Cold Weather Climbing Tips

Photo: Benjamin Goodpasture // Climber: Christian Lablanc // Red River Gorge // BOHICA 5.13b

Photo: Benjamin Goodpasture // Climber: Christian Lablanc // Red River Gorge // BOHICA 5.13b

Cold Weather Climbing Tips


It happened too fast for me. The temperatures raced straight pass comfortable to frigid, my down jackets are draped over armchairs around the house, and I'm suddenly craving cookies and chocolate by the fire. These are all ominous signs that Winter is coming. While some precipitation is good for the rest of the state, we poor climbers are left with our hands in mittens waiting for the next opportunity to climb. Fear not my friends! Although this weather makes it much more difficult to climb, the adventurous among us will still find rocks to pull on. I have made a few excursions out into this unkind weather, and I have learned a few things to make the climbing manageable.

Here are my 6 cold weather climbing tips:

1. Layer the Belayer
Dressing warmly enough can't be stressed enough on a cold weather climbing mission. The constant struggle you will face is keeping your fingers and toe warm. For climbers, this is the worst adaptation of our body during cold weather. It becomes a challenge getting through the next crux when you are shoving meaty finger popcicles onto ledges, praying that they are doing what your brain is telling them to do. Neither will you be able to stand on that small foot jib because you will get no feedback from your frost-bitten toes.

Wear TWO pairs of gloves and socks. I wear a thin pair of base gloves and my snowboarding gloves over them when I am belaying or hiking. The mistake I often make is wearing thin cotton socks when I hike up, and my toes are numb before I even put on my frozen climbing shoes. Lastly, wear a beanie under your helmet. There are a number of arteries and veins along your brow to your ears that will dissipate a lot of heat if not covered up. Furthermore, having a good wool base layer under your climbing pants will keep the rest of your body warm more than you realize. 

When climbing a multi-pitch, make sure to bring everything you need up the climb: clip gloves to your harness, wear your jacket, and shove socks in your jacket pocket if need be. 

2. Blow into your shoes
You are full of more hot air than significant other has told you. Putting on a warm pair of climbing shoes is a magical experience in cold weather. Huff and puff, like the big bad wolf, straight into the toes before putting your shoes on. The extra few degrees of heat feels profound after your toes have been flailing around in the elements. 

3. Get down with down
Not only is down the warmest insulator, but the most compressible. You can shove it into the empty space of your pack before leaving just in case things are bit colder than you anticipated. I have worn two down jackets and looked more puffed up than Ralphie from A Christmas Story, and I felt no remorse about it. The only caveat: try to keep down dry. It does not perform as well when wet, so bring a hardshell if you expect precipitation. 

4. South facing is essential
During these cold days you must chase the sun. A 60 degree sunny day can feel like a Summer day in Redding or a Winter day at the North Pole. The direct exposure to the sun can make a 50 degree day a climbable one. Not only is the south face important for sunshine, but it dries the rock more quickly. A south facing crag can be dry 1-2 days after a rain (depending on wind) if the exposure to the sun is adequate. Most topographical maps are oriented Northerly, so find the walls that have climbing on the south side, unencumbered by tall trees or shadows.  

5. Think twice about chalk. 
For most people, chalking up before a climb is more of a psychological crutch than friction aid. Studies have shown that hand friction is actually better WITHOUT chalk. However, chalk makes a substantial different when your hands are sweaty. This is why we chalk up: to dry out our hands. For cold weather climbing, sweating isn't really a concern. At a certain temperature, our hands no longer sweat, so our friction co-efficient is at its highest. This is why climbers like Daniel Woods attempt their projects at night with million lumen lamps illuminating the rock: they want sending temps! If you need to chalk up to climb...just because, go for it; just remember that you will lose some friction.

Another good point to keep in mind is that your shoes will be less sticky than you are used to. Shoes are designed to work optimally at the temperature your hands stop sweating. This means the rubber is going to be more firm. This firmness should help performance, but you may need to apply more pressure to your toe to get the same stick you are accustomed to.  

6. Windy day stay away
An often over-looked weather prediction is wind speed. A sunny day in 65 degree weather may be unbearable if you have cold winds in an alpine environment. One of my favorite websites is www.weatherunderground.com. Although wind speed is a very unreliable factor, you can generally anticipate more wind on low pressure days. Bring a shell to throw over your jacket and eliminate the precipitating heat loss from wind trying to sneak into your britches.

If you can manage to stay warm, and stay psyched, cold weather is really the time to see optimal performance. Get out there and send my friends!

Written by: Kyle Sherby, a long time Shasta Rock Club member and current team member who helps with route setting and outdoor climbing events.