Climbing Through the Cold

Climbing Through the Cold

The glorious spring season will soon be peeking over the horizon, however some committed (read: impatient) climbers scoff at the idea of hibernation. And that means preparing for cold cragging! Winter temperatures can bum out even the most adventurous climbers, when numb hands and biting wind make central heating seem increasingly inviting. You may lament and believe yourself quarantined to the gym for an off-season of plastic pulling, but it doesn’t have to be so! As much as we all love our totally awesome (and sheltered, and warm, and inviting…) home gym here at Vertical Rock Fitness Center, many of us climbers liken climate-controlled sending to that strange office Christmas party your boss insists on throwing mid-July… No matter how much eggnog you drink, it’s just not the same. So to keep you on the rock and off the dark season depression meds, your neighborhood friendly V.R.O.S. guides have compiled a quick list of tips and tricks that will help you stay warm while you keep the “rock” in “rock climbing.”

Hand Warmers
These little gems are all too often overlooked in a climber’s gear bag. Grab a couple for your pockets and a small one to toss in your chalk bag for blissfully warm powder on the wall. There’s no better relief from the heat-sapping inevitability of winter rock. If belaying with a Gri-gri, toss one in your jacket pocket to keep that idle brake hand warm! (Keep your brake hand closed securely around the rope as always, simply place your fist with the brake strand inside your pocket whenever you’re not actively taking in slack–this will also help maintain your dexterity!)

Intelligent Layering
The most common setup for winter climbing is a long sleeve, moisture-wicking base-layer underneath a mid to heavyweight insulating layer (such as fleece or thermal wool), topped off with an outer shell that is windproof at a minimum, preferably waterproof as well. If temps are super cold, long underwear combined with a windproof soft-shell pant can make all the difference. Add or subtract layers to maintain a comfortable temperature, and be wary of excessive sweating which will make you very cold, very fast. Don’t forget to take the approach to the crag into consideration! If you expect to exert yourself during the hike in, bring an additional dry baselayer to change into as soon as you reach your destination.

Drink Warm Liquids
We find that a high quality, high volume thermos is indispensable for cold cragging days. Drinking freezing liquids will lower your core temperature faster than climbing naked! Pack hot tea, warm water, cider or even chicken soup to warm you from the inside out when you’re not busy crushing routes. We advise against coffee as it can dehydrate you, which will impair circulation and cool you down further. Be careful to drink enough fluids in the cold; you lose a lot more than you think!

Eat Continually
Power snacks like nuts, dried fruits and all natural energy bars are ideal for cold weather climbing. They pack easily, aren’t affected by the cold and pack a huge amount of calories. Snack continually to keep your metabolism running (that is, generating heat)! Throw a portable backpacking stove in your pack and cook up some oatmeal, soup, pasta or a freeze dried meal for a warming and satisfying lunch.

Executing multiple rappels off a multi-pitch climb with numb hands and fingers can be quite a disconcerting experience (ask us how we know). Many climbers appreciate the added dexterity offered by climbing with purpose-made leather gloves. Even the fingerless kind help protect your hands from the biting wind and heat-sucking rock. These gloves are ideal for belayers as well, since standard fleece or other insulating gloves are not acceptable for belaying use. Finally, they have the not-to-be-underestimated advantage of additional purchase and control when belaying, lowering and rappelling (the quickest way to learn is the hard way, I suppose).

Belay Jacket
Here’s a trick that rock climbers could pull out of the alpine book: Pack a high-loft but easily compressible down jacket to throw on while belaying. Stash extra food and hand-warmers in the pockets beforehand. Best of all, it’s a great way to prevent your rock shoes from turning to icy wood! Stow or clip them on the inside of the jacket while belaying and be the envy of the crag when it’s your turn to climb and you get to slip on toasty warm kicks. Be sure to rub it in.

A balaclava, or “ski mask” is hands-down the most cost-effective way to increase your cold weather climbing comfort. Super lightweight and inexpensive, these babies insulate your head, face, ears and neck so well you’ll forget how to spell “cold.” If you’re willing to shell out a few extra bucks, pick up a windproof one for ultimate chill-defying warmth. Besides, who doesn’t want to look like a ninja while scaling a cliff!?

There’s no reason to go running inside when cold weather comes around. There’s plenty of fun still to be had on the rock, which will also be a lot less crowded this time of year! Here at V.R.O.S. we don’t believe in seasonal climbing. Use these tips to stay safe, stay warm and climb on!

Stay tuned for more tips, techniques and skill clinics coming your way from the guides at Vertical Rock Outdoor School. Interested in trying your hand at winter climbing and putting some of these tricks to use? Call or email us today to start setting up your next outdoor adventure!

Steve Carroll
Vertical Rock Outdoor School