Wild. Serene. Snowy. Treacherous. Climbing a peak in winter is a unique wilderness experience, one desolate and void of crowds, but also one that can turn even the tamest of trails into snowy cornice-laden traps that catch unsuspecting hikers off guard. Whether it’s a fourteener in Colorado, or a wintery jagged ridge in the northern Cascades, climbing in the cold months presents unique challenges and hazards. Here are six tips for maximizing a safe and successful winter climb.
Hope For The Best, Plan For The Worst
In winter, weather conditions can change suddenly and with little warning. Know how to read cloud patterns, know how fast you’re moving and where your position is in relation to incoming weather, and make a plan to be off the mountain if need be. Get on the trail with the mentality to continue on until circumstances no longer allow safe passage. Expect the summit to only be the halfway point, and take into consideration how an exhausted party might handle the return part of the trip if weather conditions go awry.
Adapt Meals For Cold Conditions
When planning for a winter climb, having essential hot foods like tea, broth, and soup help the body stay warm, but also pack foods that have high calorie and fat burning properties to stay comfortable over what’s sure to be a long time. Foods with high-fat content burn slower, including dry salamis, sausages, and beef jerky. This is especially crucial before tucking in for the night, letting calories and fat burn while sleeping. When on the mountain, pack foods that are easily compressed in a pack or bottle. Pack hot liquids, soup, or jerky to provide warm essentials for sustained energy supply.
Don’t Take The Route At Face Value
A climbing trail looks drastically different from summer to winter. A gentle trail through the forest could be an avalanche zone when nearby peaks are snow-loaded. A thin, rocky ridge that’s cautiously crossed in the warmer months is suddenly severely corniced to the point where snow can create the illusion of being much more stable than it really is. Understand what a wind slab is and know how crucial it is to stay off the snow that feels chalky and overly loose. Furthermore, don’t assume the route of another party’s tracks. A trail that may have been successful for one group of climbers could potentially change within hours, exposing crevasses, breaking snow bridges, and loading unstable snow from the slopes above.
Pack Supportive Gear
One of the most frustrating feelings is to get to the trailhead and realize that snowshoes, crampons, or an ice ax are absolutely needed. Pack with the most extreme conditions in mind, safety gear or climbing equipment that may be of use, even for just a few moments, are better in the pack than at home. If faced with knee-deep powder, bring snowshoes and skis, with crampons for ascending steep, icy trails. Keep an ice ax packed for zones where self-arrest may be necessary, and a short length of rope if a crevasse needs to be crossed.
In cold conditions, sweat is a detrimental factor that drains the body of heat. In high exertion sports such as climbing or backcountry skiing, knowing your own body’s abilities determines how much you should layer. While a base layer with moisture wicking properties works during high exertion activity, it takes less than 20 minutes for the body to naturally heat, rendering the base layer useless and allowing sweat to develop. A general rule of thumb is to “be bold and start cold”, packing less, wearing essential layers, and having pieces that are easy to shed and add in cold periods.
Know When To Turn Around
No mountain is ever worth the cost of life or limb. Especially in winter, conditions appear two-faced—calm at first, but brewing with unexpected dangers. Having the ability to call off the summit in the face of mounting weather or sketchy snow is a sign of solid leadership and good judgment. Summit fever is a real and dangerous condition that puts team members into unnecessary dangers for an attempt at the top that isn’t worth the risk. Be ready to make the difficult call and plan for both legs of the climb.