12 November 2008

Super Alpine Climbing

Super Alpine Climbing

Super Alpine Climbing image

Eight years ago I opened a copy of High magazine and read an article by Dick Turnbull on Alpine winter gear. Like all great gear articles, and there are some, this went beyond the usual banal list of what to take, encompassing instead his philosophy on both equipment and Alpine climbing and tips on how to maximize your performance and enjoyment. Those wise words inspired me to go out to the Alps for the first time a few weeks later and allowed me to get my gear right first time round, letting me climb much more safely and, furthermore, provided a good foundation for all my subsequent climbing holidays. Hopefully, this article will serve as a primer for those interested like I was, in climbing and exploring the mountains of the Alps and beyond in their harshest seasons.

WHY ALPINE WINTER?

The Alps in winter offers the mountaineer a perfect training ground in which to perfect the art of ‘super Alpine’ climbing, skills that can then be transferred to the more remote and hostile mountain ranges of the world. In the Alps you must learn how to operate in very cold temperatures, meaning you have to climb in big boots, thick clothing, often at your limit, while carrying a heavy rucksack. You have to learn how to move around the mountains efficiently and quickly, mountains that can often be buried beneath several metres of soft snow — opening your eyes to the possibilities of snowshoes and skis.

You must become self-reliant, able to look after yourself in extremes of temperature and exposure, keeping yourself warm and motivated, able to adapt to the conditions and weather. And on top of all this you must learn the skills necessary to survive the long Alpine nights, more often than not in open bivvies — teaching you how to look after your sleeping system, cook and set up and maximize the comfort factor (if there is any) of the bivouac. All these skills in the ‘Art of Suffering’ are invaluable once you progress beyond the Alps — and it is telling that all the great European hard men and women all served a winter apprenticeship.

THE GEAR

Alpine winter climbing can be divided into three categories. Valley ice-climbing or ‘cragging’ and then one day and multi-day routes at a mid to high altitude. This article deals with multi-day climbs, because these are the most rewarding and are what you’ll be doing when you progress beyond the Alps, plus single day climbs require the same gear minus bivouac equipment. Alpine valley ice cragging should be treated just the same as Scottish winter climbing, unless you’re climbing ‘Nu Mixed’, then you might want to wear some skimpy Lycra tights and a vest.

HEADWEAR

Let’s start with your helmet. This should be lightweight, able to be worn over several layers and be as comfortable as possible, because you could be wearing it for all 24 hours of the day for several days. Although I, and many other climbers, use featherweight polystyrene helmets like the Petzl Meteor, Grivel Cap and Black Diamond Hemisphere, there is always a greater risk that they may become broken mid-climb through a heavy impact. Admittedly any impact large enough to destroy one of these helmets generally results in a concussed climber, resulting in a retreat anyway, but the problem is that this could leave the climber exposed to subsequent impacts due to the fact they would no longer have a helmet.

This scenario has happened to several climbers, including Barry Blanchard, who had his Grivel helmet destroyed in an avalanche while climbing in the Rockies. A rigid nylon helmet like the Petzl Ecrin or Elios, Top, Edelrid Lightweight and Black Diamond Half Dome should stay in one piece, but are heavier and less comfortable when worn for extended periods — although in winter this is not as noticeable as in summer.

Modern carbon fibre helmets like the HB Carbon Dyneema is another option, being as light as the modern featherweight designs but as strong as a traditional helmet and has become increasingly popular for high end Alpinism. Being lucky enough to own both a polystyrene helmet and traditional nylon model (I am a gear editor) I will usually make my choice based on the type of route, including its character (snow, ice, mixed) and commitment, often with a bias towards the lighter helmet for its weight saving. Finally, don’t forget to put helmet friendly tape (Troll ID) over any ventilation holes so your helmet doesn’t become full of snow and stick a good pair of goggles inside, between the shell and the cradle.

Alpine winter days are short, resulting in a lot of time spent operating in the dark, requiring a good headtorch. The torch should be powerful, so you can navigate easily while climbing and because the cold can seriously drain your batteries. An arctic set up is preferable, comprising of a battery pouch that can be worn under your clothing (Black Diamond SpaceShot, Petzl Arctic and Duo Belt, and the Lucido T61). Of these the Duo Belt is my favourite, having a duel bulb set up saving batteries and has enough battery life for any route — plus the new add-on four-LED bulb makes this hands down the best headtorch on the market for serious climbers. These arctic headtorches also have an added benefit, in that they are much lighter on the head because the battery is around your neck, plus you can sleep with the headtorch on your helmet — something not easily or comfortably done with a battery positioned round the back.

The current mini LED torches are okay as emergency lights for day routes, but lack real power when you’re trying to decide what line to take. It may well be worth taking one of these little torches along in case one of the team’s headtorches gets dropped or smashed by falling ice. Being a glasses wearer who’s always been too mean to splash out for some prescription sunglasses I usually climb without them. Once or twice this has led to sore eyes while ice-climbing low down in the sun, or on glaciers, but otherwise I’ve had few problems.

Head gear should include a thick balaclava and a neck gaiter. At the moment I’ve been using a Powerstrech balaclava (the best material) that I can use as a neck gaiter, pulling it up like a hood when things gets grim. I’ve also got a thin Mountain Hardwear Windboc balaclava that’s perfect for full storm conditions, having mouth, nose and eye holes rather than one large opening, giving vastly improved protection to the face without having to hide inside the hood. I don’t recommend a Windbloc balaclava as a stand alone piece of head insulation as I find them less insulating (although they do offer more protection), they are less lofty and take longer to dry, important points when you consider the importance of head protection. If you’re buying a Windbloc balaclava make sure it has unlaminated fleece at the ears and mouth so you can hear your partner and speak without the whole thing filling with ice. If the weather’s really fierce I’ll wear both together.

One other piece of gear that can be useful is a shelled peaked hat (Lowe, Extremities) which can help to protect the face in spindrift and help achieve improved protection around the face when used in conjunction with a jacket hood. The peak of the hat can be pushed between the helmet and the head when not needed, but works well at deflecting spindrift from your eyes, a real problem on many of the classic couloirs. You can also use it to keep the sun out of your eyes if you happen to find any. On top of this get something to protect your lips from the cold and your head should be ready for action.

HANDWEAR

After your feet your hand protection is the next priority (you can’t put your feet in your pockets — well not until the surgeon’s finished with them). Lose the use of hands and you can no longer do anything yourself and when that happens your survivability rapidly begins to wane.

Start off with planning for the worst case scenario, i.e blasting winds and arctic temps. In this situation you’ll be retreating, either walking out or descending, either case requiring the highest insulation and protection possible. Shelled pile mitts (Extremities, Outdoor Designs etc) are the old standard — offering a robust barrier from the elements. Dachsteins are not recommended as they get damp and stay damp and frozen, necessitating you stick them next to your skin overnight (uuugh!). My favorite mitts are the modern synthetic filled designs made by Marmot, Mountain Hardwear and Black Diamond. These provide greatly improved insulation and ‘wet’ warmth, plus they are genuinely lighter. I usually buy my mitts big, so I can wear them over my climbing gloves for belaying and, if need be, stick them on the ends of my feet to warm my feet up. Every person in a team should have at least one pair of mitts (don’t count on your expensive Gore gloves keeping your fingers warm in a big storm), with perhaps a light spare pair being carried if you’re embarking on a really big project (Buffalo, Outdoor Designs).

After mitts come your climbing handwear, the handwear you’ll have to do everything in from setting gear, holding axes, and sending the odd 6b move. If you’re doing snow and ice routes where you’ll be placing limited protection and simply want protection from the ice and cold then a pair of mitts is best. Set them up so you can whip them off and then just use your bare hands to quickly set the gear and then put them back on. I’m not a fan of thin glove liners, preferring the added grip of bare flesh (having karabiners sticking to my flesh means I’m less likely to drop them), but lots of people do, so maybe a pair of these worn underneath could add to your comfort. When used in this way mitts can be used for most routes, giving vastly improved protection and when removed, improved handling, compared with a pair of shelled gloves — plus they will outlast a more expensive pair of shelled gloves by several seasons.

If you want a fancy pair of shelled fleece gloves then go for the most robust pair you can find as mixed climbing in the Alps can be highly destructive, especially if you’re doing a kilometre-high grade V which will involve the same wear and tear as several hundred Northern Corries routes. See the last issue on gloves for ideas. Instead of wearing shelled gloves I’d take a pair of modern laminated gloves (see last issue) made by Marmot, North Face, Patagonia and Black Diamond, as I find these handle better and are more robust than more expensive shelled gloves. They can also be worn underneath mitts. Beyond this I would usually carry several other pairs of fleece gloves, wearing them on the approach, cooking and for various other duties. These are often odd pairs made up of gloves that have lost their partners.

If you happen to lose all your gloves then you can always do what Andy Parkin did on the first winter ascent of the Lesueur Route on the Dru and simply wear your spare socks over your hands.

GLOVE RETAINERS

Here’s a simple way to make some glove retainers, crucial if you are to whip your gloves and mitts on and off when climbing. All you need is two lengths of 4mm or 5mm shock cord and two cord grips. Tie one end of the cord through the cord grip with a figure of eight or fisherman’s knot, then pass the cord back through the cord grip forming a loop. The other end can then be tied via a strong point or through a hole melted in the hem of the glove. By pulling on the cord you cinch down the size of the loop, which is best on the forearm so the gloves stay out of the way and the loop is opened by pulling on the cordlock with your teeth. If you’re removing your mitts to carry out a delicate task and don’t want them flapping around in your face, then loosen the loop and slide them up to your shoulders out of the way.

FOOTWEAR

Matching the right footwear for the route and conditions is critical, not only for successes but also for your own health. Anyone setting out on a long multi-pitch route in winter should plan for the worst case scenario. Sure, you can climb the Walker Spur in January in a pair of leather Nepal Extremes, but what happens if a storm moves in, or you climb slower than you expected, or get trapped on the summit for a few days?

I know personally of two people who spent time in Chamonix hospital with frostbite caused by wearing leather boots in the high mountains and suspect it was a primary cause of the death of at least one other, because when your feet are frozen you can no longer move — and if you’re not moving you are going to die unless you can get rescued and unfortunately rescue helicopters don’t fly in killer storms. Personally I go for a comfortable pair of expedition plastics, due to the fact that I know I’ve got lousy circulation. Standard plastic boots like the Scarpa Vega or Alpha or equivalents from Asolo, Lowe and Koflach also work well if you don’t suffer too much from cold feet.

The most important factor in footwear is getting the right fit, because it doesn’t matter how thick the insulation is if your feet are cramped. A few years ago I found myself alone on the Tacul one night in a pair of Lowe Extremes that were far too small. I’d bought them imagining I’d be cranking hard rock and ice in them, forgetting that a great climbing fit should be secondary to a warm fit. With feet turning to wood I was forced to stop and peel off all my socks, warm my feet up, then put them on again sans socks. Immediately my feet started to warm up, the blood now able to rush down from my heart to its furthest destination. More info on plastics can be found in January’s issue (No. 230).

I’ll usually wear one thin liner sock, of which the Thorlo Winter Liner is my favourite, being longer and more advanced than the standard liner socks (Extremities, Dalesman). Over this I’ll wear two thick winter socks comprising of a blend of wool and nylon — trying to pick a sock that combines wet warmth with fast drying proprieties. My favourite socks are the Extremities Winter Toasters, which although prone to bagging out, do have the edge on the Thorlo and Scarpa socks I’ve tried.

Although I have dabbled in vapour barrier socks I don’t personally think they are really necessary these days with improved closed cell inner boots and better socks. They may reduce the damping out of your socks but they greatly increase the sloppiness of the boot due to the low friction of the nylon. Personally I feel that these were very good in the days of Loden and wool-lined leather boots, but now are redundant.

One way to reduce sweaty feet is to rub anti perspirant gell into them every morning, which although it doesn’t keep your feet totally dry does reduce the dampness, plus it makes your feet smell nice. Always carry a spare set of dry socks in a dry bag to change into at night so you can place the damp socks next to your skin to dry for the following night. A small container of talc to help dry the feet before putting on your socks is also nice to have.

Try to avoid sleeping in your inner boots and damp socks as this can lead to really cold feet the following day, potentially leading to frostbite. Instead, remove the inners, replace your socks, use a removed sock to mop any dampness out of the boot, then replace the boots loosely laced. You may have to wear your inner boots if you are in a position where you are forced to sit in your sleeping bag with your feet pressing against snow or ice, in order to insulate them.

The choice between a full ‘Yeti’ gaiter (Berghaus, Extremities) and a standard one is down to personal preference. A full gaiter provides minimal added actual insulation because it doesn’t insulate the sole of the boot, but does keep your laces from getting snotted up with ice and allows you to zip them up and hang them off the belay at bivvys without worrying that your outer shells will get full of snow in the night. The drawbacks are that they are heavier, they get trashed quickly (Superglue them on) and make climbing a little more clumsy. Standard gaiters (Mountain Hardwear, Outdoor Designs, Lowe, Extremities) give greater flexibility in the ankle, letting you get a better feel from your boots, but need to be well-fitted in order to avoid snow ingress.

CLOTHING SYSTEM

When dressing for a typical Alpine winter climb don’t go over the top. It may be -15°C but it’ll feel no colder than a typical -5°C day on the Ben. A classic layering up of thermals, fleece and shell is totally effective for any route and there is no reason why any keen winter climber can’t go out in their old kit.

When tackling big objectives it’s a good idea to try and build the best clothing system possible though and develop a system that you are totally confident will keep you warm without overheating, protects you from the wind and snow and let’s you climb unhindered. Since Dick Turnbull wrote his article things have changed massively, with the modern climber now having far superior clothing at their disposal — even if they can’t afford to buy it. Below is what I consider the optimum Alpine winter/technical expedition system.

COMFORT LAYER

This comprises of a layer of shelled micro fleece worn next to the skin. This layer does many jobs. It wicks moisture away from the skin like a thermal top, keeping you dry and avoiding chilling when you are stopping and starting. The shell holds in heat but lets out moisture, limiting convection and creating an excellent comfort environment. This layer is your last defence layer, stopping anything gnarly enough (wind and moisture) that can penetrate through your outer layers reaching you — greatly increasing your overall protection from the cold and the wind. Also because the shell is slick you are able to move more easily due to the fact that the thermal and fleece layer don’t bind together. Gram for gram this layer is without doubt the best weight to protection you’ll find.

The three best tops around are the excellent Rab Vapour Trail Shirt, Mountain Hardwear Tempest Jacket and Marmot DriClime Hooded Jacket all of which stand out because they feature a hood, vastly improving head protection in a storm. The Marmot Dri Climb, Mountain Equipment Micro Therm pull on and new Rab Vapour Trail Top are also great hoodless shirts. For the legs you have the Mountain Hardwear Tempest Pant and Marmot DriClime Side Zip Pant which unlike the Rab Trail pants have full side zips, crucial if you’re to do your toilet duties.

Once you’ve got this layer it’s worth sewing a few inches of Velcro on to the outside hem of the pants at the rear (abrasive face of the Velcro) and another piece on to the inside of the hem of the shirt (soft face of the Velcro). This way you can join the top and bottom and avoid the cold gap that can form over several hours’ use.

PERFORMANCE LAYER

This layer provides the insulation and primary protection from the elements and comprises of a top and bottom of shelled pile. This layer is lightweight and flexible, has excellent moisture transfer and breathability and retains a high degree of warmth when wet or damp. Again, like the comfort layer this provides a lot of protection for its weight. The suit should be fitted snuggly, without being restrictive, in order to maximize performance. My three top picks are the Rab Technical Smock and Tech Pant, Patagonia Speed Ascent and Stretch Salopette and Montane Chonos Jacket and Bibs. These three suits have very tough shells that will stand up to serious abuse and all feature intelligent and climber friendly design. The Buffalo, Tracks and standard Montane systems are also very good but come in second in my opinion due to either a lack of sophistication and/or the lower abrasion and weather resistance of Pertex 6.

STORM LAYER

The combined protection afforded by your comfort and performance layers means that you should have almost total protection from the elements without getting too hot, while moving or static for short periods (normal belaying) in conditions that range from still cold to moderate storms. A third lightweight layer is often worth carrying in order to improve the system’s full storm protection for really dire conditions. This layer increases your protection and helps you to feel confident and protected and could easily be viewed as having more psychological benefits rather than practical. The storm layer can vary, depending on personal choice. On extremely hard and tough routes, especially in the greater ranges (Himalaya, Alaska and Patagonia), this would take the form of a one-piece windsuit (PHD, Rab and The North Face) that would be worn most of the time, only being removed when sleeping. For most Alpine routes you simply need a lightweight jacket that has a large storm hood big enough to fit over your helmet. This will live in your rucksack until it’s needed. This jacket needn’t be an expensive model and may be one of the cheaper, lightweight and low bulk breathable lightweight mountain jackets made by people like Mountain Equipment, Marmot, Rab and Patagonia.

HEAT LAYER

When static for long periods a fourth layer may be required to stave off the cold. This could be worn at long belays, while at the bivvy, or when climbing at night. Many climbers make the mistake of buying huge bulky down jackets that weigh as much as a sleeping bag when something half the fill would do. The problem is that all that is needed is a boost to the existing insulation value of your clothing and anything beyond this being dead weight. The jacket should have a hood if possible, a water resistant shell and weight under one kilogram, with a fill of around 150-200g. Good examples are the Mountain Equipment Lightline Jacket, Mountain Hardwear Hooded Below Zero Jacket and the unhooded Rab Peak Smock. One other option is to use a synthetic duvet jacket, which although heavier and bulky can be used in full storm conditions without losing its loft, greatly improving one’s survivability. The added weight can be offset by the fact that this jacket can replace your storm layer. Good examples are the Patagonia Puff, Montane Expedition, PHD Synthetic Delta and Marmot Belay Parka.

BIVVY GEAR STOVES

You need a stove system that will stand up to the most punishing abuse, being used in some of the most extreme camping spots around. Your stove must work in both good and bad weather — whatever the altitude or location — feeding you hot food and drink, staving of the cold, fatigue and keeping you motivated to continue in your endeavour. For Alpine climbing you really need a stove that can be put on the flat for use conventionally, say in a hut or on a flat bivvy spot, yet also portable enough to be balanced on knees and moved around in gloved hands and hangable, either off rock gear or from the inside of a tent or bothy bag. Only one pan is generally needed (112 to 2 litres), along with a lid with deep sides, as the pan is only used to melt snow and boil water, with all food mixed and cooked in the climbers’ insulated mugs.

For the last decade the standard Alpine stove has been the Markill Stormy, a compact hanging gas stove that is increasingly hard to find, with the next most popular unit being the Bibler hanging stove. Many climbers these days are making their own stove units, which can work just as well. For years I’ve put up with the drawbacks of gas stoves, using all the tricks in the book to try to improve its burn power in the cold. Now I’ve gone over to a liquid gas stove, using a modified MSR Dragonfly bolted into a hanging stove system. Personally I find this works better in cold conditions, is more reliable, both features that outweigh the slight increase of weight and bulk, but nothing works perfectly in these conditions, relying on a little experience and a lot of patience. For a more in-depth look at stoves, including tips on cold weather use, check out my article on stoves in the September 2001 issue of High (No. 226).

BIVVY SYSTEM

Winter nights are long. The first night I ever spent bivvying in the Alps I remember falling into a deep sleep and waking totally refreshed only to find it was still only 11pm. What type of sleeping bag you carry and its insulation value is dependent on how long the route is and how warm you sleep. Several times I’ve seen daytime temperatures reach -30°C at 4,000m and that’s without wind chill so keeping warm can be difficult. Although I’ve slept out in a 400g down bag, I’d say that the minimum is about 600/700g (fill weight) or 1,800g (total weight) quality synthetic. That’s a conservative minimum that’s based on the fact you’ll be wearing all your clothes, the insulation is dry and you’re fresh and expect be out for one or two nights. Some climbers get away with less, but they are usually expecting to send the route in a long day and avoid bivvying all together. For multi-day routes that are long and committing and that may require up to a week of open bivvying, then a bag of around 800/1,000g of quality down (750+ fill power) or 2,300g synthetic (total weight) should be okay. Often a bag like this can feel far too warm to begin with, but as the insulation degrades with dampness and as your body tires and you sleep colder, you’ll be glad of that extra warmth. It goes without saying that you’ll be wearing all your clothes inside.

In the past, serious winter climbers chose specialist Gore-Tex-covered sleeping bags, due to the fact that sleeping bags wetted out when used with a standard bivvy bag after several days. Although second generation expedition bags (Rab and PHD) are still superior, most climbers will find a modern water resistant shelled (Dri lite, Endurance, Conduit) bag, when paired with a breathable bivvy bag, will provide adequate protection for most Alpine adventures.

One fact that is often forgotten when choosing a sleeping bag is that if you’re over six foot your bag will be too short if you are in the sitting position, leaving your head exposed on cramped bivvies. The only way to overcome this is to buy an extra long sleeping bag, which most quality manufacturers produce for little extra cost. Although having a larger bag means you’re losing some performance through convection etc, it’s nice not to feel too cramped, especially when you’re wearing all your clothes and have your camera, inner boots, water bottle and gas canisters inside there with you.

Buy a plain four season sleeping mat and modify it for Alpine climbing (see side bar). Thermarest are excellent for camping and traditional tent-based expedition climbing but for Alpine climbing they are definitely not recommended. Your bivvy bag must have a cowl and be breathable. One way to avoid getting lots of condensation and icing inside the bag is to avoid breathing into the bivvy bag or sleeping bag itself. Just breathe into a plastic bag for a few breaths and you’ll see how much moisture you produce — this will freeze once it hits the ice cold fabric of your bivvy, in turn leading to the wetting out of your insulation with time. Personally I’ve been using a featherweight untaped bivvy bag made from Drishell (PHD) that weights virtually nothing, yet provides full protection from snow and wind.

Having used one I’d never go into the mountains without a bothy bag (Terranova, Aiguille) as they offer a huge amount of protection for very little weight and can mean the difference between life and death if caught out in the open while bivvying. Beyond this there are odds and ends that are also crucial for a good night, like a receptacle into which you can urinate, or ‘piss bottle’ as it’s more commonly known. Don’t use a rigid container as this will just take up space in your rucksack. Use a flexible wide mouth bottle (Nalgene) instead, or use one of those one litre orange juice containers with the lid cut off. It’s best to have one each as you could end up bivvying apart and emptying your bladder is crucial if you’re to sleep well and stay as warm as possible, because your body will be warming the liquid instead of you.

I usually carry a little stiff suede brush, which I use to brush ice and snow off my clothes, especially off the Velcro and zips on my legwear, in order to reduce the amount of melting inside my bag. One other thing worth taking along if your route has poor bivvies (they usually all are) is a string hammock, that can be used in several ways to improve your comfort level and if you don’t have one of those then you can always stand in your rucksack.

ALPINE BIVVY MAT

Having a full length sleeping mat on the side of your rucksack can be a liability when climbing up confined goullotes, yet if you stick it on the rear of your sack you’ll soon regret it when back and footing up some chimney. Another problem with a rolled mat is that it wants to roll itself up all the time, meaning it can be a real pain when trying to get it to stay still on some cramped bivvy, repeatedly rolling up and leaving your feet exposed. Here’s a simple solution:

Take a four or five season plain mat (not a Ridgerest, as this is harder to wipe snow off) and cut it down so it is three quarters length. Your rucksack can be used for the foot section if lying down. Next divide it into five or six sections, with the sections being no wider than the width of the rucksack. Cut the mat into these sections, then join them together again using Duct tape. You must make sure the sections are hinged, with one section being taped while flat then the next being taped while folded, doing both sides. The mat should now concertina down nicely and fit easily on to the rear of your rucksack. Finally, reinforce the corners and punch a hole through the lot in order to tie two tie-off loops. These are used to hold the mat in place on bivvies. If you’re using a large rucksack (65 litres) or have minimal bivvy gear, then you can always put the mat on the inside of the rucksack.

RUCKSACK

Your rucksack must have a large enough capacity to take your sleeping bag, stove, fuel, food and minimal spare clothing (storm and heat layer) while climbing, with some lid extension in order to handle your climbing hardware on the approach. It needs an exterior shock cord patch for storing your sleep mat and, sometimes, snowshoes; side compression straps for ski poles; must allow total freedom of movement and access to your harness while climbing; be lightweight yet robust enough to take some minimal hauling and be generally up to the general scrum of Alpine climbing. In my experience a rucksack of around 45/50 litres that has some lid extension (10 litres) is best. Stand out packs that fill my criteria of a great rucksack are the POD Black Ice, Macpac Pursuit and Crux AK50, with other great specialist ’sacks coming from Aiguille, Marmot and The North Face.

HARDWARE

Take what you would in the UK, adding several metres of abseil tat, an ice threader and perhaps a little metal file if you’re doing a big ice route. Newish dry-coated ropes are crucial, with 60m ropes being preferable in order to minimize belays and maximize abseils. Make sure your tools and crampons are in good condition and that you have the tools to tighten them as several hundred metres of repeated impacts can quickly loosen nuts and bolts. Carry a spare pick each, or just the one if you’re using the same tools, as broken picks can be a problem in the extreme cold. If you’re after big ice routes then make sure your crampons’ front points are sharp and up to the job. Technical crampons are often used due to their increased security and penetration, with rigid models taking some of the strain off the calves. It’s worth tying axes to your rucksack shoulder straps in order to reduce the chance of losing a tool high on some route, which although makes a good story often leads to broken partnerships.

Gear Racks

Classic ice (Tour Ronde, Droites, Courtes, Verte North Faces routes)
* 8 to 10 quality ice screws, including at least one long (22cm) screw for making ice threads. * Five nuts (2, 4, 6, 8, 10) * Rockcentrics 6 and 7 (or equivalent) * 8 to 10 extenders (medium and long) * 5x60cm Dyneema slings * 2x120cm Dyneema slings

Classic Mixed (North East Spur Droites, Walker and Croz Spurs, Dru Couloir, Frendo)
* 5 screws including one long one * 10 nuts (1 to 10) * 5 Rockcentrics (4 to 8) or equivalent * Friend 112 , 212 and 312 * 5 pegs including Bugaboos, Lost Arrows and a Baby Angle * 10 assorted length extenders * 6x60cm Dyneema slings * 2x120cm Dyneema slings

Hard Alpine (No Siesta & Rolling Stones, Jorasses; There Goes the Neighbourhood, Nant Blanc)
* 5 ice screws * 1 ice hook * 2 sets of wires * 1 set of RPs * full set of cams up to 4” * Medium sizes Rockcentrics * 10 pegs including blades, Lost Arrows and Baby Angles. * 10 extenders including shock absorbers * 6x60cm Dyneema Slings * 2 120cm Dyneema slings * 1 skyhook * 1 set of etriers * 1 set of jumars

OTHER BITS AND BOBS

SKI POLES

Vital if you are to save energy when trawling through deep snow. Wind a few feet of Duct tape around the shaft, which apart from coming in handy, helps to give you some grip when trying to unlock them. A strip of reflective tape below the handle can come in handy if you leave it to mark your gear at the bottom of a route and want to find it again in the dark or in bad weather.

SNOWSHOES OR SKIS

You can now hire these in most resorts and are the non-ski option. If you can borrow some ski mountaineering skis with skins then try them out even if you can’t ski. For non technical approaches (Jorasses, Argentière glacier etc) you can shuffle along, keeping your skins on on the descents (zigzagging) and require a quarter of the energy needed to snowshoe.

WATCH

Make sure you have a watch with a loud alarm, because if you’re waking up in the light you’re wasting a great deal of time.

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