Winter Climbing: Six Tips For A Successful Trip

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.

©istockphoto/AlexSava

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.

Lay­er Smart
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.