Posted on December 12 2014
If you have any more than a passing interest in the British climbing scene you will have noticed people everywhere getting weirdly excited about the ‘weather bomb’ currently bearing down on our little island. These people are not hoping to use the high winds and snow to make fraudulent insurance claims but are instead excited about the onset of winter. The unpredictable nature of our weather caused by our proximity to the sea means were never totally assured of actually receiving a winter. Every now and then though we get a great one with winter climbing possible from late November through to April. To get on this wave of optimistic euphoria you will however need to beg, borrow or steal a few extra pieces of equipment both to wear and to terrify others with.
British mixed climbing bears many similarities to summer trad climbing. Most of the routes you climb in winter are just easy (or not so easy) summer trad lines so don’t expect any nice secure bolts! With this in mind your starting point for your rack will be the same as any summer trad route so get your nuts out.
One of the biggest differences will be usefulness (or otherwise) of cams. In dry winter conditions loose snow will fall out of cracks and you can place a nice bomber cam in there. Unfortunately Scotland is famous for being wet, even snow is really just white rain so the chances of your cam freezing up or the crack being chocked full of ice are depressingly high. This is where it pays to get old school. Get your hands on some big hexes, you wont sound like a bumbly pottering around the crag with your accompanying jingle, everyones at it up there.
There is very little real ice in Scotland and as such ice screws aren’t often that useful. If you are going to do an ice route then obviously take some but for most mixed lines you wont see any. What you might encounter however is frozen turf. This novel Scottish climbing medium can be brilliant when properly frozen, not just for axe and foot placements but also for protection. Bulldogs, Warthogs and various other ‘ice hooks’ can be smashed into the turf and make the next move psychologically plausible.
Take your nut key off your rack (unless you like carry extra weight uphill pointlessly), you’ve got one in each hand!
The humorously named ‘dead man’ is often used in Scotland as an alternative to more widely used ‘snow steak’. They are notoriously fiddly to place correctly but when done so have some impressive holding power (http://www.planetfear.com/articles/Winter_Climbing_Protection_419.html). You’ll find something like this much more reassuring when you top out than a buried axe or bucket seat.
By far and away the coolest things about mixed climbing are your nut keys/ice axes. ‘Torquing’ up a crack too narrow for fingertips is almost as cool as how good they look on your bag walking up to the crag. It is tempting to buy the most expensive bendy axes you can afford (there is a direct correlation between bendiness and coolness) but bear in mind these may not be the best for the job. A hammer, Adze and straight shaft you can ram in a wide crack are all often missing from these streamlined tools. As with any expensive purchase, ask about and try out a few different options before plonking for the ones that match your jacket.
As with axes, an entire article could be written about the costs/benefits of the plethora of options available to a prospective buyer. The most important thing is to have a pair that fit your boots as things can get serious fast if one falls off. Anti-balling plates (they stop snow accumulating on the underside of your boot) are useful and most brands now come with them as standard. They have standardised the market to give the buying a rough idea of what should fit what kind of boot. Crampons will get a rating C1, C2, C3 which gives an indication of how much they flex. The more they flex the better they are to walk in, the less flex, the better they are for steep mixed climbing.
In order to help match crampons and boots there is a rating system for boots too (if you haven’ guessed B1,B2,B3). They are divided on the flexibility of the sole. Basically the stiffer the sole, the better for climbing but, the worse for walking. If you have some money burning a hole in your pocket its here that its worth spending. You can buy some reasonably cheap, stiff boots but when it comes to walking to and from the crag you’ll hate yourself for being such a tight arse. Make sure you check your crampons fit your boots, take them to the store and strap them up!
As with all of this bear in mind that some of the cheapest, least technical gear available today would have been the best available only a few years ago so you don’t have to spend £1000’s straight away. Going out with someone more experienced is always useful but especially when taking that step into winter mountaineering. Aside from getting some new gear get some experience navigating and find out as much as you can about avalanches (http://www.mwis.org.uk/avalanche-forecast). Before heading out check the forecast (http://www.mwis.org.uk/home), leave your intentions with someone and be responsible for yourselves.