Finally there’s some snow on the high tops. This time last year I’d already used ice axe and crampons a few times and I was starting to get worried the past few weeks. Wouldn’t it be nice if the snow just appeared on a certain day every year so you can plan for it? Mind you, that would take the joy out of those perfect white and blue days when they do arrive as a big surprise.
Whenever the snow comes we have to be ready for it and that means some changes to our kit list. Hats and gloves become a necessity not a luxury, you might want to swap your sunglasses for ski goggles and then there’s the extra hardware we need when a muddy path becomes a snowy gully.
This month I’ve looked at some new and tried and tested kit as well as some less obvious bits and pieces. There’s some winter jackets which arrived too late for last month’s grouptest but were too good to miss out.
The Alpina is a classic curved shaft mountaineering axe which is “T” (technical) rated so strong enough for ice climbing. It has a good weight to it for easy swinging if you’re step cutting and the fine profile of the head along with the sculpted top of the shaft make it a pleasant carry in your hand. The pick is curved enough to be a useful climbing tool and still be manageable for self-arrest without snatching harshly in the snow. The smallish adze is a good shape for cutting into harder snow and the shaft end has a very grippy overlay so it won’t slip from your grasp while chopping. The spike is long and slender for easy plunging through the neve. The attached adjustable leash is adjustable for walking or climbing by removing the loop around the shaft.
The Petzl ice axes here are new models and will be available in the shops from January next year, we’re got an exclusive first look at them here at Walkhighlands.
The Glacier is a light, straight shafted axe with a “B” (basic) rating, the same rating as all the Petzl axes featured here, which makes it suitable for general mountain use. The Glacier has a large adze for quick step cutting and an easy angled pick for smooth self-arrest. The teeth extend only half way up the pick to give a smooth surface for less wear and tear on a glove if you’re carrying the axe all day when that smooth new lacquer eventually wears off the steel pick. The bottom of the shaft has a grip pattern cut into it and a well-shaped steel spike for breaking through a frozen surface. Although light the Glacier has a positive swing to it and the straight shaft and simplicity are refreshing in these days of ever more technical walkers axes.
The Literide only comes in 50cm and is aimed at glacier travelling and ski touring as an axe to pack for occasional use. The weight and packability make it perfect for those early winter and spring days where you spend all day on rock or grass only to find a 100m wide, 45 degree snow slope that you can’t avoid, it’s an axe that you can carry all day and not notice it until you need it. I’ve used lightweight axes for years and I find I’ll carry them when I would leave a heavier axe in the car. The Literide is still a winter tool though, if this length works for you, it’ll do the same job as the regular Glacier.
The Summit Evo is a mountaineering axe with a single piece steel head featuring a more aggressively toothed pick compared to the Glaciers. The adze is well shaped to resist wear from long term use and the whole head is sculpted to sit nicely in a gloved hand. The shaft is hydroformed, a process of shaping tubing which will be familiar to mountain bikers, which gives it strength and as well as a pleasant shape. Who says tools can’t be pretty too? There’s a full rubber and plastic grip on the shaft which shows this axe is designed to be swung as much as carried and it shares the Glacier spike design. On the Millet pack elsewhere in the review you’ll see the new regular Summit ice axe which matchs the Evo’s head to a curved version of the Glacier shaft.
The Linkin leash shown on the Evo is effective, simple, easy to use and remove, fits any axe will also be available separately in January next year.
The Stalker is a classic design and covers a lot of options from mountaineering to walking. Its solid construction and 12 points make it perfect for steeper work but the flexible bar and universal binding also lets you fit them to more flexible footwear. The plastic heel and toe mould well to different boots and the webbing binding is secure and reliable. The spikes are the right length for security on various surfaces, too long and you don’t get spikes in, too short and you don’t get enough grip, with the front four points being well angled for steeper ground. Length adjustment is easy with the large spring steel clip and the Stalkers come pre-fitted with anti-ball plates. A tough all-rounder that’s built to last and comes with a zipped crampon bag.
The XLC’s are aluminium, very light and designed with high altitude and lightweight mountaineering in mind but they can still perform on winter Munros. Aluminium isn’t something to be scared of, they made the space shuttle out of it after all and I’ve used aluminium crampons and ice axes for years. You just have to use it with a little thought to get the best out of it and make it last. CAMP have done some of the work already in the design as the XLC’s have stainless steel reinforcing on the front points where security and reliability is critical and this makes all the difference as you can tackle steeper slopes. The points are a good length and used just on snow and ice they will wear well, it’s only on mixed surfaces with a lot of rock that aluminium crampon wear rates get annoying. Length adjustment is as the Stalkers above and the attachment system here is a mix of a classic plastic toe and a clip-in heel so the XLC’s will work on stiffer boots with a compatible heel design.
The Sharks are light for a steel crampon and are almost two pairs of crampons in one with a flexible binding system. The points are a good medium length and aggressively shaped with a forward facing bias at the front for tackling steeper ground. Length adjustment is via a spring steel clip and the bar is rigid so these Sharks suit stiff boots. They come pre-fitted with anti-ball plates but there’s still a bag full of bits for you to play with if you want something to do. The Sharks come with all the binding options you need to make them work with a variety of boots from big ski and boarding boots to climbing and walking boots. The classic style binding is shown in the photos which will work with most boots and you can mix and match this style with the wire toe bails and heel clips as your footwear demands. There are full instructions and I’ve swapped them all around a few times and it’s simple to do. The adjustability is great, but at the core of it, the Sharks are an excellent pair of crampons.
Lightweight spikes have become very popular in the past few years and rightly so. Useful and easily packed away they’re fantastic on frozen trails and snow covered ground away from the steeper slopes. They are no substitute for proper crampons on steeper slopes though.
492g (inc bag)
The Ultra’s from Hillsound up the ante from their previous models with stainless steel spikes and chains which are tough and bite well. The flat chains sit well against your footwear and are very secure while the polymer upper grips your shoe and holds everything in place very well. There’s an additional strap to hold the Ultra’s in place and add some extra tension as required. They come with a tough drawcorded stuff sack.
414g (inc bag)
The Snowspikes follow a similar design to the Hillsounds and it’s worth trying both brands and their various sizes as for all their adaptability, these crampons aren’t one size fits all. You must size these right or they can move around too much on your shoe if they’re too big or the spikes are in the wrong places and the chains will dig into your shoes if they’re too small. The Snowspikes are a little lighter all round and I find they work well on lighter shoes making them a good choice for winter trails running. They come with a tough zipped carry bag.
Winter gear round-up
If you’re just winter walking a snow shovel is something you might never need. The flexible plastic designs such as a Snowclaw is fine for scooping out a shallow rest stop on the hillside. But if you’re spending your nights on the tops or the snow filled glens, you’ll wish you had a snow shovel at some point, be it for digging a snow hole, building an igloo or just making a flat pitch for your tent. The Rocket is great design, it collapses down and will strap to the front of your rucksack. The shaft extents to give you two usable overall lengths of 670mm or 850mm with a grippy plastic handle at the top. The blade is strong, with shaped cutting edge and serrations at the top to allow to get your boot behind it if the snow’s well packed. A shovel is a useful bit of safety equipment as well as a tool – something worth thinking about.
It’s called an emergency shelter and as that it should do very well when you need it, but call it by its other name of bothy bag and it becomes a much friendlier and more regularly usable prospect. You can get two folk inside with room to play cards and eat or three people if you just want to get shelter. There are windows and vents to keep things pleasant and prevent sensory deprivation or cabin fever. It’s small and light to hide away in your rucksack and being able to step out of the weather on a big winter day isn’t a bad idea, you can warm up, recharge and even finish your coffee before it gets cold. Who cares if folk point at you as they pass on their way to the trig point, you’re the big winner.
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm
The Altair and NeoAir XTherm work perfectly well as stand-alone items but they make a handy pair and Therm-a-Rest have designed them to work together. Winter camping is cold. Now I know that’s pretty obvious, but I’ve recorded -15C inside the tent in the past so you have to be ready in case the temperature really dips during the night. The Altair is a big, warm 750 full down bag with a great hood, effective shoulder baffle, well-shaped footbox and a handy external zipped pocket where I stash a headtorch. The official EN temperature limit is -11C and used with the XTherm matt it is very insulating, I’ve been comfortably warm sleeping on ice and snow above 900m using the two together. That’s why the mat side of the story is just as important, even if you stop all the heat escaping upwards, poor insulation below you will see the ground or snow suck the heat right out of you. The XTherm is 6cm thick and has an insulating matrix inside which keeps the mat light and compact but still warm. They work as a pair because the Altair has fabric loops underneath which the mat feeds through marrying them together very effectively – you can’t slip off during the night onto a frozen tent floor.
You don’t have to buy a winter weight sleeping bag, you can combine lighter sleeping bags to give you a year-round adaptable system. I’d done this a lot in the past and winter nights inside two light sleeping bags have very comfy indeed. PHD make a few bags to create your system and this filler bag is the latest superlight version. It has 1000fill down, a super-soft shell fabric and it really does feel weightless, you can stuff it into a jacket pocket. But when slipped inside another sleeping bag is lofts up and fills all the dead air in the bag you would have to heat and you can instantly feel the feedback as your body warms the down. PHD say the bags temperature rating by 10C and the design is very simple, a plain drawcord open top at neck height and stitch-through construction.
Cold hands and feet are my deadliest enemy on winter camps and I’ve used various down filled socks over the past few years which are warm but not so good for nipping out in the night for the call of nature or taking photos of the moon. The SnugpakTent Boots arrived for test just in time for a bothy trip where I found myself happily wandering around outside through the frost crusted grass around Camban. The synthetic Softie insulation is warm and surprisingly compressible for packing into your rucksack, the inner fabric is soft and the reinforced sole area take the worry away from short hops outside the tent.
Made in Scotland, Hilltrek’s Talorc joins the past and the present to make something a little different. The fabric here is Ventile, a high quality cotton that has great weather proof qualities as well as being very breathable. The fibres of the weave swell when wet sealing the fabric up and keeping the weather out and the fabric has been used by polar explorers and mountaineers for decades. The Talorc uses double layered fabric on the shoulders and hood for complete waterproofness and a single layer on the body which will be waterproof in most conditions while keeping the breathability good. Ventile also makes the jacket silent to wear, a real change from rustly synthetics. The fit is neat with long arms and good arm movement, there are four large pocket on the chest and a neat fitting hood with a large peak. The hood and hem adjusters are old-school woven cords with cord locks which you will either find endearing or want to update to bungees, but I’ve been quite happy with them. The Talorc is a good length too, it’s nicely protective. It’s different, it’s effective and there’s made to measure and custom options available from the manufacturer.
The new version of the Latok is beefy mountain jacket, built to deflect the worst of winter weather. I feel protected in this so the weight doesn’t worry me at all. It’s cut from eVent fabric to guarantee waterproofness and great breathability and there’s a host of good features and design points. The adjustable helmet compatible hood cinches into a bare or beanie-hatted head very well and the chunky-style water resistant main zip terminates at a fleecy face guard patch. There are four large chest pockets with the napoleon pockets being hidden behind low profile flaps. Inside these pockets are the waist drawcord adjusters which pull in the rear waist for a neater fit. This works well, flattening the front of the jacket and the way the cord channel is positioned it leaves the zips for the pockets and the pitzips undistorted and running smoothly, even when cinched right in. There are two more pockets inside, one mesh stash and one zipped. The fit is regular, not bulky but with plenty of room for winter layering. Other touches are a fleecy patch inside the hood at the back of your neck and big chunky zip pulls that are mitt-friendly. Brilliant winter jacket.
Woman’s version available
Stripping back the weight and features a little is the Neo Guide. The fabric is the excellent waterproof and breathable Polartec Neoshell which here has a good bit of stretch making the Guide very comfortable and allowing unrestricted movement. The fit is a little neater than the Latok but there’s still room for layering. The hood is similar to the Latok including a matching roll away tab and the same fleece patches which are very welcome. The pitzips share another feature with the Latok and that’s small drainholes at the bottom of the zips, any moisture seeping through the gap between the double zip pulls should run down the internal storm flaps and exit through the little holes. There are two big napoleon pockets and internal stuff and zipped pockets. It’s a more climbing or mountaineering oriented jacket, but it’s very comfortable, functional and protective as well as having what might be the best performing laminate waterproof fabric. I’ve spend plenty of hard winter walking days in jackets with no hand warmer pockets so it’s not a factor anymore, besides, sticking cold hands inside your pitzips is a warmer option!
Odlo Pants Revolution Warm
Woman’s versions available
I don’t swap to heavier weight base layers in winter, a thinner fabric will manage sweat better and dry faster so it suits my metabolism to stay light. The Revolution top and bottom are light but are also warm with an air-trapping brushed fleecy inner face which makes also them a delight to wear. The fit is close but not restrictive with great length to the body and arms long enough the make the thumbloops comfortable to use. The design is sensibly functional with mostly flatlocked stiching a soft collar on the top and a soft, wide elastic waistband and wide cuffs on the pants with a double thickness, shaped crotch. The polyester and merino mix brings together fast drying of the synthetic part and odour resistance of the wool which is perfect for repeated and long term wear, but the good news is that the Revolutions wash well too.
The Yeti gaiters have been around a long time and there’s no better way of sealing the wet, the cold and the manky out of your boots. It takes some effort to fit them of course with that sturdy rubber rand, but that’s all part of the legend. These new Pro versions are insulated with Primaloft which is sandwiched behind the Gore-Tex outer and are designed for high mountain expedition use. Still good for the Highlands of course, where they’ll repel the sticky wet snow we know so well. Great for maintaining comfort on winter high camps and if you’re a winter mountain photographer standing around in the snow they could be your best friend.
It’s possible to keep on into winter with your regular pack but an alpine pack will cope with the sharp edges of your ice axes and crampons much better as well. The Trilogy has great ice axe storage which is easy to use, the axe picks just place into the slot and the shafts get strapped in without any swinging around like you have with old-style loops. In-between the axes is a hard wearing fabric patch to strap your crampons onto and completing the winter credentials there are ski attachments at each side for all you Skimo (Ski Mountaineering) activists. The Trilogy has nice clean lines and a great harness that allows free movement while having a close, stable fit which is what you need on steeper slopes while wielding your axe. The padded and vented back system has internal rods which have the right mix of flex and stiffness, the lid has two pockets, it’s hydration system compatible and the 30L capacity is a good size for winter days.
26g (inc the handy ziplock bag)
Sometimes it’s the little things that make all the difference. I’ve noticed an increasing amount of rucksacks the past few years having the loops for attaching cords or extra straps but not including any with the pack. Nathan do a host of handy niknaks for runners and I’ve used these Lock Laces in trails shoes for years, but they’re also perfect for adding to a winter pack to strap on crampons, wet waterproofs and snow shovels. The laces are tough, reflective, have very good cord locks and are cheap to replace.
It’s a winter descent, it’s cold and dark and your breath is making an impenetrable cloud in your headtorch beam. If you’re wearing fogged up glasses too, you might consider sitting down and waiting for morning. Another quirky Nathan design has the cure, a runners torch that straps onto your hand. It’s useful enough on your hand but it also straps onto the shoulder of a rucksack giving you a bright beam free of interference from hoods and your frozen heavy breathing. A good choice as a second torch.
Lots to keep us warm, safe and smiling on the winter hills there. Winter needs the skills as well as the kit though, there’s good information and links to help you on Walkhighlands and a great database of experience and knowledge on the site forum to tap into as well.