Winter Kit - Gloves, crampons and ice axes

When the going gets cold and icy, there are a few extra bits of kit you need to consider before venturing out into the hills.  See below for guidance on gloves, crampons and ice axes. 


 
Full on winter conditions
Full on winter conditions

GLOVES

Gloves or Mitts:  The trouble with fingers is that they're like thin pipes; hard to insulate efficiently. Stick them in a mitt and they're more like a plate with less surface area to radiate heat. The bottom line is that mitts tend to be warmer, but against that, you have to weigh an increase in clumsiness.

That means big, warm mitts are great for, say, trudging across the moors - until you need to fold a map of course - but not so clever if you're trying to tie a knot or place an ice screw while your legs are vibrating with fear.

One compromise is to wear overmitts, which you can slip off either to briefly reveal bare fingers or an underglove with a grippy finger and palm grip. Once you've done the fiddly bit, slip them back on again. Sorted.

Layering Systems: You can treat gloves like clothing systems and use layers, or you can opt for a single, insulated layer that's either on or off.

One plus of a layering system is that you can use the same shell mitt or glove with a number of liners to give different properties. Maybe a thin baselayer glove on mild days, a sticky midweight fleece glove for ice-climbing or mountaineering or a thick insulated fleece glove for really cold days.

If you're going to do that, at least for climbing, it makes sense to tether your gloves to your jacket or wrists. A loop of shock cord around the wrist works well and allows your gloves to hang safely while you mess around with knots or climbing hardware.

A single insulated glove, like a ski glove, can also work well and, with practice, you can do most fiddly things wearing them and keep your hands warmer at the same time. One disadvantage with many of these gloves is that they take ages to dry out. Using a removable fleece liner might help for this reason; it's simply hard for moisture to evaporate through the shell of the glove.

Liner Gloves:  Liner and mid-weight fleece and similar gloves work a bit like other parts of a layering system, wicking moisture away from the hands and adding insulation.

Some can be used alone in milder conditions; however, if you're going to use them for more technical stuff, or with trekking poles and / or ice axes, it's worth using one with some sort of grippy pattern on the palm.

The latest silicone sticky grip is ideal for technical work. Leather palms work well for rope-handling in cold, dry environments like the Alps, but are not so good in damp or wet conditions.

Windproof or wind-resistant fabrics will make the gloves more versatile.

Waterproof Liners:  Most winter gloves these days come with a waterproof / breathable liner. In really wet conditions they always seem to leak and eventually your hands will get damp from either perspiration or simply wetness, but they will keep the worst of it out for a while.

The pay-off seems to be increased drying times as moisture struggles to escape from the sodden glove. Bear in mind too that waterproof liners can't be sewn into the inside of the finger, so you need to hold the ends of the fingers as you remove your gloves or the entire inner can just invert and be almost impossible to replace.

Insulation: Primary choices for insulation would be either removable fleece, which is simple and easy to dry, or a synthetic insulator that works well in damp conditions. Remember that a removable liner will always dry faster, which is a major consideration if you are planning to be out in cold, wet conditions.

The other option, for the traditionally minded, is matted, shrunken wool. These are incredibly warm, stick comfortingly to snow when climbing and, once covered with a crust of ice, no kidding, are virtually windproof too. Surprisingly effective.

Finally, pile mitts dry fast and are windproof, though not great for dexterity. They make ideal spares and work well as something to throw on at the top of a winter route.  They stay warm when they are wet and dry out reasonably fast, too.

Other things to consider: Fit is important, some gloves have short fingers, some long; you want ones that are right for your hands.

As far as construction goes, gloves with contoured, box-cut fingers, which are pre-curved for easy grip on axes and the like are good, and less insulation in the palm area for the same reason. When you're buying, try gripping an ice axe or a trekking pole and make sure you can hold it comfortably.  Over time, the insulation may pack down a little, but don't rely on it.

If you're planning on tethering your gloves with shock cord or a straight loop, then make sure there are fixing points on the glove.

Finally, if you're in the market for something different, flip-topped gloves, are available from a few manufacturers. They work brilliantly in alpine summer conditions and allow you to combine finger-tip dexterity with insulation when needed. They look silly, but work brilliantly in the right situation! 

CRAMPONS

Why?: Without them you'll fall over on hard snow or ice, possibly to your death or at least an early appointment with the local accident department. A relationship with a pair of crampons opens up terrain and whole ranges you couldn't otherwise hope to come into contact with. They're surrounded by technical mystique, but the reality is that they're fairly easy to use and a major safety investment.

When to put them on?:  If it's easier and safer to walk with crampons than without is the short answer. Try not to wear them unnecessarily as cramponing is reckoned to be 10 per-cent less efficient than walking without them. If there's hard snow or ice underfoot, chances are that it's worth the effort. Snow doesn't automatically mean you need to crampon up; in softer conditions, it's quite feasible and more effective to simply kick steps with your boots.

When to take them off?:  When you can walk easily and safely without them. Using crampons on rocky ground unnecessarily will blunt the points and be less stable, not to mention leave nasty scratches for all to see on the rocks after the thaw. Stiff winter boot soles can kick into surprisingly firm snow. If in doubt though, leave them in place.

Crampon Grades
For an overview of the crampon/boot compatibility guidelines see below. Bear in mind that these guidelines, put together by mountain guide Brian Hall are just that - guidelines - not gospel. Just because the boot and crampon grades match, it doesn't mean the two will definitely work together. Moreover, most boots will take a flexible trekking crampon for short periods of time if really necessary. That doesn't mean it's a good idea, but it can be done. For sustained use though, a boot designed to work with crampons will always be a better option.

Instep Crampons - Crampon Grade - none. Mini crampons that fit on your instep are okay for ski station workers and lumberjacks, but a dead loss for mountain walking. Ignore these near useless wall flowers.
Walking Crampons - Crampon Grade C1: Attachment: usually straps or a combination of straps and nylon cradles.  Generally use a strip of steel running under the boot that will flex with the sole as you walk. Officially they will match up with any boot with a B1 grading or higher, but in reality, most 3-season boots will take a flexible crampon for short periods.  Some C1 crampons come without front points - the ones that stick out horizontally in front of the toe - but they're worth having for the extra security when kicking steps into slopes, even if you're not technically front-pointing like climbers on ice.
Articulated Crampons - Crampon Grade C2: Attachment: Either as C1 or a combination of straps or nylon toe cradle with a clip-on heel.  These are designed to work with stiffer boots - B2 and above - and are usually designed for more technical use than C1s. Most are 'articulated' which means they have a hinge-type joint.  However it's not designed to flex with the sole, which will be close to rigid anyway, but to prevent the stress that would result if they were fully rigid.
Fully Rigid Climbing Crampons - Crampon Grade C3:  Attachment: usually full clip-on front and rear with safety strap, which is non-structural. Fully rigid climbing crampons are designed, you guessed it, for climbing and can only be used with fully stiffened B3 boots - either plastic mountaineering ones or leather. The sole needs to have suitable recesses front and rear to accommodate the bindings.

Fitting:  Fit is the most crucial factor with crampons - different crampons suit different boots and the best model in the world is useless if it doesn't match the profile of your boots' soles for example. Take your boots with you when you buy and get help. You're looking for a fit where the crampon can be adjusted to sit on your boot without being physically attached and without any big gaps between the crampon and the sole. If the ones you like don't fit, try others. Some specialist climbing boots are very fussy about which crampons will fit them, so be prepared for some trial and error.

If you have a small foot, take a look at the ten-point models available. Often women, in particular, simply don't have a big enough foot to provide space for twelve points and the more widely spaced points of a ten-pointer provide a better fit.

For the larger foot, some offer an optional extension bar if the standard crampon is too short.

 
Ice axe weather
Ice axe weather

Crampon Fittings:  The nylon cradle-type fittings are actually quicker to fit than step-in systems because you don't have to mess around cleaning snow out of grooves. Because they don't need to locate in the groove at the toe end of the boot, they work better with well-worn soles and are less likely to mis-locate.

Step-ins are also excellent, again because you minimise the time spent messing around with freezing fingers, though be very, very careful that toe bails and heel clips are properly located with these. Scrape snow and ice out with an ice axe pick so the clips are properly seated.

If you're using strap-on crampons with soft-uppered boots, be aware that the straps can cut into your feet and impair circulation; which is uncomfortable and potentially dangerous.

Finally, always make sure any buckles or loose ends are on the outside of your boot and tucked away where possible to minimise the dangers of snagging and tripping. You can shorten webbing straps by cutting but don't overdo it.  Seal the ends with a hot blade.

Anti-Balling Plates: Rigid crampons and particularly those with 'cookie cutter' frames, are prone to balling up when wet snow collects on the underside of the crampon and forms a big ball of solid snow that eventually stops your points biting into the snow. One answer is to regularly tap the underside of the crampon with your axe shaft, however a neater answer is an anti-balling plate.

Some manufacturers now supply these as standard. Basically they're plates that sit between the points of the crampon and stop the snow collecting in the first place. They're very effective and well worth having particularly on glaciers when the snow melts in the sun.

Articulated and flexible crampons are less prone to balling because the flexing of the crampon tends to dislodge the snow unless things get very bad.

Adjustment:  Get them adjusted to fit in the shop. Tool-less adjustment is a nice touch, but really only crucial if you move your crampon from boot to boot on a regular basis. If your crampon does use bolts, check them for tightness regularly and consider using Nylock nuts if they aren't already fitted as standard.

With some clip-ons, you may need to bend the bails or heel clip wire slightly for the best fit, you can also stagger location holes to tailor the crampon for a particular boot. If in doubt, get professional help.

Maintenance: Use a file, follow the manufacturer's instructions and remember that unless you are climbing hard ice, they don't need to be razor sharp - the concentration of weight over small points is enough in most conditions and you'll just wear your points out prematurely.

Carry a minimal crampon first aid kit. Some wire and zip-ties could be enough to hold a broken crampon together long enough to see you off the hill.

Using Crampons - Top Tips

  • Walk like an ape with your legs apart to minimise the chances of catching a point in your trousers and tripping over your own feet.
  • Don't try to edge in crampons, the key is to keep your foot flat and maximise the number of points in contact with the snow.
  • Pure front-pointing will make you calves explode fast. Try front pointing with one foot and flat-footing with the other, much easier.
  • If you are front pointing on steep ice, drop your heel slightly so your second points come into contact with the ice, it's much less tiring and more stable, honest.
  • 'Balling up' is a problem in soft, damp snow. Tap your boot with your axe to clear the balls of snow or get some anti-balling plates. Alternatively improvise with duck tape.
  • On mixed ground, with snow and rock, it often helps to look for rocky projections where you can place your instep so the points are either side of the rock. Try it.
Carrying Crampons:  Many packs come with 'crampon patches' on top of the lid. However, in blizzard conditions your crampons may clog with snow, which is bad and makes putting them on awkward. Instead stow them under the lid of the pack if you can get enough tension with the straps to hold them firm, or use a reinforced crampon bag and carry them either under the lid or in the main body of the pack. Sorted.


ICE AXES

What Are They For?:  If you're a walker or general mountaineer, your axe has two main functions. One is to improve stability on steep, snowy ground by providing a secure support or anchor as you move. The second is to be used as a brake in the event of a slip. 'Self- arrest' as it's known, is a skill that you need to learn from either an experienced friend or, ideally, from a professional winter skills course run by a qualified instructor. Even if you're experienced, don't take your skills for granted, you need to practice, so that whichever way you fall, using your ice axe is instinctive.

Another use, although it's less common than it was, is to use the axe to cut steps across isolated patches of ice and save the palaver of donning crampons.

Climbers on steeper ground also use their axes as surrogate hands above their heads, both to balance and, sometimes, to pull up on. Because the demands of climbing are different, high-end technical climbing axes aren't always ideal for general mountain use and specialist walking axes aren't as secure on steep technical ground as a proper technical axe.

Types of Axes 
Walking Axes are characterised by the near horizontal angle of their pick. Originally all axes were designed this way and the shallow angle of the pick makes them ideal for use during self-arrest or ice-axe braking. By the same token, the flat pick won't grip well on steep ground swung above the head climbing style, so choose one of these only if you're sure you'll be on mainly straightforward, non-technical ground and nothing steep or scrambly.
Mountaineering Axes are halfway between walking axes and full-blown technical climbing tools. The pick tends to be stronger than a straightforward walking axe and is curved downwards in a more pronounced way. The droop on a mountaineering axe will mean it holds much better in climbing situations, but will still dig in smoothly without grabbing when self-arresting. Some axes will allow you to climb moderate winter and alpine routes and still work well for more general use.
Specialist Technical Axes look butch and tough in the pub, but are very specialised tools designed to work on steep ice climbs. Typically they'll have a curved or bent shaft to protect the climber's fingers from bruising, a very supportive leash and a reverse curve or banana pick to give maximum purchase on steep ice. You can ice axe brake with a reverse-curve pick, but it's much harder than with a straighter walking axe since the shape tends to catch suddenly rather than engage smoothly with the snow. For general use they're not worth considering, so only look at these if you're climbing hard, steep technical routes.

How Long?:  There's a lot of debate over how long you need an axe to be. Some mountaineers prefer an axe long enough to act as a walking stick on flat ground, however, for general mountaineering, a shorter axe is best. Why? First, on steep ground, you plunge the shaft of the axe above you for protection. If your axe is too long it'll be level with your shoulder rather than your hip where you want it to be. Next, during self-arrest, the spike of a shorter axe is less likely to stick out from your body and catch if you fall.

Generally an axe that's down to your ankle when held in a straight arm at your side is about right for most people. A good shop will advise you, but in general, if you want an axe to use as a walking stick, then you may be better off with a walking stick... Short enough for steep ground, but long enough for balance on ridges without having to crouch too low is about right.

Climbing axes are matter of preference, but most are now around 45-50cm in length. General axes go up to around 60cm or so and for walking axes, the sky seems to be the limit.

Leashes or Not?: Climbers use leashes - effectively a loop of nylon attached to the axe - for support when hanging from the axe on steep ground. For walkers though, it's a more complicated matter. When zigzagging up slopes, you need to change hands on the axe whenever you change direction and taking one hand out of the loop and inserting the other can be fiddly and slow.

Many skills courses teach that you shouldn't use the leash in those circumstances, however that does mean if you drop the axe, it's off on a toboggan ride to freedom... There are leashes that attach the axe to your body allowing you to change hands on the axe head without risking dropping the axe. It's a great idea, especially if you're prone to dropping things...

Comfort: For walking and general use, it's important that the head of the axe feels comfortable in your hand and is secure even when wearing gloves or mitts. Some axes have been designed with shaped heads to make this easier.

For climbing and mountaineering use, make sure the shaft of the axe sits comfortably in your hand as well. Non-slip rubber handles will help, but those with small hands may need to choose carefully for maximum effectiveness and to stop the axe twisting in their hands.

Weight And Strength: Virtually all axes these days use alloy shafts and steel heads for a combination of lightness and strength. There are two EC ratings - 'B' which is 'basic' and mostly applied to walking axes and 'T' for 'technical' for climbing axes. The standard is mostly about the strength of the shaft and whether it's suitable for use as a snow anchor. As a walker, a 'B' graded axe will be fine.

There are also a number of ultra-lightweight axes designed for ski touring and high altitude use which have alloy heads to save weight. These are fine for general walking use, but the alloy head isn't designed to take big loads on steep technical ground.  For general mountaineering use therefore, suffer the extra grammes and go for a steel-headed mountaineering axe.

Care: Axes are pretty tough, but always dry them after use and store in a dry place. Keep the pick reasonably sharp and in accordance with the original instructions.  Protect the tool and other people from damage with a set of rubber spike and head protectors.

Other Stuff:  It's tempting to go lolloping around the hills with a butch-looking technical axe, but unless you're actually going climbing, you'll be better off with either a straight walking axe, or one of the many intermediate mountaineering axes.

When buying, be wary of shop assistants, some of whom have quaint ideas about how long an axe should be. If you want a walking stick, buy a walking stick.

 
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