The First-timer's Guide to Winter Cragging
by Paul Nelson
It’s Christmas, and much of the North American continent is cold right now. Even here in Las Vegas, where I’m taking a winter vacation, it has been a bit colder than usual, and I’ve had more down-puffy, long underwear days than I thought I would (including a bitterly cold ascent of Epinephrine, who ever knew that north-facing chimneys would not be warm?).
Anyway, here are a few mid-winter tips for you to keep your outdoor rock climbing psych up through the cold, so that you don’t have to reduce yourself to climbing ice, or even worse, snow sports. If you are lucky, you’re winter climbing, drinking cold beers in Thailand or Mexico, and don’t need to follow this article’s advice, but if not… keep reading.
There are many areas in the southern half of the United States that are great– even at their best– in the weather. Hueco Tanks, Cochise Stronghold, Joshua Tree, HP40, and the Obed come to mind. But, even areas that are not national cold-weather destinations still might be tolerable if you are really motivated to get out. In fact, some crags even in the northern half of the country are at their best in the winter. Tommy Caldwell’s sick-hard Fortress of Solitude near Rifle, CO, is one such place. For more moderate climbers, a place like Idaho’s Massacre Rocks State Park is also at its best in the winter, with its south-facing, black basalt lines. I’ve had days where I trudged to the crag at Massacre in knee deep snow, and was climbing shirtless three hours later.
An ideal winter crag should be not just south-facing, so it faces the sun, but also be in a position where it can get the most of winter’s short days. Case in point: The “Sunnyside” at Red Rocks is sunny in the summer, when the sun is high enough to peak above the 1000 foot walls that face the crag, but in the winter it remains shady, since the sun is lower on the horizon. Southeast-facing crags will probably only get morning sun, and southwest-facing crags afternoon sun.
|Even a place like the Gunks can be good in the winter. At least until the cliff goes in the shade in the afternoon.|
But there are other variables to consider when climbing at winter crags in the north, or even in the Southeast, where crags are still mostly in the mountains and can get erratic weather. Here’s a common mistake a lot of climbers make: after a long period of snow, cold, and cloudy days, the sun finally pops out and the forecast promises a high of 45 degrees! Yes! Game on! But here’s the problem– that sun will just melt all the snow that has been accumulating, and a lot of crags will be soaked. For this reason, pay attention to what the top of a crag looks like. Large, sloping hills that gradually tumble into the cliffs, probably won’t be good; they’ll be saturated with snowmelt. But, if there is just flat terrain above the cliff, or if the land slopes away from the top of the cliff like parts of the New River Gorge’s Endless Wall, or the Gunks, you may be good to go. Even better, your crag might be a significantly overhanging cave that still stays sunny; this is probably the best case scenario.
So, with these criteria in mind, you may be able to find tolerable crags near your home even in the dead of winter. Winter climbing is not just for mega-destinations in the Southwest, it can be anywhere. But still, there are some styles of climbing that are better in the low temps than others.
WHAT TO CLIMB?Obviously, bouldering is probably the easiest style of winter climbing, even when the temps are plummeting to 20 degrees or lower. You’re rarely on the rock for more than a minute at a time, and while resting, you can sit on your crash pad wrapped in a puffy or even blankets, huddle around propane heaters or fires (more on this later), and sip on the warm beverage of your choice. Great! The only drawback is that for some people, it is hard to get warmed up properly. For my weak ass to try hard on boulders, I usually need to warm up on some kind of long traverse or lengthy circuit, which can be tough in frigid temperatures. With the small crimps of hard boulder problems, there’s also the ever-present danger of the “Screaming Barfies,” that terrible pins-and-needles feeling that occurs right after you’ve finished a hard sequence and the blood rushes back to crimp-injured fingers (at this point, ice climbers will speak up to remind us rock climbers that we don’t know what real Screaming Barfies are).
So, why not climb big, juggy, sport routes, and avoid the nasty crimps? You’ll get your heart rate up, be moving, and can stay fairly warm on the rock, right? In the sun, yes. But sometimes, if it is a cloudy day, or the temperatures really plummet, I’ve found that big holds are even worse than small holds. Think about it– this rock has been sitting all night in temps that are in the teens or lower. It is basically a huge ice block. The more of your skin that is in contact with it (as in, giant jugs), the colder your entire hands will get. I’ve actually failed on climbs in the winter at rest jugs simply from hanging out at them for too long, as my hands slowly freeze until I can’t feel the crimps of the next crux sequence. Hmm, maybe some moderate trad would be nice.
|The Cirque, at the New River Gorge. Great winter sport climbing until the clouds come in.|
Personally, I do not like to climb trad (easy or hard) in the depths of winter. The insides of jam cracks tend to be the coldest parts of the rock, and sometimes jamming them feels like sticking your hands into a refrigerator. Not to mention, if you thought Screaming Barfies were bad on crimps, try experiencing them after jamming a sharp tips or ringlocks crack. Sometimes your numb fingers will even fumble and drop that critical cam or nut that was going to save your life. Worst of all is multi-pitch. It can be impossible to get warm at a hanging belay, the circulation to your legs cut off, wind blasting you 300 feet off the deck, as your partner struggles to feel his fingers. So yeah, easy single pitch trad is good in the winter, that’s it (feel free to disagree in the comments).
Ok, say you’ve found that perfect route that is not too juggy, not too crimpy, long enough to get you warmed up but not so long that your hands freeze at a rest. It is sunny and 35 degrees, and the rock is dry. Woohoo! Now you just need to stay warm when NOT climbing.
KEEPING WARM BETWEEN CLIMBS:
At many crags, if you are sheltered from the wind and in the sun, your actual time on the rock will probably be comfortable. I’ve climbed at my home crag, The Cirque at the New River Gorge, on days when the high was 30 degrees and done burns on climbs while wearing a t-shirt. But, once you stop moving and lower to the ground, it’s a different story.
There are a million different tricks that we all have for staying warm at the crag. For clothing, layer, layer, layer! Here’s how the best outdoor athletes do it:
Start off with a synthetic base layer, some sort of polypro or capalene-type long underwear. The major thing you want from your base layer is its ability to wick moisture (yes, sweat) away from your body, keeping your skin dry and warm. For this reason, avoid anything cotton like the plague! Cotton is great in the summer for its ability to retain moisture and cool you off, but you do NOT want it anywhere near you in the winter. Seriously, people have died from hypothermia while wearing cotton.
|So this is what death by hypothermia looks like!|
Even with synthetics, sweat will still soak you down and get you cold. I’ve found that if the hike to the crag is long and steep enough to get a good sweat up, I don’t even put on my base layer until I’ve reached the crag. Otherwise it will just be sweaty and wet before I’ve even started climbing, guaranteeing me an entire day of cold dampness.
There are many varieties and combinations of materials out there; and most good outdoor clothing companies have some sort of base layer in their catalog. Don’t limit yourself to trendy active wear companies either. I’ve found that some hunting/fishing stores like Cabela's have base layers that are even warmer than Patagonia gear (probably because ice fishing rednecks are more sedentary than skiers or climbers, and thus have an even harder time keeping warm. Oops, did I just stereotype?).
Over the top of your base layer, you’ll want some sort of medium-density layer, Polartec fleece, a wool sweater if you’re wanting to be old school, or something like that. For pants, depending on conditions, I’ll either wear performance fleece pants, or maybe even some sort of denim jeans if I think there’s a good chance that I’ll be trashing my knees while climbing. Yes, denim is cotton, but the further from your skin it is, the more tolerable cotton can be.
Over the top of the mid-layer, many high performance athletes like alpinists, skiers, or endurance runners like to have some sort of waterproof/resistant layer– Goretex, softshell, something like that. But, for sitting around at the crag, you probably won’t need this. If you’re getting snowed or sleeted upon, it’s time to go home. So, go with the winter climber’s best friend: the down puffy jacket. Down is warm, lightweight, and compresses well so that it doesn’t take too much space up in your pack. There are too many varieties of puffies to get into, so here are some broad guidelines: the higher the fill, the warmer it will be. Definitely look for something with a closeable neck and preferably a hood to keep the wind out while you’re belaying. For just cragging, it is probably not necessary to worry about any sort of water-resistant coating on your puffy, but be aware that wet down loses all of its insulating capabilities. Stay dry!
|Get down! Well, a down jacket.|
Beyond this layering system, remember to get good gloves and a hat that is wind-resistant, both synthetic, NOT cotton, and you’re good to go in the clothing department. But there are a few other tricks you can employ to stay warm at the crag…
RANDOM TRICKS (kids these days call them “hacks,” right?)
Portable propane heaters can be great for warming your hands up before and after burns on your project. At some crags, it can even be acceptable to start a small bonfire, but you will definitely want to check with locals about that (and DON’T build a fire right underneath a climb, for obvious reasons). Many climbers also like keeping those disposable hand warmers, or alternately heating up small rocks over a propane heater, and putting those in their chalk bags (be careful not to burn yourself).
What you eat and drink will also make a big difference. High calorie, fatty foods can keep you warm, and in the winter I eat more nuts, fatty meats, and cheeses than I would at the crag in the summer. It’s also nice to have a thermos full of your favorite beverage. Coffee or hot chocolate tend to make me too jittery, and while warm, mulled wine is a special treat… too much and I’m not sending anything. But, experiment around with various hot drinks like ginger root/lemon tea, cinnamon and orange Gatorade powder, or my personal favorite, chicken bouillon with just a dash of cayenne pepper to heat things up.
Finally, there is one super-special trick to try out when your hands are cold. I call it the “Funky Penguin,” and give full permission for you to use it with no royalty fees. Here’s what you do: lock your elbows, flex your wrists, and try to straighten your fingers as much as possible. Basically, you want all of the joints in your arm to be as “square” and perpendicular as possible. Next, lift your shoulders up and down quickly. If you do this correctly, and are stretching all your joints as much as possible, you will feel blood shooting into your fingertips, warming the extremities. You can even do it on routes to warm your fingers or even de-pump a little; small price for looking ridiculous!
|Click here to see Rockclimbing.com's moderator Lena_Chita demonstrate the Funky Penguin.|
There is one more big crux that you may encounter in your winter climbing Odyssey if you live more than a couple hours from the crag, and that is staying warm at night. Winter camping is a whole other topic altogether, and can be your major crux in winter cragging; I do not mind slaving away at the crag on 30 degree days if I know that I’m going back home to a warm bed. But if I’m facing a tent and darkness from 4:30pm to 7am, well, that’s a psych killer.
|Not to be confused with Psycho Killer.|
If you are making a climbing trip to a winter destination, do not have a friend’s house, heated Sprinter Van, or motel room to crash in, and are faced with temperatures going down into the teens or lower at night, here are a few things you can do to stay warm while camping:
Invest in a four-season tent, which has nylon panels that will zip up and cover all its screen panels. Sometimes this can add 15 degrees or so to the interior temperature, although if you are in a more humid area like the Southeast, the lack of ventilation can result in lots of condensation in the morning.
Pads will insulate you almost as much as sleeping bags do. If you are in direct contact with the ground, you will lose a lot of heat. Make sure your Thermarest does not have any leaks in it, and consider even using two pads on top of one another. My favorite pad setup is a stiff, large-sized bouldering pad, with a small Thermarest on top of it.
Do not assume that a sleeping bag rated to 15 degrees will necessarily be comfortable down to 15 degrees, and always err on the side of warmer, not colder. Fleece inserts, non-camping specific down comforters, or even a few extra blankets are always good beta to have on hand. You will stay warmer with lots of blankets and less clothing than you will with multiple clothes layers and few blankets.
If you are traveling with a romantic partner, or even if you are not, but want to practice some Himalayan-style cuddling with your non-romantic friend (hey, we don’t judge), zipping two sleeping bags together and spooning adds a LOT of warmth. Going even further, if you and your tent-mate have similar down jackets, you might even be able to zip THOSE together, making a blanket-sized throwover.
Sleeping in a station wagon or SUV can be nice too, especially on cold mornings when you can just start the engine and blast the heater. But, cars can have much less ventilation than tents. If you are in a humid environment such as the Southeast, remember to let your car “air out” each day after sleeping in it; otherwise, you’ll start getting that gross combination of B.O. and mold smell that so many dirtbags’ cars reek of. Pickup trucks with shells are great to sleep in, too, but they might condense even more; it sucks to wake up to a ceiling that is dripping on you every morning. In my own pickup shell, I have installed Velcro strips to the ceiling, and attach felt sheets to them, which catch moisture and can be removed for washing easily.
So, there you have it, the n00b’s guide to winter climbing. All you have to do now is get on out there, and SUFFER! Or book that flight to Thailand.