WHAT TO TAKE AND WHERE TO PUT IT
The thing about winter mountaineering in Scotland is that it's just so hard to do things. Trying to operate straps, toggles, zips and gadgets with gloves on feels incredibly fiddly and clumsy, add to that hostile weather, a heavy load, deep snow and it seems that simply coping is incredibly hard work. It is – but fear not! Before ice axe and crampons and all the cool stuff a winter education has to incorporate learning how to manage yourself and your gear.
The way to do this is to have systems and routines. Imagine an office or a computer, chances are you know exactly where to go for paperclips because they have a place, just as you know where your photos and documents are on your desktop because they're positioned where they are useful and accessible. If you give the same thought to your winter kit and become practised with it to the point of second nature you'll find it all so, so much easier to deal with the faff of winter mountaineering! And yes, it will still be hard, but that's why we do it!
First off lets look at what we are going to wear. We'll assume it's the start of the day, walking from the car, dry but nice and chilly. The old adage 'go cold from the carpark' makes absolute sense because, despite feeling for all the word like wrapping up with everything possible, within a short time we're going to make a lot of our own heat walking uphill!
This is typically what I'd be wearing:
Thermal base layer
Wool, synthetic or a mixture. Cotton as a last resort as it tends not to wick away sweat.
Walking or mountaineering socks, synthetic or wool mixture, I like socks made by Smartwool, calf or knee length.
Fleece, warm synthetic or soft shell. I like to wear my waterproof trousers over power-stretch tights which gives me a good combination of comfort, wind and waterproofness – even in dry conditions I will often find myself kneeling or sitting in snow so this way I can keep dry knees and bum.
Light weight fleece, power-stretch top, something with a hood is very handy for a quick warm up.
4 season boots that are compatible with the crampons that you use (B2 or B3 rating) - click for info.
Knee length. It's worth noting that some overtrousers have built in gaiters to keep snow from getting down inside boots.
Map & compass*
The Silva Expedition 4 compass is recommended, it has all the features you will need including a variety of roamer scales. Have a map of relevant areas in a small waterproof bag. There are various mountain maps available for any given area of the UK, my article here gives a basic explanation.
* Note that I have included this in what I'm wearing. I highly recommend having your map and compass made small and kept in a jacket or trouser pocket. This is where it will be useful, as opposed to inside a rucksack where it will probably stay! You can trim maps, take the card backing off or print them from online software so that you don't have a huge folded wad of paper bursting out of a pocket or a sail flapping wildly around your neck!
Hat & gloves
There's a good chance I'll be wearing these when setting off, when I get warm I can take them off and stash them in pockets without having to stop. More on hat and gloves later.
This will need to be in the region of 30 - 45 litres capacity. Simple, clean designs are good for climbing, however if ski touring or some general trekking are on the radar, then a bag which has compartments and pockets make it easier to organise and access things. Rather than using a big rucksack liner I prefer to have stuff in individual dry-bags, with one big liner snow or rain will get inside every time you need to get something. Here is a review of the Osprey Mutant 28, which although not that big is very clever so you can do a lot with it.
The bag should be packed with gear least likely to be used nearer the bottom. Having said that, for the climbers especially, is a good idea to have the heavy kit near the lumbar area of your sack. If it's high up in the bag you'll very top heavy.
1st aid kit
This doesn't need to be massive: some tape, plasters, Compeed blister kit, a large wound dressing, a tick remover, energy gel and some painkillers. Anything serious enough to need more than this and you're going to have rescue help coming to you in short order.
Emergency group shelter
An essential piece of safety equipment, inexpensive, small, packable and a potential life saver. A bit like a tent fly without the poles, it provides an instant habitat allowing you to get out of the weather.
Crampon emergency repair kit
i.e cable ties and gaffer tape!
The one I use is from Lifesystems. It is vacuum packed, foil backed plastic.
Down or synthetics are very good. Synthetic is more effective than down when damp. A hood is essential in my opinion. This garment is handy for chilly conditions, but combined with a survival blanket and a group shelter could be a lifesaver during an unplanned night out.
Hat & balaclava
One that covers the ears is important. Bring spares.
Waterproof jacket and trousers
Goretex, Paramo or similar. Soft-shell generally gets wet in persistent rain. Braces are a good idea so that when you're bulked up with clothes you're not grappling with falling-down trousers.
Even high end mountaineering gloves will leak at some point because there's a big hole in them where your hands go! Therefore it makes sense to carry several pairs on the hill. My glove strategy for winter is something like this: a lightweight fleece pair for walking-in, mountaineering gloves with leather palms for handling ice axes, ropes etc and a pair of over mitts for hanging around. On top of that I'll have a spare pair of mountaineering gloves. That's four pairs in total! Pretty standard.
10 / 12 point walking / mountaineering crampons that have front points (C2 or C3 rating) - click for info. Have them in a tough canvas crampon bag so they don't puncture your waterproofs!
High energy food is best for winter. We're after carbohydrates, fats and sugars plus protein for maintenance. I like sandwiches with meat and cheese plus mayonnaise and perhaps a spicy sauce to make them more palatable in the cold weather. Alternatively pasta salads, small enough to gulp down out of a plastic container. I'm quite into something like small macaroni with chopped meatballs, tomatoes and olives in a nice oil or sauce. Fruit is best left for summer (unless dried), it's bulky and low in energy. Bear in mind that in a full-on winter day you could burn well in excess of 5,000 calories.
Bottles with drinking tubes are excellent for hydration but often freeze in winter. Warm juice in a flask is great, but make sure it's not straight out of the kettle or you'll burn your lips! Now, here's a tip to make your drink go further: when you have had a drink and reduced some of the volume take some (clean) snow and push it in to the flask where it will melt and give you more to drink. You can repeat this a few times before the drink becomes cold. This way you only need to carry 750ml at a time, because remember 1 litre weighs a kilo!
(LED) head torch essential. I used to take spare batteries, but have you ever tried fiddling with a battery compartment in the dark, whilst it's blowing a hoolie all around? Way, way easier to just take a spare torch, for example the Petzl E-lite, which is tiny and weighs nothing.
Essential for bright days when glare can be a serious problem.
Very important to protect agains UV reflected from the snow.
Ski type, essential for keeping wind blown snow out of the eyes, allowing you to see! Some days you can barely manage without them. Clear, double lenses are good if you can get them. This acts like double glazing and helps prevent steaming up.
CE rated mountaineering helmet that fits you whilst wearing a hat.
55/60cm with a removable leash. Now, many rucksacks will have attachment points for axes but I prefer to have the tool carried on the side of the bag using the compression straps or even slotted down between my back and the rucksack. The advantage here is that you can conveniently take your axe in hand without having to take the sack off.
These can make travel over deep snow or broken ground much more comfortable and take some of the load off your legs. If you're going to be using an ice axe frequently using just one pole makes sense.
Some may say essential. Nowadays people use their phone as a camera and GPS etc, all of which uses up a lot of battery so it's very important to keep the phone close to your body for warmth. If the battery gets cold the chemical reactions will be sluggish, resulting in loss of power. Additionally it needs to be waterproof, either in a 'tough case' or a plastic wallet or bag.
A pair of ice axes
Technical climbing tools, one with an adze and the other with a hammer. I recommend leash-less with a lanyard setup to avoid dropping them.
B3 Boots ideally for winter climbing. These will give you all the support you need for standing on front points and kicking into snow. They ought to be warm enough to cope with the cold.
12 or 12+ point crampons with good aggressive front points and prominent secondary front points.
One that will fit over multiple layers of clothing, is easy to adjust with gloves and with plenty of gear loops. I find the 'closed system' fastening easier to deal with in winter, as opposed to the kind of buckle that you have to manually thread.
Gloves for climbing
Not only do you need to think about warmth but also dexterity, so as mentioned above I go for a thinner pair of gloves but with an over-mitt for when I'm stationary.
A camera is great to take out so that you can relive all the glory when you're old and your knees don't work, plus in this day and age a basic outdoor camera is way cheaper to replace than a dropped or broken iPhone!
It's good to have either a weather proof model or a good protective case!