Contrary to popular “non-climber” belief, the best weather conditions for climbing often occur during cold weather. The crux moves on your project on a hot (or worse yet, hot AND humid) summer day can easily feel several letter grades harder than it would on a cool, crisp winter day. With that in mind, sending odds can sometimes be dramatically increased for those that are willing to brave the cold. And while how cold is “too cold” to climb varies from person to person, here are some ideas for turning miserable, finger-numbing weather into perfect sending conditions. (Unless of course you’re a mountaineer…in which case you are another breed that thrives on the worst conditions possible.)
FOLLOW THE SUN.
“Sun’s out, gun’s out!” is a popular phrase amongst climbers this time of year. This mantra basically means that if the sun’s out, it’s a great day to climb, regardless of temperatures. The best winter climbing areas are those that receive either morning or all day sun (east or south facing cliffs). The sun will bake the rock so that your fingers (and the rest of you!) remain warm despite frigid morning temps. If you are in North Carolina, the best sun worshiping spots are Rumbling Bald, Looking Glass (south face), Stone Mountain, Rocky Face, Sauratown Mountain (click here for special access information), Cook’s Wall, The Dump, Rocky Face, and Asheboro Boulders (click here for special access information.)
STAY OUT OF THE WIND.
This one is simple in theory, but depending on the crag, can be hard to put into practice. Even the sunniest of cold days can take a miserable turn when the wind starts blowing. Choose areas that are sheltered from breezes rather than exposed outcroppings.
Layers are essential for any outdoor winter activity, but especially climbing, as your body will heat up and cool down a lot throughout the day. For really cold days, I like to layer a pair of tights under my climbing pants…often the outer layer is shed by the end of the day, but not always. A warm, down jacket is a must for belaying and hanging out at the base, but I generally leave it on the ground once I tie in. While climbing I’ll wear a lightweight soft shell (wool or fleece) if necessary, a long sleeve shirt, and generally a tank as a baselayer in case things start broiling by midafternoon. Oh, and if you do end up stripping down to climb, don’t forget to add a layer or two back on once you’re on the ground. Even if you feel warm when you get down, trust me you’ll cool off pretty quick. Nothing’s worse than freezing your butt off while belaying your partner because your down jacket is 15 feet to the right.
Winter is not the time to hop right on your roadside project sans warm-up. A brisk approach hike is great to get the blood pumping in your major muscle groups, or some jumping jacks/push-ups/burpees for a parking lot crag. Fingers can be prepped to pull hard by a doing a few warm-up routes, traversing at the base, or even just opening/closing hands repeatedly for a few minutes. (A product like Powerfingers is great for this…see review here.)
KEEP THOSE HANDS WARM.
Keeping your hands (and specifically fingers) warm is probably the factor that influences your winter climbing experience the most. Gloves (or mittens) are a must for down-time, whereas tossing a handwarmer in your chalkbag can make a HUGE difference on the rock. Another one of my personal favorite tricks is putting cold hands on the back of my neck while I’m shaking out.
FOOD AND HOT DRINKS.
Don’t skimp on food – eating will increase your metabolism and keep you fueled for sending. And stay hydrated – a thermos full of hot coffee/tea/cocoa can warm you from the inside out (as well as give you popularity points at the crag…if you bring enough to share!)
And for those of you who hit the crag with the whole family in tow, here are some ways to keep your little ones warm and cozy all day as well – because warm kids are happy kids, and sending around happy kids is much easier than sending around whiny, impatient, cranky, (insert your pet peeve word here.) So what are everyone else’s tips for staying warm when the mercury dips? And how cold is “too cold” for YOU?