Winter Clothing

1st Feb 2016

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The plan had been to meet at the road head at 4.30pm but my good friend Andy and I weren't there until after 7.00pm.  Our ascent of Number 2 Gully on Ben Nevis had, despite the route involving very little technical climbing, turned epic and we were lucky to have navigated successfully off the summit at all.  This was our first Scottish winter season and our lack of experience really showed.

One big failing, it soon became clear, was our equipment.  We had cobbled together a set of clothing and begged and borrowed technical ice equipment from friends and members of our climbing club.  Now, as we waited at the side of the road, we shivered uncontrollably in the darkness.  We were planning to share a lift from the 4.30pm meeting point with our friends Alan and Geoff but little did we know that, after waiting a while, they had given up and were now cosily ensconced in the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe.  Nowadays we would never leave people behind without checking on their safety, but in those days I am not proud to admit that we would happily abandon our friends with no knowledge on their safety status if a warm fire and decent pint beckoned.

Andy and I waited hopefully, but eventually we were forced to consider finding shelter.  The only thing around was one of those red phone boxes that seems to have faded from use nowadays.  They were only a basic metre square cast iron and windowed cuboid with a gap under the door and a concrete floor - but for us it offered a relatively wind proof and dimly lit haven from the winter winds.  We could both just about sit in a foetal position with our rucksacks as seats and, with every shred of clothing on, we just about kept hypothermia at bay.  Eventually our friends picked us up as they drove past on the way back to the caravan we were staying in.

We had fast tracked through another key lesson on our winter journey.  To operate comfortably in the winter mountains you really do need the right equipment.  You need the skills and fitness too, but the right equipment is definitely key......

We provide a list of essential and optional kit for all our winter courses, but clients are often keen to hear what equipment I use personally.  In reality our kit changes regularly and, as I am lucky enough to be given various pieces, it tends to be top of the price range and I definitely don't want new winter goers to think the listed kit options are the only option - we are all for keeping the costs for our clients low and kit lists as simple and general as possible.  However, if the question is what do I use, then in offering the following I make no concession to price in sharing this list.  This is simply a list of stuff I am currently using and rate highly.

I am splitting the lists into 3 parts to keep it manageable.  The first installment covers winter clothing and this will be followed by a list of other winter equipment and finally a list of winter technical equipment.  I hope it may provide some ideas and, even if not, makes interesting reading.

  1. Boots - A key item that really needs to be up to the job.  Waterproof, supportive, stiff soled, crampon compatible, durable and well insulated are all key requirements.  For winter climbing I am using La Sportiva Nepal Cubes and for general winter walking you will find my reviews of the Aku Superalp NGB and Hanwag Ferrata Combi's on the website.  These are both very capable winter boots.
  2. Socks - Having well fitting boots goes hand in hand with good quality socks worn in a good combination.  For decades I've found that a pair of thin liner socks such as those made by Bridgedale combined with a thick insulating pair such as Bridgedale Summits make a great winter team. 
  3. Waterproof Jacket - There are loads of great jackets out there but for winter use any hardshell is going to get plenty of abuse and needs to be up to the job.  It also needs to be solid and with easy to use zips, a helmet compatible hood and very breathable fabric.  My current favourite for fine weather winter days is Jottnar's Asmund and for days when a full coat of armour is needed I love Rab's legendary Laktok.
  4. Waterproof Trousers - Again, I love Polartec Neo Shell and the hands down best winter waterproof trousers I've used are Jottnar Vanirs which I reviewed here.  Durable, brilliant fit and highly breathable. For this coming winter I'll be using them again but in the Vanir LT version.
  5. Gaiters - I pick and choose when to wear gaiters at other times of year but would consider them essential in winter.  Along with a few other tasks gaiters keep snow out of your boots which, should it get inside and melt, will soon soak and consequently chill your feet.  Snug fitting gaiters which create a tight seal around your boots and aren't baggy up your ankle and leg are best.  I also favour shorter gaiters (unless I'm expecting very deep snow) and so love the Black Diamond Cirques which fit snugly over winter boots, have durable construction, a simple but reliable Velcro closure and fits easily under overtrousers.
  6. Thermal Base Layers - Lots of choice here really.  I choose a long sleeved top for winter and current favourites for this winter will include a Mammut Trovat Powerwool reviewed here (a Merino wool and synthetic fusion) or Jottnar's luxurious Yak Wool baselayer which has become a well loved favourite. 
  7. Legwear - I usually wear my overtrousers all day in winter and so, if I do, I tend to just wear a pair of Rab Powerstretch leggings underneath.  If I am wearing trousers I use something featuring Schoeller soft shell fabric and currently that is either Arcteryx Gamma AR’s or Patagonia Guide pants. 
  8. Midlayer - I tend to use a midweight fleece such as a Mountain Equipment Shroud or sometimes a lightly insulated softshell such as the unbeatable Rab Strata Hoodie which I reviewed here or Patagonia Nano Air Hoody. I like having a hood for this layer as it allows quick temperature regulation and a feeling of cosiness when I'm belaying on a windswept ledge. 
  9. Gloves - I could write a whole article about winter gloves and still not find a definite answer as to what to carry.  There are so many models on the market and, if I'm honest, despite endless research and different designs of models being produced, the perfect winter glove still hasn't been developed.  Add to that, of course, different models suit different winter activities and conditions plus you'll most likely get through quite a few pairs during a typical day out.  Tie all that together and the reality is that the best solution is to have a range of gloves.  I get through several pairs in a season and usually have new pairs coming into use.  Models I will be using this season include Rab Alpine Guides, Mountain Equipment Couloirs, Black Diamond Guide gloves and my old time favourite Hestra Falt Guides which work well in drier conditions, are very dextrous and have lasted several seasons.  Added to that there will be plenty of Rab Powerstretch liner gloves, leather and fleece lined French work gloves (the type of thing the workers at French ski resorts wear) and some Buffalo nylon covered pile mitts that live in my rucksack for back up.
  10. Hat - A hat is important in winter but, as to which type, take your pick....there's stacks of models and designs on the market.  Having said that, some cover the ears and others don't. Some are wind proof while others fit under a helmet when others are too thick.  Choosing a hat is simple and yet complicated!  I tend to take a medium warmth hat and, with a hooded fleece, there's also the option to pull my hood up for more insulation.  I don't tend to carry a balaclava but I do take a cosy fleece neck gaiter that can be pulled up to cover the lower part of my face if needed.  Having my hat pulled down and my neck gaiter pulled up is as effective as a balaclava and more versatile.

Other than that, there may be variations based on weather and activity plus spare clothing.  I have already mentioned having plenty of spare gloves and I always carry at least one spare warm layer.  This is usually a synthetic insulated top such as a Rab Strata Hoodie (which we reviewed here) or a Patagonia Puffball pullover.  I also take a chunky insulated jacket like a Black Diamond Stance Belay Parka or Patagonia DAS Parka.  On calm and dry days I may pack the hardshell in my rucksack and use a soft shell instead.

Phew, that's quite a gear mountain but, just to emphasise, there are plenty of cheaper variants on most of the items listed here.  Part 2 of this series will cover winter equipment.....

Posted by Paul

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