I’m a Vet Who Climbs, Skis and Volunteers on the Colorado Front Range. Here Are the 6 Essential Pieces in my Winter Kit

By Brian Dillon, MTI Contributor

Avy Shovel: Black Diamond Evac 9

Normally, you will always hear the phrase, “beacon, shovel, probe”, in any backcountry circle, particularly in Colorado where the snow is notoriously dangerous for a portion of the winter season. While all three are critical to mitigating avalanche fatalities, the shovel is typically underrated.  Most opt for a smaller, lighter shovel. However, the shovel is really a critical tool in any type of winter activity, from recovering someone from a burial, building protective walls on a glacier, to even serving as a snow fluke for an anchor. When you do the math on volume displacement, the few ounces you save hiking with the equivalent of a kid’s sand shovel are instantly sweated away furiously trying to dig someone out of heavy, consolidated snow. For those that have never seen an avalanche debris field, think of a parking lot with large piles of snow formed from snowplows—imagine digging through that. 

So, with that, why do I like the Evac 9?

  • ‘D’ handle: When trying to chop through icy snow, the blade is going to glance off the snow and the handle will torque, if you are wearing bulky gloves or heavy mittens you may drop the shovel if it is the traditional ‘T’ style handle. Additionally, if it is hot and wet, you want a handle that keeps your hand from sliding side to side. For these reasons the ‘D’ style handle helps tremendously.
  • ‘Hoe’ mode conversion: I will never buy a shovel without this feature. The ‘hoe’ mode conversion feature allows you to convert a traditional style shovel to one more in the configuration of a garden hoe. It has spring loaded leads which enable you push in and swap the blade position with gloves on. In any avalanche rescue, you will start off digging down, but then quickly be in a position where you need people to remove displaced snow out and away from the growing hole. With a shovel in hoe mode—along with a ‘D’ handle—this process is extremely efficient. Furthermore, the hoe mode makes light work of building a snow trench, whether needed for survival purposes or bivy shelter. 
  • Telescopic handle: This enables the shovel to extend from its compressed size to almost a regular full-size shovel you would use at home for snow removal. The longer the handle, the less you will need to be in an awkward, hunched over position—your back will thank you, particularly since you have already likely overloaded it hiking around all the time. 
  • Volume: While I do get a kick out of telling people my shovel is bigger, the fact remains, the more snow volume displaced in one scoop, the faster you get someone out. I have been part of several avalanche classes and certifications, along with conducting my own training, and whenever a group activity occurs where several people need to dig, the biggest shovels become common use equipment. Unfortunately, if you’re in the backcountry with friends, there isn’t a nice pile of shovels to select from, you got what you got, so be sure to check out what they have before you head out. If it’s an ultralight sand pail shovel—keep in mind—that is what is digging YOU out. 
  • Snow Fluke: A snow fluke is a type of anchor that buries itself deeper when more force is applied to it from the load. The Evac 9 has four holes in the blade to allow this application. However, if I was planning to use snow anchors, I would not rely on this as my primary anchor, but it’s nice to have a backup.
  • Pack fit: A big gripe about larger shovels is their ability to fit into various packs. This is dependent on the pack, which is dependent on your objectives. If you are making a decision that involves a pack that has a dedicated avalanche pouch, make sure your shovel fits. (The pack I mention below does fit the Evac 9—barely—but that counts for me)
Ice Axe: Petzl Summit Evo

If you plan to do any movement on wintery slopes above treeline, you should have an ice axe—or piolet—if you aspire to sound fancy. There are two types—ones for general mountaineering and ones for ice climbing. The Petzl Summit Evo is for general mountaineering low angle approaches, and something I would take with me any time I am above treeline in mountain terrain with snow (or glacier travel). An ice axe’s primary role is to arrest a fall, should you fall traversing a steep slope. Without an ice axe, you may find yourself uncontrollably sliding down a slope towards a frozen lake, treeline, or cliff. 

Although some may think that ice axes seem like common sense in such a precarious place, year after year I watch snowboarders and skiers ascend couloirs without crampons or ice axes. If you have ever been the unfortunate spectator of someone falling down a steep mountain slope (without the ability to self-arrest), it is a rather terrifying ordeal, watching as they attempt to claw into the icy layer beneath the snow with no success. So—get an ice axe—and just as important, learn how to use it. Every year seasoned climbers find areas on mountains with safe runout in order to practice self-arrest until it is instinct. But ice axes provide more than just the ability to self-arrest, they also can be used to build snow anchors, chop steps, and of course—climb ice.

So, what does the Summit Evo have that I like? 

  • Shaft bend/Axe Head: This allows more purchase into the ice should you need it for an unplanned ice climb or even for some mixed climbing. However, this is not the tool you would use for intended ice climbing, but the bent shaft tilts the axe head down when swinging from the handle, allowing this function if necessary. The axe has a serrated top and bottom on the blade for this purpose as well. Lastly, if you are climbing up a steep lip in the snow and need to lean into the slope and climb, the curved handle section is great for hand placement. As you repetitively plunge the ice axe into the steep bank, your hand remains above the snow (mostly) keeping it from getting cold too fast.
  • Adze width: The adze is the opposite side of the sharp axe tip, usually reserved for creating chop steps. An important consideration for the adze is the width. This end is also used for digging snow anchors. In Colorado, this is usually a deadman anchor (horizontally placed snow picket). The adze is the exact width of the widely used MSR picket, so if there is extremely consolidated snow, you do not need to take more swings to widen the slot. This is particularly important if you are placing anchors in a time sensitive situation.
  • Additional features: You can additionally purchase a Petzl TrigRest, which can give you more control while swinging it into ice. Additionally, both the head and spike have a hole for a carabiner or a leash, allowing it to be tethered in both configurations.  

Hybrid Shell:  Black Diamond Dawn Patrol Hybrid Shell

One of the most important layers you need anytime you are in an unsheltered or unprotected area—such as exposed mountain tundra—is a wind shell. Extreme cold is fairly manageable with low winds, but even a 20 degree day with high winds can make you hypothermic in minutes without a layer to stop the wind. Unfortunately, there is no perfect solution when searching for this layer. Can you find a completely waterproof, windproof, breathable shell? No—pick two. The decision is usually pretty easy in Colorado, it is a very dry climate, and in the winter it will not rain, just snow. So, I opt for a the Black Diamond Dawn Patrol wind shell that affords some breathability. 

  • Helmet compatible hood: Any jacket you need for the backcountry should be helmet compatible, especially your shell, which will protect your neck and lower face during high winds and sleet. A big drawback of helmet compatible hoods is how loose they fit around your head when not wearing a helmet. However, the hood on the Black Diamond shell has a rigid visor to allow it to remain out of your face, coupled with a mitten compatible drawcord, you can tighten it snugly around your head with or without a helmet. 
  • Front pocket placement: There are two vertical front pockets on the jacket. These were designed for skins, but what really makes them great is they are high enough above your waist so they can still be used with a harness on. Generally, if I know I am moving hard on an approach I might stash my glove shells and a balaclava in the pockets so I can layer up exposed skin on the move. You certainly will not appreciate accessible pocket placement until you are in a place where taking off a pack and rummaging through it is not practical (or safe). 
  • Breathable shell construction: Probably one of the boldest features of the hybrid shell is that the front, hood, and shoulders are Gortex, but the entire back is a more lightweight breathable fabric. If you were at a ski resort, this is not the most protective jacket, but if you are always wearing a pack, this design feature helps your back breath better without creating those awkward wet spots in the small of your back. No matter how great the breathability of the jacket is, the ability to vent is still crucial. The shell has the traditional underarm ‘pit’ zips. My personal favorite though is the double front zipper which allows a front vent down the entire jacket while still zipped. 
  • Durable: I have worn this jacket for multiple winter seasons, and it still shows little to no signs of wear. Even through constant abrasion from rock, practicing self-arrests, and glissading down couloirs, it holds up remarkably. 
  • RECCO: The jacket does have an integrated rescue technology in the hood. However, as a member of Search and Rescue (SAR) I can say this does nothing to help you should you become buried in the backcountry of Colorado, but it is likely more useful at places like resorts, particularly in Europe where ski teams could respond within minutes of an avalanche. Still carry an avalanche beacon with you, your touring group will respond the fastest—you likely only have ten minutes under snow.
Pack: Deuter Freescape Pro 40+

I struggle with packs so often. There are so many configurations, so many options. The military has attempted to solve this problem with MOLLE straps, however that is not a lightweight solution, and not everything should/can be clipped externally. The biggest considerations for any pack are volume, organizational configurations, accessibility, and weight. Volume is quite simple, the larger the pack, the more stuff you can put in it—no matter the size—you will always fill it. Usually for a winter day outing you will have a 35-40L pack. A winter day pack is likely always considerably larger than a summer day pack due to the additional warming layers and specialty snow gear.

Organizational configurations allow for different set-ups based on your objectives. For example, do you have ice axe holders, rope straps, internal pouches, hip belt pouches, or even climbing gear loops on your hip belt? It is hard to find a pack with every option. That is why you start with the question—what is your objective? The more you need to carry, the more you will want to organize your gear into discreet systems. 

Accessibility, many may say, should be a component of organization. I disagree. You can have everything neatly stored in a pack, but can you get to it with one zip? I used to think you always needed to be able to access a first aid kit quickly, but this is where competing priorities and probability should be considered. An avalanche probe and shovel probably needs to be accessed quicky, same with a wind shell or goggles in a severe weather shift. What about a snow picket in the event of a roped fall?  

Last is pack weight. Now there is not much to talk about here, just tradeoffs. Heavier packs will have more padding/structure and be more comfortable than lighter packs, it just depends on your preference—and back.

Now, I will say I have to thank my friend for introducing me to the German brand Deuter and the Freescape Pro 40+. It is a well thought out pack and has several great features for ski mountaineering. 

  • Dedicated Avalanche Pouch: In terms of organization and accessibility, this is a great option. The pouch allows you to fit your probe and shovel in it—and allows access to this gear even with gear fixed on the front of the pouch (crampons, ice axe, skis..etc)
  • Flexible mount areas: The pack has straps that allow you to mount skis, splitboard, or a snowboard to the front or sides of the pack. The compression straps are my favorite types, ones that allow you to weave a ‘T’ end through pre-sewn loops, and then hook back on to itself and cinch down. The nice thing about these types of straps goes back to the organization of the pack. I can use them for different types of snow travel methods or remove them and have a slicked out pack. 
  • Helmet carrier: A cool feature of all Deuter packs, a mesh helmet holder with adjustable hook buckles so you don’t have your helmet dangling as you hike. This mesh conveniently gets stowed in a side pocket when you need to wear the helmet. 
  • Ice axe holders: The pack provides two ice axe holders with elastic aluminum bars that thread through the axe head for quick storage and release. These styles are an improvement on straps that made you cinch down your axe, making it more cumbersome to store and retrieve your axe on the go.  
  • Back gear access: When we talk about accessibility—this is what I love about this pack. The back area unzips to allow access inside the pack, so it doesn’t matter if something is on the top or bottom. Although you still do have a top access pouch as well, usually I reserve this for my wind shell. 
  • Gear loops: This pack has climbing gear loops integrated into one hip belt side, along with an ice slot. This affords you options on having some of your gear at the ready should you need it, particularly gear for a snow anchor or ice protection, should you find yourself cliffed out and in need of some fixed protection before moving on. 
Harness: Blue Ice Choucas Pro 

A harness is a key piece of gear for anyone traveling through potential exposed terrain. You may be carrying a short rope as well and some type of climbing rack. Any certified sit harness will meet your needs for safety, however, one of the biggest considerations I look for in a winter mountaineering harness is how you put it on, followed by the gear loop configurations. Typically, if you’re a rock climber, you are putting on your harness just like you would put on shorts. However, in the winter, you may be wearing crampons on an angled area, the last thing you want to do is get your crampon caught in your harness while putting it on and cut a strap, or worse, fall down the mountain. You still want to make sure your winter harness has gear loops, and likely ones for ice screws as well. While there are a lot of good options out there for lightweight winter harnesses, here’s why I like the Blue Ice Choucas Pro:

  • Detachable leg loops: As mentioned, the ability to put on a harness while your feet remain on the ground is a major benefit. The Choucas Pro has ‘T’ buckles that you thread through your leg loops and then you just double back the waist belt. For those that are no used to undoing a waist belt, this is where it becomes very important to check yourself and others that the strap is double backed.
  • Lightweight: This harness is extremely lightweight and packable. While Blue Ice does make lighter harnesses by about 60 grams, I would rather have the additional weight for gear loops and a standard belay loop style than the tie off loops on the ultralight models. If you are a rock climber and mountaineer, the more you can standardize your harness setup—especially at high altitudes—the more likely you won’t clip in wrong or grab the wrong piece of gear when it matters (like grabbing a carabiner when you thought it was a quickdraw in full extension). 
  • Ice and gear loops: If you are mountaineering into May or June in places like Colorado, there will likely be a mix of rock and ice. So, you will need a bigger gear rack, particularly to accommodate cams and ice screws. This harness has four gear loops like a standard rock-climbing harness and four ice screw slots, giving you plenty of options.   
  • Low Water Absorption: The entire harness is made of UHMW polyethylene, which is a material referred to by trade name Dyneema. The ‘thinness’ of this material can be a bit unsettling for those who are used to bulker materials, like nylon webbing. However, because of the material, it will not absorb water and become rigid in cold temperatures.  
Bryjne Base Layer

The base layer is probably one of the most deliberate decisions you make before going out into the backcountry. It is the layer that will stay on you all day, and in the mountains that might be freezing to 80-degree days. I have worn SmartWool, Underarmor, and others, but by far my favorite brand now is Bryjne. Bryjne is a Norwegian company that produces a mesh shirt that looks like something you might see at an EDM festival. Sure, you might balk at the design, but its origins are in the first Everest ascent. The merino wool blend traps air in the mesh for warmth, but then cycles the moisture away from the body as you begin moving more aggressively, allowing better heat regulation and moisture management. The first time I wore this base layer was with a sun shirt and my BD shell up a 14k peak at 25 degrees with a heavy pack, and I had a little moisture in my armpits and nothing else—incredible. 

So, whether its skiing, mountaineering, or just some solid winter hiking, I hope these items from my kit give you some considerations for gear selection and some new ideas on how to think about gear. There is a saying in Colorado, “if you don’t like the weather…wait ten minutes”. Be prepared out there, as a member of Search and Rescue, it is always amazing to me the situations people put themselves in. Traveling at 13-14k feet is a lot different than sea level: winds pick up, snow comes out of nowhere, the mountains create their own weather. However, there is no better challenge in my mind than technical mountaineering–the higher you go, the less air you get, and the harder you need to push yourself mentally and physically. Hope to see you out there. 

Brian is a former Marine, and current Mountain SAR volunteer and Climbing Instructor.

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