The Winter Leaders Pack

December 4, 2008

Reading Time: 15 minutes.

In the past I often advocated that the leader dumps their pack with the second (placing it inside the seconds pack), so as to feel totally unnumbered and light. This is defiantly still a good option when tackling chimneys, wide cracks and other assorted full body passages, but maybe I was wrong when it comes to general climbing?


An alternative is to bring with you a very small (20 litre) lightweight leaders pack (your main sack is placed inside the seconds in the same way), that is worn when climbing. Many manufacturers make this kind of sack now, and ideally it needs to be short so that it sits above your harness at the back, and shaped so that it doesn’t interfere with your movement – meaning well cut streamlined shoulder straps, low profile body, and an effective harness. The weight needs to be low so that it doesn’t add further burden to an already heavy approach sack – but at the same time this needs to be balanced with some toughness – as it may well get a hammering.


An effective leader needs to be able to stay comfortable in isolation from the second, meaning they need to carry everything they need once they get to the belay. This means that the leaders pack contains many items that normally the second would bring up – but which may prove needed urgently by the leader. These things are:-

A belay jacket

This is one of the most important pieces of the leaders ‘protection’ as it allows the leader to throw on their ‘booster’ layer as soon as they reach the belay, making the greatest use of the heat they have built up on the way up. Waiting for a slow second can easily lead to the belayer becoming chilled with this layer – especially if they’ve stripped down to thin layers for maximum flexibility and freedom.

Belay Mitts

Like the belay jacket, a pair of belay mitts are a must – keeping your hands warm for the next pitch. Having these clipped to your harness is the old way of doing things, but doing so can cause problem, not least them filling with snow – or worse still catching on your crampons when doing squat moves! The best option is to stow your mitts in the pockets of your belay jacket, swapping them with your lead gloves (which should be placed close to your body to stay warm) once the belay is set.


Stick one of these in the belay jacket also, as it will make a big difference if you’re not wearing one.

Head torch

With modern LED torches you can just stick your head-torch on your helmet, around your neck, or on your arm, but having a torch always in your lead pack helps to avoid forgetting to do so. This could also be a spare, kept in a pocket or stuffsack – for those times you didn’t expect it to get dark so soon (you never do), or when your main torch takes a dive of your noggin.

First Aid kit

Taking a very small first aid kit is a good idea, as it’s easy to injure yourself when winter climbing – including puncturing yourself with your picks, or hammering your face with your tools! Keep it simple and small, and back it up with fuller kit back on the ground.

Ice threader

Ice threaders are long and prone to snagging on stuff, or just falling off just before you need them. They also get dropped easily, so having a spare in your sack is a great idea.

abseil tat

You’ll probably be carrying cordelets that can be used for abseil anchors, but even so it’s worth carrying a few metres of spare cord (5mm) for anchors. You can increase your cordage by tying a 1 metre loop of cord to the haul loop on the sack so you can easily clip it off at belays.


Stick one of those tiny folding knifes in the sacks pocket.


The best thing about using a leaders pack is that it offers you far more protection for your back in case of a fall – which can only be a good thing, plus it increases your insulation as it’s usually your back that’s exposed to the wind.


The leaders pack is for the leader – so you have a few options on how to work the system.

A, You have two leaders packs – containing everything you’ll need when leading. If this is the case you’ll need to distribute some other items, such as food, water, map, compass, mobile phone, guide and perhaps a bothy bag (a must for Scotland). With this system each person has their own gear and it’s assumed that the main sacks are left on the ground to be recovered (always leave packs below landmarks such as vertical cracks, so you can find them under sprindrift).

B, One leaders pack is taken, with the second carrying the two main sacks (both should be pretty empty). Once at the belay the second stuffs their belay jacket/belay mitts into the leaders sacks and climbs on.