Scottish Winter Kit List

The winter season of 2014/2015 in Scotland was a great one in terms of the conditions that were experienced throughout the highlands and on occasion down in the beautiful Lake District which has seen some impressive ascents over the last couple of seasons. Scottish winter climbing, for the uninitiated, provides some of the most technically demanding climbing challenges often in some of the wildest possible weather imaginable. The 2013/2014 season didn’t live up to expectations for many simply due to the amount of powder snow and warm conditions. This was a great season for skiing, but not so much for climbing (ice axes don’t do particularly well in snow with the consistency of flour). However the 2014/2015 season was different, and along with the variety of climbs, the weather provided a great testing ground for kit which is often at its limits in these conditions – hot and sweaty walk-in’s followed by freezing belays.

With the above in mind, here are some of the pieces of kit I take out for Scottish winter climbing which will hopefully serve as inspiration for your kit lists during 2015/2016 and beyond:

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Waterproofs: Without a doubt, the most challenging thing to get right, as for many people, waterproofs don’t really work well in Scotland. For the rest, they don’t work at all. But to help stay less miserable, I opt for lightweight layers as opposed to bulk. And so I currently use the Rab Latok Alpine jacket and trousers, both for Scottish winter, and Alpine summer climbing. I find a full weight waterproof (the big Gore-Tex pro shells) too heavy, bulky, warm and ill-fitting, and even though they offer greater protection, I find them too cumbersome for Scotland in all but the worst conditions. Alpine shells are happy enough to be worn or left in the rucksack, and this works for me. I generally walk in with a base layer and a fleece type mid layer if it’s cold, meaning many times, my top shell layer is in my rucksack until I reach the bottom of a climb. Light shells are less durable than the full on shells, but then they are also cheaper to replace, and no matter what modern shell you buy, it will eventually need replacing.

For the bottom half, I use the Rab Latok Alpine trousers, but this time, I wear these from the car. For 99% of climbs, I will wear a pair of leggings like the Rab Powerstretch tights under the waterproofs. As I run hot, I mostly unzip the trousers via the full length side zips to avoid overheating on the walk in, then zip up for the climb. For Scottish winter climbing, the simpler the system, the better.

Just to add some element of confusion, after the 2014-2015 season, I will be switching to Neo-Shell as opposed to eVent which is found in the Latok Alpine jacket and trousers. Having done a considerable amount of research on this topic, I have good reasons to make the switch. The first is because I destroyed my Latok Alpine jacket in a paragliding crash over the summer so it now consists of 50% jacket, 50% duct tape…
On a more technical note, second reason is the incredible breathability you get with Neo-Shell which is rumored to be far more breathable than both Gore-Tex and eVent. Due to the makeup of the material, Neo-Shell lets a small amount of air pass through the fabric which is noticeable in very windy conditions, further aiding breathability by circulating air. As I have previously stated, I run hot when climbing so my eyes are gleaming at the prospect of fresh air. Neo-Shell isn’t as waterproof as a Gore-Tex Pro Shell jacket for example, but having been out in some appalling weather, there is always a point when a jacket will leak; it is not ‘if’, but ‘when’. On this topic, remember that breathability is the transfer of water vapor out of the jacket, and waterproofness is the prevention of fluid entering the jacket. Clearly these are conflicting ideals, and so what is important to consider is the ratio, i.e. breathability:waterproofness.

Concerns have previously been raised regarding the strength of Neo-Shell, especially through ripping after rubbing on rocks etc. Through personal experience, no jacket will withstand ripping when subjected to abnormal conditions, i.e. flying across a gravel track having been slightly optimistic about jump entry speed on a bike, or constantly stabbing your leg with nice sharp (and slightly bloodied) crampons. I have done both which my sewing attempts (now covered by duct tape) on my Rab Latok Alpine kit will attest to.
In all, I can’t see any real disadvantages to the Neo-Shell waterproofs. They breathe better than anything else whilst sacrificing top end waterproofing and a slight loss of windproofing when stuck out in an upland gale. Since I have also raved about the Rab Latok Alpine kit, the good news is Rab have based the cut of their Neo-Shell waterproofs on the Latok Alpine garments, and have reportedly made them slightly tougher after athlete feedback.

Interesting advertising from Icebreaker...

Interesting advertising from Icebreaker…

Base layers: I think good layering is the key to getting a higher ‘enjoyment:hardship’ ratio in Scotland. As previously mentioned, I prefer Rab Powerstretch type tights for the legs, but for the top, I try to go for as little insulation as possible, with the thinking being that this will allow heat to escape easier on the walk in. I typically use Icebreaker 150 weight tops, preferably with a zip. The key to this system working is then twofold. Firstly take a spare base layer for long/hot walk in routes where you’re likely to be heavily sweating by the time you reach the climb, and change when you get to the climb. Secondly add good layers on top of the base layer to properly regulate the temperature.

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Mid layers: The layers I choose over the base layer dramatically varies depending on the route and day. I have been regularly wearing a Rab Vapour Rise jacket which works well (being both insulated and windproof), however I have also started wearing the North Face Granular Hooded fleece which is a fantastic technical fleece with thumb loops and a helmet compatible hood. I generally find soft shell jackets don’t work all that well when paired with a hard shell, and are also too warm as a single layer in Scotland, so I save these for the Alps where the weather is generally less wild. For exceptionally cold days, I will wear two mid layers, for example the Vapour Rise and the Granular Hooded fleece.

Insulation layer: The final layer needed for Scotland is an insulation later. So far, I will be wearing a base layer, a mid layer (or two for extremely cold days), and at the start of the climb, a shell layer. This is just warm enough for me when keeping active, but when stopped to gear up, or when on belay, I will wear an insulated belay type jacket generally on top of the shell. This is always the Rab Generator jacket which is unfashionable, but packs well, is light, and exceptionally warm with a PrimaLoft synthetic fill which means warm when wet. New hydrophobic (water repelling) down jackets are appearing, however I stick to the tried and trusted synthetic fills for now. The jacket is also hard wearing, and easy to take on and off on most belays. I wear the hoodless version as I already have plenty of hoods on the mid layers, however a hood is a definite advantage if stuck for a long time on the belay in horrific weather when you should really be in front of a log fire with a hot chocolate.

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Boots: My boots of choice are the trusted LaSportiva Nepal Evo GTX boots. These need little introduction, and whilst there are many newer models available, these are completely bomb proof, and also accommodate my wide feet, just.

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Crampons: I’ve experimented a little with crampons, and now find that the best choice is a Grivel G12 with a Newmatic binding for anything up to grade II, and from grade III upwards, a Grivel G14 in either dual-point or mono-point with a Cramp-O-Matic binding (stiffer than the Newmatic bindings) is generally the best all rounder. The advantages of a mono-point outweigh a dual point for mixed climbing, but the G14’s allow the second point to be replaced when heading for the ice. This ease of replacing the G14 front points mean this is a great all-round crampon. When I only have weight allowance for one pair of crampons, I always take my G14’s as they can do everything the G12’s can with only a slight weight penalty.

Ueli Steck The Secret Ben Nevis

If they’re good enough for Ueli…

Ice axe/ice tools: For a single ice axe, you can’t beat the Grivel Air Tech Evolution for its light weight and high strength. For ice tools, there are a multitude on the market. And again, a lot of this comes down to personal preference. For me, I recently switched from the Petzl Quarks, which are modular all round tools, to Nomics, the ultimate Alpine weapon. The Quarks have the ability to be stripped down which is a great advantage – I used them without the adze or hammer which makes them super light to swing (despite the low weight of the adze and hammer, the difference in swing is really noticeable – making them much nicer for long routes).

Having recently switched to the Nomics however, I realised what I’ve been missing for the past 3 years. My initial reservations with the Nomics was that they couldn’t do ‘everything’, instead only being good for the hardest routes whilst the Quarks could do from easy to moderately difficult depending on your ability. What I’ve found since switching however is that the Nomics are actually better in many cases to the Quarks on easy ground, and are clearly superior when the climbing gets vertical. I have the Nomic handle set to the small setting, and this means that the spike at the base actually contacts far more ice when daggering than my Quarks used to. Due to the shape of the pommel on the Quark, the point actually misses the ice when dagering, or sits on top, not really providing any purpose. The biggest criticism for the Nomic is that you can’t plunge it (which is far beyond what it’s designed for). This is the opposite to what I’ve found though, and it plunges fine in all but the hardest névé. So having soloed a number of Scottish grade 1’s and 2’s with the Nomics, I’ve not once found myself missing the Quarks.

For higher grades when you wouldn’t begin to consider the Quarks, there are two main choices, the Petzl Nomics or the Black Diamond Vipers. Whilst both are great, you really need to go into a shop and swing them because there is a clear difference in the weight distribution which makes deciding an easy choice in the shop. Clearly I much prefer the Nomics which are both light with a good weight distribution, and also a strong T rated pick which comes as standard, perfect for the rigours Scottish mixed climbing.

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Gloves: Gloves are a tricky area given that like most items of ‘waterproof’ clothing, they have big holes around the wrist area. This means often in the worst conditions, water gets straight into the gloves, bypassing the super eVent/Gore-Tex lining. Instead of recommending too many specific gloves, I will say that ‘guide gloves’ by most of the manufacturers are fine for Scotland, as long as you have enough pairs. Take at least two per day. I also take a pair of mitts (Outdoor Design Inferno Mitts are great). You will notice however that gloves (especially the guide type ones with a waterproof lining) are incredibly expensive, and so a good solution if the budget is tight is to buy multiple pairs of Venitex gloves, an option used by my first climbing instructor, Zac Poulton seen wearing bright yellow gloves in the image above. You could get 5 pairs for the price of a good pair of guide gloves, however the Venitex gloves are certainly not poor quality. They are used by local French ski guides, and their high quality leather can be proofed with Nikwax type lotions. They will last just as long as ‘proper’ climbing gloves, perhaps longer in some cases, and a great solution if you have a few pairs in your bag.

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Rucksack: The final piece of kit which I have a definite preference for is a rucksack. For Scottish winter routes where you are taking a big rack, rope, food, water and all the other necessities, one of the best bags available is the Osprey Mutant 38. It has many great features which all make life much easier when the weather turns bad such as good tool attachment points, rope compatible lid, and a clever strap to keep the waist belt reversed and out of the way of the harness when climbing. Other than that, there isn’t much else of note which is great news as too much tat on a rucksack tends to get ripped off quite quickly either by the Scottish rock, or the knife wielding owner. Rucksacks need to be as streamlined as possible, and this one has just the right useful features without going overboard. 38L seems to be a good size to get all the kit in, but the sack also compressed down nicely for climbing. If 38L seems a bit big, there is also the option of a 28L for the pure Alpine climber in you. This may be a little small for Scotland, but the 38L gives the best of both worlds, perfect for Scotland, and not bad for the Alps, perhaps perfect for multi-day Alpine routes with a planned/unplanned bivi.

The above is a roundup of my favourite clothing and equipment for Scottish winter climbing which is the ultimate testing ground in Europe. Some other notable mentions are my quickdraws (DMM Spectre 2’s – for their light weight, but large gates for ease of use with gloves), ropes (2 DMM Prophet half ropes – great for wet and cold, icy climbs) and Petzl Adjama harness which has travelled all round the world with me, including surviving a trip up Everest, and has never once let me down.

As a final word, just remember, there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. Unless you’re in Scotland, Greenland, Patagonia, Nepal, Chile, New Zealand, Russia, Canada, Alaska…

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