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Mountaineering and Winter Couloirs—Essential Gear and Tips

All the gear and tips you need to get started in climbing couloirs, the corridors of the alpine

Jonatan García, couloir in the Maladetas, Benasque. Photograph: Jonatan García
Sooner or later, most mountaineers dream of taking their first steps into more technical, vertical terrain. It’s the logical continuation of the path set by our passion for the mountains. This first step is generally taken in couloirs full of snow and ice.

Couloirs are paths shown to us by the mountains in order to access their summits, natural lines through the weak points in their walls.

An important thing is not to confuse couloirs with ice climbing. Ice falls form when liquid water in a river, or runoff of any kind, freezes. And it's pure ice. A couloir is formed by the accumulation and transformation of snow in a more or less vertical terrain, normally boxed in and located in the high mountains. It can have ice, due to a waterfall, but these are two different concepts.

Low-angle 45º Coulior in the Maladetas. Photo: Daniel Vega
In this introductory article we are going to indicate what is the basic material necessary to make the leap to this activity. If you want to delve into it, you will find in the links to specific articles in which we take a deeper dive into each topic.

We recommend you go read each article linked because in some cases it is possible that the gear you have isn’t appropriate for this new sport. For example, you may already own a classic mountaineering ice axe. However, it most likely won’t be appropriate for the vertical terrain found in couloirs, which require a different set of features.

It is a leap that must be done, as we always remember, hand in hand with a guide and proper training. You should always take a training course to acquire the appropriate experience before venturing into places like this, and hire a qualified guide whenever the difficulty and terrain may be above your level technically.

Snow Science

As in every article that we dedicate to any activity carried out in the winter mountains, we once again emphasize the enormous importance of training in snow science. This knowledge allows us to manage the risk of avalanches and travel safely on snowy terrain.
José Antonio Canela checking snowpack stability. Poto : José Antonio Canela

The fact is that couloirs have an additional problem in that we should never venture through them if the conditions aren’t right (and this is something that is learned): they are collectors. That is to say: if we travel along an open slope, an avalanche may reach us at one point, which we will be able to anticipate and manage. However, in a couloir we can be trapped by an avalanche at any point.

That's why you have to wait for it to discharge, for the snow to transform. Don't worry if it sounds like Greek to you, it’s something you’ll learn with training and experience. As we always say, there is no need to be afraid, just respect and, above all, get trained properly to be able to manage risk and enjoy yourself. Don’t be reckless!

Basic Gear for Snow and Ice Couloirs

1. Ice Axe and Ice Tools

Essential tool for moving through snow and ice, especially when the terrain goes vertical. Or rather, essential “tools” in plural as we will use two, one in each hand. Perhaps there could be the difference between general mountaineering and technical mountaineering or mountaineering: as we go from one traditional ice axe to two axes, we are getting into technical mountaineering.

For couloirs and ice, always use two technical ice tools. Photo: Daniel Vega
There are many different types of ice axe, and choosing the right one for the job is fundamental. Unlike some other types of gear, ice axes and quite specific and don’t work well outside of their intended use. Most newcomers to couloirs will have a classic mountaineering axe, which is not going to be useful for climbing vertical corridors.

On the other hand, if you’re going to be doing mainly mountaineering and couloirs, you’re not going to want a technical ice tool for ice and mixed climbing. These are extremely technical tools that can’t be used for support while traversing long hours through the mountains on easier terrain.

The best option for couloirs are versatile ice axes for technical mountaineering. For more details on the different types of ice axes and how to choose the right one, you can consult our article “How to Choose an Ice Axe for Ski Touring and Mountaineering.”

2. Crampons

If the ice axe is the symbol of mountaineering, the crampon is a close runner-up.

Crampons are needed on the first icy slope that we find. Normally we put them on for the first delicate step and we don't take them off until we're back, that is, with them we cross snow, ice, rock, dirt and all kinds of vegetation.

Unlike ice axes, crampons are quite versatile. However, using non-specific crampons in vertical terrain, that is, those for general snow walking or non-technical mountaineering, will help us much less, and that means that we will tire more, perform worse, take more risks and we will compromise our security. It is not appropriate to use them.

In general, you’ll need rigid crampons with vertical front points and (this is extremely important) secondary front points for support. If you’d like to know more about the different types of crampons on what each one is used for, you can consult this how-to article from our blog: “How to Choose Crampons.”

3. Mountaineering Boots

This topic isn’t open to debate—rigid boots only. You should never use semi-rigid or flexible boots for couloir climbing. Doing so would cause serious issues with your crampons and—as a result—with your safety.
For technical mountaineering, rigid boots only. Photo: Daniel Vega
Gone are the days when these types of boots were uncomfortable, heavy, and unwieldy. Today they are true marvels of the new generation that are agile, comfortable and light. There is no excuse for not using the right type of boot.

For more information on how to choose mountaineering boots and the different types of boots and their compatibility with crampons, you can consult this article:

How to Choose Mountaineering Boots

Helmet

As with any alpine activity, a helmet is required. Couloirs are no exception. Climbing and mountaineering helmets are designed to receive impacts. For this reason, the mandatory European standard as PPE’s sets guidelines that indicate their superior resistance to falling objects.

The logic is clear here. In the mountains, the primary function of a helmet isn’t to protect your head during a fall, but rather to protect you from objects falling from above. And in winter mountaineering, couloirs and mixed terrains, along with cycles of heat and cold, freezing and thawing, and night and day, there a many objects that can fall.

There are three types, depending on their construction, and in the case of mountaineering, the recommendation is to choose the type with maximum durability. That is to say: as the helmets that are sold compulsorily meet the resistance standard, they protect us just the same, but some are not very durable if they are going to be banged against rock in corridors, backpacks, etc.

In reality, it’s not true that all helmets provide the same level of protection as the EU regulation is less demanding than the UIAA regulation, which some also comply with. The article How to Choose a Helmet for Rock Climbing and Mountaineering we explain the different types of helmets and their different certifications.

Ropes

Once you enter vertical terrain, ropes are no longer an option. They are an obligation.

Again, the choice in this case is crucial. Always half or twin ropes (not single), and if possible with cut resistance and dry treatments that protect them from the harsh conditions. This will prevent a rope being cut by something sharp such as a rock edge.

Half ropes being used for mountaineering. Photo: Daniel Vega
If you’d like to know more about why and when to use twin and half ropes, what they are, and how to identify them, have a look at the article “How to Choose a Rope for Climbing and Mountaineering” , and you’ll find all the information you need.

Ice Screws, Anchors and Carabiners

Unlike what happens in sport climbing, pro is placed by the leader, and some pieces are not going to be as reliable as could be desired. That is to say: normally we will not find parabolts, but we will manage to place a nut in a crack, an ice screw, etc.

Contrary to what may seem when talking about snow and ice, in a couloir, in many cases, you will be anchored to the couloir walls, that is, on rock. There you can place nuts, friends, sewn slings on rocks, etc, and you will have to carry all this in the harness, along with your quickdraws.

Protection placed on rock in a couloir. Photo: Jonatan García
Protection placed on rock in a couloir. Photo: Jonatan García
Of course you’ll also need to take all the necessary ice screws, snow anchors, slings for Abalakov threads among other things. In the article “How to Choose Anchors, Ice Screws and Accessories for Snow and Ice you’ll find all the information you need about gear for ice climbing.
Ice Screw Placement in Couloir. Photo: Jonatan García

Carabiners and Quickdraws

With regard to carabiners, you can read our article “How to Choose Carabiners for Climbing and Mountaineering”, where you’ll find information about the seven different types of carabiners, which types you’ll need, and their different shapes and closure systems.

In reality, carabiners and quickdraws are no different from those used in other mountain activities, but it is true that, due to ice and impacts, in the latter case wire gate carabiners are preferable, which also prevent gate flutter. You can read more about it in the article.

We highly recommend this article because it is generic for any type of activity in the mountains, and it covers many issues of improper use, which, unfortunately, is often seen.

Harness

If you already own a harness, it will most likely work for you. However, be sure to check two things:

  • That the leg loops are adjustable or elastic enough so that you can use it with winter clothes. The leg loops should fit comfortably and not cut off your circulation, and less so with the winter cold.
  • There is enough room in the gear loops to carry all the necessary hardware. Sport climbing harnesses generally have few gear loops, as they only need to hold a set of quickdraws.
CAMP Alpine Flash mountaineering harness. Adjustable leg loops and multiple gear loops
There are a number of additional factors to take into account when using a harness for mountaineering. If you’d like to know more about the differences between harnesses for sport climbing and harnesses for couloirs before making your choice, you can check out this article on our website: “How to Choose a Harness for Climbing and Mountaineering”

Belay and Rappel Devices

For mountaineering, tube-style devices are generally used, and which of course can also be used for rappelling / abseiling.

This type of device has the disadvantage that it does not have assisted braking like other devices such as the GriGri do. However, in mountaineering this is an advantage, as it will allow you to arrest a fall more dynamically, something fundamental in places where those that, due to the quality of the rock, or because of the precariousness of the placement, a hard fall could cause gear to be pulled out.

Clothes and Gloves

Proper clothing and layering is fundamental during winter activities. Your base layer should be warm and manage moisture well, and your mid- and outer- layers should be right for the conditions. This is a long, complex topic, which you can learn more about here in “The Barrabes Outdoor Layering Guide”

In winter, also taking into account that couloirs and ice are going to be oriented to the north (in the Northern Hemisphere) or to the south (in the Southern Hemisphere), frozen places where the sun does not reach in those months, it is essential wear clothes with extra padding, to be able to put on if the cold gets worse and, above all, while we stop to belay or similar.

Photo: Daniel Vega
Modern garments of this type are highly packable (in many cases you can even carry them with their carrying pouch on your harness), and are a life saver. On the different types, their advantages and disadvantages, we suggest you read “Down-Insulated Clothing vs. Synthetic-Insulated Clothing: Differences, Pros and Cons”

Your hands must be well protected, both from the cold and from impacts and friction, but at the same time they must maintain agility. Therefore, despite the general versatility (if you have other types of gloves, prioritize another material before changing them, because they will help you), mountaineering gloves are specific, carrying more reinforcements and allowing you to more easily tie knots, carry out rope maneuvers, etc.

It is convenient to use two pairs, a thin glove liner underneath, and a warm, insulated glove on top, as well as always carry a spare pair. They can get wet, or worse, you can lose one in some maneuver that requires to take them off. This can be catastrophic. Thus, when finished, we can take off the pair used, which will be wet from sweat, and warm our hands.

You’ll find everything you need to know about different types of gloves, tips and more in the article “How to Choose Gloves for Mountaineering, Snow and Ski Activities”.

Pack

Never carry more than you need, but always carry the essentials. And this means choosing the right pack.

As for the volume, it will depend on whether you are going to set up a bivouac, carry out a day activity, etc, but in winter, in any case, the pack you’ll need is usually around 45 liters. And we reiterate: it is not worth choosing a small ultralight backpack to save weight, and then taking only what fits in the pack. This can be a recipe for disaster. You should always pack the other way around: first decide what all you need, then choose the pack that’s appropriate.

You should be prepared to carry your gear, which in winter will consist of two ice axes, crampons, possibly skis for the approach, ropes, maybe a snow anchor. These things won’t fit inside your pack, so we'll need their corresponding external gear holders.

Your pack will need to allow for ice axes, ropes, and more. Photo: Jonatan García
Your pack will need to allow for ice axes, ropes, and more. Photo: Jonatan García
For more information on types of packs, what to look for when choosing one, and much more, have a look at our article How to Choose a Pack for Outdoor Activities

Other Tips

  • A thermos with a warm drink such as tea or coffee is always a good idea. It can get you out of a jam if the cold becomes an issue, and is a delight to have in other cases.
  • Insulated covers for thermoses and water bottles.
  • Lightweight, compact stove
  • Safety gear – avalanche beacon, shovel, probe, emergency blanket, whistle, mobile with a full charge, and of course proper planning of your route and awareness of the weather conditions. In winter this is crucial.
  • And, even if you call us nags, we finish as we started: before entering the winter mountain, and more so if it is technical, you need the proper training: courses, outings, hire a guide, etc. You’ll learn safely, you’ll socialize (how many groups have emerged for years after their members have met in mountaineering courses, climbing, in guided outings!), and you’ll learn to manage risk and fully and safely enjoy something as wonderful as couloir climbing, your first step into the vertical world. Consult any qualified guide agencies or outdoor clubs in your area, there you will find what you need at all times.

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