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Equipment to start Scottish winter-climbing

Photos of winter gear
Winter gear example

Now, you want to start winter climbing in Scotland (or North Wales or Lake District when the conditions are suitable). What do you need for the equipment? Here is a list for a day Scottish winter-climbing. Mind you, it is just a brief summary — I could write an entire post per item… But hopefully this would give you an idea of what you would need, as a starting point.

Note you can hire many of the gear (but clothes) at some climbing shops (in Scotland). However, obviously you have to go there to get and return the gear during the opening times of the shop. On the other hand, it is common to set off before the sunrise and come back after the sunset in Scottish climbing. So, hiring gear from a shop is unlikely to be a good option for weekend warriors.

Absolute must (you can not borrow)

Perhaps you can borrow gear from your friends. Still, there are some things you can not, or should not, borrow, or your friends may be reluctant to let you, that is, clothing! Here is the list you should get by yourself.

In winter climbing you get sweaty when you are working hard, like approach, and then you stop for a prolonged time exposed to the harsh elements for belaying. Your clothing system has to cope with the huge difference in the activity level during a day — not an easy task to make it right. It is recommended to do your homework before you get one, but remember the most advanced clothes would be useless if it didn't fit you!

Boots

Undoubtedly the single most important equipment. At the same time, the single most difficult gear to choose the right one… So, although some shops offer hiring service of mountaineering boots, you have to have a pretty good luck to find those hired boots, which you likely choose in just 10 or so minutes, to be a good fit for you. Also, your friends are unlikely to have the spare boots of your size! I think it is worth taking a day off just to visit the best climbing shop during a weekday and choose and fit the boots, supervised by a highly experienced technician, taking a few hours. The best article about how to choose the right mountaineering boots I know is Getting the right mountain boots by Andy Kirkpatrick.

Here is the very brief summary for the boots suitable for Scottish winter-climbing. Mountaineering boots have a rating between B1 and B3. For Scottish winter-climbing, choose those rated either B2 (more comfy for walking), or more desirably, B3 (better on steep ground, and essential if steeper). Single-skin leather boots are the most suitable for us. They don't have to be super warm — the temperature rarely drops below -10 degC in Scotland. Make sure you have broken in the boots before the actual use.

Socks
Put on your socks when you choose the boots. Wool or its equivalent is the standard.
Waterproof
Both top and bottom are essential. You may want tough-duty ones as opposed to ultra-light ones, as you are likely to climb on them regularly, squeezing in a chimney etc. The hood is a must and it should be big enough to go over your helmet. Ideally the waterproof trousers can be worn without taking off your big boots.
Gaiters (long)
The primary purpose is to shut the snow out of your boots. Some boots have built-in gaiters, and they serve all right in most Scottish conditions. Secondary, they will protect your more expensive (waterproof) trousers from crampon scratches.
Gloves
Take a few pairs. Personally I usually take 6 pairs, or 7 if a cold day is anticipated. At least one of them must be waterproof, and any outer must be at least windproof. What works the best varies a lot, depending on the conditions and personal preference. As a rule of thumb, you can get away with bulky and warm gloves while you are belaying, whereas you want more dexterous gloves for climbing. I'd recommend to take a pair of mitten shell (with no lining) that can be worn over other gloves (for belaying duty etc).
Base layers
No cotton in any layer in winter. Either synthetic or merino wool is the best for base layers. You should get both top and bottom (trousers).
Middle layers
Some windproofness is desirable for the outermost layer, like softshell, as Scotland is notorious for strong wind. Yet, when you walk uphill in approach, you will still sweat. Therefore, how well ventilated the clothes can be is important.
Full-face balaclava
In blizzard, which you will come across sooner or later, this is what you'd need! It can be used as a normal hat in milder conditions.
Goggles
Another essential gear for blizzard conditions. Clear lens with no taint for UV protections are better in Scotland in general, but ski goggles would do a job. Double-layered lens is a must.
Head torch
It should be reasonably waterproof and be compatible with your helmet. In Scottish winter-climbing it is common to set off in the dark and come back in the dark. Sometimes you may even climb or retreat by abseil in the dark (if unplanned). You'd want a bright one.
Compass and map
As well as the skill to use them! GPS may be all right, as long as it works in the freezing and wet environment, easy to read in the dark, easy to handle with big mittens, easy to work out where to go on a map, and you have a spare in case one doesn't work or stops working, and you are aware of its limitations particularly near a cliff or in a gully.

Must (you may borrow, though)

Must gear, which you may be able to borrow off your friends.

Iceaxes

The symbolic gear of winter climbing and walking! For beginners, the crux of a day tends to be the descent, which can well be technically as hard as the way up. Therefore, your first iceaxe must be most suitable for the snowy and maybe icy descent. It is usually labelled as an alpine or mountaineering axe. For example, from DMM, Cirque, Raptor, and maybe Fly fall on to this category. Note it must be equipped with an adze, as opposed to a hammer.

Its primary purpose is a stick/pole to keep the balance while walking, therefore the shaft should be reasonably long and straight-ish. The best length depends on your height and lengths of your limbs, but as a rough guide, for a 160-cm tall person, 55-60 cm should be the right length. More experienced climbers can get away with a shorter length, but this article is aimed for the beginners.

Normal curvature for the pick (with the centre of the circle of the pick being in the side of the shaft) like DMM Cirque and Raptor, is better for ice-axe arrests. On the other hand, for steep climbing, reverse-pick (with the centre of the circle of the pick being in the opposite side of the shaft) works a lot better, like DMM Fly (of the current model, not its predecessor).

For steeper climbing, you'd want a pair of technical axes, one of which should have a hammer head. An upper handle and curved shaft at the head are of great help, like DMM Apex and Switch. The difference in axes between a technical and an alpine ones is phenomenal — it would make a difference of a couple of grades easily in climbing. In short, if you want to climb better, get a good axe(s)! Note there is no need that the pair has to match, except for aesthetic point of view.

Then, when you go for a steep (icefall etc) climbing, which axes should we take? Experienced climbers, particularly in Scotland, where the descent is quite short, would normally take just a pair of technical axes and manage with them in the descent. But beginners should not mimic them! For you beginner, the descent will be likely to be still the most dangerous part of a day! In steeper climbing you may fall, but are protected by rope(s), while in descent you are likely to be soloing. Therefore, if you go for a steep climbing, the best way is to take 3 axes — a pair of technical axes for the crux pitches and an alpine axe for the approach and descent.

If I take a beginner to a steep Scottish route, I would take, say, 2 DMM Switch (most technical), 1 DMM Apex (quite technical, and probably ideal because of the adze in the climbing route), 1 DMM Raptor (alpine axe) between the two of us. In approach and descent I use Apex, while my partner uses Raptor. In the pitched steep ground I swap Apex with Raptor of the partner, and I lead the route with 1 Switch and 1 Raptor, while the beginner partner seconds with 1 Switch and 1 Apex. That means my iceaxes are far from ideal, however if the route was too hard for me to lead with Raptor (and Switch), then it would be too hard for the beginner partner to climb anyway even though s/he uses the best gear, and so we shouldn't be there in the first place. By doing so, the beginner always has the most suitable axe(s) in hand, depending on the terrain.

In choosing an iceaxe or its pair, there are many other points to consider, but they are beyond the scope of this article. The bottom line is, get an alpine axe first, then a technical axe or its pair (in practice many shops offer a discount if you buy them as a pair).

Iceaxe leashes

Leashes have two types. Traditional ones support your wrist and take a weight off your grip in holding an axe. This type of leashes is desirable to have to climb a steep terrain with an axe with no designated grip-handle, like DMM Raptor and Cirque. If you may climb a steep terrain with those axes, then get one (per axe) like DMM Standard Leash.

Nowadays the specifically designed security cord to prevent you from accidentally dropping and losing an axe is often called leash (confusingly!), like DMM Freedom Leash. If you climb with axes with grip-handles like DMM Switch and Apex (or even Fly), get those, instead of traditional leashes. There is still much debate about the pros and cons of leash and cord, but it is fair to say that the use of security cord, together with axes with grip-handles, is becoming increasingly popular (called leashless climbing), and I am one of those advocates.

Crampons

Crampons are classified as C1, C2 and C3. B3 boots accepts any of them, whereas B2 boots accepts only C1 and C2. C3 crampons are the most rigid, hence are suitable for steep terrains, while C1 crampons are the most comfortable in walking. In climbing, C2 or C3 are necessary. For steeper climbing (grade V and above), C3 are highly desirable or essential.

Technical crampons have 12 (or more) points. The front points are the most important point. There are three types:

  1. Horizontal two points, e.g., Grivel G12
  2. Vertical two points, e.g., Grivel G22
  3. Vertical mono point, e.g., Grivel G20

For less steep terrains, particularly snowy terrains, horizontal two points are the best. For moderate and sustained ice routes, vertical two points are the best. For mixed routes, technical or thin ice routes and drytooling, vertical mono point is almost the only choice.

So, for beginners, horizontal two points should feel most secure and comfortable. When they get on steeper ice (or mixed) routes, they would want vertical front point(s).

Front points take an abuse. You should sharpen them when they get dull to get a better penetration into ice and finer placement on mixed. After repeated sharpening, eventually they will get just too short and you would want new ones. In that sense it is more economical if the crampons allow to change just the front points with new ones. Note many climbers don't bother to sharpen the horizontal two points, providing they use more technical crampons for steeper terrains.

C.A.M.P. Blade Runner is the most versatile in terms of switching from one front point to another, offering all those 3 types of front-points.

Another essential feature to have is anti-snowballing plates. Without them it can be quite dangerous to descend on snow slope in the afternoon sun or temperature above freezing. In Alps lots of guides refuse to accept customers whose crampons are not equipped with anti-snowballing plates, for that reason. Some lighter models, like Grivel G20/G22, do not have built-in anti-snowballing plates. They should be avoided.

Finally, don't forget to check if the crampons are compatible with your boots, particularly the size!

Axe/Crampon accessories

Ice axes and crampons, when you buy, usually come with little tools to tighten or adjust the size, like Allen keys, spanner etc. It would be serious if you find a part of your axe or crampon gets loose in the middle of the route and leave it. Just make sure you have the right tools and take them with you.

Also, it is advisable to get some protectors to prevent a damage onto your car-boot, rucksack, or even passers-by, caused by the sharp metal points of axes and crampons. You can DIY them, or get designated commercial ones.

Helmet
In winter climbing, there is a more risk of falling objects than summer climbing. Hence mountaineering helmets (e.g., Petzl Ecrin Roc) are the best, as opposed to an ultralight cragging helmet. Also, the helmet must be compatible with your head torch; your head torch must be able to be mounted on your helmet. A visor would be an extra point, particularly for ice routes, though not essential. As you see the orange colour everywhere in winter crags, Petzl Sirocco has become one of the most popular helmets in the last 2 years, which is the lightest one that satisfies all those conditions. Having said that, any climbing helmet is far better than no helmet. Take one.
Harness
Any harness would do, as long as it fits well and securely over your bulky winter clothes and has got at least 2, preferably 4 or more gear loops. It is desirable the leg loops can be completely undone. No padding is needed as your clothes would be thick enough, and padding can just absorb the moisture, unless it is a closed cell, and worse, it can freeze up inside.
Ropes
A pair of dry-treated 60-metre half ropes in bright colour is the modern standard.

Climbing gear for leaders

Standard multi-pitch trad-climbing gear
You would need most of them. You can leave the smallest gear like micro-nuts behind. Also, the usefulness of SLCD (Spring-Loaded Cam Device, aka Friends) can be limited, depending on your routes. You don't need a nut key in general, as your axe works as a nut key. Winter routes tend to be longer and meander, so more sling-draws are desirable.
Winter-only gear
These include:
  • Ice screws
  • Ice screw holders (e.g., Black Diamond Ice Clipper)
  • Abalakov threaders
  • Ice hooks (aka, Bulldogs)
  • Warthogs
  • Pegs
  • Peckers
  • Snow stakes
  • Deadmans
What and how many you would need depends on the type and condition of your chosen route. For example, if it is a pure ice route, you would need 4-6 ice screws for the top and bottom belays of a pitch, and at least half a dozen ice screws for the runners. If it is a pure mixed route, you may need no ice screw, while you may want to take a few ice-hooks.
Gear more common in winter
  • Load-limiting slings (aka Screamers) [for dodgy ice-screws, belay etc]
  • C.A.M.P. TriCams, or better TriCam Evo [for iced-up cracks, where SLCDs would not work]

Desirable

Snow shovel
Essential to assess the risk of avalanches on site. Metal blade is recommended. It can be used as a deadman, too. You may as well take a Sonde [avalanche] probe, too.
Avalanche transceiver
They have advanced so much in the last 20 years, and an absolute must for off-piste skiers nowadays. For climbers in Scotland, it is less of concern, not because the risk of avalanches is low selectively for climbers, but because the biggest risk of being swept by an avalanche in or near Scottish crags is to hit a rock on the way, rather than being buried and freezing to death, in most cases. Having said that, low-grade climbing routes tend to follow a deep snow gully, and so avalanche transceivers can well be a life saver. My recommendation is simple: get a modern one and take it!
Group shelter
A light-weight group shelter can well be a life saver in emergency, and offers an oasis in hostile environment. I have used it for from gearing up on windy day, waiting for the day to break, to read a map in blizzard. I wouldn't get out to winter hills without one.
Belay jacket
To make the cold belaying duty more amenable. It will be worn over your outer, perhaps waterproof. Therefore, both inside and outside should be reasonably water-resistant. Either synthetic or hydro-phobia down one. Remember it can be wet with the temperature above freezing in Scotland even during winter. Some parties take only one belay jacket between the two and swap it as they climb, so whoever in belaying duty is putting on it.
Buff (Neck warmer)
A neck warmer is a real help to keep yourself warm, as the exposed neck is an efficient radiator. Buff is handy and flexible for that purpose.
Wrist band (Wrist warmer)
To keep your hands warm it is important to keep your wrists warm, where an artery runs. It is a bad idea to expose your wrist to the elements for that reason. Some base-layers have thumb loops, which should work well. If not, get a pair of wrist gaiters, like Marmot ones to cover your wrist at all times.
Water-bottle insulator
It's cold and freezing. That means water will freeze. You would want an insulator for your bottle, unless your bottle is a thermos. Or, to pour boiling hot water when you set off, and to keep it in spare clothes etc may do a job.
Map case
A cheap freezer plastic pack like zip-lock would do a job.
Thermometer
To know the temperature, as well as its changing trend, is quite important in winter climbing to assess the conditions (though experienced winter climbers can make a fairly good guess by observations).
Altimeter
Particularly in white-out, an altimeter can well be a vital tool for navigation. Alternatively, you could use it to monitor the change of the air pressure, hence the weather, in some cases.
Sunglasses (Category 3 or 4)
In Scotland, most winter-climbing routes are in a shade on the north face, and Scottish weather is not renowned for sunny spells. So, strong sunlight is rarely of concern in the middle of winter. However, in later season like March and April on a lucky sunny day, your eyes can develop snow blindness due to glare on the snow/ice surface. Take a pair of good sunglasses, that is, Category 3 or above, ideally with the side-protections. Or, you can get away with goggles at the same category, though they are more prone to mist up.
(A pair of) Walking poles with snow-baskets
For a long approach you may take them, though they will be an extra weight during climbing, unless you can leave them somewhere and retrieve on your way back. They should fit in your rucksack; otherwise they would cause a lot of nuisance tangled with ropes. Snow-baskets are essential. Without them you'd run a risk of breaking them.
Hand warmer
Chemical (disposable) hand warmers can be handy in some cases.
Camera
It's cold. Does you camera operate all right in freezing temperature?

Postscript

In winter-climbing, how hard and well you can climb depends on how good and suitable your gear is, much more than summer rock-climbing. After all, you don't climb bare hands and feet in winter. So the quality and characteristic of your gear do matter. In short, you would want a somewhat different set of gear, depending on the routes and their conditions you are going to get on. In my case, I regularly change between 5 iceaxes, depending on the route and conditions in Scottish winter-climbing. In alpine climbing, I will add another 2 to choose from. And I would want to get another…

As a beginner, you may not want to splash loads of money around on so much gear. The emphasis on this article is therefore to help you novice get the best entry-level gear. Unfortunately some of the entry-level winter gear, most notably iceaxes and crampons, is different from more advanced gear, which are suitable for highly technical climbing but not so for moderate terrains. However I do not advise you to jump on straight to the advanced gear from the beginning (perhaps intending to save the potential cost?).

The initial stage in winter climbing is the most vulnerable and risky phase. Any one kind of knows the medium called hard rock naturally. But the medium called ice and snow must be quite foreign for the vast majority of beginners. Your first job is to understand the medium and get used to its huge variation on comparatively mild terrains. You would need the most suitable gear for the purpose to do so as safely as possible.

Climbers tend to free-solo the approach and descent to/from the route in Scottish winter-climbing, partly because it is often long and would take ages if roped-up and pitched. But, they are often quite steep — steep enough to put off hill-walkers with decades of experience. And a slip there can well be serious to fatal.

You are a climber. So you proudly walk up/down the steep slope, even though your winter experience is far less than those highly experienced hill-walkers. Obviously that involves a good deal of risk.

Such a steep slope may well be still easy enough for the experienced and suitably skilled climbers, so they don't carry the best gear, but get away with less than ideal gear for the terrain, like acutely curved climbing-iceaxes. It is a bit like Extreme climbers soloing Diff, and in trainers (or roller-skates, if you dare). However, it is a risky job for VDiff climbers to solo a Diff and in trainers. If VDiff climbers solo a Diff, they should be at least wearing climbing shoes!

So, my advice is to get the best gear for those comparatively milder yet still risky terrains first, and this article is based on that principle.

Then climb, if you dare (yes, you will!). Actually climbing parts will be probably a lot safer, as you are belayed. So, even if your gear is less than ideal for climbing, the risk will be not high. When you eventually get frustrated with your gear for climbing, that is perhaps the time to consider to move on — get more advanced ones!

(by Masa Sakano, on 2015-03-29)

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