Choosing kit & gear for Scotland winter mountaineering
Image: Sarah Andersen
 

Choosing kit & gear for Scotland winter mountaineering

 

Introduction

 
My first winter route. Gearing up in a frigid Coire an t-Sneachda, I was psyched-up and ready to go… if only I could get my harness on. Stripping off clumsy ski gloves to double back the straps of a summer climbing harness, I began to suspect that my gear choice needed serious refinement. As my bare fingers froze onto the fiddly metal buckles it was clear how much I had to learn.
 
Every winter trip brings new insights into getting the most from gear in Scotland’s ‘special’ winter climate. Fortunately, not all the lessons are as painful.
 
So, to help you gear up for your next snowy Scottish adventure, we have some advice on choosing kit to minimise the suffering and make the most of time on the hills. This is geared towards Scottish winter mountaineering, but much applies to winter climbing too.
 
Choosing kit & gear for Scotland winter mountaineering
Creag Meagaidh looking suitably Scottish. Photo by Masa Sakano
 

Good Purchases

 

We’ve all made good purchases, and then there are those we’d rather forget. There’s nothing more frustrating than realising you’ve made a bad call – just as your new shiny kit becomes mucky enough to make a store return impossible. While obviously painful for our pockets – these mistakes also cost the environment as nothing is produced and shipped without an impact. Over the years, I’ve learned a few helpful principles for avoiding costly mistakes.
 
Of all my purchases, I don’t recall regretting anything where I had first spent time researching the options, asking friends and looking for a good price. Where I’ve bought the best I could afford, I’ve always been happy with the results. On the other hand, when I turned up in a shop needing to purchase kit for a trip the next day, my last minute decisions were often costly disasters. I remember persuading myself that some too small gloves would do for a climbing trip. Result = really cold fingers and lesson learned painfully.
 
Getting a bargain is always a tempting proposition. Given a bit of forward planning, I rarely have paid full price for big ticket items. If you’re able to shop off-season it’s amazing what can be picked up. Ebay has some great deals on nearly new kit as well. The only caveat is that it’s only a bargain if it’s the right kit and fits well – don’t be blinded into regrettable decisions by the big red discount label.
 
My final thought on good purchases, is to consider good in the broader sense of the word. Us outdoor types tend to appreciate the wilderness and value our leisure time. Perhaps that’s why brands who have a strong emphasis on environmental protection and the rights of workers in their supply chain have become so popular. Patagonia deserve a big shout out for making top quality kit in a way that does minimal harm.
 
So, here’s a run-down of the clothing that will keep you safe on the hills.

 

Boots

 
Without a doubt, the boots are one of the most important – and most tricky – pieces of kit to get right. Your ability to cover ground, stay comfortable and safe as well as keeping all your toes depend on having the right boots in a size that fits you. Like a climbing partner, you will only really know how good your boots are after you’ve faced some challenging days out together. To maximise the chances of getting it right first time, here are a few useful principles.
 
Boots are graded according to their purpose: from B0 (3 season only and unsuitable for any winter walking), through to B3 (fully rigid sole suitable for steep climbing). The boot type also affects what crampons you can wear, since a more flexible sole will cause stress on rigid crampons.
 
This is the most fundamental choice, so spend some time realistically evaluating what you will use them for. If it is to be for walking and easier grade climbing (I and II) then a B2 boot is a good compromise. It hits that sweet spot of being robust and rigid enough for some steep stuff, but with adequate flex to make walking less crippling than a fully rigid boot. If you’re planning a range of activities – from simple walking to ice climbing – there is a golden rule to remember. Buy a boot which can cope with the most demanding intended use. While you can walk long distances in a fully rigid boot (albeit feeling like a prototype robot), you will never climb ice with bendy soles!
 
Having decided on the boot grade, you should be able to draw up a shortlist which have adequate insulation and waterproofing to cope with Scotland. Remember, that some B2 boots are designed for alpine summers, so will climb fantastically, but will leave you numb after the first bog crossing. There are now several basic design types which can work in Scotland. Each has pros and cons.
 

Plastic boots with removable liners

 
Once these were what you saw on most people climbing in Scotland. Now they’re much less common. Pros: good weather resistance and warm, can dry out easily by removing liners, rigid. Cons: bulky and lacking feel.
 

Single Leather boots

 
Boots should use a quality leather (Perwanger is the best) with a water-repellent treatment. The more extreme the application, the thicker the leather should be. B3 boots typically have at least 3mm thick leather uppers. A full leather boot with minimal seams may not need a Goretex liner and will be a robust investment. On the downside, it may lack the out of the box comfort of more modern designs which incorporate synthetic materials.
 

Super-gaiter style boots

 
Boots with a built in gaiter are a more common sight with models from Scarpa and La Sportiva leading the way. They offer improved warmth and water resistance with only a minimal increase in bulkiness and weight compared to a single boot. They are less robust, however, and can take longer to dry.
 
Given the choice available, this is a great time to get recommendations from friends who do similar outings. You could also consider hiring first.
 
If at all possible, get into a specialist shop and try on a range of boots. Take your time and get advice from the staff. To try them in the shop, always use the type of sock you’ll head out onto the hills with. Lacing boots depends massively on personal taste, but generally you want to leave adequate room over the toe box and forefoot, while holding the ankle firmly into the boot. Many boots now have hooking eyelets half way up to allow you to vary the tightness – this is a great feature and saves messing about with surgeon’s knots. Once the boots are on, try all the usual standing on edges of steps, walking down inclines and kicking the shop wall. You’ll get some strange looks, but those in the know will understand what you’re up to.
 
Choosing kit & gear for Scotland winter mountaineering
Crampons fit? Check. Photo by Niki
 
If the boot fits well, it will feel good on the foot, your toes will never touch the front and your heels have minimal lift when standing on the front point. They’ll also need to fit your crampons, so if possible take them into the shop for a test too. Front pointing up the shop’s drywall is generally considered poor form, so a simple fitting will have to suffice.
 
Once you have a boot home, it’s a good idea to wear as much as possible around the house before getting them muddy. Better shops will have a good return/exchange policy even for slightly used boots, but you are going to lose some money once they’ve been out of the house.

 

Action Suit

 
In his book “Extreme Alpinism”, Mark Twight coined the phrase ‘action suit’ to describe the clothing system that a mountaineer will keep on all day – adding to when needed if stopped, or slowing down. Even if your ambitions don’t extend to extremes, this book is an inspirational read from someone who has learned how to eek every last ounce of performance from his kit. It’s also a cool phrase! Who doesn’t feel more ready for adventure just thinking about putting on an action suit.
 
The concept is to wear a combination of layers that keep out the worst of the weather and allow you to regulate your temperature (and hence sweat less) while working hard. With the right clothing, it should be possible to stay in a comfortable temperature range while you’re moving, without putting on and taking off mid-layers continuously. The aim is to be just warm enough for whatever you’re doing – which means starting out feeling a little colder than comfortable, knowing you’ll soon warm up. Nobody wants to be the group member who asks for yet another stop to fiddle with layers! If the basic layers are right, it’s possible to stay comfortable most of the time by making on the move adjustments of hoods, hats, gloves, sleeves and zipping heat in or letting moisture out through the main and venting zips.
 
Alternatively, some prefer to go for a single thick layer (e.g. Buffalo, Montane extreme) and rely on deep venting to shed excess heat. This is a personal call, with some loving these systems, while others go for layers.
 
Here are the layers you’ll need to rock the action suit style.
 

Base layer

 
The aim of a baselayer is to get moisture away from your skin fast. Even a couple of millimeters thickness of warm dry air trapped in clothing next to skin massively reduces conductive heat loss from the skin. There are different fabrics which do this job effectively. One option is to have a very thin first base layer (such as lightweight polyester Capilene) followed by a more substantial mid layer. I find Merino doesn’t transfer moisture quick enough for a mountaineering base layer, but it works great as a second layer – drawing moisture away from the more hydrophobic base layer.
 
Another approach is to use a thicker base layer made of brushed and gridded polyester fleece. The Patagonia R1 hoody works fantastically like this, or as a mid layer. The long fibres draw moisture from the surface effectively and the grid allows ventilation while trapping enough air to give it insulative value.
 
Other features that will make you base layer more versatile are:
 

  • Long hem. A builder’s crack is never a good look and having snow falling into a builder’s crack is downright unpleasant. Having plenty of length to keep your top tucked in is priceless.
  • Thumbholes and long cuffs. I’m always amazed by how much added hand warmth is gained simply by keeping the wrist covered.
  • Balaclava style hood. Again, this additional feature significantly enhances the protection of the base layer, for minimal weight gain and since it’s stuck to your undies, it’s never going to get dropped in a blizzard.

 

Mid layer/s

 
Mid layers are chosen to reflect the temperature and your expected hear output. Simple fleece is a great choice as it allows moisture to move through and gives fantastic wet warmth, for those really miserable days. Most people new to mountaineering massively overestimate how much mid-layer insulation they’ll need. On a mild Scottish day if you plan to move fast – or are unfit and hence generate lots of heat just shuffling along – you may not need a mid-layer at all when on the move and pumping out heat. If you’re not sure, there’s little harm in having a spare layer in the rucksack to put on just in case.
 
Choosing kit & gear for Scotland winter mountaineering
Just in case……  Photo by Masa Sakano
 

If you’re strapped for cash, this is an area where going cheap will have less impact. There are many cut-price outdoor shops where you can snag a bargain microfleece that will do the job almost as well as a £100+ version. It’s going to have a more fashion oriented fit, so just make sure it’s long enough and cut reasonably close to avoid excess flapping fabric.
 
I suggest avoiding any membranes, which inhibit breathability and the extra windproofing isn;t needed if you have a shell over the top.
 

Soft Shell

 
Soft shells were designed as a compromise between fleece (breathable, but non-weather resistant) and hard shells (weather resistant, but highly unbreathable). This is a compromise which allows you to keep the sweaty shell in the pack for all but the worst weather (most Scottish winter days) whilst having a good degree of protection from wind chill. Manufacturers have played with different fabrics to balance breathability vs protection. Whatever you go for, it’s worth considering a good hood, which covers a significant portion of the face and can go over a helmet and a robust outer fabric.
 
My current favourite approach is to combine mid and soft shell in a single layer, wearing a jacket with highly breathable insulation and a pertex outer with good air permeability. There are several manufacturers going down this line now including Patagonia (their Nano Air uses stretchy insulation. Our very own James Kniffen swears by this jacket) and Rab have a good version I’ve been very impressed with using alternative insulation (Strata Hoody using Polartech Alpha).
 

Hard Shell jacket

 
When the Glencoe mist turns to horizontal 60mph sleet, there’s no better feeling than pulling on a bomber hardshell jacket and zipping it up to your eyeballs. Regardless of the soft shell marketing hype, there is no substitute for a full waterproof when a polar maritime front hits you high on the hill.
 
My first Goretex jacket in the early 90’s was a monster. Made of thick, inflexible material and going down to near my knees, it could keep any weather out. The fact I couldn’t lift my legs up, couldn’t undo the double storm flaps with gloves and sweated insanely didn’t diminish my pride in wearing that coveted logo.
 
Fortunately things have improved a lot. Goretex remains a trusted label, but there are other membrane options. There are so many good jackets now, it’s hard to know where to start. A few thoughts on appropriate choices for Scotland are:
 

  • Light is right, but a few more grams will buy you so much more comfort. For the Alps in Summer, the lightest possible jacket in the bottom of your sack is probably a good call. For Scotland, I would prefer something a bit beefier since it will likely be worn a lot of the time in some punishing conditions.
  • A good hood is essential. It should cover most of the face when fully closed and have a stiff peak (ideally wired) to stop it folding down over your eyes in the maelstrom.
  • External pockets are better than internal. If you have to open the main zip to get out your map, stopping to navigate becomes something you’ll avoid.

 

Legs

 
The same layering principles apply for legs. I go for different combos depending on the weather and objectives:
 

  • Mild and wet conditions. Base layer (E.g. Powerstretch) and hard shell
  • Cold and active walking day. Thin base layer, soft shell trousers. Hardshell in the rucksac, unless it’s a perfect high weather forecast in which I might dare to leave it at home (maybe….)
  • Cold and active climbing day. Thin base layer, soft shell trousers. Hardshell in bag ready to go on at start of route

 

Booster Layer

 
Since the action suit is designed to work when you’re active, it is obvious that you will get cold as soon as stopped. Having a booster layer in the top of your rucksack to pull on when stopped solves this problem nicely. This is so much better than the old days of taking off the shell to put on another fleece underneath – and getting soaked to the skin in the process. This jacket is commonly known as a belay jacket, but this is just one situation where it comes into its own.
 
Choosing kit & gear for Scotland winter mountaineering
There are no smiles without the belay jacket! Photo nineonesix
 

The characteristics of a good booster layer are:
 

  • High loft insulation that works well when wet
  • Good hood. Always. Just always
  • Windproof and weather resistant outer fabric
  • Easy to put on over all your other layers. It needs to be big enough with a smooth and water resistant lining, so it can go over a wet shell
  • Big pockets to hold bottle of hot juice, big gloves, jelly sweets, etc. It’s super efficient to pull on the big jacket at a stop and have everything you need handy in a pocket without rifling through the rest of the bag

 
The classic combination of fabrics is Pertex (outer and liner) with Primaloft insulation. Down can be used in really dry conditions and advances in treating down are making it more resilient to moisture. However, synthetic is still the preferred choice for Scotland.
 

Extremities

 
If you want a laugh, look through the outdoor forums on gear and see how many people are complaining that their gloves aren’t waterproof as advertised. It’s a sad reality of winter mountaineering – no one pair of gloves will do the job all day in all conditions. Despite advances, the poor hardworking gloves have an impossible job of balancing contradictory objectives:
 

  • Well insulated but dexterous
  • Able to survive constant abuse on rock, ice and pointy metal objects, but yet light
  • Waterproof as well as breathable and quick to dry. And they have a huge hole in the top which renders any waterproofing of limited use in torrential conditions

 
Obviously no glove can deal with the full range of conditions thrown at it. Therefore, most people resort to a selection of gloves to use at different stages in the day. If your gloves wet out and you have freezing hands, a spare warm pair in the bag may be your only chance to re-heat them before getting back to the hot ache inducing blast from the car’s heater.
 
Choosing kit & gear for Scotland winter mountaineering
James testing out the dexterity of his gauntlets on a snowy Dorsal Arete. Photo: Robert Landon
 

Walking and climbing approach

 
Lightweight windproof fleece is good in dry conditions, or with a shelled mitt over the top in the wet.
 

Technical Terrain

 
More protection is needed on technical terrain as your hands are often in contact with snow/ice/water/cold rock/all of the above! Increased dexterity may also be needed to deal with gear and ropework. A gauntlet style insulated glove with either soft shell, or full shell provides great protection and adequate dexterity. These tend to be the most expensive, especially at the technical end of the range. As cheaper alternatives, many professionals swear by the traditional work glove – a burly leather glove with minimal insulation, which provides good dexterity. I use builder’s gloves (Skytek Argon) as much as possible and save the expensive gloves for when it’s really cold. They’re not perfect (breathability = zero), but at least when they inevitably fall apart it is only £6 to replace – rather than £60!
 

Fearing for your fingers gloves

 
When it’s really nasty, or you’re stuck standing still (think eternal belay while your terrified partner hunts in vain for protection on a dodgy lead climb) it’s great to have a big pair of mitts to chuck on top of whatever else you’re wearing. With significant practise, you should be able to open a frozen Mars Bar wrapper, but don’t expect any significant dexterity. If you’re climbing, storing these in the belay jacket pocket means they’re available when needed.

 

Headwear

 
You hopefully have a few layers with functional hoods (base, mid.soft-shell, hardshell, belay jacket), but still there’s benefit in additional hats. A light beanie that can fit under a helmet (merino is good) is a great base layer. Unless it’s really mild, a thin hat like this often stays on all day in winter, whereas a thicker one might need to be on and off. Beware of wind-blocker materials which can make it really hard to hear!
 
A fleecy neck gaiter gives really flexible protection for changeable conditions. One minute it’s a sweat band, the next you can pull it right over your face to fend off blown shards of ice. If your hood is getting opened up with really strong winds, putting a neck gaiter on over the top will keep it in place and prevent ingress of nastiness (great to have one when walking with kids, who invariably have poorly designed hoods). However, if your base layer has a balaclava style hood this might be more material around the neck than you really need.
 
Finally, a balaclava is a good backup in the rucksack to ensure you can cover every square centimetre of exposed flesh.
 
That wraps it up for a quick overview of boots and clothing. We’ll be back with a part 2 which covers the rest of the gear you’ll need for snowy Scottish adventures.
 
In the meantime, what are your top tips for suffering in style?
 

Categories: Blog, Mountaineering, Training

Leave a comment

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>