This is an article that I wrote for MSR's blog. You can find it published on their site here.
The freedom of moving high in the mountains is one of the best feelings in the world. Unfortunately for many with the mountain climbing bug, these experiences are limited to a few summer-time months. If this is you, then what do you do with your mountain-starved soul the other eight to nine months out of the year? Do you catch yourself dreaming of trails through colorful alpine meadows and scrambles up high rocky ridges? You might be able to keep your soul semi-satisfied by climbing lowland rock, heading to the busy ski resort, or holing up with some good mountaineering literature, but we all know that these are just meager replacements for the real thing—the deeply rewarding adventure of climbing mountains.
So why not climb mountains the rest of the year as well? Particularly, in the winter and spring?
Yeah, it’s complicated, I know. The weather is not as good. Days are short. It’s really, really cold. Snow and ice make what would be simple summer scrambles committing and dangerous. There’s the risk of an early entombment by avalanche. And all that extra gear…
But I would argue that it’s worth it. So worth it. If not just for the freedom and challenge of moving in the hills year-round, off season climbing is great preparation for bigger mountains like Mt. Rainier or Denali, where “winter conditions” permanently exist.
After I moved to Seattle two years ago, I had a hard time getting though my first Pacific Northwest winter. It was rainy and dark, and the dry and sunny rock climbing that I was used to coming from the Front Range of Colorado was not always an option. I realized I needed to diversify my skillset, otherwise I’d be stuck daydreaming of summer. Enter winter climbing.
What’s the best way to get started? Here are a few of my observations.
1. Find a partner and/or mentor.
This might be the crux! Finding someone with an obsessive love for the mountains to be your partner on cold winter climbs can be tough.
Ideally this person is more experienced then you and can act as a mentor. The nuances of snow, weather, clothing, and equipment are a bit overwhelming in the winter, so it is almost essential to find someone to learn from. And sadly, the practice of mentoring seems to be dying out in our Information Age. You can easily find articles like this and go try something new on your own, which is good and bad. It’s wonderful that you can learn so much for free and on your own, but nothing replaces being “in the field” with someone more knowledgeable than you. So how do you find a mentor? First, they are never strangers—they can only be found among the people with whom you already interact. Search your current network. Maybe you can be introduced to a friend-of-a-friend who gets after it year ‘round. Oftentimes it is the mentor that chooses you, not the other way around. So be someone you would want to climb with.
2. Learn about snow.
Avalanche awareness may be the biggest barrier to getting into winter climbing. Don’t let it be a barrier and be proactive about learning. There are abundant resources out there. Reading a book with good visuals is also recommended, but there is no replacing learning from experience. Taking an avalanche awareness course is recommended, especially if your climbing partner is not an expert. Most areas have avalanche danger forecasting, like what’s provided by the Northwest Avalanche Center here in Washington.
Cornices, another winter-specific danger, form when windblown snow accumulates horizontally on ridge crests, hanging suspended out past supporting rock. Like avalanche slopes, cornices can collapse without warning, or a climber could break through. To be safe, travel well below the probable fracture line, which can be much lower than you’d think. Mature cornices could have a fracture line 30 or more feet back from the lip. The safest strategy is to completely avoid traveling near cornices.
3. Pick an objective.
Start small. Pick a route that you can very comfortable climb without a rope in the summer. This may mean a class 1 “hike.” Remember that what is trivial in the summer turns into an exciting challenge in the winter. Think Grade 1 or 2 for starters. Winter specific route information can be hard to find. Some winter climbing beta can be found on SummitPost.com, so start here. Study route beta for summer conditions online (summitpost.com and mountainproject.com) and in physical guidebooks, and check online trip reports, at the very least. You can’t bet on finding a climbers trail—it will be buried in snow!—so it is extra important to be knowledgeable of the main features of your chosen route. Print out a photo of the whole route to take with you, as well as extra photos of key features, including the descent (!!).
I’ve listed a few examples climbs to get the wheels turning. There is lots of information online about each of these popular routes. If you pick a nice weekend day to climb any of them, you should have company and hopefully a pre-broken trail!
Lion Head Route, Mt. Washington (6288’), New Hampshire.
What Mt. Washington lacks in height, it makes up for with brutal weather. The wind and cold temperatures can be extremely severe, so pay attention to the weather forecast. The Lion Head Route is perhaps the easiest and least avalanche prone route to the summit.
East Ridge, Quandary Peak (14,265’), Colorado.
This may be the most popular first Colorado fourteener to climb in the winter. The trailhead near 11,000ft is accessible in the winter, making the climb itself only about 3000ft. The avalanche danger on the ridge is low. I climbed this route a while ago on a warm spring day with my wife and forgot sunscreen. Long story short, because of the intense radiation due to the snow-covered slopes and high elevation, we looked like Oompa Loompas for the next week.
Worm Flows Route, Mt. St. Helens (8,364’), Washington.
Since the top got blown off, this has become a much more reasonable climb in the winter. As with the Lion Head Route, don’t let the lack of elevation deceive you—this mountain gets dumped on in the winter! This route is long—gainng about 5,700 feet in elevation over about 6 miles from trailhead to summit, so start early.
Whitney Trail Route, Mt. Whitney (14,505’), California.
Whitney is kind of the holy grail of winter mountaineering in California, and not necessarily a good first winter climb, though it is reasonably well sought-after, with good information available. Most of the Californian’s I met when I climbed Denali had done a practice climb on Whitney in winter as training. The Whitney Trail is a long trail in the summer, gaining almost 6000ft, so be prepared for a very long day, or better yet, plan to bivy. The Mountaineers Route is also a popular objective in winter, though it is much more technical.
4. Gather the right clothing.
It goes without saying that it’s important to stay warm and dry. We do want this to be fun, right? OK, maybe we just want to survive. The ideal system will vary based on preference, weather, season, and location.
A basic system includes:
· Warm wool socks
· Long johns
· Long sleeve baselayer, preferably with a hood (no cotton!)
· Soft shell and/or hard shell pants depending on conditions
· Breathable insulated mid-layer or fleece
· Shell jacket
· Gloves: two or three pairs recommended to have an extra dry pair
· Warm hat
· Balaclava or BUFF for wind and sun protection
· Sunglasses: category 3 or 4 lenses
Dealing with gloves is one of the trickiest issues of cold weather climbing. You may have to sacrifice warmth and waterproofness for dexterity. I usually carry a thinner fitted glove and a bigger warmer and more waterproof glove. If your gloves get wet, don’t worry—this is usually unavoidable when you plunge your hands in snow for hours. That’s why you pack extras.
5. Gather the right gear.
My usual tactic is to borrow as much as I can so I can try difference kinds of gear out before spending large amounts of money. And don’t be afraid to try to make do with what you already have. I used waterproof summer boots for many of my first winter jaunts—I just made sure that my socks were extra thick! It’s better to get after it then sit around blabbering about the newest technology and worrying about getting the “right” gear. Sometimes the right gear is what you already have or your grandpa’s hand-me-downs. Either way, it will be hard to get around having to invest in some new and expensive shiny things, because the right gear is about your comfort and safety.
Below is a basic list for the new winter mountaineer. Yeah, it’s long. If you haven’t realized it yet, you have to carry a lot more in the winter.
· 45ish liter pack
· Harness with adjustable leg loops (to fit over bulky clothing)
· Dry-treated rope
· Boots: leather insulated mountaineering boots (warmer and stiffer than hiking boots)
· Crampons: step in mountaineering (strap-on) crampons with horizontal front points.
· Mountaineering ice axe and/or ice tools depending on route
· Climbing helmet
· Snowshoes or skis
· Trekking poles
· Avalanche beacon and probe
· Nalgene w/bottle insulator (so your water doesn’t freeze!)
· Small thermos: optional, but nice to have
· Backpack: 35 – 70 liters.
· Map and compass (be prepared to navigate in a whiteout)
· Food: anything that can easily and quickly be stuffed in your mouth!
· Climbing gear (pickets, cams, stoppers, pitons, ice screws, etc) depending on route
If you’re planning to bivy, you’re going to need a new tent—3-season tents are not designed to withstand the weight of snow or sub-freezing temperatures. A single wall tent is usually the lightest/best option. If you are basecamping, a double-wall tent cuts back on condensation, and might be worth the weight. It’s normal for temperatures to drop to around 0°F in most ranges, so bring a warm enough sleeping bag. An insulated sleeping pad is essential—nothing steels heat like lying on a bed of snow! Also, you’ll be carrying a warm parka, so plan on wearing it to bed!
If you’re not planning on bivying, then pay attention to time, and bail if you’re moving too slow. Remember, days are short! Know the time of sunset. Bringing an emergency bivy sack or shelter is wise. They are super light and usually not too expensive.
Ideal climbing protection is different in the winter. Spring-loaded cams that are bomber in the summer can be a joke in an icy crack, or when frozen solid due to full-on winter conditions. Passive protection, like stoppers and tri-cams, works regardless of ice, so if your route calls for rock protection, carry some cams, but make sure you have plenty of passive protection. Oftentimes, pitons are thrown onto a winter rack because they can be used in thin cracks and seams—where other rock protection does not work. It can be important to have this option when protection is hard to come by (because it’s covered by ice and snow). Pickets are often carried to the top of a climb without being used—they require very firm snow conditions, which can be hard to find in the winter. If all of this protection-talk sounds scary, stick to easy climbs that don’t require roping up, especially if winter climbing is new for you.
A note on food: besides giving you sustained energy, eating keeps you warm, so bring enough to be able to eat consistently. Because it’s cold, you may not feel thirsty, so you will also have to force yourself to drink consistently to stay hydrated.
6. Go for it!
Start small and find the right challenge for you. If you want, take a course. Many guiding companies offer winter climbing courses in New England, the Rockies, Sierras, and Cascades. Try to find opportunities to learn new skills like ice climbing and backcountry skiing that you can bring to the mountains in winters to come. Check the weather. Check noaa.gov and use the spot forecasting function. Mountain-forcast.com is also helpful. Call the local ranger station to ask about up-to-date conditions if you can. Most importantly, get out there, make wise decisions, and enjoy the beautiful transformation winter brings to the mountains.