This is a very common question and one that gets asked by most climbers. The issue of what to get when you’re starting out as a winter/alpine climber is very different from that of what to get when starting rock climbing, as a set of nuts is a set of nuts: it’ll do you fine on a VS or a E10. But for winter or alpine climbers, you’re looking at a very broad spectrum of environments and usage.
If you’re not into DIY then a Leatherman tool may be all the tools you’ll ever need, and to invest several grand into a shed full of tools would be a mistake, and although a carpenter could get by with just a Leatherman I expect his work would be both sub-par and very, very slow. The same would be true of someone who wants to sail around the world, would they start with a £99 rubber raft, then a sit on top, then a kayak, and work their way up to an ocean-going yacht, or would they got for another approach?
Buying some ergo carbon fibre tech leashless axe may be great if you’re jumping straight onto an M10, but not so fly on a winter spin along the Collin ridge. The same goes for boots, which tend to end up hanging around a long time, doubly so if they’re not safe to use (or ill-fitting for big winter days). A rock climber’s first clunky budget rock shoes will be long dead way before they hit extreme grades, but the aspirant mountaineer’s bendy B2 winter boots, bought for a winter course, will hang on long enough to come up short on some forty-degree ice slope.
First off then you need to ask yourself a basic but important question:
What’s the level of ambition?
If you’re a forty-year-old guy who’s been walking in the Lakes and Wales and Scotland all your life, and plan on doing a winter skills course with Glenmore Lodge, well I’d wager you’ll keep on walking. For you, the investment in a solid 65cm walking axe (not a ski mountaineering featherweight thing) would be well made, and you’ll no doubt use it for the rest of your life in winter walks and scrambles, maybe some alpine peaks, maybe a grade I, but that’s it. If so you find yourself questing up the South face of Aconcagua with your trusty axe… well you should know better by then.
If on the other hand, you’re some young tiger or tigress, a keen climber already, or maybe just an ambitious walker, then buying a walking axe may be a mistake, as you will use it to start out, but will soon - maybe in a week or less - outgrow it. For you what’s needed is an all-round axe that will work for ice axe arresting, digging emergency shelters and securing yourself on steep ground (climbing and walking traction, plus belays), like a good mountain axe, plus one that’ll work on mixed and ice up to grade 6, as well as alpine faces here and in the greater ranges.
If you don’t know, then I’d probably put you into the former category, as I think people tend to have an inbuilt and unknowing passion for stupid shit like alpine climbing, even if they don’t know what it is. If you’re in the undecided category then I’d avoid buying axes, and rent or borrow them (most guides, instructors or outdoor centres have gear to borrow or hire). Boots are another matter, and it’s here that you really need to ask yourself where you see yourself going in them (if the answer is nowhere then maybe don’t do the course!).
Where will ambition lead?
I’d break axes into three broad categories of non technical, technical and specialised. Non-technical axes are walking axes with B rated alpine picks, and adze, long uncoated shafts (ski poles have made super long shafts less needed), and medium weight. These axes will see you up easy gullies and ridges and exposed ground when used with crampons, as well as alpine summits from the alps to 8000 metres. Technical axes will have a straight or curved 50cm shaft, will come in a pair with an axe or a hammer (it’s fine to just start with an axe), have some form of grip (leashless grip is best), and most often will feature a modular T rated (technical) pick. As mentioned above these will do anything, and will shine in the broadest spectrum of climbing. The specialised axes have multi-hand position shaft and grips, often with an extreme profile, and are pure steep climbing tools. I would avoid putting an actual grade range for these tools as they can make any pure climbing feel like cheating, say a grade 3 ice pitch, but placing that pitch next to the road is very different to having it 800 metres up an alpine wall. Generally, you’ll know when you need to switch up from a technical axe to a specialised axe.
Boot wise you can get by with a B2 boot, but a B3 boot is what’s needed for winter mountaineering, but that only covers the stiffness, not the boot itself. The main factor is the warmth of the boot and how well it’ll handle multi-day outings or expeditions. If your thing is climbing then boilerplate mountain boot, that start line where all others need to be judged would be the Sportiva Nepal series, as this provides the best balance of weight, price, warmth, robustness and fit and function. A boot like the Nepal (Scarpa, Salmon etc all do models designed to match the Nepal), will work for Scottish winter walking, climbing from I to X, summer alpine climbing and winter ice climbing. Where these single leather boots fall down is alpine winter climbing, and expeditions, as they are too cold and are hard to look after on extended climbs. This muddies the waters and so leads many people wondering if they should fork out for Scarpa Phantoms or Sportiva Spantiks so they’re covered for everything, as they can use these in Scotland as well as a winter ascent of Annapurna. In reality, a good solid pair of leather boots, that fit well and are broken in looks after will always provide the best service over their lives than a high altitude double boot. These leather boots can be used as walking boots in Wales in summer, for scrambling, mowing the lawn, and for great days out in the hill for their lifespan, the boots you keep buy the front door. What I’m saying is really all winter climbers need a pair of leather climbing boots (mine are Sportiva Trango S Evos), and it’s not really a choice unless you could only ever buy one pair and your heart was set on major expeditions (many a summit is lost due to cold feet, but few to hot). If you do want to use your Nepal style boots for multi-day climbs, then plastic bags are only worth using if it’s going to be cold (they’d be far too grim on some sunny alpine climb), but then you’d not be using them for multi-day climbs (I’d only use plastic bags for winter days from a hut).
Second hand kit
Before you rush out to buy new kit have a look on eBay etc or post on the forums and look for cheap second-hand kit, as most winter hardware tends to never wear out. Saying this I’d avoid really old crampons and axes, as older designs tend to be more prone to fractures, or are simply not that good anymore. Instead look for gear bought by climbers like yourself, who did buy new kit and soon found they either never used it or outgrew it. Two things I’d steer clear of would be cheap ice screws that look too good to be true (yes they are), and plastic boots. Plastic double boots seem to have a real issue with ageing, and although the old recommendation was to put them in the freezer and hit them with a hammer to see if they were still OK, I’ve had a 1st gen pair of Scarpa Omaga’s (so maybe 20 years old) break with just a hard knock.
So what would I buy?
A lot of these articles only talk in general terms (I get free kit from Sportiva and Petzl, so that’s the gear I tend to know), but here’s the setup I’d buy if I was a young tiger!
This isn’t a review of the tools, just a rundown of the main models I’d look at.
BD Viper Ice Tool
Solid and reliable, with a good choice of picks for mixed or ice and a good leashless design. I used mine from easy Scottish gullies to grade VIII mixed routes, 6 ice and North faces.
A little known Petzl Axe (the Quark stealing the limelight), the Sum’tec is a great all-round tool for low to medium grade climbing. Where it really shines is for technical alpine climbing and greater ranges stuff, due to its very low weight, crucial on long approaches or when swinging tools all day. The price of the stripped-down tool also makes it one of the best entry tools, but don’t let price or weight mislead you into thinking this isn’t anything but a solid performer.
A classic tool, like the Viper, and although once seen as being for the hard routes only has now become a baseline technical axe, used on all grades of climbing, from roadside ice to 8000-metre faces. Like the Viper this also has a choice of mixed or ice picks, vital for ice and Scottish climbing.
Another solid all-rounder but with a little bit of a greater nod to British climbing, with a very good adze (great for digging through the crap, something French climbers don’t seem to have to do!), a nice grip and a good balance between a technical curve and a straighter mountain shaft (makes it easier to plunge).
There are of course models from Grivel, Camp, Edelrid etc.
With most of these tools, you can get good deals buying pairs, plus older model often appears for sale on the second-hand market.
Sportiva Nepal Evo GTX
The current version of this classic boot, solid but still good for your feet after long days. Gore insert helps keep the water out after long extended trips in wet environments where it can be hard to keep your boots proofed.
Scarpa never seems to quite come up with a boot that kills the Nepal, but their boots are no less solid and tough or functional, and really it comes down to the Nepals becoming the ‘hoover’ of mountain boots. Really when it comes down to these two it’s a matter of fit as both are 100% as good as you’ll get.
Lastly don’t forget to get clipper leashes for your new tools as losing one on their first day out would be really bad form!