Less than a week now until my assessment and just over four weeks here in Scotland, I though it would be a good chance for a recap. Spending multiple days on expeditions has given me plenty of time to look at equipment and procedures, some of which might prove helpful to others.

 

You never need as much as you think

 

This is an easy trap to fall into, but when I started out on New Year’s Day I was weighed down unnecessarily with food and gear that I simply did not need. The main ones were too much food, which I ended up not eating and spare layers, which predominantly remained in the rucksack. Unfortunately, the best remedy for this is experience and pain, so after the first expedition I quickly dispensed with superfluous items. It is worth noting that the opposite is equally true – all too easy to realise what you could do with when out and beyond civilisation.

 

Be organised

 

  • Bit obvious, really, but easy to get carried away in the rush and excitement of preparations and be forgetful. A helpful tip I picked up in the Army was to organise a kit bag with fresh, clean, dry clothes in which to change on returning from an expedition. The psychological and emotional benefits of non-hill (i.e., sweaty) clothes is immense and allows you to relax immediately after the pain and suffering! If you’re a bit itinerant, like I am at the moment, you don’t want to be sitting in your transport festering away in damp, clammy hill kit.

 

Dry layers for immediate change at the end of the day

Dry layers for immediate change at the end of the day

  • Another helpful aspect of organisation is on expedition. Initially I was happy to remain in the same clothes by day and by night, hoping that my body warmth would dry them out and also, mistakenly, that I was doing myself a favour by carrying less kit. However, at very least, a change of baselayer top and socks makes the world of difference to comfort on expedition for a fairly low weight cost. Removing the wet layer next to your skin immediately helps to bring warmth and cosy toes help you to think better! Making a pillow out of a down jacket and a stuff sack is also a great way to keep comfortable at night. Expedition should not be synonymous with suffering and some concession to luxury should be made.

 

Alcoholic hadn gel and a simple scrubber

Alcoholic hand gel and a simple scrubber

  • Get a scrubber or scourer for your cookset. You might think your hand and water – nay, snow! – will do the job, but once you’ve tarred the entire bottom of your Jetboil of pan for the first time, you will realise the shortcomings of the former solution. The only downside is that this will still not prevent you from getting frozen hands from dipping them in cold mountain burns. A bottle of alcoholic hand gel is a good addition to a scourer too for keeping bacteria at bay when hot water and soap are far away.

 

  • On the cooking theme, have a think about the whole process. How you can reduce the work and effort involved? Do you want to be washing up the pots and pans every time you cook, or can you simply boil water, eat out of a packet and avoid further hand dunking in freezing streams? Depending on your culinary tastes this might take a while to crack, but is well worth considering.

 

  • Minimise how often you need to do things in winter, for example, opening your bag completely to get water or crampons out; changing or putting on extra layers; checking your map. A few specific tips from me in these areas:

 

Crampons and essentials need to be accessible, even in your rucksack

Crampons and essentials need to be accessible, even in your rucksack

    • Keep your water, crampons and food either in the top pocket  of your rucksack or inside the main compartment, but not in the dry bag – you should then be able to open the lid slightly and slide out what you need.

 

    • Pile and pertex (i.e., the Buffalo windshirt) seems to divide opinion, but having operated in one (Montane Extreme Jacket) for a month I am converted now for Scottish winter! I personally dislike having to stop and take off my rucksack. Pile and pertex fabrics deal exceptionally well with wind and moisture, both external and internal, enabling you to keep on the move and regulate your temperature through opening or closing zips.

 

    • Checking the map continually is also a habit to avoid in winter. Although it is nice to have the security of knowing where you are, it pays to look at the map once, chose a destination and then walk to it uninterrupted. This is called map memory and is a useful skill to develop, furthering to reduce the stop-start process.

 

Plastic boots kill laces

 

The affects of plastics on normal laces (note the fraying and exposed cores) and their 3mm cord replacements

The affects of plastics on normal laces (note the fraying and exposed cores) and their 3mm cord replacements

I’ve been out in Scarpa Omegas, good, tough lightweight winter boots, that have eaten up everything I have thrown at them. However, this has included my ankles and shins, as well as the pretty laces that Scarpa provided with them. If you have ever tried plastics, you will notice how unyielding they are. The lack of ‘give’ in the plastic, as opposed to leather or fabric, means that they are gently chewing through the laces all day. Any grit or sand that gets in the eyelets will exacerbate this process, not to mention over aggressive tightening when lacing them up. A good solution is to replace the laces with 3mm cord, available from any good outdoor shop. Although not suitable for climbing, cord is much tougher than normal lace and will have a long lifespan. For the Scarpa Omegas, I recommend between 150 to 180cm per lace.

 

Play it safe when going solo

 

As I have mentioned before, a big part of the UK outdoor ethic is self reliance. This is particularly true with regard to solo ventures. The margin for error is much more pronounced because of lack of dialogue, experience of one and no backup. When solo trips go well they are of course a success, but when they go badly, they often deteriorate dramatically and the shortcomings of being alone become very evident. This is not to discourage solo adventures, but to say that an extra degree of caution and sensibility is wise, unless you have the corresponding amount of experience and knowledge, which should be considerable.

 

Test yourself

 

It can be a little worrying, wondering whether you are up to scratch when dealing with tough winter weather and conditions, whether in navigation, route-finding or otherwise. However, with the right training and foundations my advice is believe in yourself and test out your skills. This is the only way in which you will truly know whether you are on the mark. You may need to be realistic with your challenges to begin with, but with small successes you can soon push yourself harder and further. You will never know if you don’t try…

 

Modify your kit

 

An 'easy win' solution for long straps that get in the way

An ‘easy win’ solution for long straps that get in the way

  • Being whipped in the face or eyeball with a rucksack strap must rate up there as one of the worse experiences on the hill. Unless you have a particularly minimalist rucksack, you are likely to have a number of overly long straps that normally dangle harmlessly, but in gale force winds suddenly become demonically-possessed waving tendrils. Simple solution – chop straps down or tape them up. Electrical tape will do the job, just work out what their usable length is  and then take them to task. This has the added benefit of enabling you to see the right straps when the need arises.

 

Chop those straps down, although don't do what I did and cut them in the wrong place...

Chop those straps down, although don’t do what I did and cut them in the wrong place…

  • The same goes for crampons straps. For too long I put up with tying down the remaining lengths, but with cold hands and pressing time the task can become infuriating. As above, work out how long the strap needs to be after being threaded around your boot, chop it and then seal the end with a lighter. I would recommend that you leave enough strap that you can grab it with a gloved hand and yank on it, but short enough that it does not act as a trip hazard – particularly dangerous when it comes to cramponing.

 

A chunky replacement zip tab and one typically found on items

A chunky replacement zip tab and one typically found on items

  • Many of these tips are winter related and might seem insignificant in isolation, but make a big difference when performed repeatedly in harsh conditions. One of the problems with modern outdoor kit is that it is sometimes designed with the high street in mind. As such, zip pulls can be quite small and unobtrusive – more fashionable, basically – but very difficult to grasp with big, bulky winter gloves or mitts on. This is where accessory cord comes in handy from above. Simply cut lengths of cord and rethread your zips, including a chunky knot at the end that you will be able to feel in any condition.

 

Practise when you can

 

Someone said to me recently, ‘this might be the only patch of névé we see all day’. He was right and it was fortunate that we stopped to get the rope out and practise some skills. If you are on the hill for the journey, fair enough, but if you are out to practise skills for an award or otherwise, put in the time when the opportunities arise, as they may be the only ones of the day. You will appreciate it in hindsight.

 

If you have any top tips for winter, let me know via the comment box below – let’s share the knowledge!

 

 

Simon is the Morocco Director and an instructor with The Mountain People. He is currently preparing for his Winter Mountain Leader assessment, as chronicled by the ‘Highland Hobo’ series.

Categories: Blog, NGBs, Personal, Simon, Winter
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