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  • Writer's pictureSophie Jenkins

How To Stay Warm While Winter Climbing

The latest intake of NZAT has been ice climbing in Canada for January 2023. In the last few weeks, we’ve climbed in a variety of conditions, from drippy sun-baked ice at around 0°C, to some unpleasant -30°C cragging. A big part of this trip for the new intake was learning how to operate well in cold conditions. This article is a synthesis of the systems that I and others have developed, both ice climbing in Canada and back in NZ.


Jaz and Rose have written articles on gear and clothing for winter ice and mixed climbing that are also worth reading. This article is updated with clothing available in 2023, and a few tricks I’ve learned about not becoming a human popsicle.

The crew wearing everything we own on a cold day at Evan Thomas crag

CLOTHING

This little dude has the right layering system

Everyone has their opinion on what the best layering system is - this list is what works for me and some comments on how I choose. NZAT is sponsored by Macpac, however I only review gear I love using - I've linked some of my favourites below. The system I used for ice climbing in Canada is generally very similar to what I use in NZ.


Top half

  • Beanie In colder weather I wear a thin beanie, otherwise I just use the hood of my Macpac Prothermal.

  • Hooded Baselayer The hooded Macpac Prothermal is awesome, we wore these nearly every single day in Canada. They dry much faster than merino and breathe well.

  • Buff I only use a neck gaiter if it’s either very cold or to protect myself from the sun. I like to use a fleece neck gaiter such as the Macpac Kaka when it’s really cold.

  • Shell Hardshell (e.g. Macpac Lightweight Prophet Jacket), or Softshell if warm(ish) and dry - I really like climbing in the Macpac Mannering Jacket if I can get away with it.

The above layers are my ‘moving’ layers (and sometimes I remove the shell on the approach). I add more layers as conditions require:

  • Mid-layers When it goes below about -5°C I add a Macpac Nitro fleece to the layers above (while climbing, but not during the approach). The Nitro is my favourite mid-layer - It’s incredibly breathable, never seems to get wet and doesn’t restrict mobility at all. On the days when it was below -20°C, or for climbing in the early morning in NZ I add a Pisa jacket as a second mid-layer.

  • Belay Jacket A down jacket (Macpac Arrowsmith) when it’s cold and dry, or a synthetic jacket if it’s wet (Macpac Pulsar Plus). These are sized larger than my other layers so they can fit over the top of my shell without restricting mobility or compressing the down. On some very cold crag days in Canada, I took both jackets and wore them together - if I’m only a short walk from the car I might as well be warm on belay! For alpine routes in NZ, I only ever take one and just suffer a bit more.

Bottom half

  • Baselayer I love the Macpac NZAT sleeveless onesie - It’s a good weight for ice and mixed climbing, it has chest pockets to store my phone, and I put all my gloves down the front to keep them warm and they can’t fall out. Macpac Prothermal leggings are also a great option, particularly in warmer conditions.

  • Shell pants Either hardshell pants or softshell pants, depending on how wet the climbing is, how much walking you have to do and your preference.

Hands

The gloves I choose depend on the temperature, the type of climbing I’m doing and whether it’s wet, but I have 5 main types:

  • Lightweight lead gloves (Macpac dash gloves). These are my favourite gloves for mixed climbing and when it’s very warm.

  • Lead gloves. A lightly insulated lead glove, for hard ice leads and mixed leads when Dash gloves are too cold. Macpac has something in the works here. Camp and Black Diamond currently make some great gloves - fit is the most important.

  • Gloves for wet ice/snow Nothing beats the Showa Temres for leading warm, wet ice/snow, and I found these were warm enough for leading even at -10 in Canada.

  • Warm lead gloves / seconding gloves (Macpac Powder gloves) These are my ‘all purpose’ gloves that come out on easier ice leads, when I’m seconding, and even at belays if it’s not that cold. They can do everything the other gloves do, but have a bit more warmth than my other lead gloves, and a bit less dexterity.

  • Belay gloves. I like to use mitts, many people like three-finger gloves for a bit of extra dexterity.

Feet

Single boots with an integrated gaiter, such as the La Sportiva G5 and Scarpa Phantom Tech are the gold standard for winter climbing and are also excellent for general mountaineering in NZ. I used Phantom Techs in Canada. If I knew I was prone to cold toes or had had previous injuries, and money was not a concern, I would still use this type of boot and buy some heated socks for ice climbing in Canada on the colder days. There are two other options that are worth considering:

  • Double boots such as the La Sportiva G2SM are warmer but are heavier and bulkier. A few of us used double boots, due to concerns about cold feet and to avoid buying a separate set of boots for future expeditions.

  • Leather boots such as the La Sportiva Nepal Cube can work if you’re careful about your toes and don’t tend to get too cold. One member of our group used these down to -30°C and appears to be immune to the cold.

Socks and boot sizing

This is personal preference to some extent. Boots that are a tighter fit will usually have less heel lift but also tend to restrict blood flow causing colder toes. My solution is to have a slightly more

comfortable boot size so I have options. When I want my boots to feel snug and secure for harder mixed/ice climbing, I add a pair of thin Macpac trail socks over the top of my normal socks - these add a small amount of volume without causing loose fabric or sliding at the heel. If it’s very cold, I can improve blood flow by lacing my boots less tightly.


STAYING WARM

Maddy on a chilly approach.

Clothing is only half of the puzzle of staying warm and functional. Here’s a collection of other things I and others use. My goal is always to stay warm and dry enough to function but not wear so many layers that I lose mobility when climbing. Managing myself well on really cold days means that most of the time I only suffer a bit, and am not in danger of cold injuries.


Manage sweat

Dry skin = warmth. For any crag that isn’t very close to the road, it’s hard not to sweat on the approach and then cool down when you stop. Here are some ways to manage this:

  • Carry a spare base layer then change out of the sweaty layer near the base of a route. For longer approaches, I opted to swap into dry socks at the base of the route as well.

  • Wear some light gloves on the approach that I don’t intend to carry on route or climb in - I like the Macpac Tech Fleece Glove, or the liners to my Macpac Powder gloves.

  • Keep “moving” layers are pretty minimal - It’s better to start a little cold than get drenched in sweat. For me this generally means a Macpac hooded prothermal, NZAT onesie and shell pants of some kind, then I add a Pisa jacket or shell as needed.

Keep Moving

If I stand around doing nothing and thinking about how cold I am, I cool down incredibly fast.

  • Get in the car in your ‘moving’ layers, and be packed so no one has to stand around waiting for anyone to get ready.

  • Move when belaying - walk on the spot, swing your arms, whatever you can reasonably do. On crag days, I like to run up and down a tiny hill a couple of times if I feel chilly.

Food and drink

Food (particularly sweet food), hot drinks and general hydration are key to warmth. What and when you eat and drink is personal choice, but I have noticed many climbers are bad at eating and drinking consistently enough.

  • Most of the time in Canada, the only water we would carry was a 1L thermos of hot drinks each. I like to have sweet drinks such as hot Gatorade powder or tea with honey.

  • To remind myself to eat consistently, I try to eat at least something at every belay. Find a system that works for you


Hands and feet

This seems to vary a lot by person. The key for me has been experimenting until I find things that work. That being said, here's what (mostly) works for me:

  • My lead gloves and belay gloves live inside my onesie, between my baselayer and other layers while they are not in use - this way they are always warm and dry-ish when I need them.

  • I put hand warmers in my belay gloves on colder days! I then have a hot drink right before I lead. For me, doing this means I avoid bad barfies / hot aches in most conditions.

  • On a multi-pitch climb, if the first pitch is easy or I am the second, I try to give myself hot aches. I found this similar to ‘flash pump’ - hot aches were often not as bad if I’d had them once already that day.

  • On really cold days I do a lot of walking on the spot, leg swings, squats and so on to improve blood flow to my toes. I wore Scarpa Phantom Tech boots rather than double boots so this was important when it was below -20°C.

  • I carried toe warmers as back up on colder days but only used them once. I found that toe warmers didn’t fit well in the ‘toe’ of my boots, so a solution was to stick them to the arch of my foot. Worth a try.

  • Many of the Canadian locals own Lenz heated socks and rave about them. I haven’t tried these so can’t comment, but I was definitely jealous. This could be a game changer if you have had cold injuries or are prone to cold feet.

I'd love to hear everyone else's tips and tricks, and comments on layering systems - please comment on anything I've missed so I can add to this (already very long) article!


Me and Henry "Pumpkin" Booker suffering at -30°C



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