Getting the right winter rack
08 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).
In order to build a good winter rack you first need to understand a summer rock rack, as many of the ideas cross over. Even more so than in summer, the climber must build a rack to suit the conditions, rock type and grade of the route. Many of the points I have made in Part One apply to wires, cams etc and the following should be used as a footnote to the earlier sections.
Nuts are a crucial piece of winter climbing gear. They are lightweight, unaffected by snow and ice, both in placement and before use - unlike cams - and, most importantly, they can resist being hammered home, both when trying to get them to ‘fit’ and also when attempting to secure the maximum protection. In many situations mid to large-sized nuts are of most use, as smaller cracks will be heavily iced, yet due to their low weight small wires, and even large micro-wires should still be carried. Inspect all winter wires at the end of the season in order to check for damage. One tip when carrying two sets of wires is to rack one set on each krab so that if the karabiner is dropped all the wires aren’t lost. Another tip is to spray both sets with different colours so that they can be racked more easily meaning, say, that all the blue goes on one krab and all the yellow on the other. Another advantage of doing this is that fixed wires won’t be mistaken as your own by the second often a good way to lose time, as they battle to free a Patey original.
All cams should be treated with caution in the winter, as they will have no holding power if the crack is at all icy and that is a common cause of falls. Cams are also heavy and can easily become frozen and useless in full-on conditions. Nevertheless, in some rock types, such as Cairngorm granite, they are highly advisable just as long as the rock is free of ice. On other rock types, cams are only of use in the higher grades and even then they are still conditions dependent. The best way to check if the crack is icy is with a bare hand and often it is possible to scrape the ice away with either your pick or better still the tip of a blade peg. Once placed always give the cam a good yank to check its contact with the rock. Another cam that is far more useful for winter is the Camp Tri-Cam, a lightweight and cheaper alternative to active cams, which although harder to place, will still work even in very icy cracks plus it has a dual role as a nut.
Slung nuts of any size are a staple of winter climbing, primarily due to the failures of camming devices. As in summer, they provide lightweight and very robust protection, unaffected by sub zero storms or hammer blows.
In winter long quickdraws are usually the way to go, with 30cm quickdraws being best (this length can also be used to tie-off pegs and screws). Dyneema works best as it resists freezing, plus it’s lightweight, with the daddy of winter quickdraws being the new ultra-thin tapes by Mammut and Wild Country. Shock absorbing slings should also be considered by those climbing routes with low strength gear, be that ice or turf, as they not only increase your safety margin but also give that little - but often crucial - boost to your confidence.
Many winter pitches are long, meaning drag is often high, and so slings play a much bigger role than in most rock-climbing and on many big routes they virtually replace quickdraws altogether. The reason is that on a big ice route the main defence against falling is your ability to climb to your maximum ability, meaning drag can seriously reduce your game. It’s for this reason that when the protection is spaced your main quickdraws should be 60cm or 120cm slings. These will both reduce drag and any chance that the gear will come adrift.
If you can afford it stick to just wiregates. If you can’t make sure the gates are well-lubricated.
The collars on screwgates are easily frozen shut in bad weather, especially if the snow melts and then refreezes within the mechanism, something common when abseiling. As in the rock, rack keep the number low and make up the difference with plain gates using them back to back when maximum security is required.
Modern ropes and modern belay devices mean that the days of uncontrollable ropes are almost a thing of the past. Even so that perfect storm can always hit, or a plate is easily fumbled with big gloves on, so make sure you know how to body belay safely.
Two prusik/abseil tat loops should never come off your harness - unless you’re using them. The nut key isn’t required because your axe pick can do the same job. An Abalakov threader is a must even if you’re not going anywhere near the ice, as it makes threading slings much easier and they can come in very handy when threading narrow slings through the mangled eyes of fixed pegs.
The number of screws you carry, what length and what quality, depends on the type of climbing you’re doing. One thing I’d recommend is to invest in good quality screws from the start because they are not only easier to place but are far stronger if you fall on them. The number of screws carried varies but, for UK use, where the ice is not always diamond perfect, go for 17cm screws, plus at least one 22cm screw for drilling ice threads. Buy a racking krab like a BD Ice Clipper or Petzl Caritool in order to speed things up and make sure you look after teeth on screws.
On ice, drive-ins have all but disappeared, superseded by modern, effective, and cheaper, high-quality screws. The only drive-in to be found in regular use in Scotland is the Warthog with the red Mountain Technology model being the last commercial drive-in of its type. Used primarily in turf this itself has slowly begun to be replaced by the Ice Hook, a drive-in that fulfils the same basic role, with the added flexibility that it can also be used more effectively as a peg.
With the big advances in passive and active protection these days, pegs have begun to slowly lose their importance, a fact also partly due to an increased awareness of modern non-peg-placing ethics. Nevertheless, winter climbers on anything but the most well-travelled routes will still carry at least a couple of pegs. These pegs come into their own on real winter routes i.e. routes that don’t climb summer lines, as these often feature both shattered and dirty cracks into which, very often, the only gear that will go is a peg. A peg can also be the only reliable gear you can get in full ice conditions. As with other gear, you should look at the weights of different pegs when deciding what to take, especially when it comes to length and type with Lost Arrows being the heaviest and blades being the lightest. Personally, I go more for stubby blades, Lost Arrows and angles, rather than longer and fewer pegs, which means I have more pegs to stack if I need a wider peg.
Deadman or snow stake, both a pain to carry and will often be taken up a climb but not used. Don’t take either unless you know, and are prepared, to use it.
Designed to fit the climber who wants speed and is confident at running it out on classic routes.
For the climber who wants to maximize their safety and who is willing to accept the added burden.
Modern mixed Alpine climbs require the same sort of rack as a Scottish route, with the exception of the Warthogs that is, while multi-pitch rock routes apply to the rock rack. But what about classic Alpine climbing?
This requires a rack more akin to that used by a scrambler in the UK and this provides the absolute minimum of protection when on easy ground where you will be moving together. Weight is critical and the user of such a sparse rack must understand how to maximize what little gear they have, perhaps saving much of it for belays with the odd runner in between.
A typical rack for pure ice-climbing is very, very specialized and unlike any of the other racks is designed to cope primarily with one medium. At the same time, the ice-climber should carry a token amount of rock gear - just in case.
Well I hope that helps any climbers out there who’ve found what to take a chore, but just remember that this is only a guide and you should play around with it until you find a selection that suits you - whatever you’re doing.