Kitting up for a first winter in the mountains can be daunting. Packs need to be bigger, boots stiffer, jackets thicker, and then there’s all that metalware to carry. It’s little wonder that the winter virgin often falls at the first fence. Yet it’s not really rocket science, and a few well-chosen words of advice will see many a first-timer stomping the snow-covered hills this winter, and will also win over a good loyal customer.
So what exactly should that cold-weather rookie be looking for?
Hardware and Boots
The biggest outward difference between winter and summer kit is the addition of an ice axe for self arrest, and crampons to assist progress on icy or snowy slopes. But the crampons need to be compatible with the boots, and this is where things start to look complicated. Fortunately they’re not really; it’s just a matter of understanding the different types of boots available, and of course the types of crampons that will fit on them. And this has been made easy by a classification system that most manufacturers adhere to.
Basically, all crampon compatible boots are graded B1, B2 or B3. B1 is a walking boot, often referred to as a 3/4-season boot, that will take a flexible and articulated walking crampon, for winter use, yet is still just about soft enough for year-round walking, certainly higher up the mountain. B3 however, is a rigid-soled boot that is designed for ice-climbing and technical mountaineering, and you wouldn’t really want to be wearing it below the snowline at anytime if you can help it. B2 not surprisingly, comes somewhere in between. You may occasionally hear of B0 boots – this just means that they are not crampon compatible.
All you need to do now is match the boot number to the associated crampon number. C1 crampons are flexible and articulated and usually strap on to the boot; and are generally the best bet for winter walking and easier mountaineering. Their flexible nature makes them compatible with the slightly more flexible sole-unit and upper of the B1 boot. C2 are usually a touch stiffer, and instead of straps, mainly rely on some kind of clip to attach them to the boot. Because of this, they aren’t as secure on a flexible boot so need a slightly stiffer B2 boot, which usually also have lips on the toe and heel to make attachment easier. And then C3 crampons are usually totally rigid and designed to be attached by step-in, clip type bindings and subsequently need stiff, B3 boots to work safely. And to make it even easier, as a general rule, B3 and C3 are only really useful for technical mountaineering and climbing, so are a little beyond the scope of this article.
Simple really. And the only slight exception to all this is that whilst a boot can never fit on a crampon with a higher number, it is possible and safe to fit a crampon with a lower number to a boot with a higher one, for example a C1 on a B3 boot, or more likely, a C1 on B2 boot.
The other main question regarding crampons is the number of points, and for walking, 10 is plenty, and usually cheaper and lighter than 12 or 14. If the buyer harbours any Alpine or easy British mountaineering ambitions, then 12 may be a better bet in the long run.
Crampons sorted, now for an axe. For walking, ice axes are usually carried solely for self-arrest and as such are simple in design with a straight shaft (curved shafts are to aid placement when climbing steep ice), and a forged head with an easy-angled pick, for self-arrest, and an adze, that will be useful for cutting steps. A lot of fuss is made about length, and the trouble is that shorter axes are better at some tasks and longer ones at others. A good rule of thumb is to go for a length that will just about touch the floor when held by its head at one’s side. However, 5cm or so shorter will be lighter, without being too short.
The next thing to look at is clothing. Shell jackets generally do the same job summer or winter, and there will probably be no need to buy another. A good addition to the wardrobe will be a soft shell jacket that will keep out the wind, and the odd snowflake or quick shower, yet still offer some insulation as a mid layer as well. These can be particularly useful if combined with 100gsm fleece.
Summer trousers will also often work alright in winter, and some excel with a pair of long johns worn underneath. But a pair of shell waterproof trousers will still have to be carried in case it snows or rains heavily. Another option is a pair of softshell trousers next to the skin. These tend to work brilliantly in all but the very worst conditions, where a pair of lightweight shell trousers might be needed over the top.
Gloves are a must, and the most versatile arrangement is a fleecy inner glove and a waterproof mitt or outer glove. A spare pair of inner gloves don’t weigh much and can make a miserable walk-out a lot more bearable. And a good warm hat should always be carried or worn.
Good navigation is vital in winter, when the days are short and the cost of an error could be high. If a GPS is carried, spare batteries are essential, as battery life is often shortened in cold weather. And a map, in a waterproof case, and a compass should always be carried as a back up. And another really useful bit of kit is an emergency shelter. Not the survival bag type, which really are only useful if you do get into trouble, but the small group shelters that can also be used for rest stops and lunch etc. Remember the suncream, it’s easy to get burnt on snowy, sunny days; and your sun glasses as snow on the ground can be really quite blinding.
All that gear takes up space, so a slightly bigger pack might be an advantage. But remember, with today’s lightweight fabrics, it is possible to pack a fair bit into something as compact as a 25L pack, especially as more of the clothing is actually worn during the winter. If a new pack is needed, ice axe attachments are useful, and perhaps a crampon bag will help protect it from the sharp spikes.