The first time I realised I’d become something of an expert at climbing in the cold was when Andy Cave asked me about clothing for Changabang in 1997, which surprised me a bit as I was just a shop spod and Andy was a legend. I guess although my experience was pretty limited (a few winter seasons in the Alps), maybe he could see that I was ‘into that kind of thing’, and I guess I was, going on to gnarl it out in winter from Patagonia to Alaska, Norway to New Hampshire.
This year, climbing in Antarctica I ended up having a reputation as a hard man due to the fact I rarely put on my down jacket, while every one else lived in theirs, and that I climbed in thin gloves instead of puffy mitts, and actually seemed to enjoy the climbing at minus thirty.
Well like the great Borge Ousland (who skied to the North Pole in winter) I’m actually a bit of a wimp – I don’t like the cold. Also in many of the places I’ve climbed being cold was never an option, as very quickly you’d go from very cold, to very hypothermic, to very dead. Being able to dress well for the cold is one thing, but being able to move, climb, sleep, and repeat day in, day out (in Antarctica we lived, climbed and skied for 50 days in one set of clothing) is another thing.
Fundamentally staying comfortable and operating in such conditions is simple, and can be scaled up or down for climbing in winter on Ben Nevis, the Aiguille Verte or Denali.
And so here is my top ten tips – from head to toe – on how to take out the suffering this winter.
Long understood by polar travellers and native people from the far north, sweat is the biggest killer, as once you stop, saturated layers will chill you off. Not sweating is easy, just have a system that allows you to stay just warm enough for whatever you’re doing. This tends to work as an ‘action’ suit (shell, base layer, light mid layer) for walking and climbing, a ‘static’ layer (belay jacket) when you’re not moving, and a layers to add to either the ‘action’ suit to allow you to adjust it for speed (say a synthetic jacket, pile pants, mid-weight hooded fleece on slower mixed routes) or if you get in the shit (wearable bivy kit).
Adjusting all these layers, along with opening and closing zippers, taking hats and gloves on and off, will help you keep the sweat at bay. If you know you’re going to really work hard then take a second base layer top and switch tops once at the base of the route. The alternative option is the one layer system (as used by the Inuit), where you’re able to dump all the heat, then zip it up when you’re static – best typified by Buffalo PP clothing and Montane Extreme.
2.You will sweat!
You’re like a cheese, you will sweat, so make sure your base layer is able to deal with this, along with all your layers! Membrane soft shells are nice and smart but for tough conditions I’d always go for more porous layers (Polartec grid fleece, or fluffy pile) as these will stay warmer when wet, dry faster, and allow moisture out fast (non windproof layers can be cooled off fast by the wind, which may sound like a bad idea, but by adjusting your shell you’ll gain more over all control.
3. Ultimate Comfort base
There are tons of great base layers on the market, from synthetic to wool, but by far the best for what you’ll be doing – i.e. stop and go (as proved by countless tests by armies around the world) is mesh Brynge underwear.
This super unsexy underwear is made from polyurethane and cannot absorb water, but due to it being spun into an open mesh you are effectively creating just a layer of air (think of the mesh as simply the scaffolding for that air). This stuff has been used on some of the hardest most extreme adventures of the last 100 years, and simply works better than anything else (and also looks worse than anything else). Being Norwegian this is not cheap, but a top (long or short sleeved) is a great investment, and works well worn under a merino wool top (the wool helps suck up the sweat, and the mesh keeps it off your skin). Buy some and I guarantee you’ll be warmer, drier and happier.
4. You’re not a turtle – stay out of your shell
No matter how good your Gore or Polartec shell is it will not breathe as well as not having a shell on, and so try and have a layer that will do the same job for the times it’s not raining. Take a look at mountain runners, they tend to do all they can to avoid putting on shells, as they understand heat/sweat output better than most (you can run at sub zero temps in clothes skimpy enough for a night out in Newcastle).
Instead they go for very light windproof layers when they can, or nothing when they’re working hard (again the wind is cooling you down). Softshell trousers (non membraned) work well for legs (you can climb everything in these most of the time), and a windproof top (pertex, microfibre etc) can go over the top of your base and mid layers. Having a non shell system will both keep you dryer plus allow you to feel your environment more – vital when it comes to climbing. One great piece of kit that weighs nothing is a windproof gilet, as this can really keep your core warm while allowing your arms to cool.
5. Keep your feet warm
Most parts of your body can be warmed up with a bit of work, but not your feet. For me everything begins with my feet. If I have cold feet, or worse still I can’t feel my feet, then I’ll be worried, tense and want to bail. My ‘go to’ boots for any climbing are Sportiva Spantiks, which I’ve trusted from Ulvertanna to the Eiger, Mount Dickey to the Droites. They will do roadside ice, Scottish mountains, big walls and alpine faces. They’re not cheap, but having a pair of boots that I know will be warm, solid and easy to look after over a long climb, or long trip, makes them better then cheaper, lighter or more sensitive boots (having warm feet is the best way to climb well).
6. Plastic Fantastic
I’ve played around with vapour barrier socks over many years, and think just having a cheap thin shopping bag next to your skin, then a good sock over the top, is a no brainer on any super cold, or extended routes. Having it next to your skin means you don’t end up with stinking liner socks, and you also have a little more friction between the layers when front pointing. You really get the advantages from a vapour barrier system when your day becomes extended, say that 12 hour winter route on the Tacul draws on to a 24 hour epic, where saturated socks suck the heat out of your feet with the combination of nighttime temperatures and fatigue.
7. Face off
In a real storm your face can get really battered, and when navigating or trying to climb just hiding in your hood is not an option. Your face needs to be protected by a combination of a good pair of googles and some kind of facemask. The most common way to protect your face is the universally adopted Buff, and sometimes it’s good to carry two, as one can make a good neck seal, while the other can be pulled up over your face. For more extreme conditions the Cold Avenger face mask works really well, as it fully protects the face without stopping you from being able to breath as well as forming a good seal around your nose and googles (this stops moisture getting into your goggles). At the moment my favourite face mask is the GURU Face Mask form IceTrek in Australia (yes it’s a bit of a strange link up, but Eric Philips, who owns IceTrek, guides a lot in both the Arctic and Antarctic). This is a super simple version of the old neoprene face-mask, but simplified with a interesting way of locking it onto your face via your ears and a velcro strap (this makes it easy to pull it away from your face… although if you’ve already lost your ears to frostbite then it’s a bit of a non-starter).
8. Mobile Heat
I’ve never been one for those little disposable heat pads, as I look at them a bit like using oxygen on Everest: what do you do when they run out? (instead I try and have the right kit), but there is one little gadget that is a little different that actually works pretty well – the mini charcoal burner beloved by fishermen and painters everywhere (or so I’m told). If you’ve never seen one, it’s a small felt-covered tin (like an old tobacco tin) into which you place a burning charcoal stick, and it gives out about six hours of good heat. These are cheap and easy to pick up, and simply having one in a pocket at a long belay can really help (there’s also a small hand-warmer that uses lighter fluid that’s mean to work well, but I’ve yet to try one).
9. Hot Hands
One thing that all climbers are obsessed by when dealing with the cold is how to keep their hands warm. This of course is easy – just wear a huge pair of f**k off mitts!
The real problem is how do you keep your hands warm while being able to grip your axes, place and remove gear. Well the most blunt answer is that there is no easy answer, and that there is always going to be some pain (I may be a freak but I’ve never had hot aches), but the more you climb the better you are able to handle it. The trick comes when you can recognise the difference between pain that means your hands are bloody cold, and no pain when your hands are redlining (I know a few climbers who could never climb again after getting frostbite like this). If you’re forced to wear thin gloves then consider these points:
1. Have several pairs of thin gloves, and rotate them around your clothes to keep them warm, but always start the pitch with warm hands and dry gloves. One of my favourite tough skinny climbing gloves are the Petzl Cordex Plus over a pair of powerstretch gloves (soak the leather in nikwax, and avoid if conditions are super wet).
2. If you’re going to skimp on hand insulation then bulk up on the rest of your clothes, and have a look at powerstrech arm warmers to boost the heat going into your arms (Marmot Stretch Wrist Gaiter and Lowe Alpine Wrist warmers boost your hand warmth without effecting your dexterity).
3. Always have a warm back-up in the form or some warm mitts to stick on as soon as you stop (take off your gloves), or if the pain gets too much.
Very often in the coldest conditions the lightest glove will be a heavy duty shelled pile one, and although you may feel you can’t climb in them, I find you get used to most gloves as long as they have the right finger length.
I know it’s old-school, but climbing in Antartica, where we had some amazing kit, the handware that both kept us warm, lasted best with the abrasive rock, and never let us down was our Dachsteins. Having a slightly baggy pair, well broken in, with a bungee loop going to your forearm allows you to just whip them off and on when you need to manipulate things. Simple.
10. Use Your Head
Lastly fancy gear will not help you stay warm unless you understand how best to employ it, and this comes through both experience (i.e. having loads of bad experiences!) and fundamentally understanding both how your body performs as well as your brain.
What I often see lacking in those who just can’t get it right in the mountains is the ability to monitor themselves, they take off clothes too late when they’ve already saturated their base layers, or put on more layers after they’re already shivering, and basically don’t support their body in any shape or form. In these high-tech days I guess some imagine that fabric technology is like GPS – it lets you get lazy, which isn’t true. In the past climbers really needed to understand these things in order to stay comfortable, and fundamentally things have not changed (well apart from swish marketing).
About the Author:
Andy Kirkpatrick, Hull’s second best climber (after John Redhead), has climbed El Cap twenty five times, including one day ascents, several push ascents (climbing from the bottom to the top with bivy gear) and three solos. He is currently writing ‘Me, Myself & I’ and a manual for big wall soloing.
More info about him, on his amazing website Here