Climbing In The Cold

Article by Adrian Berry
Tuesday 28th December 2010

 

November: the clocks have gone back, and the Atlantic chart is increasingly scored with isobars. Why should we bother climbing outdoors in the dark days of winter? There are some very good reasons why climbing in the cold is not just something you have to put up with for the next few months, but comes with certain advantages over climbing in warmer temperatures.

 - all photographs copyright Dave Pickford - www.davidpickford.com -

Jason Porter making the most of good conditions on a cold November afternoon to make a quick ascent of 'Bold As Love' (E6 6b), Upper Wall, Avon Gorge. 


To begin with, there are two major advantages to climbing in cold weather:

1) Rubber works better in the cold

Have you ever thought about what makes sticky rubber sticky? I still meet climbers who are adament that their boots stick better in the warm, but I've never yet heard of a climber waiting for warm conditions before trying a hard slab. The fact it that shoes stick the most when the rubber is at its hardest. If you take a coin and press it into the sole of one of your climbing shoes, and the rubber is good stuff, the imprint of the coin will remain after you remove the coin itself. The 'memory' in the rubber is what allows you to stick to small indentation in the rock. If the rubber was pushed back out straight away, it would effectively be pushing you off your foot-hold. The colder the rubber, the more 'memory' it has, and the better it works.

2) You don't sweat in the cold


You sweat when you're body needs to cool down, when your muscles are active your body generates heat, and that leads to sweaty fingers. When it's cold, you have to get active just to attain a comfortable body temperature, which means you can climb without pouring out sweat. The benefits are both obvious, and not so obvious. Clearly, having bone dry hands is a bonus for friction, but not having to chalk up between moves means you can climb more quickly and thus save strength.


Rich Smith warming up for a winter bouldering session at Saddle Tor, Dartmoor: if you become cold as soon as you take your down jacket off at the crag, begin warming up with it on! 


Warming Up

The biggest problem with climbing in the cold is the necessity to properly warm up. When your muscles are cold they don't work very well, and cold fingers are not only very unpleasant to have to climb in - your loss of sensation will mean you are unable to feel the intricacies of the rock and judge the friction, the result : you use more finger strength than necessary, and are far more likely to fall due to misjudging the holds. There are no benefits to climbing in the cold when you are cold - you need to be warm: that is where the secret of successful cold-weather climbing lies.

Warming up is actually very simple, saves you from injury, and increases your performance. If warming up came in a bottle from a pharmacist, climbers would remortgage their racks to get a bottle. In the cold, not warming up simply isn't an option. The desired result is to get a good 'pulse raiser': by the end of a warm up your skin should feel warm to the touch. If your hands are still cold, that's a sign you need to continue warming up! 

A walk-in the the crag is a perfect opportunity to start warming up - if you don't feel that the walk is likely to be enough to get your pulse going, walk more quickly, or jog. If the crag is a very short distance, consider parking a little further away, or have a short run. One of the advantages with a brisk walk-in is you can stretch your fingers, arms and neck at the same time. It doesn't take much more than five minutes to blow away the cobwebs, and you'll arrive at the crag warmed up and ready for action!

Better still... warm up indoors! If you have easy access to both an indoor wall and outdoor climbing, start your climbing session indoors, get warmed up, then go out and jump straight on whatever you want to try- you won't have to waste time trying to warm up in the cold - the travel to the crag will be a perfect time recover and by the time you arrive, you'll be primed and ready to rock!

Dave Pickford takes advantage of perfect midwinter conditions on 'Tuppence' (8b) Anstey's Cove, Devon. Being properly warmed up is crucial to a successful climbing session in the winter months.

So you're at the crag, all warmed up and rearing to go - the important thing to do is keep moving. Once you stop you'll start to cool down, and if this happens you're going to have to warm up all over again. Some ways of climbing are less suitable than others, here is my personal ranking from worst to best, of how the different forms of climbing are suited to the cold


Multi-pitch

The wost thing about multi-pitch climbing in the cold is the fact that you're stuck on a belay for ages. Chances are you were nicely warmed up when you started off - an hour sitting on a cold ledge and you're freezing cold.

Hints for surviving multi-pitch climbing in the cold

- Consider shorter pitches

- Swapping leads means you sit around on belays for longer - lead in blocks and the changeover is quicker

- A down belay jacket can compress right down is super light, and will easily fit into a small climbing pack

- If carrying a jacket is a pain, consider hauling

Ben West (leading) and Chris Savage multipitch climbing in the British winter on 'Paradise Lost' (E5 6b / F7b) Cheddar Gorge, Somerset. Note the large down jacket worn by the belayer, and the leader's jacket clipped to the belay, ready to be hauled up the pitch!

 

Single Pitch Trad

Again, you're likely to find yourself belaying away from your pack - and your nice warm jacket. But at least you won't be waiting as long. If you're on a small outcrop, consider rigging up a lower-off point using a short length of spare rope, then you can lower-off straight to your pack and grap a jacket before your freeze.

Hints for surviving single pitch climbing in the cold

- Lower-off if you can - you can collect your gear later.

- If you're using double ropes, you may be able to pull one rope through the gear, throw it down and haul up a jacket.

- If you're starting your route at the top - such as on a sea cliff like Pembroke, dump your pack at the top of the route first, then you'll be right next to your warm things as soon as you top-out.


Single Pitch Sport

Gavin Symonds single-pitch sport climbing at Desplomandia, Andalucia (Spain) on a chilly January day. Conditions like this can often prove to be ideal for sport climbing, provided you are fully warmed up!

 

The ability to climb without chalking up too often will pay dividends, and many of the hardest sport routes are climbed in colder temperatures for exactly this reason.

This time lowering off isn't a problem, but the more physical nature of the climbing will mean warming up your climbing muscles is even more crucial - hard if the crag isn't well stocked with easy routes. If you feel you are getting cold belaying between routes, or attempts, come to an agreement to climb in blocks, so you can warm up and get straight to the action without getting cold - your partner can then do the same thing.

Hints for surviving single pitch sport climbing in the cold

- Pay lots of attention to warming up gradually.

- A thick down jacket and warm, baggy trousers are great for belay duty.


Bouldering

Sarah Garnett braves freezing December conditions for the reward of perfect friction at Burbage West, Peak District

The obvious activity. Great friction, less chalking up, good skin, cold dry days are domain of the boulderer. Naturally physically very intense, so put extra attention into warming up your fingers slowly. Start with easy problems, and if you just can't get warm, don't force it!

Hints for surviving bouldering in the cold

- Down jackets and gloves are essential for keeping you fully warm between problems

- Bouldering at a higher level involves a lot of standing around waiting to fully recover - make sure you're well wrapped up.

Soloing

Clearly not for everyone, but in terms of getting plenty of climbing done without getting cold, soloing a lot of routes well within your capabilities is a great way of getting warm, staying warm, and never having to sit around belaying or waiting to recover.

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Clothing

With the warm technical clothing available today, there is simply no reason to be cold at the crag. Below are the major categories of climbing clothing that work well in winter: follow the links to browse the corresponding sections in the planetFear shop.


Base Layers:

A warm and well-fitting base layer is the foundation of any effective winter clothing system.

Hats & Gloves:

They don't have to be great thick ones - a thin hat will easily fit into your pocket, and makes a huge difference to your warmth retention. Ditto gloves, for belay duty and the walk-in.

Softshells and Windshells:

These products are essential for cold-weather climbing where any exposure to wind and precipitation is likely. They can mean the difference between being wind-chilled and miserable or warm and active.

Hardshells:

If the forecast indicates that there's a good chance you might get drenched, pack a hardshell rather than a softshell.


Insulation:

Last, but not least. A good insulating layer is a vital ingredient in the recipe for successful winter cragging. 


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Top Tricks

- If you're not warm when you start climbing, and the first section is easy, reverse back to the ground: you'll probably be warm by the time you get back down, you can take off the heavy jacket, and leave your gear clipped!

- Hot drinks are great for morale, but make them before you go and take it in an aluminium flask, don't sit around for twenty minutes trying to make a hot drink on a stove, you'll be colder than before you started.

- Eat! Keep snacking on high energy foods - a big breakfast before you go out will set you up for the day.

- Warming your hands with direct heat, using the following methods:

1) Chemical handwarmers: these are sachets of chemicals that react when agitated, there are disposable ones and reusable ones that need to be boiled, the disposable ones emit more heat for longer.

2) Charcoal Handwarmers: Light a piece of charcoal, put it in the case, and it will emit a lot of heat for a long while.

3) Hot water bottles: simply take a flask of boiling hot water and a thick plastic waterbottle. When you need a fix of hand heat, pour the hot water into the plastic bottle and you're away, stays hot for about half an hour in your jacket pocket.

4) Body heat: when you need to get a bit of life into cold fingers, the back of your neck or under your armpits are often the best solution.

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Comments

good tips - 26/12/2008
however I want to know who started this theory that rubber sticks better when cold. So not true. What is important is not it's memory, but how fast it can conform to the surface, ie: elasticity. It just wraps around surfaces faster and better when it's warmer.

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