The transition from summer rock climbing into winter is best prepared for in advance. Dusting off your B3 boots, ice axes and crampons, is best done ahead of the first snow so you can re-lace your boots or sharpen the axes that you meant to sharpen at the end of last season. Unlike Harold Raeburns 1906 ascent of Green gully on Ben Nevis, with one axe, some hobnailed boots and a hemp rope, nowadays we have a whole plethora of kit to choose from, which is very useful for some of the harder winter ascents taking place. However, what to choose and how to prepare it, can be daunting for those just getting into winter climbing or we forget over summer and remember mid- way up our first winter pitch of the season we had intended to swap some cams for hexes.
Winter climbing needs all the ’PPTT’ preparation: Psychological, physical, Tactical and Technical. We are going to look at the Tactical aspect of organising your winter rack, so you can be more
slick, safe and efficient this winter.
Winterising your rack
Nuts and wires
Check your wires for damage! It is useful if you can begin to separate winter wires from summer ones, as winter wires take a beating. When you have been getting pumped scraping ice out of a verglassed crack for five minutes, the rising urge to hammer that nut in harder and faster than ever can take over. This can often lead to broken wires across the top of the nut, which in turn can cut gloves and is unsafe by manufacturing standards. Make sure to replace any nuts with broken wires and perhaps you will think twice about how you hammer them in next time.
Hexes and Rock Centrics
Bring out the big guns. In winter, hexes can be the ‘hallelujah’ placements you were looking for. Perhaps in summer the enjoyment and use for hexes got quickly replaced by cams with their lighter less noisy crag appearance. For winter, dig out the hexes. The rock centric style hexes are brilliant, offering large but light protection which are easy to place and hammer in. When faced with an icy crack, hexes can be much more reassuring that watching your favourite cam slither out. Carry a selection of sizes and if you have the opportunity, try out the tape or wire hexes to see which you prefer.
Cams and friends
Cams come with a caution in winter. Their uses are less versatile and faced with a verglassed crack or too much snow in a crack, they can be a winter climber’s nightmare. They can be safely used in dry cracks or with just a touch of frosting on the rock, but make sure to have plenty of other options in case the situation is different. Reducing the number of cams, to three of four of your favourite sizes and getting some information of the conditions other climbers have encountered in the area you are visiting can be useful, to save carrying the extra weight.
Light isn’t always right. Quick draws are getting lighter and lighter but also smaller. It is prudent to ensure you can open the gates of your quick draws with your thick winter gloves on. Also choose wire gates not hard gates, as they don’t freeze closed so easily. In winter extendable quick draws are very useful, for extending runners on wandering routes, tying off ice screws or using for threads. I often exchange some of my shorter draws for extendable ones in my winter rack.
There is not much point having an all singing, all dancing rack, if your belayer can’t hold the ropes properly with their belay plate. Icy ropes and thick gloves can make holding a fall harder but if coupled with an incorrect belay plate for the thickness of rope, then you could be in trouble. Therefore, it is vital that you have the correct belay plate for the width of rope you are using. Thinner twin or half ropes can be popular for ice climbing, and these days ropes are losing weight fast, so it is important to read the information that comes with your belay plate to ensure it is suitable for your ropes.
Tat and Nut keys
Nut keys can stay at home. You have two nut keys in winter, the pick of both ice axes.
Tat, which should never actually be tatty, is very useful to carry in winter. I carry a minimum of 5 meters cord and ensure this is rated high enough to be safe for abseil. The ability to retreat in winter is very important, for bad weather, or lack of good conditions, plus many other reasons. There are more variabilities in winter, so being prepared for progress upwards as well as downwards is wise.
Specialist winter kit:
Ice screws and Threaders
How many screws to take versus how much money am I happy to spend? For pure ice routes you want a minimum of two ice screws per belay plus 6 – 8 screws for long pitches of ice. That’s 10 – 12 screws in total. You will be thankful of the extra screws when on the sharp end and will quickly forget the hole in your’ wallet. It is a good idea to keep these in good condition, rust free and sharp. It is favourable to have a system for protecting the screws in your bag, which doesn’t involve faffing with the end caps and mesh tubes on a windy day. Dry them out when you get home to save from going rusty. It is possible to get professional ice screw sharpeners but use these sparingly as the screw wears out more quickly with sharpening.
Carry a selection of different length screws and use the appropriate length screw for the depth of ice rather than needing to tie off screws that are too long for the ice. Always save one long screw for the belay as this can be used to create an abolokv or V thread which is necessary for retreat from a route or enhancing a belay, requiring only one screw. For creating a V Thread, it is very helpful to have on you an abolokv threader and some rated chord to thread it with. Threaders come in different shapes and sizes, I find the ones on wire which are flexible, the most useful.
Most mixed routes that are well travelled are either well equipped with pegs, although the reliability of these can vary greatly, or they don’t have the need for pegs. However, for more obscure routes, or those off the beaten track, pegs can be a very handy asset and sometimes useful on a rime plastered crag, when hammering a peg in might save the day. You can find a whole array of pegs out there from knife blades to fat bongs. On most standard winter routes, I will carry between two and four pegs on my harness, of varying widths and lengths. It is a good idea to attach a loop of thin cord through the eye of all your pegs not for clipping as the leader but for the second. When the second comes to remove the peg, they can clip the quick draw to the loop and the quickdraw to the rope, so that during the process of bashing the peg back and forth for removal, they neither bash the quickdraw nor drop the peg.
Bull dogs, Warthogs and Dead men
If you get to this section and think what on earth? Don’t worry, you should have plenty of kit above to get started, in most of the popular winter climbing areas. It is worth seeking a bit of advice before rushing out to buy some of these more specialist pieces of kit if you don’t know how to place them.
Bull dogs or Ice hooks as they are sometimes known, can sit well in an ice axe slot on a mixed route with thin cracks. I have seen them placed all the way up thin iced cracks and whilst they looked a bit dubious, can be hard to remove if placed well. However, when used on pure ice routes, they are more of a psychological piece of gear that anything else.
Warthogs are a specialist piece of kit which I rarely carry unless going somewhere renowned for turf and compact or loose rock where other protection may be hard to find. However, where there is an abundance of frozen turf, they can be very reassuring.
Dead men are for snow belays or perhaps a runner on exit slopes, while some people like to carry them, I find I can construct an adequate snow belay using my ice axe and bucket seat or other variations. Therefore, I prefer not to carry extra kit for situations I already have the tools for. Dead men also have very specific guidelines which must be followed for safe placement, which depend on the snow pack and then measurement of the correct angles etc. By the time you have assessed all of this to place the tool, you could have constructed a suitable snow belay just using your ice axe.
This is a very personal task. One could waste hours of time debating which way they prefer their gates to face on their harness whilst shivering on a cold winter belay. I will pass on just a few top tips which I believe make my racking that bit more effective in winter.
I had never been a fan of the bandolier, being short I often found they were passed over to me rather too long and either required time to adjust or got tangled around my ankles. However, in winter I find racking the quick draws on a bandolier is a great way to free up space on my harness and makes it easier to locate the right kit. It does also make seconding more efficient and less likely to drop kit as it gets clipped to the bandolier before being extracted and time can be saved at the belay swapping over draws and other kit.
Kit you need to hand
This one seems obvious but in winter rhe positioning of your kit can be even more important as thick gloves, hoods and rucksacks can make finding kit some what of a challenge. Before setting off on a pitch or at a comfortable rest, bring the kit you think you will most need for the section ahead, to the front of your harness loops to avoid doing battle with a hex at the back of your harness, mid way up a technical section.
Ice screw rackers
For ice climbing these are invaluable. Get a few sets and attach them to your harness in a place where you can access the screws easily, but they won’t trash your shiny new waterproof trousers. Be careful not to over load them with too many screws as the gates have been known to fail and loosing one with all of your screws on can be a gutting moment. It is possible to get metal ice screw rackers which are more durable.
What to pack
If you have plenty of knowledge of the conditions and routes you plan to climb on the mountain then you can pack more specifically for the routes in mind. If you are unsure of the conditions, or how busy it will be, then I suggest taking a bigger rack which covers all bases, so you can make the most of what you find and make better decisions based on what looks good rather than what you can climb with the little kit you have in your bag.
Time now to go and check out my own winter rack. We hope this inspires you for the season ahead and gives a few ideas for your winter rack. If you have any thoughts or questions you would like to share, we would love to hear from you. To find out more about winter courses available, have a look at the website for further information.
Photo Credit Rob Brown