Winter offers the ideal excuse to head off to the nearest gear shop and spend some of your hard earned on shiny new gear. Even better, some of it is shiny, jangly, metal gear! Everyone knows that when there's snow on the ground you cannot 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 its off to the gear shop or perhaps online, but what to buy? Virtually every person that joins me on a winter skills course, or even rings up to ask about one, wants to know what's the best axe and crampons to buy, how long should the axe be, how many points do the crampons need etc. The idea of this article is to give you my opinion, like all things mountaineering there are no rules and if you have a combination that works then stick to it!
The 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. Modern thinking does away with this because an axe that long is un-wieldy and difficult to use. The taller you are the longer you will want the axe but not so that it is an Alpenstock. I am 5'11" and use a 55cm axe that works well for me. If you are taller you might want a 60cm axe but that should be plenty long enough.
The shorter axe will make it much easier to successfully perform self arrest ie stop yourself from plummeting downhill rapidly after a slip. It is also more precise to use when cutting steps and much more effective when being used to climb steep ground.
Here are a few things to look for when choosing your axe:
What's it made of? Avoid wooden shafts as they are not strong enough for enthusiastic use although you will get a 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.
What is it rated for? 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 not rated to be belayed off but will be fine for general hill walking, it will probably be a bit lighter to carry.
What does it look like? I prefer a straight axe or one with a slight curve for mountaineering like the Petzl Summit or DMM Cirque certainly avoid the technical banana shaped axes that are designed for ice climbing. Walk around with it in the shop, wear 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 in the shop if nothing else!
A slight grip on the shaft is useful as it will mean you are less likely to drop it when carrying it with gloves on.
Leashes are a personal choice. I would recommend buying one, taking it out with you and then try using the axe with and without the leash to see what you prefer. A leash makes step cutting more precise and easier and also ensures that you won’t lose your axe. It can be a pain in the backside though when zigzagging up or down slopes where you need to constantly change hands with the axe.
Carrying the axe
I tend to ignore the ice axe attachments on the front of the rucksack and stuff it down the compression straps on the side of the pack, or alternatively down behind 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. I have seen some nasty facial injuries from people who have been walking behind someone using ice axe attachments but have never known anyone lose an axe from the compresssion straps.
Now lets have a look at crampons. You have basically got 3 types to choose from and they are rated according to stiffness or rigidity. C1 and C2 crampons are flexible and ideal for winter hill walking. C3 crampons are stiffer and designed for winter climbing. The biggest influence on what crampons to buy will be what boots you have. What I tend to do is find the best boots for the job that I have in mind and then get the shop to tell me what crampon will be the best fit for that boot as some crampons suit some boot manufacturers better than others. For winter walking I use Grivel G12 crampons as they fit most boots really well. They will also be suitable for winter mountaineering upto about grade 3 in Scotland. You do need winter boots though so read on.
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 mens and womens 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 winter mountaineering or want a boot that will double up as a summer scrambling and winter mountaineering boot then you may want a more technical boot like the La Sportiva Trango Alp. This will be at the stiffer end for summer scrambling but is otherwise a good all round boot. I used them on a traverse of the Matterhorn where we were climbing rock lower down and then snow and ice higher up and they were ideal.
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 light weight ski touring ones as they will not last.
A well fitted crampon will stick to the boots without the straps being done up and 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.
I tend to pack mine away in my rucksack in a crampon bag as I’ve seen people lose them from elastic straps on the outside.
Once you have your boots and your campons have a read of this article that explains how to fit your crampons onto your boots.
Having spent the money and got the kit, make sure you know how to use it. A weekend winter skills course will probably cost no more than the axe and crampons and will be an equally sound investment!
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