Gear up and get ready to scale mountains, climb icy walls, and turn frigid summits into your personal play-land with the best winter climbing gear.
As a guide and climber, I have been fortunate enough to chase alpine routes across the globe and all over the United States – from the Cascades to the Himalayas. But as winter takes over, I get a special itch for the ice climbing and mixed winter alpine routes of my native Northeast. Mt. Washington, after all, is home to the “world’s worst weather.”
The true mecca of a Northeastern winter ranges from the Adirondack High Peaks in New York all the way to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. With wet, icy winters and rugged, rocky terrain, these small but fierce ranges test the mettle of the most serious climbers – not to mention the durability of your equipment.
Over the years of enduring and enjoying these rugged winters, I have come to develop a winter climbing kit that I find irreplaceable. Tried and true, here are my 10 essentials for not just a winter in the Northeast, but around the world.
10 Essentials for Winter Climbing
I’ve had a pack on my back since I was a child. And while I’ve had many I love, this one still reigns as my all-time favorite. Weighing in at less than 2 pounds, the Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Ice Pack is the true definition of ultralight. But what I truly love about this pack is not just the fact that it’s light: It’s also extremely durable.
Made from 100-percent waterproof Dyneema, this pack is the ultimate for alpine routes, keeping gear dry, enduring the wear and tear of ice and rock, and all the while adhering to the holy code of “light is right.”
The 3400 Ice Pack comes with tool loops, a crampon bungee, multiple compression straps, and optional hip belt pockets and gear loops. It also includes removable aluminum stays, which prove useful for added support if you’re carrying a heavy load. And for an ultralight pack, the harness system can handle an impressive amount of weight without becoming uncomfortable.
Lastly, Hyperlite Mountain Gear offers custom options. You can add features to accommodate skis, split boards, and more. My climbing friends and I consider this pack the pinnacle. Between us, it logged time in the ranges of Alaska, Nepal, South America, the Cascades, the Tetons, and the Whites.
When I first swung the original X-Dreams and heard that pitch-perfect “thwakkk” of the picks sinking into blue, plastic ice, I fell instantly in love. I remember thinking there was no way Cassin could possibly top or improve these tools. But lo and behold, it went and proved me wrong with the release of the X-Dream Alpine.
Rather than reinvent the wheel, Cassin simply added better tread. The X-Dream Alpine still has the same ergonomic grip, which is adjustable for ice to mixed and dry-tooling, allowing the individual climber to customize their tools to the ideal personal grip.
The two biggest adjustments to the Alpine are the addition of a hammer/adze capability to the head and a spike to the bottom of the grips. The hammer/adze combo now allows everything, from driving in pickets to cutting steps or digging t-trenches. The bottom spike allows for a more effective grip and traction while the tool is being used in the caning position. This makes for the most versatile and technical alpine tool a climber could ask for.
La Sportiva Spantiks – $750
The La Sportiva Spantik is my go-to choice for a winter boot that can do it all, from technical ice climbing to winter mountaineering. Lighter and more compact compared to other high-altitude boots, Spantiks are good up to 7,000 meters. From New Hampshire to Nepal, they’ve proven themselves an indispensable part of my winter kit.
The thicker, double-soled design is heavier than a single layer and can be a bit more awkward when attempting more advanced climbing moves like a drop knee. But this is easily adjusted to, and well worth overcoming, when you find yourself stuck on belay on a sub-zero day. The custom lace system allows for easy and effective lace-ups singlehandedly while wearing heavy gloves, and they are ready to mount your favorite set of crampons. For the best fit, try before you buy.
Pro tip: Keep the removable internal boots in your sleeping bag and start the day with warm feet.
Cassin Blade Runner Crampons – $350
No do-all boot is complete without a set of do-all crampons. The Cassin Blade Runners are just that: one of the most versatile ice and alpine crampons a climber could ask for.
Interchangeable front points allow for switching between mono- and bi-point depending on your preference or the type of climbing your objective dictates. Additionally, you can switch between the cinch strap or a boot cuff as part of a bombproof binding system.
The durable steel and aggressive grip keep you on the mountain, no matter if you’re after ice, mixed, alpine, or all of the above. A lifetime warranty backs these crampons up.
Ultralight and comfortable, the Grivel Stealth is a great helmet for rock, ice, and mixed climbing. Weighing in at just under 7 ounces, the polycarbonate shell is ready to absorb impact and protect your head while still keeping it ventilated. Clips conveniently mount your headlamp for alpine starts. But by far my favorite aspect of the Stealth is the harness system.
The Stealth uses a simple, easily adjustable system of cinches that attach to your chinstrap. This allows for maximum customization of your fit and tightness and, ultimately, maximum comfort.
DMM Renegade 2 Harness – $100
Regarded by many as the “best all-around harness on the market,” I can happily confirm the Renegade 2 lives up to the hype. From the first use, I fell in love with the seven – that’s right, seven – gear loops that accommodate even the largest rock, ice, alpine, or big wall racks.
The ice clipper points can accommodate up to four ice clip racks, yet the profile of the harness remains low, which minimizes snags and hang-ups as you climb. This harness is impressively comfortable, and it’s easy to adjust the fit over heavier winter layers. The belay loop is smaller and less cumbersome yet still rated to 25 Kn. Let’s face it: Nobody wants to deal with a closet full of harnesses. This is the one that does it all.
This rope is the favorite of the legendary Chris Sharma. And even though he’s not an ice climber, it’s a stamp of approval that shows the quality and utility of the Evolution Velocity. A durable and versatile lead rope, it’s easy to handle no matter what belay system you’re using. Available up to 70 meters with an internal and external dry-core sheath, this rope is ready for rock, ice, or both.
Despite some initial uncertainty about an aluminum ice screw, the Laser Speeds quickly won me over, particularly for the ease with which they bite and drive into ice. The folding crank works well with gloves and allows for maximum torque while driving the screw in. The color-coded handle makes for quicker identification and doesn’t fade even after plenty of wear and tear.
Only slightly heavier than its ultralight counterpart, the Laser Speed’s light use of aluminum makes for a screw that’s 30-percent lighter than steel ones. As a result, the extra weight of the regulars over the lights is insignificant (in my opinion). Yet it makes for a significant extension in the screw’s overall durability.
Some complain that racking the Laser Speeds is not as efficient because of the clips. And while it’s true they don’t stack quite as well as some other screws, their overall performance and weight make this a small price to pay for an all-around awesome ice screw.
Winter Climbing Gloves
One thing you will find most winter climbers are never short on is several pairs of gloves. Being able to switch out to heavier gloves for times of inactivity (think belaying) to more technical gloves (think leading) is key. And anyone who’s had their gloves freeze after exposure to running water on a feature will be quick to tell you the value of a backup pair. Below are two sets that span the spectrum of needs.
Any climber that has ever seen – or worse, experienced – a case of the screaming pukies will be quick to second the statement that good mitts are a must. For the uninitiated, the screaming pukies is a condition caused by an excess of warm blood from the core rushing into the arms and hands, which are exceptionally cold from so much time holding ice tools above the head. This causes a sensation of pins and needles so extreme it often results in instant vomiting. Unpleasant to say the least, and a good reason to rely on a quality mitt.
The Absolute Zero Mitts are standard issue for those venturing above 8,000 meters. I’ve had them as high up as 21,000 feet, and you can’t beat their warmth. Waterproof and windproof, the outer membrane shields the 700-fill down interior, keeping hands warm and dry inside the non-removable fleece liner. And a two-stage cinch system keeps the warmth in and the winter out. Remember, don’t wait until your hands are already cold to throw them on.
While a good set of mitts is essential to cover you during the coldest, most stationary moments, the need for a warm and durable set of technical gloves is key to handling moments on the sharp end of the rope. That’s where the Helios come into play.
Rated to -30 degrees Fahrenheit, the outer layer is made up of a windproof and waterproof rip-stop Gore-Tex shell and grippy leather palms. And one-hand drawcords keep the elements out while maintaining the grip and dexterity required for handling ropes, boots, and pro.
My favorite part about the Helios is the removable internal fleece liners. Made with a weather-resistant soft shell, they are perfect for switching between pairs of gloves without ever exposing your skin to the elements.
Josh Valentine is an athlete, survival specialist, guide, and speaker whose life has long been governed by his personal motto, “The adventure begins when the plan ends.”
In addition to guiding and instructing, Josh works in adventure TV and Film and has written for a variety of adventure publications. While his love for the wild has taken him around the globe, Josh retains a strong passion for the wilds of his native Northeast, home to his earliest and most defining adventures. Josh has navigated a canoe from the highest source of the Hudson River to the Statue of Liberty, and he’s 19 peaks shy of having climbed the 115 highest mountains in the Northeastern United States.
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