Winter climbing: cold goals

Posted by Alex Messenger on 23/12/2014
Ready for The Secret? Photo: Sam Loveday.

What will this winter bring? Are you thinking of stepping up your grade and going for that dream classic – or perhaps you’re secretly hankering after a new route? Whatever your aspirations, we all know that UK winters are very fickle –you need to stack the odds in your favour. Andy Turner explains more.

Check conditions

If the climb’s not ‘in’ then you can forget everything else, so you need to do your homework to discover what conditions are best for your target. Ice routes take the longest to come into condition and may require many freeze/ thaw cycles to form, yet can be gone in hours, never to return that season. Mixed lines can come in overnight: if the temperatures have been cold enough to freeze the turf for a few days then all it takes is an arctic blast to rime the cliffs up and you’re in business. It can practically happen in front of your face.

Years ago predicting mountain conditions was a hit or miss affair but the internet has cured that. If a new line is your goal then check out the line beforehand on one of those horrible wet autumn days. Look at the way the line faces and the altitude; does it require frozen turf; what gear does it take? Have several objectives in mind so you have options when the weathers not playing ball.

Get training

Attempting first ascents or racking up big routes to make the most of your ‘northern mini-break’ can be the making or breaking of most people, however fit you are. So to give yourself the best chance of completing your dream route it’s worth putting time in beforehand. I spend most of the summer rock climbing, but come autumn I’ll up the workload down the wall, trying to gain stamina for those three-hour winter leads. Don’t neglect hill fitness either; you want to arrive fresh at the base of your route.

Fine tune your skills. If you have an old drystone (i.e. railway tunnel) wall near you then try climbing on it with your axes and crampons. This will improve your confidence using small placements and traversing will increase stamina. Never use established summer crags though – you’ll trash them. Check out the various training aids on the market – Alpkit Figfour tools are idea: they don’t damage holds, or other people.

Stay sharp

This is the expensive part. If you want to climb harder, you’re wasting your time (and scaring yourself) climbing with blunt picks and front points. Invest in a new set at the start of the season and keep them sharp. Save these picks for your hard routes and keep last season’s for easier routes. Mono point crampons can help tremendously: trying to get two blunt front points onto a small edge is hard; inevitably one point levers the other off.

If you’re already a mono convert then consider swapping the length of the points when changing from ice to mixed routes: long points will burn your calves out quickly on mixed ground. If the budget allows then get some of the modern comp tools with an ergo handle, such as the Petzl Nomic. This handle helps tremendously when having to do long hard pitches; it’s more comfortable and amazingly powerful.

Clothing

British winters can throw everything at you so it helps to have a big wardrobe. On horrible days at the start of the season I’ll wear full Gore-tex and probably take five pairs of gloves. On fine, sunny days (like we had last winter) I’ll spend most of my time in softshell – it aids movement as well as being lighter and more breathable.

Consider taking gloves for specific jobs: thin ones (for the walk in and gearing up), big woolly ones (for wading up to the bottom of the route and walking off) and a couple of thin dextrous pairs (for climbing in – kept inside your jacket to keep them warm). I also take a spare base layer for the bottom of the route so the soaking one from the walk-in doesn’t cool me down.

Snacks

I find it hard to drink cold liquids on the hill so I’ll try and drink at least a litre of water before I leave the car. If there’s room I’ll take a small flask with hot juice in for the walk in, and maybe on the route – it can be a good boost before attempting the next hard pitch. Foodwise, I’ll force some muesli and toast down my neck in the morning then take a combination of sandwiches/ bagels and chocolate/ museli bars.

Have the bars to hand whilst climbing so you can keep energy levels up. Then make sure to re-hydrate on your return of the hill for the next day’s activity. My final tip? I prefer to get up a little earlier and walk in at my own slow pace, rather than rush in chasing others, that way I get to the bottom of the route as fresh as possible and ready to get stuckin .

Andy Turner operates at the cutting edge of UK winter climbing. In 2007 he made the hardest onsight of a UK winter route, this season saw him teaming up with Dave Macleod for seven classics in seven days. He works as an instructor and is sponsored by Mountain Equipment, Petzl, La Sportiva and Julbo. See www.andyturnerclimbing.co.uk.

Expert Q&A

This issue’s climbing expert is icy cranker Ian Parnell. Ian has grabbed many a coveted line both at home and abroad so he knows a thing or two about goals. Read his blog at: ianparnellphotography.blogspot.com

Q. Does training for rock climbing help winter climbing?
A.
Absolutely, general rock climbing fitness will be extremely helpful – just look at Andy Turner, Guy Robertson, Iain Small or Dave MacLeod, all very fit rock climbers. However winter leads tend to be much longer drawn out affairs, so stamina will be more important than power. Also – luckily for those of us of more robust stature – having an axe in each hand completely eliminates the need for high levels of finger strength. Perhaps the key element to success (but the hardest thing to train) is a steady ‘trad head’.

Q. Is it worth heading to an ice wall?
A.
Real ice walls are superb for novices or for intermediate climbers looking to shake off the pre-season rust. But, whilst some have hanging logs or suspended buckets of ice for more advanced training, most are of limited value for those who climb at the higher grades. If you do head indoors, don’t be tempted to hook other peoples’ placements – it’s essential that you make proper swings as you would on virgin ice outdoors. Within five minutes you’ll notice the difference in your workout!

Q. What's the best way to improve my technique?
A.
By far the best way is to second harder routes. Obviously that may not come as good news to your mate, so a good alternative is to go winter bouldering – yes it does exist! Keep low, and perhaps leave your crampons off. Or, more practically, find somewhere environmentally sensible that you can play on rock with your tools – old stone bridges can offer great thin hooking.

Q. I lead E1. What winter grade should I aspire to?
A.
If you’ve never winter climbed before then start like everyone else with grade IIs and work up, step-by-step. I know that sounds boring but believe me it’s worth it; I was leading E5s when I first led The Runnel (II). If you’re a natural, you will soon pick up the basics and grade Vs and VIs are within the abilities of many climbers. Some people just take to winter and others don’t; I know E1 leaders who climb grade VII and E7 leaders who fail on grade Vs.

WATCH: Winter Essentials DVD trailer

WATCH: Winter skills 1.9: travelling in the winter hills

WATCH: Winter skills 3.5: climbing technique on grade I-II climbs


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