Posted on November 04 2013
Winter is a hard time for climbers. In the summer you can just wear a base layer, or add a pertex windstopper if it is windy and as they breath so well you don’t sweat and when you stop to belay you are warm enough from your last climb to keep you warm as it is not that cold anyway.
Winter is a whole different ball game. You are cold before you even start. The rock or ice rips into the bare skin on your fragile cold fingers and the tough layer of skin you thought you had over the summer is suddenly not so tough. Belaying is a thankless cold task. You have to stay so still, maybe perched on a tiny ledge high up, completely exposed. If you are not careful the cold creeps in, your concentration suffers and your partners life is suddenly at risk. Ok, I got a bit extreme there, but it is possible and even if your symptoms are milder - they are still not fun.
Now I hear you say - the answer is easy - just layer up and get a belay jacket. True. I definitely advocate both of these techniques but there is so much more to it.
We Brits tend to really layer up in the winter. As the snow comes our body armour comes out full of expensive 3L gore-tex reinforced jackets and down jackets. Sure this will keep you warm but whats it like to climb in them. How breathable is your bomb-proof gore tex shell when you are passing that crux move. Are you perhaps wetter on the inside (sweat) than the outside. Or do you just move much slower.
This is where we look to the Alps. How many times have we seen Kilian Jornet and Ueli Steck in their full armour. I know they do a different type of climbing to many of us but we can still learn from them. What they wear is a huge part of their performance. In the Alps this fast and light brigade work in a very different way. Instead of taking a massive, heavy rucksack and being prepared for all conditions. They pack light with the knowledge that if the weather turns they can make a hasty retreat. While they are having a hot beverage safe in a hut low down in a mountain, the Brits would be bivvying half way up the mountain trying to stay warm in a severe storm. Which one was more prepared, which one was safer? In a sudden storm the Brits would be safer but the French and the Swiss are much better at telling when its coming.
It’s not our fault. We only get a couple of months of cold weather and snow a year (although it can be more viscous) and we don’t have the same kind of weather and mountain ranges leading to more unpredictable weather here.
So where does the balance lie? It depends on the style of climbing. If you are comfortable with the grade you are doing you could take an approach where you both move together, simultaneously putting gear in while your partner below is taking it out as he climbs. This is more dangerous and will lead to much more uncomfortable falls and your partner ripping you off the rock face but the idea is you don’t fall. Only do this if you are very comfortable climbing with your partner. On the crux move you can always set up a belay. This way it is quicker and you are both always moving, aways generating heat and therefore need less layers.
In very cold conditions all you will need is base layer, micro fleece and soft-shell. Or just baselayer and soft-shell. In your pack have a belay jacket (or down) and a light hard shell. Both are just in case and might stay there. Belay jackets and down jackets are incredibly light and compressible. For the hardshell you don’t need a really durable layer unless you are really going to thrash it around. If you have a good soft-shell it should do the job in 90% of weather (it will probably be snow not rain). You will be surprised by how durable a packlite or gore active shell is and how much lighter it is than the 3 layer stuff. If you are climbing in a heavy hard shell it will not breath as well and you will sweat. Being wet from sweat can make you just as cold as being wet from rain. Get venting layers and it will stop the sweat from building up and chilling from the inside.The lighter hard shells may not last as long but are also half the price.
If you are doing a more technical climb and belaying is the only way to stay safe you have no option to be inactive for long periods of time. Try to get the leader to lead several pitches in a row so you keep taking turns to move. When you are stationary layers are key. Even a thick down jacket will cool down after a while. It works by trapping hot air but after a while the air trapped moves outwards to the outer layer and escapes causing the body to need to produce more heat. This is something your body will find hard to do when stationary. Make the pitches shorter, climb harder. All these things will help you control your body temperature. The point is that you will never find the perfect system. Just the system which works well for your activity levels. You have to make a plan of how you will move and stick to it. If you always dress up for antarctic conditions you will not be able to climb hard and if you do you will overheat. If you have them just incase you will have a heavy pack.
The worst area is your hands. If you are doing a technical pitch bare hands is the only way to get full control. If it is easy wear some lightweight wool gloves that will work well than wet. Have some mittens handy as nothing can beat their warmth because it relies on your fingers warming each other up. Keep them zipped to your chest when not using them to keep them warm and dry so when you put them on you get some relief. Gloves is something you always need spares of. You might drop them, they might tear on the rock or just get wet. You cannot escape from cold hands when climbing but frostbite will ruin any day. Be aware of how much your fingers are worth to you and keep them protected. When you are stopped on a belay get some hardwearing leather palmed gloves to work well with the rope. Use a Gri Gri and occasionally you will even be able to run your hands together without dropping your partner. Gloves will never last that long climbing and there are some serious question marks if the £100 glove keep you warmer than the £50 ones. Use your own nut. Gore tex is not always worth it because once it gets a hole that gore tex is useless anyway.
Lastly if you are just climbing embrace this cold weather. You will be able to climb harder and longer as your body will be much slower to overheat. In the summer the only way to stop heat exhaustion is to stop. In the winter if the cold is affecting you just adjust your layers. Do this in the right way and compared to the summer your climbing will be superhuman. You will be stronger for longer.
N.B. This article is just to try to get people to think about how they dress for the winter and is just a guide only. If you expect serious conditions still be prepared. If you want any information in more detail or request more specific article on a topic email me on firstname.lastname@example.org.