Whether your motif is enjoyment or your love for fitness, rock climbing is a great sport for everyone keen on spending time outdoors. It is about balance and strength and enjoying a bird’s eye view of nature. It is also about conquering the mountain and yourself. But does that mean you should climb in any weather?
Despite the thrill and the enjoyment, rock climbing comes with certain risks, one of them being the weather. Cold weather opens the door to amazing climbing experiences. However, climbing in extremely cold weather is rather risky. Some people can handle lower temperatures better than others. But you need to find your own ratio and go climbing only in conditions that suit you.
The purpose of this guide is not to show you how to pull through the cold rough days. It is to guide you through the pros and cons of climbing in low temperatures and knowing when it is the right time to stop.
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Winter Climbing: What You Should Know
Whatever your experience and knowledge about cold-weather climbing, most experienced climbers would recommend the following:
Go climbing if the daily high is likely to hit 50 degrees and the chance of precipitation is less than 50%. You should avoid climbing if the daily high is not likely to hit 50 degrees or the chance of precipitation is 50% or more. Sure, some of the toughest outdoor professionals wouldn’t consider this too cold to climb. You should definitely figure out your own ratio.
Well-prepared climbers may think the low 50s cannot spoil the fun on a cool day. Generally, it all comes down to finding a spot out of the wind, having good layers. It is also about keeping yourself well-nourished and hydrated and having a thermos of hot drink. On the other hand, it may actually get too cold to hang onto the rock – at least, not comfortably. Your hands will get numb and all the fun of climbing may be lost.
This is not to say that climbing cannot be fun below 50°F. The truth is, for most people, it isn’t.
Climbing in Winter – Pros and Cons
To stay fit during winter, most climbers typically hit the climbing gym, pick another sport, or plan for the next season. Snow and cold weather can turn your climb into a perilous adventure. Though you may feel motivated and in need of an adrenaline burst you typically don’t get in a gym. In any way, you should consider some risks before packing your ice-climbing or rock-climbing gear.
Pros of Winter Climbing
The cooler the weather, the less overheated you get. There’s also more friction between the rock and your shoes. Given the extremely soft rubber on climbing shoes, your feet can easily get a firm hold on the tiniest edges. Low temps help them stay there. Furthermore, rubber on climbing shoes seems to be performing best in cold weather. This is the case with Five Ten Stealth C4 rubber, designed for temperatures between -40 and 50°F.
Staying outdoors in the winter can help overcome the difficulties and disorders typical of the season. It will strengthen your immune system and ease the feeling of anxiety that normally comes with winter. Spending time with your friends and family in the fresh air makes it a healthier alternative to whatever is your typical indoor activity. It also helps you stay fit for the next season!
Sometimes, climbing is associated with the feeling of fatigue and even pain. Wandering for hours on rocky terrain can cause leg cramps. The soft surface of the snow (even trampled snow) provides more comfort to your body. The difference is similar to that between running on grass and concrete. Winter climbing can be a great opportunity for you to develop mountaineering fitness, so you can spend more time climbing when the snow melts.
Winter climbing gives you a chance to try ice climbing. If you’re addicted to the thrill of the adrenaline rush, ice climbing can be an amazing experience. Providing you find the ice which is thick enough and resilient to hold an ax. Climbing across seasons may be an entirely different experience in the same place only a few months apart.
What we find exciting about winter climbing is that you’re finding routes that are unavailable to those less committed and less adrenaline-driven. Climbing a steep couloir over icefalls can open up a stunning world of possibilities, with mountains becoming your own playground.
Regardless of your preferences, drinking a hot drink after several hours of winter climbing is certainly one of the most exciting gastronomic experiences.
Climbing burns a lot of calories, especially in cold weather. By snacking on something occasionally, you will not only add much-needed energy but will also help you maintain the necessary body heat.
Cons of Winter Climbing
Climbing in the winter is far more than gear packing and setting off on the trail. Still, despite the risks, the people climbing in the negative temperatures are the most committed climbers there are. You need to think about getting there, the condition of trails, all the layers you’re going to need. More importantly, you need to know how you will secure yourself when climbing in the condition of snow and ice.
The conditions may defeat you even before you reach the place because the roads had not been plowed, or the threat of an avalanche.
Even though it clings to the tiniest of edges, the rubber on your winter shoes will be harder. Therefore, it’ll be more difficult to mold to the shape of the rock.
You may be well-dressed and warm enough, but the rope will numb your hands, thereby making your climbing riskier and certainly more challenging. The fact that you’ll be wearing lots of clothes and gear to keep you warm will make you heavy and reduce your mobility.
Climbing in Cold Weather Can Be Dangerous
There are certain risks associated with the cold, like frostbite and hypothermia. Even if you avoid them, the cold is still dangerous.
Cold can make it difficult to focus and also force you into some bad decisions. If you’re in pain and half-frozen, it can significantly affect your mental state and thus make any of the human-caused risks. Besides, when your muscles start cramping because of the cold, you’re more likely to make a mistake when climbing.
The avalanche danger is certainly the one you need to be concerned with. It may be common to alpine ice routes, but you should be aware of it each time you’re climbing. Large sections of snow come loose and find the path of least resistance to the ground, which may be very bad news for climbers. An avalanche can happen suddenly and have horrible consequences. More importantly – it can completely wipe out the route you are climbing on and is hard to predict.
You can mitigate the risk by carrying avalanche gear on alpine routes. Still, there’s a chance it may be too much weight to drag around on challenging terrain. The least you can do is read avalanche reports for the area you’ll be climbing in.
The Best Temperature to Climb
While the answer to the question about how cold is cold enough to climb is highly individual and depends on a variety of factors, there is a consensus on the ideal temperature for each climbing type.
Rock Climbing With Ropes
If you’re a fan of roped climbing (top-rope climbing, sport climbing, and trad climbing) you should consider a few details. Think about the area you’re climbing (dry or humid), is the cliff in the shade or sun, and whether you climb during summer or winter. Rock climbing with ropes can be a lot of fun in low temperatures because there’s more friction. A better grip on the ropes and shoes, as well.
You don’t have to hydrate frequently, because your body will lose less water and you are highly unlikely to get sunburnt. If rock climbing using ropes is your cup of tea, you should look for temperatures between 32°F and 80°F, which makes fall and some parts of spring ideal for it.
To fully enjoy bouldering, friction is something you need to consider, meaning that cold rock, minimal moisture, sweat, and hand grease are what you’re looking for. Fall and some parts of spring are the best seasons for bouldering. On average, you should practice bouldering in lower temperatures than roped climbing. If you’re a fan of bouldering, you should pick temperatures between 32°F and 50°F but you should be comfortable with up to 80°F.
While bouldering and roped climbing make lots of fun in fall and spring, ice climbing is best done in freezing temperatures. Temperatures closer to 30°F make ice climbing risky due to the melting and icefalls. If you’re more of a winter person, you should climb in temperatures lower than 2°F.
If you want to avoid freezing, you’ll need lots of layers which, on the other hand, significantly reduce your mobility and also add weight. Experienced climbers choose the dead of winter for their ice climbing because icefalls thicken and solidify, thereby reducing the chance of breakage.
Same as ice climbing, alpinism in temperatures above freezing point may be dangerous because of the dripping ice. This is why climbers commonly practice it in freezing temperatures. This is because the ice needs to be held in place to prevent any accidental falls. On the other hand, the weather should not be too cold to expose you to the risk of hypothermia.
Some studies indicate that cold weather is an important element in mortality rates, primarily for the risk of hypothermia. Accordingly, for your own safety, alpinism needs temperatures the human body can sustain. Therefore, the ideal weather for alpinism is during summer when the temperatures are not extreme.
Perks of Being Prepared for Climbing in Bad Weather
Regardless of the season or the temperature, you want your climb to go perfectly. The fact is that it doesn’t always turn out to be the way you expected, but it seldom goes bad. This is why you should always have a backup plan or a couple of those. It will help you make the right decision and handle the situation even if things turn out badly.
You should consider bringing extra supplies and climbing gear – even those you think you won’t need. Especially if those don’t take up much space. Prevention is better than cure.
Packing layers that you can easily add and remove will help keep your body at an optimal temperature without reducing your mobility. This is to say that you should pack the appropriate climbing apparel. It may be a challenging thing to do in cold weather, but planning ahead may save the day.
Decision Making – Should You Climb in Extremely Cold Weather?
Now that you’ve read about the pros and cons of winter climbing, we arrive at the most critical part – decision making. Other people’s recommendations and experiences may or may not influence you. Nevertheless, the decision of whether to climb in cold weather is exclusively up to you. Here are some tips on how to make your decisions as smoothly as possible.
This is especially important in ice climbing, as adequate decision making can mitigate every single risk we discussed in this article. Same as most accidents can be easily associated with one or a series of bad decisions.
Making the right decisions in climbing is something you cannot learn by simply watching videos or reading articles. You actually need to interact with people who have extensive experience in climbing and know how to handle awry situations, and ideally, spend some time with them. Only then you’ll be able to evaluate the risks and make the right decision.
Meanwhile, you should consider relying on (and developing) your critical thinking skills by:
- Avoiding judgments based on recent information – Yesterday was a great day for climbing, and you reckon it’ll be the same today. Weather can change very quickly.
- Matching your beliefs with your actions – You want to climb a route you know is way too challenging for you to climb safely.
- Taking into account all available information, not only the information that matches your judgment – You ignore reports warning of avalanche or snowstorm and decide to climb the route because it looks good from the bottom.
- Don’t assume you know more than you actually do – You decide to climb a route because you don’t know the consequences of ice climbing falls.
Learning to recognize and avoid these obstacles to critical thinking can help you evaluate risks and mitigate them as you go, which can significantly improve your decision-making and make climbing more fun and less hazardous, even in the cold weather.