Saturday, 16 October 2010

Winter and Alpine Hillwalking and Mountaineering Kit

It’s October. The weather is already starting to turn. After the superb winter of 2009/2010, this winter is set to be just as engaging. Dreams of cool, fresh blue sky crisply framing chalky white vistas arouse in me fervent anticipation. As I have already said in a recent post, the Alpine walking of the summer has sparked a desire to do more of the same - to go further and higher - and a Scottish winter is the perfect training for that, as well as splendid and dramatic in its own right. In August, we will take on the Classic Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt, ascending the Tête Blanche (3421m) by the Col Superior du Tour (3289m), the Pigne d'Arolla (3796m) and the Tête Blanche (3724m) via the Mont Mine Glacier and then descending by the heavily crevassed Stockji Glacier, as well as various Cols above 3000m.

Plainly, my gear cupboard has been keyed into UL principles for some time. My 3-season wild-camping and hill-walking base weight (that is to say, my pack and everything in it except water and food) is 4.8kg in settled, dry weather and 5.1kg in wet weather. The TMB base pack weight, an 11 day trek staying in refuges, was 6.1kg. Yet, winter requires a contrastive mind-set. That is not to say UL principles suddenly don’t apply in winter, but the hazards posed by the weather and the terrain are far more serious; more care is required in kit selection - more thought perhaps, or maybe just a different set of priorities. It is a truism to say that warmer clothes are the starting point but, furthermore, winter hill-walking and trekking requires movement across snow and ice. Alpine trekking will inevitably require glacial travel. Push the boundaries to include mountaineering and ‘winter kit’ becomes relevant the whole year round. The principles cross over like a very simple, yet crucial, Venn diagram. 

I'm not going to deal with wild camping in winter in this post - I'll be looking at that nearer the time as I have some more research to do for my perfect 4-season shelter, cook and sleep system. I suspect, however, the WM Summerlite will remain my bag of choice, supplemented by down-clothing. Anyway, another post to come on that. Right now, I am preparing for my winter mountaineering course in the Cairngorms in early February 2011.

My current clothing selection has enough layering options in it to undertake a decent, fair weather winter outing but it would be unlikely to keep me comfortable in a torrid Scottish hillwalk with snow, sleet and wind pummeling me ceaselessly. Nor do my boots permit the attachment of crampons. My clothing is certainly not going to keep me comfortable in a high altitude, or very-high altitude, Alpine trek above 3,000m. There is a significant weather difference between the Alps and Scotland and lighter is better in the Alps. As soon as the sun comes up there, it can be very warm indeed. Venting, breathability and thermoregulation in the Alps is crucial.

I settled quite quickly on the premise that, in a snow-laden environment, I’d appreciate braces on trousers. A slip followed by the need to self-arrest would be better resolved by trousers supported by braces than those without, for example. I prefer the stability of braces and have always done so, even when skiing. I initially looked at softshell trousers - Haglöfs have a few that attracted me - the Suta and the Omni II. Yet softshell does nothing for me - it is heavy and not particularly warm in and of itself, nor does the windstopper fabric shrug off prolonged rain effectively and is leaden when wet. I would consequently need waterproof overtrousers as well, adding more to the weight. Whilst considering this, a mountaineering friend gave me some advice. Look at Páramo. Whilst booking a course covering winter mountaineering skills in the Cairngorms in February 2011, the course leader told me the same thing. So I did.


Now, to me, Páramo products do not seem to fit well with UL principles. They tend to be rather heavy when compared to their competitors. I did not rightly understand, either, how the Páramo systems worked. So I did some research. While not new to the outdoors world, Páramo’s fabric technology is worth a brief précis.

According to Páramo, the Nikwax Analogy® Pump Liner purportedly “...mimics the action of animal fur – pushing liquid water outwards to protect you from rain, condensation and perspiration, while protecting your insulation. This is combined with a Directional microfibre outer to deflect wind and rain.” The key benefits according to Páramo are: 

  • The Two layer construction traps still air giving superior insulation to keep you warm. 
  • The Outer layer provides Directional water-repellency while the Pump Liner actively pushes liquid moisture away from the body keeping you dry from precipitation, perspiration and condensation. 
  • It continues to work just as effectively even in high humidity or very cold conditions. 
  • Water-repellency can be easily renewed for the lifetime of the garment with Nikwax Aftercare. 
  • The fabric is soft, strong, silent and durable - it continues to function even when punctured. 

Ok, it’s marketing spiel of course but it all sounds rather intriguing, I reluctantly admit. I dropped by the Páramo shop in Covent Garden for a reconnaissance mission. They’re very helpful, the staff in there, and all wear (and abuse) the kit they sell. Moreover, Páramo send them on training exercises, even going so far as to throw them into lakes to ensure the staff can adequately explain the quick-drying and wicking properties of the kit - fact which they’ll gleefully demonstrate with swatches and a spray-gun.

Páramo Aspira Smock and Salopettes

The Aspira series was explicitly commended to me by various aficionados so I procured assorted Aspira garments and commenced my scrutiny. I preferred the fit and features of the
Aspira Smock rather than the jacket so settled fairly swiftly on that: the Smock can be vented through two zips either side at the front of the smock which also allow access to inner layers - very useful to access the pockets in the salopettes, for example. There is a large pocket around the lower chest area, between these zips, sufficient to take a map and more. Inside the smock is another large pocket within which cold hands could be placed and this last is lined with a smooth, fleece material. The hood is considerable and can comfortably accommodate a helmet. It is adjusted by cords at the front and back to adjust both the circumferential tightness of the hood and the volume. The arms benefit from an articulated, active cut which can be vented, and a blended velcro/press-stud wrist adjustment. Removable foam inserts precipitate moisture evaporation by keeping the garment from being compressed completely by a backpack. 

The smock felt gratifying and reassuring to wear as well as very comfortable. At 868g, it is not lightweight but consider it this way: my Haglöfs LIM Ozone jacket is 345g. A Polartec 100 fleece would weigh around 275g and a lightweight insulation layer (Patagonia Nano Puff or Montane Fireball Smock) around the same (266g for the Nano Puff). I would estimate the Aspira Smock to be similar, at least, to a membrane shell jacket and a fleece or insulation layer. Thus, at 600g for the two, the Aspira does not look like such a leviathan. Taking the analysis a stage further, most fully-featured winter membrane jackets are more likely to be in the region of 600-650g themselves (ME Kongur, Haglöfs Arete or Cirque), rather than the 345g of my LIM Ozone.

 Sizing is peculiar, eccentric even, and I found that a small Smock fit me better than a medium, which was too loose. I am a 38-39” chest and a 33-34” waist. I normally take a medium in almost all clothes. Each of the other Páramo items was a different size, however. This is certainly something to be aware of when looking at Páramo products.

Winter legwear is where Páramo seems to really excel. I tried both the
Aspira Salopettes and the Trousers. As I said, sizing is bizarre. I was a Medium Long in the Salopettes and Large in the trousers. Frankly, the salopettes felt far more comfortable than the trousers and, apart from the extra chest insulation, had the advantage of pockets around the chest area as well. The snug, articulated fit (with a diamond gusset) was far more suitable to winter mountaineering than the trousers which felt a little baggy. 

Other features include full leg venting with a zip beginning right at the top of the salopettes, tape loops for under-boot elasticated attachment, slim removable foam inserts for the knees to prevent conductive heat loss, reinforced fabric on the seat, knee and ankle areas and, perhaps inevitably, the ability pull them on and off without removing boots or crampons. 

At 904g, again, they are hefty but, here, they gain over other fabrics. They are warm and waterproof. Thus, a pair of softshell salopettes (at around 850g) and a pair of over trousers (at around 350g) would be required to achieve the same effect although I doubt they’d be as warm. Nevertheless, that pairing is something like 300g heavier than the Aspira Salopettes. So, it seems to me, it is unfair to label Páramo as portly in these circumstances.

If the Aspira Smock and Salopettes breathe as well as is suggested by those evangelical disciples preaching the Páramo way, then I am looking forward to winter. Whether it is in the Alps, Scotland or even the Lakes and Snowdonia, dry warmth in chill, relentless precipitation is heaven and I experienced those sorts of conditions in all four this year.

Páramo Mountain Pull-On

The Parmenta-S Reversible fabric Mountain Pull-on is a midweight base layer designed to be worn next to the skin but it’s heavy enough to resemble something approaching a midlayer. It is a slightly less fitted cut than I would have wanted, but I still liked it. The Parmenta fabric wicks moisture away from the skin and the skin-side dries startlingly quickly. The quarter zip allows substantial venting and the neck roll is high, articulated and comfortable. Furthermore, for once I am not wincing as I pull the zip up, not needing to contort my neck to avoid being nipped. I tried the Venting Mountain Pull-on but the arm zips annoyed me the moment I put it on, let alone after a day with rucksack straps tearing at them. It seems to me that the Mountain Pull-On is all I need, especially when moving, under the Aspira Smock. At rest, a Nano Puff or other insulating layer might be necessary. If the Nano Puff is not sufficient, I will look at a PHD Ultra pullover - 900g of down fill at 230g. It may be that Mountain Pull-on is the weakest part of the set-up, and something by Montane or X-Bionics would be better, but that remains to be seen.

 I received not only a 10% discount as a consequence of membership of the BMC, but also a free
Torres Gilet. I doubt I’ll use it hill-walking or mountaineering but I still rather like it. Made from Analogy Insulator fabric with 100g synthetic fill, and weighing 370g, it’s really not bad at all. It packs down into its own pocket and will go on over the top of the Aspira Smock as well as underneath. As it is water repellent, when at rest, it might be a better option than putting on the Nano-Puff (as it can go over the top of the smock, so I would not need to remove it) and is certainly likely to be warmer. It gives me another option.

The greatest concern I have with Páramo is that it appears to me to be a little on the warm side. When moving, I tend to be minimalist in terms of layers because I move hot, but this is not something likely to continue into winter. However, it all seems so insulated and warm that I wonder how hot I’ll be ascending and dealing with serious gradients. Páramo and its supporters extol the breathability of the garments but I am currently unconvinced. Don’t misunderstand - I am excited about using this kit in the winter but I remain sceptical about thermoregulation. I’ll report back at the end of the winter, next year.

X-Bionic Trekking Pants - Short

My old Helly Hansen Lifa boxers are falling apart. It's sad but we must part company. Over the years, I've come to realise I'd prefer, except on very warm days, a longer length base layer for my legs as much to avoid riding up and chafing as anything else. I liked the look of Skins and Accapi but the latter are just ridiculously expensive and I am not a professional athlete (I know - hard to believe). X Bionic bridge a gap between technical sports base layers and hillwalking base layers in a reasonably effective way. The Trekking series (130g each for the shorts) offers a cornucopia of features that suit hillwalking better than any other range. The SweatTraps fabric purportedly does exactly that while the SoreStopper and ISO-Pad fabrics (around the genitals and hips respectively) regulate warmth. The Hipholder fabric keeps the pants in place and they are mid-compression. Finally, the 3D Bionic-Sphere system located at the coccyx conducts sweat from the lower back for evaporation. All of this, on the face of it, suits hillwalkers carrying backpacks but, to be frank, I have never experienced such marketing bluster in all my life. Outdoor manufacturers are quick to push advanced new systems with Sci-Fi monikers but X Bionics are masters of it. That said, I like these shorts. They fit snugly without being too tight. The microfibre fabric feels pleasant against the skin. They seem like they will breathe well and wick sweat away. They will dry quickly. The fabric, 93% polyamide (74% of which is their proprietary SkinNODOR fabric), 6% elastane and 1% polypropylene, assists in odour regulation as well as regulation of bacterial growth. Hopefully, this means I will not smell as badly as I would do wearing a normal, synthetic base layer. I look forward to using them. I just wish the copious packaging was not emblazoned with marketing rubbish...

Level Skiing Gloves

I have, for years, owned a very good pair of Level Skiing gloves bought in Ischgl, Austria in 2006. They have a separate, Polartec inner, and a breathable, water resistant main glove with leather palms and elasticated, adjustable wrist guards that reach about 10cm up my forearm from my wrist. They have always suited me rather well for skiing and, aside from being a touch large for me (they are a 9.5 and I am probably a 9), they will allow me to put my ME Windstopper grip gloves underneath in really cold weather. They will do for now.

Scarpa Manta B2 Boots 

I need winter boots and crampons. Therefore, I need B2 rated boots - that is to say boots that will take a C2 crampon. The Scarpa Manta has, year on year, been universally acclaimed and they felt comfortable, supportive and solid, when I wandered around Cotswolds in Covent Garden, jumping up and down on various inclines and declines, kicking walls, climbing and generally testing them out (read: abusing them). The soles are inflexible (winter boots, of course) but, as with all boots, they will relax a little over time and with wear. Proper mountain boots require some breaking-in as part of the fitting process. The solid leather upper is not something I am used to as my 3-season boots are Gore-Tex lined (Scarpa ZG-40 GTX) nubuck but I have always got on rather well with Scarpa so I am optimistic. Of course they are heavier than, say, the Charmoz, but they felt good and I'm a believer in using boots that feel good right off. I will add to my Smartwool medium crew socks a Bridgedale coolmax liner rather than buy a heavier sock, particularly as the leather may need more assistance in wicking away sweat from my feet than my Gore-Tex boots. 

Grivel G12 New-Matic Crampons 

The G12 Newmatic’s are 12 point crampons which are sufficiently technical, all-mountain crampons, to allow me to progress over time and lightweight enough to carry for long periods (868g for the pair). The Newmatic refers to the binding system: an evolution of the Cramp-O-Matic system which utilises the C-O-M rear bale and lever. The plastic harness system is hinged from two front posts which retain the boot securely even if it has a shallow, worn front welt or overboots are being used. It is a simple and efficient binding. Made in dual-component plastic: the black part is stronger, bearing the strain whilst the yellow part is softer, increasing adherence to the boot. The harness is made from Zytel DuPont, a strong and durable plastic which was developed for the manufacture of alpine ski bindings. They are easy to strap to the Manta boot and simple to adjust. When attached to the boot, they are solid and tight - there is no play at all. Anti-balling plates are a must these days and, all in all, they are the sort of crampons recommended by winter mountain leaders so they are good enough for me at this stage. Note that they will not fit a size 48 boot without an extension plate which is additional. Also, they are sharp right out of the box so a crampon bag is a sensible storage option. 

I do enjoy the Whittaker Mountaineering videos.

Black Diamond Raven Pro Ice Axe  - 55cm

There was much oscillation between the Raven Pro and the Grivel Airtech Evo. I weighed both in my hands, staring at them intently and with deep concentration on my face. I may even have looked slightly constipated. I had an idea what to look for in each but, in the end, the feel in the my hand, both on the shaft and at the headset, holding the axe in the belaying position, was all I really could gain from touch alone. The aluminum shaft Raven Pro is significantly lighter at 362g, but is only B-rated (so not as strong as a T-rated technical axe). That said, it felt far better in the belaying position. It also has a straight shaft, which is likely to be better for pushing into snow. It has no rubber grip but the shaft feels so assured that I am not certain this is bad thing.
 All in all, it felt like the right axe. Time will tell.

Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork poles 

It's my intention to post on poles imminently so I won’t repeat that here.

Black Diamond Couloir Harness 

I need a harness. I am not going to be rock-climbing so a basic lightweight alpine harness is sufficient. Something that fits my legs and waist easily, is adjustable at both leg-points and waist, and has enough loops to attach karabiners and other bits to without fuss is essential. The Couloir is light (280g), adjustable and easy to use. Made of a fast-drying nylon webbing, it has quick release leg loops so I can slip the harness on and off whilst wearing crampons. As a basic harness, it will give me a reasonable start until I know enough to buy one safe in the knowledge of exactly what I want. I may even end up sticking with it.

Osprey Mutant 38 and Rain Cover 

I need a pack which is durable enough to take a lot of punishment on the mountainside, being pulled around mercilessly and with reckless abandon and dragged against rocks and ice, but which can also take an ice-axe and crampons without the risk of mesh pockets being torn. I am not comfortable with the Gorilla for those reasons and require a new pack. I love Osprey and the Mutant 38 seemed immediately to be a great choice. At 1.3kg, there are probably lighter packs (Crux AK47 immediately springs to mind and I thought long and hard about the Crux) but Osprey packs carry beautifully for me. I take a large (21" torso) which is, in fact, 41 litres. Further, the Mutant can be stripped down to 950g by removing the lid, the bivy pad and the frame. I'll probably just remove the bivy pad (c.150g) making the Mutant much closer to the Crux in terms of weight. 

Made of 410D Armourlite and 900D Armourguard, it immediately has strength and resilience the 210D Gorilla does not have. With two ice-axe loops and gorilla-guard where the picks rest against the pack, Osprey have kept a keen eye to protecting the pack. The hipbelt, reversible to permit use with a mountaineering harness, also has a number of hypalon gear loops for karabiners and climbing equipment. As I have said, the Mutant 38 also has a removable foam HDPE framesheet/tri-fold bivy pad. Finally, rapid, easy and removable load compression/adjustment is achieved through the Z-compression system also permitting simple stowing of of sleeping-mats, poles and/or skis. Once adjusted, as with most packs, excess webbing can be stowed in the Mutant's wand pockets. After the problems with the Sea to Summit cover I’ve experienced, I settled on a cover designed for the pack.

Julbo Revolution Zebra Goggles 

Goggles, with photo-chromatic lenses, are essential for winter mountain walking and mountaineering. The Julbo Revolution Zebra goggles have a number of features which suited my requirements. An ergonomic frame with small incisions around the contour adapt to any shape of face, even mine. Dual Soft Foam - 2 layers of multi-density foam for comfort and shock absorption with soft touch material on the contact zones. Extended Outrigger - 15 mm extension on each side of the goggles to adapt to all helmets & for a consistent hold. Ad Strap - Additional buckle on back of strap, with an easy clip, for improved easy goggle placement. Zebra Photochromic Lens - Photochromic lens that changes from protection levels C2 to C4 in around 25 seconds built with a simple lens for a widened vision, and an effective anti-fog capability. All in all, they mean I can see, whatever the weather. They’re worth the extra money.

I am also keen to source a helmet but I'll probably do that after the Cairngorms course once I know whether I need something like a Grivel Salamander or a lighter helmet like the Black Diamond Tracer. Much of that will depend on experience in an environment I have yet to spend much time in.


  1. The crampons and the axe look quite impressive!

    Looking forward to your review on the Páramo stuff - I've heard a lot of them, and here in Finland some decent winter gear is appreciated.

  2. Proper winter setup you went for there Maz. I don't know a thing about what you need in the Alps but it looks good kit. Scottish winter is debatable. I have done a few days in the snow with flexible boots and G10 strapped to them Have some new winter stuff from last year which I could not get to use last winter but maybe this year. Of all the kit the Aspira Salopettes look superb.

  3. I think it's a slightly heavier set-up than could be achieved but I found Páramo a very intriguing proposition. All in all, it will achieve what I need it to, which is to get me well into the winter hillwalking and mountaineering theatres over the next 24 months, re-assessing my kit as I go.

  4. Maz - I have not worn Paramo before, thinking about it for winter wet days. For my winter backpacking, I will not need the same level of technical gear that you will need. But I think that if you are wearing Paramo all day and not having to carry it, the weight aspect is not that important. Some good gear choices me thinks

  5. Maz,
    I congratulate you on your gear choice so far. I can’t wait to read what wild camp set up you decide on.
    My only change to your list would be the gloves. I would go for an over mitt, but that’s just my preference and i am not saying your wrong taking what you have got. I just find a mitt warmer and has less stitching to possibly fail.
    Glad to see that you chose the x-bionics too, they are great.

  6. Alan, the wild camp research is partly down to you and my re-thinking of the importance of HH in shelter fabric! At the moment, I am comparing 4-season shelters against the Hilleberg Akto. Using that as my baseline, several shelters feature in my thoughts. I also need to consider how easily my WM Summerlite will cope with -7C supplemented by down/primaloft clothing. There are some other issues as well, but I'll write that post when I am finished researching.

    As for the gloves - the beauty of it is that these are gloves that will do me for now as I learn what I really need for winters. I may find that the Alps and Scottish winters are so different my choices need tweaking. Mitts may be the way to go, for example. It's all about experimenting this winter. Love the Uniqlo by the way.

  7. Your sleeping set up needs to be tested out thoroughly this winter on a freezing cold weekend or two, when you can easily nip to the car and make kit changes if deemed necessary. Going Alpine, and then finding out you have the wrong kit will be a big mistake. Also take into consideration the wind chill factor and the possible wind strength at the heights you and your tent will be achieving.
    I’m sure you will have many thoughts though from your recent adventure.
    As for Sheila’s Uniqlo down jacket. She loves it. It’s ideal for 2-3 season campsite wear or when it turns a little chilly on the move. It’s so light and compact you hardly know it’s there. A good find by Richard.

  8. Never fear, Alan - I have plans or that already. January 2011 for a thorough, freezing kit test. Brrrr!! I certainly won't be in the Alps with my mountaineering setup until I'm happy it's right. The TMB made me think about so many things - it was a useful trek in that respect.

    As for jackets - the Patagonia Nano Puff is a great, UL insulating layer but I am keen to see how it performs in winter. It'll stop a lot of the effect of windchill and 60g Primaloft is not bad but I have my eye on PHD pullovers as well. I am always circumspect about down but the Minimus, with Drishell, seems a possibility, as does the Ultra.

  9. My opinion is that the PNP will be a little light.
    I would go for the Drishell Minimus which would also supplement your sleeping gear better and not a significant weight penalty even with a hood.
    But! before you order it, (if you decide to go that way of course) check out that the body length suits you. I consider mine to be one baffle too short. They do bespoke gear so it wouldn’t be a problem for them to make what’s needed.

  10. Think the P NP would supplement my sleep system effectively too (already used it for that) but it has the potential to be quite cool - it's certainly not as warm as the Prism 2.0 for example. However when you consider the base layer I'll be using will be a Páramo Mountain Pull On, which is a heavyweight base layer, it may be sufficient. Either way, the Minimus attracts me, especially with a 20g Drishell outer fabric. Thanks for the advice about the length.

  11. It's all looking very hardcore! I like it. Just out of curiosity as I've never used anything like it, what is the lightweight harness for? Security on slippery inclines?

  12. For example - when covering glacial terrain, particularly where there is the risk of crevasses, you're roped to others. It's also used for belaying. Also, mountaineering kit is attached to it where necessary. I'll be learning more in February however...

  13. wowsa, thats some shopping list! Really useful post - i;m in the market for some of this stuff, but perhaps the slightly lighter end of the market - i'm not a climber and don't want to be. But aiming for a winter course and getting out in january more often. I also can't believe i missed the paramo shop in town - i'm gonna pop in soon...and drool.

  14. It's a shame you couldn't trial the Accapi kit as a base layer. It is a far superior fabric. We have stockists all over the country where you can try the kit, it comes with a 14 day money back guarantee - we are that confident you will love it!


  15. Accapi - I have to say, Judy Armstrong in TGO was astonished by how good it was - my only problem was the expense. Were I an elite athlete, I'd consider the outlay but at my current level of expertise - still not bad - it is a step above what I would hand-over. I certainly make no criticism of your product or even the price - great innovation and excellence costs! If your product is as good as the reviews seem to suggest, then the expense is justified to those who would benefit the most from it. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  16. hi maz, where did you try out the BD raven pro?

  17. David: during the TMB - some craggy mountain guides were staying at one of the huts and again in Chamonix, when I chatted to some knowledgable shop staff about both axes.

  18. It's a shame you couldn't trial the Accapi kit as a base layer. It is a far superior fabric. We have stockists all over the country where you can try the kit, it comes with a 14 day money back guarantee - we are that confident you will love it!


  19. Your sleeping set up needs to be tested out thoroughly this winter on a freezing cold weekend or two, when you can easily nip to the car and make kit changes if deemed necessary. Going Alpine, and then finding out you have the wrong kit will be a big mistake. Also take into consideration the wind chill factor and the possible wind strength at the heights you and your tent will be achieving.
    I’m sure you will have many thoughts though from your recent adventure.
    As for Sheila’s Uniqlo down jacket. She loves it. It’s ideal for 2-3 season campsite wear or when it turns a little chilly on the move. It’s so light and compact you hardly know it’s there. A good find by Richard.