Cold-weather rock climbing and ice climbing have a bit of a reputation for unavoidable suffering, and while I can’t say they haven’t earned it in some ways, I can tell you a few methods for maximizing your warmth and enjoyment despite the cold. Beyond just the basics of proper layering, adequate clothing and exercise to keep warm, there are a few lessons I’ve learned from my own experiences that might help you get by in relative comfort.
As always, nothing I say replaces common sense, proper training and/or checking with your doctor if you have a condition that warrants it. I’m not in any way liable for anything that happens to you. Stay safe, have fun and live to climb another day!
1. The Windmill
For such a useful hand warming technique, I’m surprised at the number of climbers I encounter who don’t know about the simple windmill. This is perhaps the single most effective trick for keeping the screaming barfies at bay, and it’s also pretty useful for cold-weather rock climbing, skiing, or any other pursuit where your digits might be getting a bit chilled.
Do the windmill almost to the point of discomfort before you start up a climb and it will help to dilate your capillaries for better blood flow, which can stave off the cold for a bit. While you’re on the climb you can do a mini-windmill by shaking out aggressively. Just a few quick, hard shakes will push some more warm blood out into your fingers for a little relief.
I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s simply impossible to be comfortable while climbing in the cold with a single jacket or a single pair of gloves. You really need one jacket/pair of gloves for climbing in, and one for sitting around and belaying in. One of my best investments to date has been the giant Helly Hansen down jacket and the giant Mountain Hardwear mittens that I picked up on a gear discount site a few years ago.
The parka is the kind that my friend Anne and I lovingly refer to as a “snow beast parka” because of its bulk, but it’s hard to complain about the size when it keeps me so toasty (a more packable puffy would be in order for multipitch ice). I put it on in between each pitch when cragging, and never even think about the cold.
The mittens practically look like boxing gloves, and nothing beats slipping your hands inside after a cold pitch of ice. The gloves I ice climb in are super thin and have essentially no meaningful insulation, so it’s important to have something toasty to slip into right away once I lower off.
Lastly, always bring multiple thin glove liners for ice climbing. A major cause of cold hands is moisture, and even when it’s bitter cold it can be pretty easy to work up a sweat on a hard pitch of ice (not to mention fear sweat!). Having dry glove liners will drastically improve your comfort and warmth, so find a pair you like and invest in several that you can rotate between throughout the course of the day.
You have to stay mentally stoked to be a good climber, and keeping your body’s furnace stoked is an important part of that. In its most basic sense this means eating high-energy foods consistently throughout the day so that your body can keep producing energy and warmth.
Taking it to the next level, you should seriously consider taking a thermos. Drinking hot coffee, tea or soup will warm you up from the inside out, and the simple fact of having a creature comfort with you in the cold will make for a better day. While I would never advocate for indulging while climbing, one could conceivably even put together some tasty adult beverages for the thermos. Some sources claim that Bailey’s and coffee, Irish coffee or hot toddies all make great high-octane send fuel for cold-weather climbers (responsibly and in moderation, of course). Or so I’ve heard...
If you’re willing to lug along a stove, you can also have a warm meal—and potentially a lot of new friends—at lunchtime. Freeze-dried meals, cans of soup, chili or any other warm comfort food are all good alternatives to the usual fare of cold tuna salad pouches, salami and nuts.
Chemical hand and foot warmers are an obvious solution to help with cold extremities, and using them creatively opens up even more possibilities. You can sometimes find large warmers specifically for this purpose, but either way, try stowing some in your inner jacket or pants pockets to help warm your legs and core on especially cold days. For cold days on the rock, throw a hand warmer in your chalk bag for a quick bit of relief every time you chalk up (it's alright here because you only touch the hand warmer briefly, but normally you shouldn't put the warmers in contact with bare skin). And if you’re going to be out in the cold frequently they even make reusable hand warmers to eliminate the waste and expense of disposable chemical packs.
5. Stow It Away
On a truly cold day, your clothing itself can suck the heat right out of you. If you take off your hat, gloves, shoes or a layer of clothing, stow it away inside your jacket to keep everything warm. I find this especially important if you’re using lighter weight gloves while ice climbing. The gloves should be pre-warmed and dry (remember the spare liners) to maximize your relative comfort on the pitch and to avoid the horrors of the screaming barfies. It’s also important for cold climbing shoes—icy climbing shoe rubber can make your toes go numb before you know it.
One of the most often overlooked culprits behind the screaming barfies is simply being too pumped while you climb. As a matter of habit it’s best to learn to ice climb solidly on toprope without getting pumped anyway, since that’s the kind of mastery you’ll need in order to eventually be safe once you start leading ice.
When it comes to warding off cold hands, technique is your best friend. Shake and de-pump regularly, stem your feet out when possible, and most of all, don’t overgrip your ice tools. It's fairly common to use more hand strength than you need, especially if you're new to ice climbing or especially gripped.
Learn to hang on the tools with straight arms, using as little grip strength as possible; this is your resting position. Then practice switching from a swinging grip (for getting a nice stick in the ice), to a pulling grip (for pulling yourself up on the tools), to your resting position (for any time you're not actively swinging or pulling up). The resting position should be your default, so work on making it a habit. Once you get it down you’ll find that fresh hands stay warmer than clenched fists.
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