Winter’s nearly here. You’ve got the ideal excuse to nip off to the nearest gear shop and spend some of your hard-earned on shiny new kit. I mean, everyone knows that when there’s snow on the ground you can’t be seen leaving the car park without an ice axe of some sort strapped to the outside of your pack and some nice sharp crampons perilously close to your trusty Platypus.
So it’s off to the gear shop, but what should you be looking for? Virtually every person that joins me on a winter skills course wants to know which are the best axe and crampons to buy, how long should the axe be, how many points do the crampons need, and a host of other tips. Well, read on for my opinion - but remember that like all things in mountaineering there are no rules, and if you have a combination that works for you then stick to it.
Your first ice axe
Lets start with the ice axe. Many of the older instruction books will tell you that an axe should reach your ankle when held at the head with a straight arm. But modern thinking does away with this, an axe that long is unwieldy and difficult to use. Mountaineers are no longer looking to use the axe as a walking stick, and Alpenstocks are definitely out. As a general rule go for an axe measuring 55-65cm, as this range seems to suit most heights. Shorter axes make it much easier to successfully perform self-arrest (i.e. stop yourself from plummeting downhill rapidly after a slip), and they’re more effective at both cutting steps and climbing steep ground.
What to look for in an ice axe
Firstly material. Avoid wooden shafts as they’re not strong enough for enthusiastic use although you will get certain retro kudos as you leave the car park. Don’t go for a super-light axe as cutting steps in hard snow or ice becomes impossible. Check the rating - at the top of the shaft will be a letter “T” or a letter “B”.
The “T” rating means that you can belay off it and it will perform all the duties you would expect of a hill walking and mountaineering axe. The “B” rated axe is more suitable for ski mountaineering where weight is the key issue. When it comes to shape, I prefer a straight axe for mountaineering, and certainly avoid the technical banana shaped axes that are designed for ice climbing. Walk around with it in the shop, wearing gloves and hold it by the pick with the axe down by your side and make sure it feels comfortable. You’ll look the part if nothing else.
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A slight grip on the shaft is useful and a hole at the top of the shaft within the head of the axe will mean that you can fit a leash. Leashes are a personal choice. I would recommend buying one, taking it out with you and then try using the axe with, and without, to see what you prefer. A leash makes step cutting easier and more precise and ensures that you won’t lose your axe. But it can be a pain in the backside when zigzagging up or down slopes, where you need to constantly change hands with the axe.
Now let’s have a look at crampons. You’ve basically got three types to choose from, rated according to stiffness or rigidity. C1 and C2 crampons are flexible and ideal for winter hillwalking whilst C3 crampons are stiffer and designed for winter climbing. The biggest influence on what crampons to buy will be what boots you have. I tend to find the best boots for the job that I have in mind then get the shop to tell me what crampon will be the best fit for that boot - some crampons suit some boot manufacturers better than others.
Boots are rated in a similar way to crampons with B1 boots tending to be ¾ season boots, B2 boots being stiffer and often being sold as “winter boots” and B3 boots being fully rigid climbing boots. The classic winter hillwalking boot is the Scarpa Manta, being available in men’s and women’s moulds. This strikes a good balance between stiffness and all-day comfort and is lined to provide the additional warmth that you will need for standing around in the snow. Look for a boot that suits your foot shape, go to a shop and be properly measured and fitted and allow a couple of hours. If you intend doing a bit of easier climbing as well then you may want a more technical boot as they give you more feel on rock.
WATCH: Winter Essentials DVD
Once you’ve found the right boot then you can buy the crampons to match. If you go for a B1 boot you need C1 crampons. If you go for a B2 boot you can choose C2 or C1 crampons. Make sure they come with anti-balling plates and I tend to go for a 12-point design for hill walking with general-purpose front points, nothing too long or aggressive. These will also do the job for easier climbing and alpine use. Avoid the super lightweight ski touring ones as they just won’t last.
A well-fitted crampon will stick to the boots without the straps being done up, so make sure they fit the shape of your new boot if they have a strong curve to them. You can buy replacement asymmetric centre bars if necessary. If in doubt then ask the shop assistant - they should be an expert!
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Look like a pro
OK. So you’ve chosen your new gear and handed over the readies. Here’s a quick tip on how to really look the part when you leave the car park. Ignore the ice axe attachments on the front of the rucksack and stuff it down the compression straps on the side of your pack, or alternatively down between your back and the pack with the shaft at a slight angle so that the spike emerges just above the lower shoulder strap attachment. Have the pick at the top in either case. This way you avoid taking passers by’s eyes out with your upturned shaft and the axe is quick to hand when you need it. As for crampons, I tend to pack mine away inside the rucksack in a crampon bag - I’ve seen people lose them from elastic straps on the outside.
I’ll end with a plug. Having spent the money and got the kit, make sure you know how to use it. A weekend winter skills course with an AMI member will probably cost no more than the axe and crampons and will be an equally sound investment.
AMI member Rob Johnson has been climbing since a teenager and offers instruction and guiding in Snowdonia, the Highlands of Scotland, the Skye Ridge and trekking in the Alps. He holds the MIA, Winter ML and IML, and runs his own company, www.expeditionguide.com.
This issue’s walking expert is Tim Blakemore. AMI member Tim has many years of experience working and climbing in the Scottish Highlands and all over the world. He holds the MIC and has just been accepted as a candidate on the British Mountain Guide Scheme. He is assisted by Mountain Equipment. Contact him via www.northernmountainsport.co.uk.
Q. Can’t I just use ski poles instead of an axe?
A. Ski poles are great for support on long descents and balance when carrying heavy loads (more likely in winter) but don’t provide security on steep ground. If you’re on terrain where a slip has nasty consequences then you should be using an axe.
Q. At what point should I put my crampons on, and is there a way to do this?
A. This is part of the increased judgement required to operate safely in the hills in winter. The short answer is sooner rather than later. By getting them on too early you lose a little time, leave it too late and you will quickly realise the limitations of rubber on ice. Look ahead, anticipate changes in slope angle and conditions and ask yourself “what if”? In snow, create a large stable platform to stand in, and another uphill in front (imagine two stairs) to place the crampons on. Now you can safely step in one at a time.
Q. Is it worth buying a modular tool?
A. If you’ve aspirations to progress to more technical mountaineering or perhaps climbing then a modular axe (e.g. DMM Raptor) allows a more technical pick to be used. It also means you can replace a broken pick at a fraction of the cost of a new axe. But if money allows, a dedicated axe for each job is always best - I currently have five.
Q. How often should you check your axe and crampons for damage?
A. Modern materials and manufacturing methods have revolutionised the quality of axes and crampons but I can testify that they still break (to date two sets of crampons and three axes). I check them informally every time I get off the hill, in particular pay attention to high stress areas, e.g. where the front points meet the crampon body and the last inch or so of the pick. Always try and store them dry to prevent corrosion.
Q. Which crampon attachment system is best?
A. The most important thing is that they fit well regardless of attachment system, though some offer more security than others. Unless you are using an absolutely rigid boot with a pronounced welt I favour the plastic cup type (on the toe end at least) as opposed to a wire bail. Having looked down the North Face of Les Droites at my detached crampon I can vouch it’s better to have them on your feet rather than dangling off them.
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