Kai on the Fly – July 2011

By : Aunty Rata

Gidday fellow trampers,

Daylight is in scarce supply, precipitation is abundant, the temperatures are finally beginning to drop and the next long weekend is miles away, it must be winter. Winter means that if you go tramping you may encounter snow and for some of you it means brushing up on your alpine skills or maybe taking the Snowcraft course. While alpine tramping is mostly an extension of ordinary tramping there are a few differences that mean you may want to acquire a few extra pieces of gear. Now is a reasonable time to hit the shops because the weather is too crap for doing much else and the snow base is yet to consolidate, plus the outdoor shops are having their winter sales. Remember though it may not be worth spending big coin on extra gear until you decide you like alpine tramping. You can always hit up a mate to borrow some kit or look for second hand items.

So what do I need that I might not already have?

  • Waterproof, windproof shell layer ie raincoat, over-trousers, gaiters + waterproof gloves or mitts. Why? Because, as any skier will tell you, snow is cold, wet and highly abrasive. Look for items that are light, durable, practical and not too expensive e.g. a coat with pockets, over-trousers with side zips to facilitate getting them on and off while wearing your tramping boots, gloves with drawstrings that prevent snow sneaking in round your wrists. Gaiters keep snow out of your boots and prevent you tripping over your over-trousers if they happen to be a big baggy. Waterproof gloves are expensive but worth it, wool or polypropylene gloves are also needed but they get cold when wet and they aren’t windproof.
  • Boots that can take crampons. You probably already have tramping boots but if they are highly flexible they may not be much use for keeping crampons on. Ideally you need leather boots with at least a semi rigid sole as these will be comfortable for both tramping and alpine climbing. If you are unsure about your current boots bring them along one Wednesday night and get an alpine person to check them out for you.
  • Crampons and ice axe. These are crucial aids for walking in snow and can be hired from the club.
  • Helmet. A helmet is compulsory for Snowcraft where instructors will be making you undertake gymnastic feats in the snow. A helmet is a must have for alpine climbing trips especially if you expect to encounter NZ weetbix rock so named because, like the breakfast cereal, it is great at absorbing moisture and can be relied on to crumble under the slightest hint of pressure.  Most of us earn a living using our heads ergo a helmet is a good idea. A bike helmet is adequate but a specialist climbing helmet is better as it is specifically designed to mitigate the danger posed by falling rock and ice, at least some of which will be distributed courtesy of your climbing companions. Helmets can be hired from the club.
  • Extra socks, gloves + hats. You will get cold and wet. Polypropylene gloves are light and cheap. Aunty Rata prefers gloves to mitts as you retain full finger function but mitts are warmer because your fingers are together. A balaclava is a good friend in wet, windy conditions as it protects most of your face from sleet exfoliation and keeps your neck warm, (we lose lots of heat from our neck). It is recommended that you wear your balaclava like a hat in more benign conditions or when visiting your local bank. Aunty Rata takes both a balaclava and a woolly hat.
  • Insulating layers ie lots of extra layers of clothing. Layering gives you flexibility to add and subtract as your temperature rises or falls so you can be a comfortable temperature at all times and possibly get a job as a stripper if your climbing career doesn’t pan out. Warm air is trapped between the layers. This is why lots of thin layers are better than one thick down jacket or jersey. Think breathable, light and no cotton. Long sleeves are good for keeping off snow and sun. With leather boots a plastic bag worn between your socks and the boot can help keep your feet warm. Courier bags are particularly good but supermarket shopping bags are fine too, if not particularly robust.
  • Wicking layer next to the skin. You want any sweat to be taken away from the skin to minimise the chill factor. The aim is to look cool without freezing. Synthetic fabrics are good for this purpose however you may find woollen garments less itchy and smelly.
  • Sun layer ie sunglasses or goggles, sunscreen, lip balm + sunhat. Sunglasses are compulsory whenever you venture onto snow. Without eye protection you risk snow blindness. You do not want sunburnt corneas, this condition is extremely unpleasant and as with most sunburn you will not notice until it is too late. Glasses should be of the wrap around variety not so much so you can achieve a gangsta look, more to maximise sun protection and minimise the chances of snow being blown into your eyes. Look for lenses with a yellow, grey or brown tint as these are the correct shades for optimal contrast and hence visibility in overcast (flat light) conditions. In windy conditions goggles are excellent. Look for glasses or goggles that block UV rays. A $4.99 pair from your local service station is a false economy but second hand shops sometimes have decent glasses or goggles abandoned by would be ski bunnies. If you wear prescription glasses and don’t have contact lenses then goggles that fit over your glasses are your thing. Think about carrying a spare pair of sunglasses or goggles.

Snow is an excellent transmitter of sunlight so it is vital that you apply sunscreen regularly to all exposed skin especially on overcast days. Under your nose, under your chin and behind your ears are areas that are easily missed and very painful, not to mention unsightly, when sunburnt. Keep a small tube of sunscreen + lip balm in a pocket so you will remember to reapply it. A sunhat with a neck flap is a good idea for protecting your neck, (or a shirt with a collar).

  • Hydration and nutrition. An alpine environment is a cold, dry environment. Walking in snow can be surprisingly tiring especially if the snow is soft. You will need lots of high energy snacks and lots of water. Keep snacks in your pockets for easy access. A Camelback or equivalent is good but remember that if it is cold enough to make snow the water in the tube may freeze. You may wish to keep the tube inside your pack which means a water bottle may have equal utility.
  • Navigation equipment, signalling devices and emergency shelter. Carry a map and compass and know how to use them. A watch with an altimeter, barometer and an alarm is useful for impressing your companions and knowing your height and what the weather is doing. Also alpine starts are difficult to achieve if you have no means of rousing yourself. A whistle is also a good idea as visibility can be lost very suddenly in an alpine environment. Always take a survival blanket and a PLB for the group. As snow is wet a map cover or laminated map is a good idea so is a cell phone if you can keep it dry, you may have coverage. Always take a head torch and spare batteries. In winter darkness can fall very quickly and you will often be out and about very early to take advantage of firm snow. A torch can help you find your way or keep visual contact with the rest of your group when clag rolls in.
  • Shelter. A good sleeping bag along with a liner is essential as is a sleeping mat. If you are snow caving or tenting in snow a closed cell foam rubber or snow foam mat is a far better insulator than its more expensive cousin the thermo-a-rest. If you have room a piece of cut down snow foam is a good thing to pack on day walks so you have something to sit on at lunchtime instead of the cold snow. It is also useful for bum sliding. A bivy bag is necessary if you are using a snow cave, at a pinch a large pack liner will do but you will not make many friends as they are very noisy.
  • Cooking. A robust stove and fuel is necessary as is a tin foil wind shield, it can get quite breezy up high. Also important is something to put under the cooker to insulate it from the snow. An insulated cooker will boil your water far more quickly. Aunty Rata takes a thin, square piece of wood. If you know there will be suitable flat rocks where you are going then they will be fine.
  • Avalanche equipment. Snowcraft will cover the use of avalanche transceivers, shovels + probes, more importantly the course will teach you a little bit about what you don’t know and to take a precautionary approach to travelling when there is a risk of avalanche. When heading out on alpine trips you should always consider whether to take avalanche equipment with you, such equipment is useless unless the entire group has the gear. The exception being a snow shovel which is a good item for a group to take regardless as you may need to dig an emergency shelter or a pit to check snow conditions. The club has avalanche probes and snow shovels. You can hire transceivers from Bivouac.

Finally, remember that organisation is crucial. Even more so than when tramping lower down, tramping in the snow requires you to have your clothing and equipment sorted. You can have all the right gear but if you can’t locate it quickly when you make your group risk management more difficult than it needs to be. Weather and snow conditions can change very quickly and you must learn to anticipate this. If you are camping in snow you need to be prepared to move efficiently into camp setting up phase. Fumbling round in your pack looking for a vital piece of kit  wastes precious daylight and may leave you at best with freezing fingers and toes and at worst with sub optimal shelter.

Use a gear list. Think about what is planned for the day and what stuff you will need at different times and where that stuff is. The technical alpine term for this is getting ones shit together. Experience makes you a better judge of this; meantime you can observe the actions of your more experienced companions. Use plastic bags to organise gear in your pack. Always bring spare plastic bags to house wet stuff. Have a system for securing pieces of kit that might blow or slip away – carabineers and cords are useful. You do not want to have to hike down the hill to retrieve a glove or snow shovel that slid to the bottom or blew away because it was placed carelessly on the snow. On slopes that are not flat you can use your ice axe to secure your pack to the slope or dig a flat space for gear storage. Practice with kit you are unfamiliar with so you are proficient before you have to use it in unfavourable conditions. For example, practice putting on your crampons at home with bare hands and then with gloves on just don’t walk around in them on a newly polished floor!

Forgotten what gear you need for tramping? Check out the WTMC gear list online.


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