Our latest Gear Check blog post comes from our latest Breo Hero, Steve Holmes. Steve is a qualified Mountaineering Instructor who runs the professional mountain guiding company Vertical Fever from his base in Fort William, Scotland.
Read on for a detailed breakdown of his kit.
What is in my SCOTTISH WINTER CLIMBING bag……
There is a unique Winter scene in Scotland where budding climbers attempt to scale classic and modern routes up the side of mountains in any conditions the weather throws at us. It takes a certain type of person; someone willing to get up in freezing conditions, often in the dead of the night to literally torture themselves in horrendous weather just to climb a mountain. OK, it isn’t always so bad, we are occasionally blessed with bright blue skies and crisp fluffy snow to play in – a rarity admittedly!
Unlike our European neighbours there are no bolts placed in our mountain crags, meaning we have to carry our own equipment to safeguard our chosen route. Often the harder the grade of route the more equipment you take and inevitably need to ensure falling is somewhat safe guarded. Warm clothes, sharp spiky metal things, helmets, gloves, hats and a whole paraphernalia of kit is taken with us on our journey often filled with mixed emotions……
I have described what I carry when out climbing with friends, which differs from the equipment I take whilst guiding. With that in mind I have tried to list the benefits of my choice rather than explain the use of an item.
Boots & Socks
I use LaSportiva Batura boots which have an integrated gaiter, something that has become popular with guides in recent years. I own a prototype model with waterproof T-Zips and softshell outer, something LaSportiva went on to produce in 2012. Recent editions have the gaiter constructed out of Goretex which I am sure will be better in Scottish conditions although less breathable and hence sweatier in an Alpine environment. They are a light but warm boot with B3 rating.
When climbing with friends we each carry 60 meters of climbing rope. By far the best pair of ‘half ropes’ I have used are the BEAL Iceline 8.2mm ropes. They handle superbly and are treated in a ‘Dry’ coating that helps keep water out in winter. I am now on my third pair after excessive use over the last few years. They come in yellow, purple, pink and green so you can choose two colours that clash for easy identification.
The Patagonia Ascensionist 25l pack, definitely one of the best I have used. So many people ask why bother with such a small pack but the answer is easy: the larger the pack the more you will take with you. It’s also really nice to climb with a super light pack that doesn’t hinder your vision when looking up, or hang low so you cannot reach equipment on your harness. A full review can be found on my website HERE.
There are lots of radical bendy looking tools on the market at the minute but by far the most popular at present is the Petzl Nomic. Ergonomically curved with the perfect size handle (for me), very strong shaft and picks make up an excellent technical climbing tool. One of the downfalls of curved axes is that they are not very good for walking with and plunging into the snow, the Nomic is no different. It also comes without an adze or hammer; both can be bought and fitted as an accessory.
Black Diamond Stinger crampons fit well to my LaSportiva boots. They are very technical crampons that come with mono front points, perfect for mixed and ice climbing. The anti-balling plate sheds snow as good as any other I have used and although there are slightly lighter technical crampons out there, the snow is often wet in Scotland so I find these are a good compromise.
A ‘rack’ for Scottish winter climbing can vary depending on route choice and prevailing conditions. Equipment that always makes the cut include two sets of wires from 1-10, I like the Wild Country version in winter as I find them easier for the second to extract. Three Black Diamond hexes on wire: sizes 8,9 & 10, Black Diamond Camalots sizes 0.4, 0.75 & 4, ten quickdraws four of which are extendable on 60cm slings, three screw gate carabiners, two 120cm slings, a belay plate and two prusiks/ropeman for emergency rescues. If conditions dictate that the ground is rockier with less ice I add four more Black Diamond Camalots: 0.3, 0.5, 1 & No.3. If conditions are icy then three or four Black Diamond Express Ice screws and included. Just to confuse things more, I take upto 12 ice screws on pure ice routes in exchange for half the amount of wires, hexes and camalots.
A headtorch is a must have piece of equipment for the mountains in winter. I carry a Petzl MYO RXP which has a capability of lighting upto 97 meters ahead of you – that’s a long way. For such a lightweight freak I admit that this can be a little excessive for winter climbing as you can get away with lighter, less powerful models. It has stayed in my pack however, as I sometimes like to make night-time ascents of routes to beat the crowds!
Breo supplied me with a super lightweight pair of Edge Sunglasses. It’s the fit that impresses me most, with nice snug arms made out of rubber that wrap around your head allowing a secure feel. Great whilst climbing when we tend to look both up and down alot.
Being battered by wind, hail and snow on top of a mountain is so much more fun with a good fitted pair of goggles to protect your eyes. I wear boys size Julbo goggles as I have a narrow head and adult sizes leave a gap at the temple area. Donning them literally feels like being in a different world, allowing you to navigate and climb more efficiently rather than trying to sink further into your jacket to escape the elements.
Phone is turned off and packed away in a roll top dry bag for emergencies. I like to tie my camera to a loop and have it around my neck; this means I can use it without the fear of a gust of wind or falling ice knock it out of my hand. I use the Panasonic DMC-FT25 which is light, waterproof and a tough little camera.
Large watches tend to be a burden for me as I wear tight wrist gaiters whilst climbing. Breo supplied me with a Roam Elite watch which is both comfortable and tiny. It’s made of a soft but robust rubber, comes in bright green and is water resistant so ideal for the mountains.
Safety equipment is both a personal choice and calculated decision made by each individual’s perception of risk. I firmly believe if you have a huge pack containing safety equipment for every eventuality then you will need that equipment as you will be slowed down by weight and energy expenditure. My pack includes a very lightweight 2 man Terra Nova bothy Bag (300g) and a first aid kit containing life saving apparatus, not copious amounts of plasters and pain killers (200g).
My Petzl Hirundos has travelled around the world; it’s been used for every type of climbing from sport to mountains and it’s still one of the best for Scottish winter climbing. Personally a harness should be a compromise between comfort and weight, it needs four ‘gear loops’ and must not soak up water. The Hirundos does all of these by using a clever frame construction with breathable monofilament mesh and perforated closed cell foam on leg loops. It weighs 300g in size medium and is comfortable enough to hang on belays with the combination of winter clothing layers.
My helmet choice of the Black Diamond Vapour will certainly ruffle some feathers. It’s super lightweight and would possibly only take one major impact before being rendered useless. My reasoning is that it’s still a climbing helmet, developed to sustain impact. Yes its light, yes it has allot of ventilation ‘holes’ around the back, however, I don’t plan on tilting my head forward should something be falling as not only the vent’s but my neck would also be exposed. I know you can’t always expect to see debris coming towards you but would you see them in a heavier helmet? It’s lined with two layers of Kevlar and has carbon rods to give it strength. In my humble opinion the Vapour is a superb, low volume, incredibly comfortable helmet well capable of the job in hand.
In winter I prefer a 1:50 map as it has less defined detail which means the features should be easily noticeable in bad conditions. I make sure both my climbing partner and I have a compass each incase one breaks or we drop one. In winter I carry a Gramin E-trex30 GPS, this is certainly a luxury item but I feel there is a greater likely hood of witnessing or being involved in accidents during the winter and so pinpoint navigational devices are very handy. I have also started ‘way marking’ the start of routes on Ben Nevis which is a great aid when it comes to guiding routes in foul conditions. Finally we take a guidebook on the area we wish to climb in. The SMC books are popular but the recent Cicerone Ben Nevis book by Mike Pescod is also excellent and more upto date. On days when my focus is on one particular route I cut the weight by photographing the description and topo.
Hands and Head
The topic of great discussion is what gloves work in Scottish winter conditions. I have tried so many different ones but more important than and warmth, lining or price is the fit. My pet hate is gloves that are long in the finger and for that reason I usually wear women’s specific gloves. At the moment I am using Black Diamond Arc Gloves for mixed climbing, Mountain Equipment Guide Gloves for ice and general mountaineering and cheap thinsulate lined mitts for belaying. I also like to stuff hand warmer pads in my mitts to try and fend off the dreaded ‘hot aches’.
Marmot wrist gaiters are excellent. They boost the warmth of the extremities by concealing the wrist and palm of the hand prior to putting your gloves on. The only downfall is they can be tight with a super fitted glove such as the BD Arc; this is when I use the thumb loops on my baselayer.
Hat and buff – pretty standard stuff, just make sure your hat is suitably thin so it fits under your helmet.
Like many other climbers I choose the layering system whilst climbing in Scotland. This includes baselayers, midlayers, shell and insulation. I don’t walk from the van wearing all of these layers; I wear lightweight, breathable clothing to walk into the base of the route which in turn avoids sweating too much. The remaining items are carried in my pack and donned at the base of a route or when the temperature decreases significantly.
The system: On my lower half I wear merino boxer shorts with wicking stretch woven leggings, ontop of these I wear Patagonia Mixed Guide Pants which are a combination of H2No hardshell (waterproof) material on abrasive areas such as the knee and seat combined with Polartech Power Shield where you need stretch for climbing movement. They shed snow well, have useful pockets and sport ventilation zips down the back of the legs. I wear these in all but the worst weather when I swap them for Patagonia Stretch Element Bibs for a bit more weather protection. A full review of the Mixed Guide will be on the site at the end of the winter season. Up top I wear a long-sleeved Patagonia Capilene 2 baselayer underneath a Patagonia Houdini Windstopper jacket. This is just enough to keep the elements off and stop me sweating too much on the walk in.
Once established underneath a route I know the movement will be allot slower and hence will need more layers. First on is my Patagonia Capilene 4 Expedition Hoody which allows me to ditch my hat in exchange for a hood that sits nicely under my helmet. It also has handy thumb loops to make sure the sleeves don’t ride up your wrists. Ontop of that goes my Patagonia Nano Puff Hybrid Jacket which is a blend of R2 fleece and PrimaLoft synthetic insulation. The fleece is located in high output areas where you tend to sweat more and the synthetic insulation runs down the arms and chest. This top is one of the best bits of kit I have used but it isn’t the warmest – good motivation to move a little quicker! My shell layer which acts as the final piece of armour is my Patagonia Knifeblade Pullover. I think allot of this top which you can read about in my review HERE. I like to think of these layers as my action suit that’s just about warm enough for climbing in the lead. When I am hanging around on belays I throw my PHD Sigma Vest over the top, again I have reviewed the item HERE.
For me personally it’s important to be able to fit your poles inside your pack whilst climbing. Maybe it’s just me but a pole sticking out the top or side of a pack always gets in the way whilst taking coils, wrapping slings around your torso or thrutching up constricted routes. To get around this problem I have the Black Diamond Ultra Distance Trekking Poles which collapse to just 36cm and weight a very lightweight 140g each. I only take one as I like to have a spare hand for my axe or compass; I find this gives enough support for a big day on the hill. They are not going to last forever but I am happy with the compromise in durability and weight.
Food & Water
I carry high fat and carbohydrate foods and bars on the hill and I barely go a day without a slice of Christmas cake! I get by with a 500ml flask full of hot juice, accepting I will be dehydrated by the time the day is over.