Winter Kit review - Cairngorms trip

A long overdue but as finished as it'll ever be kit and planning report from our trip in early January to the Cairngorms - I'm no expert...

Confounded, they were
Once we got there, we (or rather I...T obviously 'knew' all along) realised that we weren't gonna do a grand tour of the whole of the Cairngorms in 3 days, in sometimes waist high snow with no previous winter experience!  We were still in recovery mode from the flu, and that's serious country to do in the winter straight off.  So we didn't, we did a few day walks, and 1 overnighter.  And that was just fine.  There's no pressure, nothing to prove, it was just lovely to be there, developing some technique and getting the feel for the place.  That's a great lesson right there.  Besides, Glenmore lodge was very comfy, economical and well situated, so we used that as a base most of the time.

The Caledonian sleeper continues to be the way for us to travel north - use it, or lose it.   Euston to Aviemore for £60 each, each way...apparently they can be got cheaper, but we haven't managed yet.  We'd spend that on petrol and a B&B and still be burnt out for a day afterwards, if we drove our little motor up there.  I'm a bit jealous of those with vans for that reason, but the sleeper is nice, you get on and the break starts then and there.  Fans of this method should be aware that the little washkits have ceased (no mini toothbrushes!) so its possible they are facing hard times, too.

Some random thoughts:
1. Its good to eat.  When walking, its good to eat alot.  In winter its important to eat shed loads, often.  Every 2 hours is great.
2. A flask of hot tea would be nice.  Or stop for a brew.  We did neither, and our water froze most days.
3. Changing your plans is inevitable in winter.  Enjoy it, you get to see how the land joins up.
4. I mailed home a kilo of clothes I didn't need (a baselayer, a mid and some trousers).
5. Fuss free functionality is desirable in winter.
6. -20 isn't that cold if you're moving, -5 can be if you're not.
7. It won't dry unless its next to your skin.  Unless its your socks, in which case it won't dry at all.
8. Be conscious of condensation buildup when planning winter multi day trips.  Damp = cold.
9. Revise your winter skills before you leave and when you first arrive. 

Right then, stufph wot you havta carry.  Now, lets be clear - The purpose of gear, is to get you here:

obligatory 'outdoors is my adventure playground' shot

And that is all there is to it.  These were the bits that stood out, one way or another....

Gloves: the borrowed ski gloves in the picture below failed badly on the first hint of serious weather, and so got sent packing by royal mail, along with another 1.7kg of non essentials, after day 2!  I bought some 'ME windchill grip' gloves from Nevisports on the spot, vaguely remembering a first look by Maz, and they were brilliant.  Very quick drying, warm enough for me 90% of the time, grippy and almost totally snot and windproof.  The grippy stuff is starting to peel on the index fingers already, but they did sustain alot of abuse in a week.  I also bought some TN extremities tuff bags (70 quid on gloves in 2 minutes - yikes!) which I used a couple of times to take the edge off, but these are cumbersome in the cold, and not at all great when welding an axe - more a rainy season companion I think.  If I do alot more winter stuff I'll get a proper 'guide' glove, and keep the ME ones for the 2nd pair.  But they did me fine, really good hand coverers, liked them…and I learnt cold hands on the plateau are best avoided.  Without good gloves in the winter, I'd lose fingers, which might hurt.

sh*te gloves, obscured logo - job's a goodun!

BD raven pro ice axe + mods.  Good axe. Not that I've got anything to compare it with, but the instructor had no problem with us using them on the course, and it functioned perfectly well the rest of the week.  The adze could be a little wider for step cutting I think, and the length (60cm for me at 5,9'') is kind of a 'medium', which means not long enough for general walking cane use on level ground, but then that's not whats it for.  Great combining 1 pole and axe for mixed gradient stuff, which is most of the time.  It is lightweight, so for the ice we encountered it did occur to me that another 100gms of welly would help me dig in, but it wasn't critical.  My mods worked OK - cardboard-pointy-bits-covers did the job, leash we both ditched after a few days - fussy, and the skateboard sandpaper grip was good but did get iced up after alot of use.  I think I'll take our instructors advice and wrap it all the way round the handle next time.

A bevvy of Balaclava's - well, 2 anyhoo.  I saw 1 in the last PHD sale and grabbed a medium for T.  Its made out of fine woven felt-like material and is pretty darn kooky - she can pull it completely over her head to make an Elizabethan style 'ruff-buff'.   Mine is old fashioned heavy wool, bulky but super warm, with a peak! - all very Mallory doncha know, but we were really thankful of both when very high up and blowy - it gave the trip an essential 'polar expedition' look as well.  Without good hats in the winter, we'd lose our heads, which might hurt.

Surprise star of the show:  a 'polartec' baselayer I bought 10 years ago for £6.  Amazing second layer over a merino wool top, not next to skin so stopped the worst of the stink, dried fast, super warm but breathable enough.  Often just wore these 2, plus the shell jacket, and if active was fine.  Until now, very underrated.  Still smelly for the rest of the year though!

not sure why, but this reminds me of cookery book illustration
Integral Designs Hotsocks: not for me, but for T - the hit gift of christmas, these are great hut/YHA booties, take the edge off when under 'canvas' and can be layered with socks to keep feet seriously warm in the bag.  Not as warm as down I guess, but half the price and a good synthetic backup for cold, damp nights.  A happy mountain companion = a happy me.

 Z lite mat and other sleep 'system': Great, worth the extra bulk and weight, really helped with padding, and warmth.  I reckon I will start to carry the 1/2 Z mat all year round, a good nights sleep is worth it.  This was layered with 2 x ebay emergency foil blankets (0.60 each), our multimat adventure mats (also used to provide structure to the rucksack) and this kept us warm on a sub zero night.  Woke at 5am and could feel the cold just starting to come through but a fleece went on and back to sleep for another 3 hours.  Otherwise I slept in a baselayer and a montane anti freeze down jacket, which is great but needs a hood.  T needed more layers and we both used our Go Lite 3 season bags

Panasonic LX3: - how is it possible that these things can collect SO much moisture and still work?  The camera stays in a non waterproof LA bag attached to the shoulder strap on the rucksack and is exposed to driving snow and sleet, arctic temperatures and still the thing operates!  Admittedly you might wanna take an extra battery - the lithium's are better in the cold, but 1 of mine got zapped on our coldest day.

colour co-ordinated male shot - completely unpremeditated but still vaguely suspicious

Paramo Casada trousers - these are miracle trews, warm enough, completely waterproof in heavy snow, sleet and rain, dry almost instantly, great venting for if you get too hot, comfy enough to sleep in, I sent my other trousers back home in the post after 2 days.  These are all I need in the colder months.  I do look a bit like Max Wall in them though. 

TN super solar 2.2 - small, totally waterproof inner, very good pockets, very warm at +8(!?) in the tent when -5 outside.  But fussy pegging, lots required and easy to miss pegging points, low angle doors on the outer which catch wind but offer only limited cooking room, and alot of condensation this time (to be expected really, this, its not the tents fault).  I have just sold this which may have been a little premature, as it means we're back to our leaky old standby for the next trip to the Lakes in April if orders from the States don't get here in time.

gubbins on a rock

Kahtoola KTS steel crampons + mods.  Fantastic.  Brilliant walking crampon, perfectly suited to mixed ground and can deal with fairly steep angles as well.  Not for ice climbing as front points are blunt and shallow.  Amazing for everything else, lightweight 4 wheel drive for your feet without the dangers of stabbing yourself.  Fussy straps, need cutting down.  Front toe webbing needs readjusting after a few days to tighten it up.   My own myog anti ball plates failed on the first day!  Not the fault of the plastic, but need to use larger (not mini) cable ties - mixed ground made mincemeat of the little'uns, were fine in deeper snow and ice.  Actually, we had no problem with snow balling up except on the last day, when we probably left them on a little too long on the walk out...and the weight of snow soon tells you need to sort them out, or get them off!  If its cold enough, high enough they should be OK.  A great investment, very happy.

Rab Hispar gaitars, full length - I bought these in a bit of hurry, I must admit - never bothered with them before.  They work fine and kept the snow out of our boots - also great when the iced over stream you are walking on collapses and you end up in the drink.  T likes hers but for me these are too long and made my legs a bit hot used with the Paramo.  I've sold mine on OM and am getting some shorter ones soon.

Petzl tikka 2 - great, bright, lightweight, xmas gift.  Beats the wind up torch we use in the summer hands down, 1 set batteries lasted a week and still going, night walking included.  Maybe I'll invest in the core system at some point to make it all hi tech and more eco.

Primus spider express - another xmas gift!  It just works, in the cold.  Very, very stable, Snow and water brought to a simmer, a little harder to get to a rolling boil, but fast enough, fuss free and nice to be able to control the heat.  Great for the cold months, I wouldn't take in the summer as its overkill and alcohol is simpler, also feel bad about the eco impact of using canisters to be honest, but great for when you're hands are too cold to fiddle, and you just want a soup quickly.

T: ultralight, heavy duty, 100% bullsh*t proof, kick ass mountain companion - warm down to -20 deg C windchill, good navigational backup, incredible head for heights, excellent weather prediction and alarm systems.  A mettle tester and yet calming under pressure, sometimes simultaneously.  Essential, the silent heroine of this 'ere blog thing (no link - not available on the internet).