Advice for first time winter rock climbers

By Doug Williams
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Advice for first time winter rock climbers

Doug Williams
 
 
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While the cold bites and you are wearing thermals at home, a bit of mid-winter rock climbing can be quite exhilarating. If you intend to do some winter rock climbing, here are some handy tips. For a first-timer, these can be really important! If rock climbing is your thing, read on.

The route

Winter rock climbing
Winter rock climbing

When climbing rocks in winter it is preferable that the route faces south, so that it is in the sunshine. The surrounding geography also plays a part, in that when the sun is low on the horizon, as south facing crags can still be in the shadows of adjacent peaks. Southeast facing rocks will get some morning sun, while southwest ones are likely to get some sun in the afternoon. Even places like The Gunks are good in winter until the shadows fall over them.

The terrain

 

Rock climbing in winter
Rock climbing in winter

Mountain crags can experience erratic weather. Do not make the common mistake of omitting to check these variables. On a day when the sun comes out after a long period of snowfall, and when the temperatures are around 45 degrees, the sun could melt the freshly fallen snow and cause the rock to become wet and potentially dangerous to climb. Observe the tops of the crags. Sloping hills which run onto cliffs are likely to be full of snowmelt.

Bearing these facts in mind, you may well find some good crags to climb even in the middle of winter. And you do not necessarily have to travel to the well-known places to get a reasonable climb.

Staying warm

So in the event that you feel you have found a perfect route, something not too long, not too short, sunny and dry enough, you will still need to remain warm when you are not climbing. Some crags will find you climbing in the sun and sheltered from the wind. You can get quite warm while you are climbing. It has been known for climbers to even get sunburned, but on the ground when you stop moving it can be very cold indeed.

In the depths of winter, the interiors of the jam cracks are the coldest parts of the rocks. It can feel like you are ramming your hand into a freezer. Getting “screaming barflies” after crimps is bad enough but wait till you experience them after ringlock cracks or jamming a sharp tip. When your hands are this cold, numb fingers could cause you to drop an important piece of equipment like a cam or a nut which may have been vital.

Clothes

Equipment for winter rock climbing
Equipment for winter rock climbing

Base layer

There are a lot of ways to ensure that you stay warm. Capilene or Polypro thermal underwear is one way and is highly recommended. The underwear you choose needs to be able to wick moisture as your body is likely to sweat while you are climbing. Your skin needs to stay dry and warm. While cotton is a wonderful textile to use in summer because it retains moisture to help cool you down, it is a bad choice here. You do not want to have the moisture close to your skin as it has been known for people to die of hypothermia wearing cotton for this reason.

Middle layer

On top of your base layer of clothes, you will want to wear something that is not too dense. You could choose a wool sweater. This is effective, but old school. Polartec fleece is also good. Performance fleece pants will be needed. Your choice will depend on the conditions you expect. Even jeans are good if you are likely to need to protect your knees. You would probably be better off if the denim is a bit looser so that the cotton will be tolerable.

Top layer

On the top of this, you will need to invest in a waterproof layer such as a Goretex softshell or something similar. For sitting around, this may or may not be necessary. If it is sleeting or snowing, however, it would be a better idea to head off home. A down jacket is a very good choice. It is lightweight and warm. It compresses well and you can easily fit it in your backpack. Broadly speaking the higher the fill, the warmer it will be. Look for something that closes up to the neck and a hood would be useful. If you are just cragging, you probably do not need to be concerned about it  being waterproof, but remember, wet down has no use. So stay dry!

Good gloves are also a must, and a wind resistant hat which again should not be cotton is definitely required.

Extra tip

A good way to warm your hands so that you can feel them again is with a Portable propane heater. At some crags, a small bonfire may be allowed. Anybody from the local area will be able to guide you on this. Do not build a fire directly under a climb, of course. You can also use disposable hand warmers, or a trick some climbers use is to warm some pebbles on the propane heater and put them into their chalk bags. Care must be taken, however, not to burn yourself.

Food

Preparing warm food
Preparing warm food

High-calorie foods rich in fat can help to keep you warm. What you consume can make a big difference. Food such as cheese and nuts are good. A thermos with a warm drink can be most welcome, but avoid caffeine if it gives you the shakes! There are many ideas for warm drinks that involve no caffeine; how about ginger or orange and cinnamon?  Or maybe a thin soup?

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