Selecting the right gear for winter alpine and mixed routes presents a challenge: many routes have the same technical protection challenges of their summer variants, with the added complexity of winter weather, carrying more layers, cold hands, shorter days, and the ephemeral nature of many features. All of this together makes prepping for your big winter objective a challenge. Trango Ambassador & winter master Nate Kenney has developed a strategy to help dial in gear selection for everything from single pitch canyon days to big routes deep in the mountains.
Gearing up for ice and mixed climbs
One of the hardest parts about winter climbing and alpine climbing is knowing what to bring and what to leave behind. Packing and racking up for an ice or mixed route is about knowing the area you’re climbing in and trusting yourself to make correct assumptions about what gear the rock and ice is going to take. This article is a little insight into how I like to approach gearing up for winter climbing.
Preparing: Do your research on the route and the other routes around it. Usually talking to other climbers and looking online for beta can take the guesswork out of deciding which gear to bring. In the cases where you’re going in without any beta avoid the urge to bring every piece of gear in the kit and instead give it your best guess, you’ll find that most of the time you can make it work with less and the climbing will be more enjoyable when you’re unencumbered. If you do bring too much, remember that unneeded gear can always be carried by the second or left at a belay if you plan to rap the route (just don’t forget to grab it!). After every route try and remember which pieces you did place, which pieces you didn’t need and which ones you wish you had. Keeping a written list can help you pack for similar adventures in the future. Stay safe out there.
Ice Screws: This is the easiest gear choice to make because the amount of ice on a route can be seen from far away. I usually bring 8 screws to the crag for a single pitch route and up to 12 on a difficult multipitch. If I plan on using 2 screws per belay and placing 8 screws on a pitch of difficult ice climbing then 12 screws is the maximum I would ever need. When choosing which screws to bring it’s good to remember that stubbies can work in both thin and thick ice but long screws won’t work in thin ice, better to err on the side of more stubbies than it is to have to run it out or mess around with tying off a bunch of screws.
If I’m sure the ice is fat I will leave the stubbies at home and grab 2 more 13cm screws instead. 90% of the time when I go ice climbing I bring 2x 10cm screws, 2x 16cm screws, 1x 22cm screw for V-threads and belays and 7x 13cms for everything else. Some people like to forgo the 22cm screw and use 16cm screws for V-threading. 16cm screws are fine for good ice but when building threads on airy alpine ice routes and in wet ice I prefer to have the security of the 22cm screw, with aluminum screws the weight penalty of a longer screw is negligible.
Rock Gear: Mixed routes generally don’t like to form on good rock and protecting bad rock is its own skill set. My basic rack is a single set of cams from .3 to #2 and a small selection of nuts. I pretty much always take these with me on a mixed route unless I know the rock section is going to be short. I never bring a nut tool on mixed routes because I can usually use my ice tool to remove any stuck gear. The problem with relying on cams is that as soon as a crack gets icy the cams become useless. For routes where I know I’m going to find a lot of icy cracks or weird pockets in the rock I like to bring pink, red, and brown tricams. They collectively weigh as much as a cam and can be placed passively to compliment the light nut rack that you probably already have. Large hexes are also a good option when climbing an extremely icy crack because you can pound them into icy spots and bad rock where a cam wont hold. Unless the route I’m going to climb is visibly covered with rime or verglass then I tend to leave the tricams and hexes at home.
When mixed climbing you don’t often have the luxury of following a nice crack system which means you’ll need to make do with tight seams and compact rock. For routes like this you’ll need a rack of pitons. The basics of placing pitons are simple, you stick the piton into a crack where it goes about ¼ to ⅓ of the way in on its own with no hammering. Then you start tapping the piton in with a hammer, if it’s a good placement you should hear a ringing sound that gets higher in pitch as you hit it. If the ringing turns into a thud you might have bottomed it out and need to try a shorter piton or a different spot. Generally the type of pitons you bring depends on the type of rock that you’re climbing. My typical “do everything” pin rack consists of 2 short lost arrows, 2 short knife blades and 2 large peckers. Angle pitons are a bit redundant when you’re already bringing nuts and small cams but they are indispensable when climbing icy cracks.
Spectres are a special type of piton that look like the pick of an ice tool. They are for hammering into icy cracks and theoretically can be used in frozen moss. The jury is still out on whether or not a spectre will reliably hold a fall when placed in weird ice or moss. When nothing else will work spectres are often your only option and they’re better than nothing. Ice tools tend to come with hammers for placing pitons but the aggressive curve of modern tools makes placing multiple pitons a nightmare, many climbers opt for an actual wall hammer on routes that are mainly protected by pitons. If you expect to place a significant number of pins the extra weight and bulk of the hammer is better than the extra energy and time you will spend placing pitons with an aggressively curved ice tool.
Racking: Racking up with rock gear and ice gear and draws tends to be cumbersome. Personally I like to rack only onto my harness. Generally I will alternate cams between my left and right side, so if the .3 is left the .4 will be on the right. I rack screws onto ice clippers, which I usually keep 4 of so I can rack all screws to one side if I know I’m going to be thutching up a corner. Sometimes if I’m not taking very many screws I will put a few pitons on my ice clippers for easy access. For draws I usually bring 4-6 quickdraws and 6-8 alpine draws. I put my quickdraws on the front gear loops behind my cams and alpine draws on the back with my belay stuff. On wandering routes I like to have 2 double length slings which I rack around my chest.
Tools and Crampons: My tool quiver consists of carbon fiber Kestrels and aluminum Raptors. For pure ice routes I always take the Kestrels because they take less energy to swing. For mixed routes I always take the raptors because the shafts are more resistant to impacts. When pounding in pitons with an ice tool you will occasionally miss a swing and wail the back of your tool with the piton, this doesn’t damage aluminum tools but it can damage a carbon fiber tool. I never bring spare picks into the mountains and have yet to ever have anything snap, however I will usually bring a small 6” bastard file on big routes in case I really smash a pick and need to fix it. I have started using Grivel G20 plus crampons for everything recently. They work great as a monopoint for mixed and the added secondary point makes them functional in the alpine. When selecting crampons one of the most important factors is durability and hardness of the steel. When climbing mixed frequently crampons get ground down quickly and have a finite number of pitches in them before you risk the metal being compromised from repeated stress, especially the front bails. On bigger routes I like to carry 1 extra front bail.
Ropes: If I’m climbing in a party of 3, I bring double ropes. If I’m going to be rapping more than 400 feet of ice I bring double ropes. If I’m climbing sharp rock that could cut my rope when I fall I bring double ropes. For everything else I like to have a 70m dry treated rope because they have a thicker sheath and are more durable in the long run. A single rope can still be used to make full length rappels when coupled with a thin pull cord/ rapline. Find the stiffest cord you can for your tag/ rapline to prevent a tangled rats nest nightmare. Trango’s Agility 9.1 bi-color rope has the ends dyed red while the rest of the rope is green. I like this feature because it lowers the risk of an inattentive climber lowering/ rappelling off the ends of the rope. An added bonus is that it makes the ends easier to find when flaking and tying in.
Belaying: I always have 3 small locking carabiners like the Trango React with me. I always keep a belay device like the Aries or ATC guide with me on a bigger locker. Then I like to have a 240cm dyneema sling with a single non-locking carabiner attached to it. On longer routes I’ll bring a 18ft of 7mm cord. This can be used as a second coralette for building anchors and also be cut up and left behind to make/ replace anchors when bailing. I bring 2 free non-locking carabiners for anchor building and other random uses like hanging a pack at a belay. Finally I bring a small locking or non-locking carabiner with a petzl tibloc, a kevlar prusik, a small knife and a coat-hanger v-thread tool.
Get you some: There are a million different ways to approach ice, mixed and alpine climbing and this post is just the way I like to do things. The most important thing to getting dialed on ice and mixed isn’t mastering the gear but instead it’s building a wealth of experience and getting out as much as possible. Toprope until your arms fall off and drop a toprope on that bolted mixed until you feel comfortable leading it, everybody starts somewhere and the journey is the whole point of climbing. Embrace the process of learning and keep track of your progress and how your kit changes over time. Have fun and be safe.