Colorado ice season is just around the corner!
As days get shorter and temperatures drop, exciting developments are happening outside. Creeks, drainages, seeps, and waterfalls are slowly freezing; it’s early ice climbing season!
If you’re a sun worshipper like me who dreads being cold, perhaps this doesn’t sound exciting. But ice climbing is one of the most fun, empowering forms of climbing I’ve experienced. Don’t let the cold keep you away. After spending a month living in a minivan in Ouray, CO last winter, I’ve developed a sure-fire system to keep your digits toasty and your face smiling.
Good hydration is mandatory for your body to maintain adequate circulation to extremities in cold weather. Dehydration can creep in slowly over several days, particularly after travel and at high elevations. Drink plenty of water during your flight or drive. Think about skipping that second beer the night before you climb and opt for a glass of water, or two. Make a cup of herbal tea before bed. Have a glass of water after your morning coffee. You may not want to drink water while out climbing, so it helps to start off well hydrated.
Snacks and such
Since drinking cold, flavorless water on a frigid day isn’t appealing, I pack a pre-heated thermos such as Klean Kanteen® or HydroFlask with a warm beverage such as spiced cider, cocoa, or tea. Or try miso soup, chicken noodle soup, or bouillon broth. Or one of each! Having a hot drink will not only encourage you to stay hydrated, it will warm your core. If your core is warm, your body will circulate more warm blood to your fingers and toes. Some studies show that taking Ginkgo Biloba supplements also promotes circulation. Pack a sports drink or add electrolyte powder to your water to add variety.
One adage I’ve heard from ice climbers and guides Kitty Calhoun and Dawn Glanc is “one fun-sized Snickers per pitch.” Eating foods high in fat and sugar such as chocolate, nuts, and cheese ramps up your body’s metabolism, generating heat from the inside. I’m not going to argue with the best about eating chocolate, so hopefully you’ve saved some Halloween candy. Another food that is often appealing at any temperature is pizza: high in fat, ubiquitous, and easily packable. Stock up with whatever high-fat foods you like and keep them accessible in your pack. Don’t worry about diet; staying warm is the priority. You’re going to burn plenty of calories and can balance it with a healthy breakfast and lunch (and maybe skip dessert).
Start with an insulated, full-shank mountaineering boot, sized so that you can wear a warm sock, and your toes don’t hit the end when kicking into ice (or a cement column in a gear shop). I recommend wearing one thick wool sock, but not so thick that it restricts circulation. Take the time to prep your boots. Purchase a wool-lined insole such as this one by Superfeet. Line the bottom with inexpensive reflective material such as aluminum foil to reflect heat. You can also use disposable heated insoles, or if you have room, toe warmers. Start with a warm, dry boot: store them inside and preheat with hand warmers or hot water bottles. While top-rope belaying, stand on a piece of closed-cell foam, such as a sit pad, to insulate your feet from the snow (remove crampons first!). It makes a world of difference, especially if you’re highly sensitive to cold.
Hands are the most challenging body part to keep warm when ice climbing. It’s famous for the “screaming barfies,” the gut-wrenching feeling of circulation suddenly returning to your hands after climbing. While that’s sometimes unavoidable, you can be quite cozy while belaying. I use a pair of midweight insulated gloves or mittens as my base layer. On top that is an insulated, waterproof mitten. Mittens are significantly warmer than gloves and I’ve had no problems belaying in them.
Sometimes I stick adhesive toe warmers to the backs of my hands, too. They add warmth but don’t impede my grip. Finally, I have a pair of climbing gloves, usually lightweight, waterproof, and grippy. I switch into them just before I climb, and keep them next to my baselayer by my armpits when belaying to warm and dry them out. Yes, that is a minimum of three pairs of gloves or mittens, plus spares. Since gloves often get wet throughout the day, I always carry at least one extra pair. You can never have too many!
Since my hands are chronically cold, I use rechargeable hand warmers or refillable Zippo hand warmers to keep in my pockets. When I’m not belaying, I’m cradling them inside my mittens. While climbing, they’re in my mittens, safely stored in my pack ‑not in the snow- keeping them warm. A cold glove will not rewarm a cold hand. I also carry extra disposable hand warmers in my first aid kit.
Layers: the onion theory
You’ll want to be able to hike to the climb without sweating, be warm standing still belaying, and be comfortable moving and climbing, so plenty of layers is key. Wool is king. It’s warm, wicking, it doesn’t smell after repeated use, and it retains heat when damp. I start with wool base layers on my legs and torso. If it’s particularly cold, I wear two base layers. Warm air is trapped between the layers, adding insulation. To add warmth to my feet, I sport fashionable wool leg warmers. I top this off with a pair of waterproof shell pants. If the pants are baggy, I wear gaiters to protect my expensive clothing from crampon holes and prevent tripping.
On top I wear an insulated soft shell jacket like this one. If really cold, I wear another wool or capilene layer under that. Often this is what I’ll approach in. I top it off with a waterproof shell jacket while climbing.
For belaying, I bring the biggest, warmest, down jacket I can get my hands on, like this one. Wear it over your shell, and peel it off just before climbing. You can often share one with your partner so it stays warm. Male or female, the wonders of a down or wool skirt cannot be undersold. Wear it over your shell pants, and it works like a glorious mitten for your legs. I also bring a packable down vest as an extra layer. If in doubt, throw in that extra puffy. It’s better to look like a marshmallow and be warm than to be cold and miserable.
Photo by Rebecca Madore
Find a wool or fleece hat that fits under your climbing helmet. I bring another thicker hat for the hike out. I also wear a thick wool buff; it keeps my face warm by blocking snow and wind. Before leaving, apply a high SPF sunscreen or zinc to your face and neck, so you don’t freeze your hands reapplying as often. I keep extra sunscreen in a small screw cap container or tin so it won’t freeze. Bring SPF lip balm and keep it in an accessible pocket. If you have long hair, I recommend braiding and tucking it into your base layers to keep it out of the way. Finally, I wear eye protection, cheap sunglasses suffice, but if doing a long, snowy approach, glacier glasses are better.
If all else fails, just dance! In all seriousness, when shivering on a windy summit or shady belay ledge, the words of famed big wall climber Hans Florine come to mind: “movement equals heat.” Do some burpees or squats. Have a jumping jack contest. Whatever it is, get moving and have fun!
Photo of Sharon B. by Allison Snyder
Always check weather and conditions before setting out to climb. Often it’s not cold enough to warrant every tactic I’ve outlined. Sometimes you can even ice climb in a t‑shirt! It’s important to find what works for you and to be prepared. It’s crucial to be comfortable in order to have a productive learning environment and enjoy yourself.
If this article has enticed you to try ice climbing, we are here for you! Mountain Madness has experienced, certified guides working in Ouray and the San Juan Mountains this winter, and we offer courses in the North Cascades during the summer. Call to learn more!
- Mountain Madness guide Sharon Birchfield