Picture it, it’s 17-degrees in The Obed Wild & Scenic River Area in January. The rock is cold and ice has formed on many of the area’s popular routes. To most people, this sounds like a nightmare. But, it doesn’t have to be! After all, you don’t sweat as much, your hands stay dryer and stick to the rock better, and there are only a few people (if any) at the crag! Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson chose to climb "The Dawn Wall" on Yosemite’s El Capitan in January for some of these same reasons! Here are a few tips to climb in the cold.
BRING A LIGHTER JACKET TO CLIMB IN AND YOUR TWO WARMEST COATS, BUT ONLY WEAR ONE OF THE WARM COATS
Wait what? Why bring two of your warmest coats but only wear one? When you are on the ground, you need a heavy coat to stay warm and keep your muscles loose. But, when you climb, you don’t need a heavy coat. You take it off, climb, come back down, look for your coat, and notice it's not where you left it. Your jacket is now on someone else trying not to freeze! Getting it off them is no easy task. Trust me, temporary jacket theft is real at any crag in the cold! For me, I bring a super warm hooded 800-fill goose down Eddie Bauer BC Downlight Stormdown jacket that is waterproof and breathable. I also bring a hooded 800-fill Mountain Hardwear Super/DS StretchDown jacket that is wind and water resistant. With the kind of warmth these jackets offer, I temporarily lose at least one of these every time I climb! It’s inevitable!
BRING LOTS OF HOT HANDS
Hot Hands can be your best friend on a cold climbing day! Put two in your chalk bag. When you are climbing and find a place to rest, put both of your hands in the chalk bag to keep your hards warm. You get the benefit of having warm chalk to help sustain warmth in your exposed hands during your climb! Also keep hand warmers in all your jackets and gloves, including the jacket you climb with. With heavier fill coats, the pockets will stay very warm and keep your hands very warm between climbs. One more thing to remember is bring extra Hot Hands. Just like the tip above, Hot Hand theft is to be expected!
REST MORE ON ROUTES TO WARM YOUR HANDS
Every time I come to a crux on a super cold day, I stop, put both hands in the warm chalk bag and get more circulation and feeling back in my hands. Even if I don’t need a break and I’m not pumped, there is nothing worst than going through a crux and realizing you no longer have adequate feeling in your hands! You don’t know if you have a solid grip or not and that plays with your mind. If you have climbed more than a few times, you already realize climbing is more of a mental game than anything else!
BRING WARM GLOVES AND THINNER GLOVES
As I mentioned above, climbing with cold hands becomes a danger. To prevent that, have warm gloves with Hot Hands in them! I typically use my Dakine ski gloves that are windproof, waterproof, and very warm. Thicker gloves are hard to belay with, so, I bring a pair of belay gloves. I also put Hot Hands inside the gloves and on the back of my hands.
TAKE TURNS BELAYING
It’s easy to keep your body warm when climbing. On the ground, it’s easy to walk around and stay warm enough. When belaying, you are stationary and can’t use thick gloves. Climbers stop more during the winter to warm their hands and that prolongs a belayer being in a stationary position for longer periods of time. Belaying more than once is unfair to that person.
STAY IN THE SUN
If you are in the Obed, the warm sunshine in South Clear feels drastically different than Lilly Bluff or the Lilly Bouldering Field. They might as well feel worlds apart! The sun will warm you and the rock to a manageable level once the sun has been out long enough. The more southern facing and exposed rock you find, the happier you will be! Trust me, the bottom of the route Spawn in the Obed and shadow side of aretes in Joshua Tree National Park are very different than the exposed top of Spawn and the sunny side of an arete in J-Tree!
BRING WARM, BREATHABLE, AND WINDPROOF CLOTHES TO CLIMB IN
It can be hard to find sun exposed rock and avoid cold wind at the same time. You need warm, breathable, and windproof clothing. But, don’t over do it! Heavy coats and heavy fill puffy jackets can be too much. For me, I found the Salewa Ortles Hybrid 2 hooded jacket to be perfect! It has medium fill on the front, back, shoulders, and hood, but not on the sides or arms. Where there isn’t fill, it offers a wind and water resistant material that will keep you comfortable and dry. It is also perfect for ice climbing and has with a banded end to the sleeve to prevent ice from falling inside your jacket. It also has a form-fitting insulated hoody to keep cold wind off my head. I also use one of my signature Arc'teryx beanies under the hood. There are other variations of clothing I see used. Most notable is a puffy vest surrounded with a windproof rain jacket. Mountain Hardwear and Patagonia sell nice climbing jackets. One other thing to consider is how long you will be on a climb. If you are on a multi-pitch big wall climb in the sun, you will need less fill to keep you warm and would overheat easier if you have too much fill in a jacket.
WEAR A JACKET INSIDE YOUR HARNESS LIKE YOU WOULD A SHIRT IN THE SUMMER
It’s tempting to wear a jacket on the outside of a harness. That will only get in your way and make it hard to belay. Plus, having your jacket tucked in will keep a lot of cold air out when you make more dynamic moves.
ALWAYS REGULATE BODY TEMPERATURE
Wear layers of clothing so you can regulate your temperature while climbing, as well as the hike in. Pace yourself on the hike in to avoid sweating and moisture. Climb at a steady pace to avid sweating from over exertion!
KEEP YOUR CLIMBING SHOES ON
It’s tempting to take your shoes off, get back into warm wool socks and hiking boots. But, if your climbing shoes have any moisture at all, the next time you climb you will stick your feet into a hard and frozen climbing shoe with ice on the inside! Then, you will climb with feet that feel like popsicles! This tip comes from personal experience! If you have very aggressive shoes like La Sportiva Solutions or Evolv Oracles and are forced to take them off, I would recommend putting something warm over your shoes to keep the moisture on the inside from freezing.
KEEP MOVING WHEN NOT CLIMBING OR BELAYING. DON’T SIT ON COLD ROCK!
Don’t sit on a rock and rest once you complete a climb. You need to keep moving and stay warm. You will get enough stationary rest when it’s time for you to belay!
PLAN YOUR MOVES ON THE GROUND (IN TRUE ADAM ONDRA STYLE) TO AVOID SPENDING TOO MUCH TIME ON THE CLIMB
As I mentioned before, the hardest job on a cold day of rock climbing is on the belayer. You will rest more to keep your hands warm. So, don’t waste time trying to figure out a sequence of moves when you are on the wall, find the sequence on the ground so your belayer can be walking around to keep warm!
DRINK LOTS OF LIQUIDS
One danger of being active in the cold is the inability to recognize dehydration as easily. Plus, with the heat-holding technology in many of today’s thermoses, it’s ease to carry hot drinks! You can also bring an MSR PocketRocket or JetBoil stove to heat water for tea, coffee, or hot chocolate to help warm you! I often bring small Keurig K-cups of dark hot chocolate for everyone. You will also become the best friend of every person there and you might actually get your warm jacket back!
Our bodies burn more calories to generate warmth on cold days. You need more carbs to use as energy to sustain a long day of climbing. I’ve seen plenty of strong climbers loose energy on cold days by not eating enough.
WATCH FOR ICE
One some routes, ice is easy to see. For example, Pale Face, Backlash, and Comic Relief Direct in the Obed are often completely covered in ice when temperatures drop below freezing. The danger comes from ice you don’t easily see. Have you ever climbed a route in the summer and found a secret pocket of water you didn’t expect? Have you stuck your hand in a crack to find it wet? That pocket and crack will now be ice and you will fail to get a grip. Routes in the Obed that stay wet with pockets of water, like Super Ego and Fat Lady Sings, also hold a lot of ice that is hard to see. The route Christine has a few pockets of water and typically has a small stream of ice on it. Before stepping into or grabbing a pocket, check to see if it is filled with ice!
DON’T CLIMB OR HIKE UNDER ICICLES!
If you enter a crag in the early morning, you might fail to see the danger of some of the icicles. As the sun warms the rocks, the previously stable and frozen icicles become very unstable falling objects. You go from climber to a dart board!
LAST, BUT NOT LEAST
Forget the 17-degree suffer fest and climb at Onsight Rock Gym where it’s always warm!
Kevin Flint is a content creator for the outdoor and travel destination industries, a gear tester for Backpacker magazine, an outdoor adventurer, and marketing director for Onsight Rock Gym. He shares his experiences and knowledge through his website and various outlets around the world. Visit him online at kevinflint.net and on social media channels like Instagram by using username @kevinflinttn