Articles - Winter Climbing Skills - Part 2: Equipment.
Photo: Glenmore Lodge
by George McEwan - Glenmore Lodge
“Winter mountaineering is a constant battle – with your equipment.”
You’re trying to place a piece of protection on the crux of the climb. You are conscious of the rope being blown around by the wind, free from any constraints, like a piece of protection between you and the belay. You scrape away at the snow-plastered rock. Ya Beauty! A great wee crack. Feverishly you clean out the compacted ice and snow. Then you search for the crucial piece of pro that fits the narrow fissure. Whilst you’re doing this your axe, hanging of your right wrist clanks around attempting to tangle itself in your gear. Whilst you are trying to avoid this the elastic in the cuff of one of your gloves magically clips itself into a krab on your harness.… a fierce but brief struggle sees you free. With a bit of jiggery-pokery the gear slots into the crack. “A few gentle taps just to seat it” you think as you mash the No 3 Rock into the crack. You have a minor faff as you forlornly wave the extender krab at the elusive eye of the wire, then, just as frustration wells up, krab and wire make contact. You are starting to feel pleased with yourself as you bring the rope up to clip into it. Just as you do that the tip of your gloved thumb catches in the gate of the krab.
You continue to climb up the rimed covered rock. As you move off the rope catches on the top of the heel bale on your right crampon. Reaching down you manage to flick the rope off the bale and continue climbing. And all the while this little scene is being played out, the wind is blowing about forty miles and hour up the way, sand blasting your face with spindrift…
As the old truism says and as the above narrative illustrates “Winter mountaineering is a constant battle – with your equipment”.
Winter climbing is very equipment intensive. Typically, your average winter climber carries over fifteen kilos of extra weight, made up of assorted hardware, axes, crampons, helmet, rucksack, boots etc. So how can you make your winter kit work for you – ensuring that you are adequately equipped for your winter adventure – and not against you?
Winter climbing will involve getting wet at some stage. So any clothing should retain its insulation properties when damp/wet. It mustn’t restrict your movement, so allowing you to move freely around without feeling like some rather inflexible ‘Michelin Man’.
Conventional Layering System
For Scotland and its generally ‘challenging’ winter weather, arguably the most common choice by the majority of climbers is a two piece waterproof and windproof shell worn over the top of a layered clothing system.
A base layer of wicking thermal tops and bottoms is worn next to the skin. This has the job of ensuring that moisture is wicked away from your skin towards the outer layers of your clothing system.
Over this, wear a powerstretch ‘suit’, which is lightweight, warm, close fitting and stretches to allow a good range of movement. Layered over the top of this is a powerstretch top.
Whatever you are wearing make sure each zip end of the clothing that you will need to access has a little extension (made out of cord or any other suitable material). This means that when you are wearing gloves the zips are easy to operate, particularly when under several layers of clothing, which you have to unzip.
Blokes especially may appreciate this easy access, as men seem to have bladders that are about half the size of a woman’s, and about
twice as active.
TOP TIP don’t charge into the corrie with a great head of steam up – no clothing system will cope with that amount of moisture. This will just ensure you spend the rest of the day a chilled damp mess. A nice steady pace does just as well. Failing that, just get yourself fitter so you don’t sweat like an old
TOP TIP carry a spare thermal top. When you arrive in the corrie amaze your friends with your physical toughness as you strip off your
top layers to replace your moist inner top with a nice dry one. Although the process hurts you will feel warmer with a nice dry top on.
Outer Layer Shell Gear
There is a bewildering range of outer gear in the shops. All styles, materials and specifications. From a climbing perspective look for a jacket that is close fitting (watch out for the voluminous ‘bosom’ effect with some jackets, especially when wearing a harness) so you can see your harness and feet, whilst still
allowing freedom of movement.
The jacket should have a couple of easy access chest pockets, and ideally a left hand (for right-handers, vice versa if you are left handed) pocket just next to the outer zip, which will take a map and compass. A hood, which can fit over your climbing helmet without you feeling like your head is being crushed down into your shoulders, is a must have for the horizontal moisture problem commonly experienced in the Scottish hills.
TOP TIP Whichever jacket you intend buy, try it on in the shop with a harness and helmet (with the hood up), and try and move your hands around above your head. You may look daft in the shop, but making sure your jacket fits you well will pay dividends when you are out climbing.
To complement the jacket you will need a pair of salopettes or equivalent. Salopettes have the advantage of fitting high around your midriff, thus ensuring that your tummy and lower back stay protected from the elements. You will need to ensure that you can put your salopettes on over your climbing boots. When they are on check that you can step up high (for those high rockover moves
on mixed climbs), and that they have a suitable toilet arrangement for you (boys want an easy access fly, girls an easy access underneath bit). Again check out how the toilet bit works when wearing a harness (don’t do it for real in the shop – if your antics trying on the jacket have not freaked out the sales assistant, doing this definitely will.)
TOP TIP Ensure all the zips on your outer shell have little ties on them, so they can be operated easily with a gloved hand. Most jackets/salopettes come with these fitted, and/or a wee packet of zip ties. They are a must have on winter clothing.
TOP TIP Boys and girls check out that the bits, inside and out, you need to unzip for the toilet match up.
Other Clothing Systems
There are other clothing systems used by climbers. Perhaps one of the most common uses Pertex© covered pile for both tops and bottoms. This system is designed to be worn next to the skin. The principle behind this set-up is that the heat generated by the climber’s body helps push the generated water vapour away from the skin, using the capillary action of the pile, thus keeping the material directly in contact with the skin dry. The outer layer of Pertex© is very wind resistant and breathable. If the wearer becomes to hot the clothing has a series of zipped vents which allow the system temperature to be controlled simply by venting i.e. opening the zips. This whole setup works extremely well if the wearer remains active, but if you remain stationary in very wet weather you will find you begin to get wet. This set-up provides a lightweight but adaptable clothing system, ideal for the Scottish winter climate. It is also cheaper compared with a conventional hard shell layering system.
Dressing light allows you to walk and climb without becoming overly sweaty. When you stop and become inactive, say after leading a pitch, and you want to maintain the toasty temperature in your clothing system, all you do is reach into your rucksack and pull out your belay jacket/parka, which you just pull
on over your shell gear and hey presto! Instant insulation.
An ideal belay jacket is synthetic, so even if it gets wet it will still offer some degree of insulation. Make sure it has a hood that can pull over your helmet thus providing more insulation for your head. Another useful addition is a big outside pocket into which you can stuff your gloves, food etc. When buying one ensure it is sized for pulling on easily over all your gear (some are deliberately sized for this) yet packs down to a nice compact size and is relatively light.
Gloves and Stuff
Handling your climbing equipment in full on winter conditions poses a dilemma. On one hand you require good dexterity to place gear, operate a belay plate, feed yourself etc. This requires very light and flexible gloves. On the other you want nice warm toasty fingers. This requires bulky insulation. Most gloves are a compromise between the two.
Other factors that complicate this equation are your physiology (do you tend to feel the cold), how hydrated/fed you are etc. At the end of the day if cold fingers really bother you mitts are far warmer than any glove set-up. No matter what gloves and mitts are made out of they will get wet. For this reason you are looking to carry several pairs with you. Many climbers tend to opt for a pair of gloves sacrificing warmth for dexterity. Try wearing your gloves with a very thin wicking liner – layering in your glove system? Then carry another spare dexterous climbing pair and some warmer bulky mitts. When leading you wear the dexterous gloves, and when on the stance change into the warmer bulkier mitts.
Don’t forget a warm hat – balaclavas are still tops and you can buy them in powerstretch. The advantage of a balaclava is it also keeps your neck warm and spindrift out.
There are two main choices with winter boots – plastic or leather.
Leather boots have several strong points going for them namely: they tend to provide a very precise fit, which allows for more ‘feel’ when climbing. They tend also to be lighter. You may also find with some makes that no matter how insulated the top part of the boot; the sole unit always appears to have the least insulation. Strapping a crampon onto the sole unit of the boot provides a very effective metal heat sink. You can appreciate this phenomenon when you are standing on a stance feeling the heat drain from your feet. Goodbye any sensitivity as you front point up the climb with blocks of ice for feet. In saying that leathers are perfect for more technical climbing, where you can place your feet much as you would rock climbing.
Plastic boots generally are the warmest, provide the most protection for your toes (easily appreciated when climbing on cruddy snow/ice where you may have to kick the points through the crud to penetrate into the better ice below), and are easy to dry. This comfort comes at a price though. They are heavier, with less sensitivity for that precise feel when climbing. Boot technology is developing, however, with some new plastic boots on the market that combine the advantages of both boot types.
There are two mantras to chant as you pack your rucksack – “Light is Right” and “Speed = Safety”. If you carry heavy or non-essential kit then you’ll move so slowly you’ll find yourself caught out by bad weather or darkness or both.
There are two main schools of thought regarding the size of a rucksack. Based on the principle that your gear will expand to fill any rucksack, and lots of gear will slow you down, use a 30 – 45litre sack. This approach means only the must-have items you can physically fit into the rucksack is what you take on the hill – no cheating by strapping on all sorts off stuff on the outside.
It should be borne in mind that traveling light in the mountains, in winter, is potentially very serious. You travel light on the assumption that your speed, ability, and fitness will see you right. Although packing all your kit into your minuscule rucksack in the house is easy, attempting to fold 60m of frozen rope, a petrified harness, and a load of ice encrusted hardware back into it, in a gale, in the dark at the end of the day may prove somewhat taxing.
Another approach is to carry a larger rucksack, around 50 – 55litres.This does allow easy access to all your equipment (very useful in bad weather), and it makes folding all your iced up ropes and gear into the sack easier at the end of the day. The downside here is the temptation to fill the rucksack with all the kit imaginable. All this will ensure you get to use all the poo – more than likely as you sit freezing your nuts and pegs off on some nasty winter bivvy.
Practicing your surgery skills on all the excess straps and other useless bits on your rucksack will create a nice ‘clean’shape, plus there is the added bonus of there being less chance of being whipped in the face by errant straps blowing in the wind.
By moving fast and light you are part way to avoiding being benighted. Five Top Tips for avoiding this unpleasant and potentially serious situation are:
1. Plan your day accordingly. Its better to walk into your climb in the dark, as opposed to strolling in around mid-morning, then try and finish your climb in the dark. Everything takes twice as long in the dark and Sod’s Law says you’ll be faffing on the crux just as the light disappears.
2. Ensure your fitness and skill is up to what you plan on tackling. If, once on your climb, you find it is not, then make an early decision to bale out and retreat – always carry some decent abseil tat.
3. Always carry a good headtorch equipped with a halogen bulb, plus spare battery and bulb. At least this will give you a chance to finish the climb in the dark with plenty of light to find your way off and out.
4. Always carry a map and compass and most importantly know how to use them in the dark in a whiteout no matter how stressed you are.
5. Shit happens, so for that event always carry one of those orange poly bivi bags. If things go completely pear-shaped and you find yourself immobile then you have some basic emergency shelter. Tuck the bag down the back of your rucksack, it takes up little space and doesn’t weigh a huge amount. If you come to use it cut lots of air holes in the closed end (now that would be a very silly thing not to do), put on your belay jacket, pull the bag over your head, sit on your rucksack and tuck the ends under it. There is a downside to this. Try setting this up in extreme weather when your gloves are iced up, your fingers are cold, and your rucksack straps are frozen solid. At the end of the day your means of survival may be all that you are wearing, your skill, and an intense desire to stay alive.
You are the weakest link…
It is very easy in the rush to purchase technology that you don’t overlook the single most vital element in the whole chain. You. All the high tech clothing and climbing equipment does not make a fully functioning competent winter climber. If you don’t look after your well-being you then become the weakest link. Getting it wrong here will have the great Anne Robinson in The Sky saying “You are the weakest link. Goodbye!”as you exit stage left.
One of the key elements for winter climbing is good cardiovascular endurance fitness, which will help you cope with the strenuous walk-ins to climbs which typically take1.5 to 2 hours. When on the route you will benefit from specific muscle group fitness, depending on the type of climb. If you are front pointing up continuously steep névé, e.g. some of the classic Grade III/IV climbs on the Ben, the first main muscle group that will hurt will be your calves. Conversely if you are climbing very steep to vertical water-ice it will be your wrists and forearms that will feel the burn early on.
All this physical effort has to be fuelled by food. When on the hill ‘a little & often’ is the best approach to eating. Ideally 60 – 70% of the energy intake will come from carbohydrate. It’s better to eat food that you can put in a pocket, ideally inside your jacket, which is readily accessible when you are on a belay stance. This does tend to mean that food will be more of the biscuit/muesli bar type due to the ease of storing and ease of unwrapping when wearing gloves.
Low blood sugar will lead to loss of performance, an increased chance of making errors and predispose you to hypothermia. So eat. Warning signs to look out for that indicate a low blood sugar level are shakiness and increased heart rate and irritability e.g. you punch your buddy out because “they looked at you funny”.
This is very often overlooked by climbers. How many of you bring back, from a day on the hill, a litre bottle of water, which is hardly touched? Research has shown that 5% dehydration produces up to a 30% decline in performance. This level of dehydration can be gauged, roughly, by the colour of your urine output. When your pee starts to turn the colour of weak tea in the snow you are close to that level of dehydration – you will in all likelihood also be feeling dizzy, nauseous and have a headache. Even a 1-2% level of dehydration will affect your performance significantly. So before you head into the hills make sure you increase your fluid intake in the preceding 24 hours (drinking gallons of beer the night before is not a great idea –alcohol slows your reaction time, affects your balance, and decreases your muscular and cardiovascular endurance). Before your start the walk in top up with a drink of about 0.5 – 1 litre of fluid. Then keep yourself topped up as you go throughout the day. Ideally you are looking to be taking about 1litre every hour. Practically in the winter hills that’s next to impossible. Therefore aim to drink what you can as often as you can. Using a hydration bladder is a great option for ensuring that taking on fluid is easily done and does not require endless stops to delve into a rucksack and search out your water bottle. Go for one with a 2 litre capacity. You can fill this to the brim, and ensure as you walk-in you take constant sips every 15 minutes. This will leave you around a litre or so to drink on the climb. When you return from your day’s exertion then aim to top up with plenty of quality fluid. You’ll know you’re hydrated when you pee frequently, copiously and it’s the colour of champagne!
TOP TIP Ensure your hydration bladder is insulated and pour boiling fluid into it. This will reduce the rate at which it cools keeping the water more comfortable to drink. After sipping water remember to blow the remains back down the tube to reduce the possibility of remaining fluid freezing inside the tube.
TOP TIP If you want to take in some carbohydrate when you drink you can make up a cheap sports drink using 0.5litre unsweetened fruit juice, 0.5litre water with a pinch of salt.