Climb skills: winter climbing

Posted by Jonathan Garside on 17/09/2010
Guest climbing on the BMC International Meet 2005

Thinking of leaving the comfort of the climbing wall for the corries this season? The good news is that if you’re an experienced summer climber many of your skills are directly transferable to the winter environment.

But the bad news is that if you’ve not done much hill walking you might need to go back to school to bone up on some mountaineering basics like navigation. Assuming you’ve done that and are raring to go, here are our top ten winter climbing tips:

1. Darkness reigns.
It’s cold, walking in takes time and the days are short. It often seems a rite of passage to finish a route in the dark. However, if you start early enough and choose a route well within your capabilities that needn’t be the case. But never bet on it, always take a head torch and extra clothing in case it all takes longer than you expect.

2. Check the weather
We (happily) climb in winter in much worse weather than we do in summer, so you need to understand weather systems more thoroughly. There are some simple rules though, such as weather systems from the north and east will bring colder winter weather than those from the south and west. Pick up a book on mountain weather and thumb through it - it’ll more than pay off.

3. Check the avalanche forecast
If there’s one available you’d be a fool not to check it! Most people caught in an avalanche trigger it themselves. Climbers are particularly vulnerable. The approach slopes to many routes are at the critical angle for avalanches to occur, and many of the climbing cliffs have an easterly and northerly aspect. That’s in the lee side of our predominantly southwesterly weather systems - ideal for snow accumulation. Learn about ways of assessing the snow pack yourself – you’re the one walking on it, and so you’ll be the one caught in any avalanche. 

The FREE "Be Avalanche Aware" guidance outlines the decision making process and fundamental considerations of assessing avalanche hazards in the winter mountains. Download this from the sportscotland Avalanche Information Service, where you can also see daily avalanche forecasts for the popular parts of the Scottish Highlands.

Watch our winter walking and climbing skills video series:

4. Racking up 

In summer we get to the bottom of our climb and rack up, but in winter the bottom of a climb is often on steep ground. Rack up on some flat ground, which may be at the bottom of the approach slope to your route. Minimise your rack and be aware that camming devices don’t work very well in parallel icy cracks. You may not have used pegs before but use them sparingly, since repeated use damaged the rock.

5. Helmets
You could be showered with snow, ice or even rock – so wear one. Check you can fit a hat underneath it, and you may want to wear it under the hood of your jacket.

6. Belay out of the fall line
Think carefully about where you belay so that if seconding, you’re not going to get showered by debris knocked down by the leader. For the same cunning reason it’s not a very good idea to climb a route directly below another party.

7. Get gear in early
In winter the belays may not be as substantial as in summer - to say the least - so it’s vital to get your first runner as soon as possible, even if only a few metres above the belay. When leading pitches it’s likely that you’ll have to clean out cracks full of snow to find runner placements. Using double ropes and having long extenders can make it easier to protect pitches.

8. Communication
Even in good weather it can be very hard to communicate with your partner, so work out a good communication system in advance.

9. Cornices
A large cornice can literally make it impossible to finish a route, so before deciding on your route make an assessment on whether you think you’ll encounter one of these beasts. This information can be gleaned from avalanche reports, guidebooks, thinking about the recent weather conditions, or simply by asking around.

10. Finishing your route
Even if there’s no cornice the last pitch of a winter route is often on a steep snow slope with no gear. If there is a belay close to the top consider using it, as it will provide the leader with maximum rope when topping out. Climbers often forget that once they’ve finished climbing they have to walk back down. Work out on the map where you’re going to top out, and plan your descent route before you hit the howling gales of the summit plateau in failing light.

It’s impossible to cover all you need to know about winter climbing in a page or two of a magazine, or indeed a whole magazine. The usual recommendations apply. Do the research. Team up with experienced friends, and consider going on a course or hiring a guide for a day. Many confident rock climbers do start their winter careers with some formal instruction, it can give you a great foundation. 

Buy the Winter Essentials DVD

EXPERT Q&A

Our winter climbing expert is Roger Wild. Roger is an extremely experienced mountaineer, and the Mountain Safety Adviser for the Mountaineering Council of Scotland. He was a key member of the production team on the new Winter Essentials DVD.

Q. I’ve done lots of grade I and II gullies – how do I progress to harder climbs?

A. If leading grade II causes you no great problems, consider teaming up with a more experienced climber to try a grade III. You could lead the easier pitches and second the harder ones. Grade III ice climbs have pitches of continuous ice, so try to get some experience seconding these before launching out on the sharp end, and practice placing ice screws when seconding hard sections. Assess your ability to place protection on mixed ground too. Look for climbs with a split II/III grade but be aware that this could simply mean that conditions on the route often vary. Ask around to find a climb that’s in “good nick”, stick to shorter routes to begin with, and build up your experience progressively.

Q. Is it best to use double or single ropes?

A. It depends on the route. Advantages of double ropes are; easier abseil escape, reduced drag on runners, and if one rope gets cut in a fall there’s a chance that the other rope will hold you. Disadvantages include the extra weight and increased difficulty with rope management on easier ground. Generally, I prefer to use double ropes on gullies and face climbs, and single ropes on ridges which have easier sections where moving together will be possible. If the technical grade is near your limit then double ropes may be best, especially if retreat by abseil is a possibility.

Q.When topping out in poor visibility on a climb on Ben Nevis, how can I work out my position and plot a course to get down safely?

A. Check the guidebook carefully before starting the climb and work out where on the map the climb finishes. Harvey Maps produce an excellent 1:12,500 scale Ben Nevis Summit map that clearly shows the main ridges and gullies. Make a note of the bearings and distances before topping out and have your map and compass handy. Check out the excellent information page on the MCofS website

Watch the BMC International Winter Meet teaser on BMC TV:

Watch the BMC Winter Essentials DVD trailer on BMC TV:

Buy the Winter Essentials DVD



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1) Anonymous User
24/03/2016
This was a great help for me as I have not been on the hills with crampons and ice axe before in winter. I will get your DVD on winter essentials. I had a bad experience just a week a go and I needed help. So I think the DVD and some help from friends will come in handy.

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