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Sharon pic 31

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

Finishing touches

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. 

Just Dance!

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

In closing

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