As we come into winter, conditions in the hills can become slippery to say the least. With steep rocks and ridges often close around you, the last thing you need is to be falling over or sliding out of control. Here I discuss my experiences with the various springs and spikes designed to keep you walking on ice rather than sliding around on it.
I was actually on skis when I had my first scary experience with ice on the mountains. We were standing in pairs on the T-Bar being slowly pulled up one of the lower slops on the Zugspitz Glacier high on Germany’s highest mountain. With a drop in temperature and constant ski’s dragging up it all day, the conditions underfoot on the T-Bar were sheet ice. My skis skidded sideways over the ice and I fell.
Within seconds I was hurtling down the steep slope over the ice confined to the T-Bar Route by small walls of snow either side. Best I could describe was a human bobsled. They had stopped the lift but I couldn’t stop me and I was soon battering into pairs of people as I fell. One of these collisions knocked me up and over the small wall of snow out of the T-Bar Route. To my horror, I just kept sliding now down the open slopes of the mountain. Fortunately I hadn’t tumbled and I came to rest after a few hundred feet. I’d lost my skis and my poles and when I looked up the scene looked like a plane crash as the skiers I had hit and their equipment lay strewn about the mountain. Fortunately no one was injured.
Though I haven’t skied in years, the memory of that day serves as a reminder that snow and ice in the mountains can make things very dangerous. When trekking or climbing, staying in control on snow and ice starts with the boots and what you attach to them. I would place the equipment I have used which can be attached to boots to give you extra grip on ice into three general categories.
- Micro Spikes
I have often seen everything labelled Crampons but I think their use and effectiveness varies greatly and it’s important to know the best use for each type of equipment.
As can be seen from the image, Yaktrax are a solid network of hardened rubber designed to stretch over any footwear. The entire sole of the foot is then covered with metal coils which are designed to provide grip on ice.
Where these good for everyday use walking about icy streets etc, I don’t think they should be used for anything else. I have only once walked over some uneven terrain in a pair of Yaktrax and they simply fell off my feet. The rubber membrane which holds them in place isn’t really designed for anything beyond the relatively even surfaces of roads and paths.
Micro Spikes stretch over footwear in a similar manner to Yaktrax. The grip however is provided by a chained mesh of small spikes which I feel offer much better purchase on ice.
I first used Micro Spikes during an icy ascent along the main path up Stob Na Broige from Glen Etive. The grip was amazing even on solid patches of ice. As we moved into a rocky scramble half way up, we had to switch to crampons but the grip of the Micro Spikes was more than enough to get us up to that point.
Two notes of caution related to my own use of Micro Spikes. First, they are no good in deep loose snow. In fact they tend to gather the snow and you soon find yourself hauling great clumps of snow under your feet. More importantly, they are not so good in steep gradients or scrambling. This is because, like Yaktrax, the web of rubber and chains is not solid enough to hold them on your feet under such stresses. An impatient Mountain guide had me descend a steep icy pass called the Zatra La in Nepal in Micro Spikes because he didn’t want to wait for me to put on crampons. That descent was scary to say the least as the spikes shifted about my feet and kept sliding off.
The ultimate grip on ice is delivered through Crampons. Pictured above are the ones I use. They are Grivel step in type crampons which provide a completely solid fit to my La Sportiva Nepal Climbing Boots. The large spikes combined with the solid sole of the boots gives the ideal combination for climbing steep or even vertical slopes of ice.
While some crampons will fit most boots, there are different types of crampons specifically designed to fit different types of boot and this is something you should be mindful of when buying either boots or crampons for the winter. You can find out more details on different boots and the crampons which fit them here.
I have used my Crampons on several Scottish Mountains in winter and I lived in them for 3 days as we ascended the Mera Glacier towards Mera Peak in Nepal. Despite my terror on that glacier, my crampons kept me on the mountain. I have only used them for vertical ice climbing once while practicing on the indoor Ice Wall in Kinlochleven. Not sure I’d ever have the bottle to try vertical ice climbing for real but at least I have the experience to know my Crampons would hold if I did.
One issue I often find with crampons, I’m sure in common with most people who use them, is that they throw me well off balance among rocks. On the lower slopes of the Mera Glacier as we crossed through small patches of rocks among the ice, my balance was all over the place.
When I’m out on the hills in winter, my normal practice is to wear my Mountain Boots and carry Micro Spikes and Crampons. As is often the case in winter with various items of clothing and equipment there are frequent stops to change as the weather and conditions change along the way. Carrying this equipment and knowing how and when best to use it however provides tremendous security in a beautiful yet very precarious environment.