WRITTEN by CHRIS & ANNE ENSOLL
All the photos in this post were taken in the Lake District.
It’s the beginning of October and the days are getting shorter, so not long now until the first wintery weather in the mountains. It’s the perfect time to dust off your winter kit, make sure it is fit for purpose and maybe treat yourself to something new and shiny. But – and we’ve talked about this before – the vast array of kit to choose from can be bewildering, so here’s a few tips.
Winter climbing often involves more stuff - ice, turf, snow etc - falling on you than rock climbing does, so getting a good helmet is important. When buying, check it fits over a woolly hat and under your hood on your jacket (more about this later). I like the Petzl Meteor, but these are easy to damage so if you are hard on your kit then a Petzl Boreo is a good choice. The main thing is to make sure it fits your head with and without a hat under it, and is comfortable. You don’t want it falling down over your eyes half way up a pitch.
Your normal climbing harness will be OK for winter as long as you have plenty of room for extra clothing. If you are buying a harness just for winter, choose one with adjustable leg loops - I like the Black Diamond Alpine Bod. A good all-rounder is the DMM Renegade.
In winter when everything can become a bit of a fight, you don’t want to be fighting your jacket. For me the most important things about a winter jacket are the hood and the sleeves. The hood must adjust and be comfortable with and without a helmet - check it when wearing a rucksack as this pulls the jacket down. It should protect your face whilst allowing you to turn your head to the sides and still be able to see. Ask yourself these questions about the sleeves: Are they long enough when reaching up high? Do they have secure closures that are big enough to fit over gloves? Many of our tips on how to stay dry whatever the weather apply to winter conditions too.
Lots of light layers work much better than one chunky garment. This is what I like to wear under my waterproof:
a wicking base layer
a thin fleece with a hood to wear under my helmet
a windproof layer like a Rab Vapour-Rise
With this system, when I get to the base of the crag, I can take off my outer shell and put on another layer, such as a Primaloft jacket, replace my shell, and my windproof layer keeps the snow off my fleece whilst I’m doing this.
I like a light soft shell snowproof/windproof layer to walk in and then a hard shell to put over them in bad weather. Your waterproof trousers must have long zips and fit easily over your boots. On colder days I also use a base layer under the soft shell. Over trousers should have an articulated knee and reinforced legs against crampon damage
Having lots of pairs of gloves and changing them regularly during the day is key to having a good winter experience. A pair of light gloves for the walk in which get changed for something warmer but still dextrous like ski gloves for climbing. Having two pairs of these and then some Dachstein mitts to wear on the walk out is a great combo.
Don’t underestimate the importance of having something to stop snow going down your boots. I like small “stop tous” style gaiters eg Rab Scree gaiters.
Boots & socks
Unlike European ice climbing, UK winter climbing normally involves a long walk in, so the most important thing about your boots is the fit. You will need to climb in them too but I tend to go towards more comfort and put up with a bit of heel lift when climbing. I usually use one pair of Smartwool socks and try to make sure my boots are a snug but comfortable fit.
All-round crampons will normally be OK for anything up to about grade V. The Petzl Vasak fit well on a large variety of boots and are a great all-rounder. For more technical climbing you might want something with vertical front points and a modular system means you can replace worn points. I like the Black Diamond Stinger and the Petzl Dart. The Stingers have anti-ball plates making them better all round.
For mountaineering the Petzl Summit Evo is a great all rounder. My favourite for climbing is the Petzl Quark, but there are many other axes that do a good job. Look for replaceable picks and a hand rest to enable you to climb leashless. I prefer not to use leashes as I find they get in the way and make it difficult to change hands quickly. Our blog post, Top Tips For Choosing An Ice Axe, gives lots more useful info.
Go for something not too fancy – anything extra on the outside, such as pockets, can easily get caught when climbing. I use a 50 litre sack when climbing, and a 30 litre sack when mountaineering. I’m currently testing the Aiguille El Nino rucksack.
These definitely help when walking over snow-covered boulders and in high winds. Make sure they will fit inside your rucksack when climbing.
Sun glasses are important on sunny days due to the glare from the snow, and ski goggles can be handy on a windy day to keep the spindrift out of your face.
This is what I carry:
Waterproof map – I cut mine down so I just carry the bit I need
A map case good idea even with waterproof map - I like Ortlieb cases as they don’t become brittle
Compass – good to also carry a spare
A headtorch - spare batteries are a must for winter
A GPS is good as a back up, but be aware that the cold kills the batteries.
Blizzard bag, group shelter, basic first aid kit, spare food, mobile phone kept on airplane mode.
Food and drink
Not technically kit, but important enough to mention here. A high-calorie breakfast with lots of fluids is a must before a day out in winter. When I’m out in wild winter weather I don’t want to stop for long to eat, so lots of snack foods work best for me – nuts & raisins, flapjack, muesli bars, etc. Fluid intake is really important too, so keep on drinking even if you don’t feel particularly thirsty. And a hot drink from a flask can be a big morale booster on a bad day.
If this has whetted your appetite for a winter adventure, check out our Climbing & Mountaineering Courses in Scotland and Winter Climbing & Mountaineering in the Lake District - we’re looking forward to hearing from you!