents on the way out. You will also often be carrying big loads of climbing gear and survival equipment (clothing, food etc), which may weight considerably more when everything is soaking wet at the end of the day. This puts a further strain on your feet increasing the importance of fit. Ill fitted boots will lead to raw feet, bruised toes and strained and damaged tendons, reducing both your effectiveness and enjoyment (front pointing with blisters the size of Cornish pasties isn’t fun). Another reason for having well fitted boots is that due to the sparseness of winter conditions, it’s vital that you maximise your time on the hill, and with most climbers fitting in winter climbs at weekends, knackering your feet on Saturday will probably mean you’re left trawling souvenir and coffee shops while your mates do laps on Meggie on Sunday. The real test comes on extended trips, were you’re asking your poor feet to bash up mountains every day. Lastly speed plays a big part in winter climbing, first off all beating other parties to your climb, and then beating storm and darkness back to the car and hobbling around on bloody stumps isn’t conducive for either.
First off all Boots need to be fitted correctly to begin with. Forget that you’ll be climbing in these boots to begin with, and focus instead on their walking comfort. This is because even if you end up with a pair of boots that aren’t perfect for climbing, you’ll still be able to climb in them well anough, but if they climb brilliantly, but you can’t walk in them, then you’ll get nowhere near any ice or rock. Try the boots on with the sock combination you’d normally wear (probably a thin wicking sock and a thick insulating/padding sock), and stomp around the shop to check they’ll be up for the job (try and find a shop with a slope for testing toe strike). No mountain boot will feel 100% perfect from the beginning (they shouldn’t), as breaking them in is an important part of the boot fitting process. This is because the bonafidi mountain boots use heavy weight materials that will require breaking in order to finish the fitting process. For this reason it’s vital that you buy your boots as early as possible and use them on your pre winter training walks and climbs (or on the treadmill down the gym). Once broken in they should give you years of stout service.
Once you feel the boots are good enough for the walking then have a look at their climbing abilities. Have a climb on the shops climbing wall, or some shop fittings where you can try out the boots edging abilities. See how stiff the ankle and cuff is – does it stop you making long steps sideways for example? In my experience a climbing boot often needs it’s lacing to be adjusted for climbing, locking the ankle in place with more force (this is where gaiters with Velcro or bottom zippers come in handy as you can adjust your boots without having to unzip them totally, which can be a pain when they are buried under over trousers). Getting a great climbing fit can often seem impossible, but in my experience how they feel in the shop is no indication how they feel at the sharp end, as you have some many other things going on in your head that a little heal lift doesn’t even register. The stiffness of boots has decreased over the last few years, and although this can make boots feel much nicer to climb in, it does mean that you’re feet are forced to do more of the work, especially when front pointing, or edging on tiny features. It’s for this reason that I’d recommend any new climbers, or those that aren’t super fit, to ere towards the stiffer boots (Scarpa Cumbre, Sportiva Nepal Extreme, Kayland Super Ice etc), as these provide far more support over the course of a day, meaning you’re feet will feel less tired when you make it back home. One final note about boot fitting: mountain boots are notoriously difficult to fit correctly, as you’re never sure if they’re going to be right until you’ve finally broken them in. It’s for this reason that I’d recommend buying your boots form a shop that has a good boot return policy, meaning they will give you a percentage of the price your boots if you bring them back and swap them for another size or model of boot. These kinds of shops also tend to put a lot of effort into correct boot fitting in the first place – after all they don’t want to be left with tons of second hand boots to sell.
Having wet feet isn’t conducive to an enjoyable mountain day. First of all wet feet are cold feet, and although you’d be unlucky to suffer frostbite in the UK, you may experience a great deal of pain standing around on cold belays. Secondly wet feet are more prone to blisters and other foot nastiness. If you’re boots are soaked at the end of the day then can often be a battle to get them dry unless you’ve got access to a drying room – not an option if you’re camping, sleeping in your car or dosing in a toilet. Dry boots mean uppers that are designed for full mountain conditions (slush, rain, rivers and bogs), not mincing around Cogne with a baguette under your arm. Most lightweight boots are more like rock boots these days, and are only meant to be snow proof; often using lighter synthetic alternatives to leather that don’t remain waterproof for the life of the boot. A full winter mountain boot should have a substantial upper of full grain leather, heavy weight synthetic laminate, or good old plastic. This should be backed up with a good solid rand which when combined with a gaiter should cover 80% of the boot. Boots that feature a breathable membrane add an extra waterproof backup to saturated or tired leather – juts don’t expect them to breath! Keep you’re leather healthy and waterproof by regularly applying a good quality wax. My personal favourite is Scarpa HS-12 which seem to give excellent longevity.
Having feet like blocks of ice is also not conducive to pleasant belays, and can cause a loss of sensation that can make climbing feel much harder (like climbing with blocks of wood on your feet). The trick to warm feet is to both keep your feet dry and give them enough room for the blood to circulate. I’ve covered keeping the water out above, but what about sweat? If you suffer from very sweaty feet then you may find your socks are saturated by the time you get to the climb, chilling your feet quickly when you stop. Vapour barrier socks are over the top for UK climbing (basically plastic bags that stop sweat getting into your socks) but one way to reduce the problem is to spray your feet with antiperspirant , which will reduce the amount of moisture in your sock. The effectiveness of this varies so it’s worth playing around with several brands, including gels, in order to find which one works best (I’m told you can get a very powerful antiperspirant on prescription, but I’ve yet to track it down). Giving your feet room for the blood to circulate is difficult as you’re trying to clamp your lacing down so as to increase your control over your boots, and so it’s a balancing act between control and warmth. The only advice I can give is to try and keep the pressure over the top of the foot low (with more tension being applied to the ankle). Perhaps the biggest factor is the quality of both your circulation and the warmth of your boots, as this varies dramatically. A lightweight plastic boot is infinitely warmer then a lightweight leather boot, and so this should be taken into account when choosing footware. Another factor is how fast you climb, or the types of routes you do, as standing around for long periods is guaranteed to make anyone’s toes turn blue.
Winter sock combos are down to personal preference, with some people wearing a thin and a thick combo, while others just wear two pairs of thick socks. Socks with a high synthetic content will dry faster then those with a high wool content, but wool socks feel warmer, especially when wet. The downside with wool is that it’s far less robust then synthetic yarns, and so almost all socks use a combination of the two. When buying socks make sure they are the right size, as socks even slightly too small may reduce your circulation. Some climbers carry a spare pair of socks to change into if there socks become wet (good for the walk out), and these can carry out a duel role as emergency mitts.
There are dozens of gaiter types on the market, from the full coverage yeti style, to the skimpy stop tous, and it can seen a little bewildering at first what to buy. The bottom line is that for UK climbing you really need the best gaiters you can afford, as there is often nothing between your nice dry socks and the foulest UK conditions but your gaiters. The best protection comes from Yeti Style full coverage gaiters (Berghaus, Extremities, Outdoor designs), but these really need to be super glued to your boots (rand and instep) for them to be really effective. The other alternative are classic style gaiters, which still provide a very high level of protection, but are lighter, cheaper and easier to manage (you can take them off when it’s hot) then full coverage gaiters. Things to look out for are a good seal around the boot, robust strapping under the instep, no chunky press studs or cord locks at the top where you will kneel on them, and the ability to open the gaiters from the bottom. Replace factory fitted shoelace style zip pull loops with 3mm cord loops, in order to make then easier to pull when wearing gloves.
It’s not actually true that you need a winter harness for winter climbing, as for many years I’ve used my lighter fixed leg looped summer harness on most of my winter climbs (including multi day climbs) – and yes it is possible to have a crap in a fixed legged harness. The only reason for getting a dedicated winter harness is that you may be able to cut the weight down to the bone (the BD Chaos harness I often wear weighs 465grams wear as an Alpine Bod – one of the most popular winter harnesses – weights 395 grams), and it is slightly easier to put it on as your feet don’t need to leave the floor. One thing well worth looking at is a harness that features the ability to mount ice clippers – plastic karabiners designed to hold screws – as this can be a very useful feature (ice clippers will fit on any harness, but some have dedicated loops to hold them in place). For winter climbing I am a big fan of non double back auto locking buckles (Petzl and Wild Country), as they eliminate the faff involved in threading back buckles when you’re got gloves on and the webbing is stiff and frozen – plus they also eliminate the risk that you’ll just forget when you’re minds on the next scary pitch!
Love them or hate them, ski poles are very useful when the snow is deep or the weather is really blowing, and it’s always nice to have at least one. They are also very useful at marking you gear at the bottom of a climb (important if it’s snowing), and for this it’s worth sticking some reflective tape to the shaft. One type of pole that climbers should look out for is the probe style pole, that is designed to be quickly changed into an avalanche probe. Another advantage is that these types of poles tend to be stronger then normal walking poles.
There is no perfect solution when it comes to gloves for winter climbing and the warmer your hands get the less control you’ll have, and the more control you gain the more you’re fingers will freeze (to the point that control is irrelevant as all you can feel is larva coursing through your fingers). The best option is to carry lots of gloves, and keep them close at hand so you can change over while climbing. Below are a couple of glove system examples.
Old School – A large pair of Dachstein mitts, big enough for you to pull them on and off easily (vital). They are worn next to the skin (don’t wear liner gloves), meaning you can whip them off when you need maximum dexterity, then whip them back on when you’re finished. These are modified with a shock cord wrist loop so when you whip them off and they can just dangle. These will be used for everything, but you will carry a second pair of lighter fleece backup mitts as well. This system is cheap, very robust against both abrasion and weather, and brings many benefits.
Traditional School - A combination of gloves and mitts, with one large pair of modular shell mitts, and selection of thinner fleece gloves in varying weights. This system is very warm, but fleece gloves alone get wet and cold very quickly, meaning they need to be rotated, and the mitt, although very warm, doesn’t allow a very good feel compared to the Dachstein. This system is pretty expensive and all the parts get worn pretty quickly and it’s hard to get it to work on anything very technical. A variation of this adds a pair of membrane soft shell gloves (such as BD Drytool gloves) in place of one of the fleece gloves, giving far more protection and control (due to leather palms).
Ski School - The main glove is what I’d call a ski style glove, being a highly insulated glove rather then a mitt. These give far more dexterity but less warmth then a mitt, and offer more protraction then a plain fleece glove (they may have breathable membranes in them, but they’ll still get wet). There real bonus is that you can handle gear such as krabs, cams and wires without removing them. There drawbacks are they get damp (even if they feature a breathable membrane) and they are best saved for actually climbing, and lighter fleece gloves are usually worn on the approach, with a big pair of mitts held as a back up. Price is no indication of longevity or comfort, so I’d start with the cheap models and see how they feel.
Andy School – The system I use is a pair of mitts where the front can be folded back, exposing the fingers, so that you get almost the warmth of a mitt yet still have total dexterity when you need it (with no dangling mitts). This comes in really handy when you need to free climb as you can crimp even in very cold conditions, then whip your fingers back within the glove. I’d usually take two pairs of these mitts (made by Outdoor designs, Outdoor research, Mammut and Quechua) and a third pair of big mitts for if things get nasty, leaving fleece gloves at home.
For winter climbing I’d highly recommend you invest in a hard shell helmet, not a soft polystyrene helmet designed for rock climbing. This is because the chances of being hit by ice, rock and falling leaders is about 1000% higher then in summer, and most sot helmet are not designed for multiple impacts (neither are but plastic helmets but they cope much better). This means if you’re stuck below another party who are sending down lots of ice, you may find your helmet becomes as dented as the moon, were as a hard helmet made from plastic will be much more resistant to damage, and generally offers a higher degree of protection as well. Also on low angle falls, or where protection is very spaced, you may take very long falls with multiple head strikes, and so having a helmet that doesn’t work via it’s own destruction may pay when you stop, as you may still have a helmet on your head. All the helmets furniture (buckles, clips and adjustment dials) need to be glove friendly, and make sure it has the ability to take a head torch.
Vital when things get really bad (they’ll save your eyes from feeling sandblasted). Make sure they are suitable for mountaineering, meaning they won’t allow spindrift in, and have double lens to reduce fogging. Also don’t get coloured lenses (amber, yellow etc) as they don’t work well in the dark – and you probably will be wearing them in the dark at some time: just get clear lens.
You’d imagine that there would be lots to say about axes, but I think that there are no duff axes on the market at the moment, so it’s hard to go wrong (as long as you steer clear of dedicated mixed tools with funny shafts that is). If you’re going climbing buy climbing tools, namely tools with a curved shaft and shallow angled pick. Think ahead and get a tools who’s grip is suitable for leashless climbing, meaning a pronounced hook at the bottom (fixed or modular), because the winds blowing in that direction. For UK climbing I’d recommend you make sure your picks are T rated so they’re up to typical UK abuse. If you’re going leashless then buy a set of Grivel’s Double sprung leashes (£27) which attach to your tools so you can’t drop them (as used by people like Mark Twight, Steve House and Marko Prezelj), which I believe can now only be bought from Needle Sports in the Lakes?
Crampons are a little trickery then axes, as there a dozen of different models and designs on the market which can makes things pretty confusing, yet like ice axes it’s actually quite hard to make a major mistake as they all do the same job, and it’s just that some do it a little better then others. To make things easier here’s the two basic options I’d recommend. All round mountain crampon: This is your normal twelve point crampon, ideally with a hybrid binding (heal clip at back and nylon bail at the front, rather the a full step in) and fitted with anti ball plates. This type of crampon will work on ground from grade I to X mixed and ice up to grade VI, be good for walking in, and equally at home on one pitch buttresses as well as big scary mountains. Weight and bulk are low and this is a great all-round design. Crampons that fit this description are the Grivel G12 New-Matic, Petzl-Charlet Vasak, Black Diamond Sabretooth Clip, DMM aiguille and Camp Ice Rider. Technical all rounder: This model of crampon should fulfil the same role as the all mountain design, but with a slight technical edge gained from vertical and modular front points – gained at the expense of a slight increase in weight. This crampons allow the user to play around with mono point climbing, and the design makes climbing ice easier – important if you’re climbing on pure cacades abroad. The ability to replace front points also means you can replace worn points after a heavy mixed season. Crampons that fit this description are the GRivel G14, Petzl M10 and BD Bionic pro.
A Scottish winter sack needs to be able to hold all your kit, and that includes rack, ropes and clothing, with only your crampons and tools going on the outside. Everything should go into a waterproof bag inside the sack (Outdoor designs, Exped, Ortolieb or just heavy duty plastic), so it stays dry on the way in. Attaching the rope to the outside can cause it to pick up moisture on the way in – especially if it’s raining, so that’s why they need to be stowed inside. A large lid pocket is handy for the map, guidebook, head torch, gloves etc, and again I’d recommend a small waterproof roll top bag to hold all these items (this also reduces the chance of dropping valuable items when searching for your pen knife). Size wise a rucksack of between 40-50 litres is usually adequate, with the complexity of the sack itself being down to how important these things are personally. One thing to note about sacks, is that I’ve always been an advocate of once the rack is removed, putting one sack into the other, so that the leader can climb without a pack on. Recently I met a climber who’s done a lot of gnarly mixed climbing in the Alps who said he always wears his sack because it gives him a lot of back protection in a fall, saving his spine on at least three occasions, so maybe it’s something worth considering?
Good navigation gear is vital for winter climbing in the UK, were the days are short, the storms are wild, and the terrain impossible to follow without a map. First off all you need a map, either a waterproof map (cut it down to save bulk, removing the areas you’ll never visit), or a small section of a map, perhaps photocopied or scanned and then laminated. Ideally you should have more then one map in the team, just in case the main map blows away. A good quality map case is also vital, so the map can remain at hand when you need it rather then in your sack, which can result in a reluctance to check you’re heading in the right direction (I know you look like a spod with a map case – but at least you’ll be a spod who knows where they are). Get a map case that can be secured to your body so that it doesn’t flap around (you can do this yourself with bungee cord). A compass is next on the list, and you don’t need anything fancy. Although I’d recommend always carrying a cheap spare in case your main compass gets broken or lost. Lastly make a pace counter out of a length of cord and 10 cord grips and stick a whistle on the end for emergencies. What about GPS, well I’m still a bit of a dunce when it comes to this piece of technology, and although traditionalist may scorn them, I think they are perfect for those people who don’t have the chance to keep on top of their navigation skills, and who just want a bit of backup and support. The prices are dropping by the year while the spec and usability rises, and although I recommend you find a shop that knows a lot about this technology, it looks like magellan’s Sportrak or eXplorist series devices and Garmin Etrex or new Edge models fit the bill for mountaineering use.
One of the most important pieces of survival gear you carry is your head torch – as it’s this that saves you from being benighted in the dark, and technology has really been working overtime on your behalf when it come to mountain torches, with LED’s really revolutionising the whole market. My personal recommendation is a super bright LED such as the Petzl Myo XP or Black Diamond Spot, plus a backup lightweight LED lamp like the Petzl Tikka Pro or Black Dimond Cosmo. This may sound over the top, but both torches will weigh less then an old Petzl Zoom and you’ll greatly increase your safety, as spare light will come in handy when you or your partner losses or breaks their headtorch. The next most important piece of gear is a bothy bag, and no one should ever go on the hill without one of these life savers. There are lots of models on the market (outdoor designs and Terranova being the most common), but all of them are relatively cheap and make a real difference if you’re caught out (I’d say they are worth there weight in gold, but being very lightweight you may get the wrong impression). Other emergency gear should include a lightweight survive bag, a simple first aid kit that can deal with typical climbing injuries (including blisters), spare clothing, emergency food that lives in your sack and isn’t eaten (marzipan is good emergency food), and your mobile phone (again traditionalists hate this technology but it is a life saver).
Food is vital for long days on the hill, both for moral, and more importantly to give you the fuel to get you through very long and tiring days. In order to keep your food in one piece a Tupperware lunch box works well at keeping your lunch dry and unsquashed. Water is best kept in an insulated Nalgen bottle, or bladder, or if you’re want a bit of luxury take along a small stainless steel flask (don’t put the milk in the tea, but carry a bunch of those little milk cartons in your lunch box instead so the tea tastes better). Boiled sweets are worth carrying to lift your blood sugar level on belays, and don’t forget the lip salve and (a small) tube of sun scream – you never know the sun may shine.