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A Beginner’s Guide to Winter Bouldering

Winter Bouldering is a fun sport that that requires a little preparation to do safely. These are a few things to keep in mind

In some ways, winter bouldering is entirely different from climbing in the warmer months of the year. Though many climbers will pack away their crashpads, ropes and quickdraws until spring, an intrepid few will reach out into the blustery cold to try their hands at winter bouldering.

After all, the temps have never been better. So, how do you climb in the winter?

Eat

This part, though simple, cannot be stressed enough. Though your sessions may have been twice as long in the summer, when you go bouldering in the cold, the sessions take their toll. Ensuring that you eat enough and often on rest days, on climbing days, and after climbing days is even more essential than it might be the rest of the year. It takes a lot of energy to keep your internal body temperature up when the rock is as cold, or colder, than ice.

Layer

You will need more clothes than you think. This is not to say that you should climb in the puffy at all times, but appropriate clothing is necessary for winger conditions. This can be difficult when it comes to leg coverings. Sometimes people double or triple layer leggings to deal with the temperatures while others might wear leggings underneath jeans. If it is literally freezing out, you will want leggings in some capacity.

Covering your upper-body is easier. A long-sleeve shirt, a good sweatshirt or two, and a puffy make for a pretty good start. Adjust according to how you feel once you are out there. Wool socks are perhaps the most important garment of all, touk and puffy aside. This is because climbing shoes do not insulate on frozen rock. As such, they become cold really fast. At least one pair, and preferably two pairs of wool socks are good to bring.

In addition to wool socks, mittons can be an invaluable addition to your cold-weather arsenal. If not, wool socks over the hands can achieve a similar effect. A warm pair of boots, with good grip for icy approaches are also necessary.

Conditions

Conditions are a factor in bouldering regardless of season. In the winter, conditions simply require presence of mind. If it just snowed, consider whether your boulder is still climbable. It is possible that the snow has melted a bit and seeped into the holds of your boulder problem. If it snowed, but the temperature never rose above freezing, it is likely that you problem is still dry.

In addition, if there is snow already on top of the problem and you are going out when the temperature is above freezing, it is possible that the snow has melted due to the warmer conditions. This can mean that the rock is wet, even though no snow or rain fell. If it is windy, consider how this might make you feel while you are resting. Wind tends to be far more painful than the temperature itself.

Hazards

As one might expect, there are risks to climbing in the cold. It is important to remember that even the approach can be more treacherous, especially if it is well travelled. Paths quickly become icy. This makes it important to move with caution. To that effect, topping out boulders can be more technical than normal. Ice is slick. In winter, boulder problems are not over until you are safely back on the ground. Even jugs become unreliable when covered in ice.

Another thing to consider is just how safe the rock itself is. In the winter, water seeps into the boulder, and expands when it freezes. Like driving a wedge between two objects, the ice puts increased stress on the rock itself. As a result, holds that were solid can become loose. This risk is avoided by listening to how hollow a hold sounds when it is tapped. If it sounds like you are knocking on the side of a bowl or cup, approach the grip with caution. If you are unsure, see if there is a more experienced climbers around that can check it out for you.

Many of the other hazards relate simply to staying warm. Whether you are in Canada or otherwise, winter is cold. If you allow yourself to get too cold, it can affect your health.

Climbing

Though climbing is more complicated in the winter, it is also something you get used to. In fact, winter is arguably the best season for bouldering! The biggest reason for this is the fact that the friction is high. Cold rock sticks rather well to skin. As such, many of the cruxiest summer projects may feel a grade easier in the winter.

The two greatest challenges to winter bouldering is getting your fingers warm and keeping them warm. Conditions like these make warming up at home beneficial. If this is an impossibility, it might be worth investing a Digit Yubi Board or a Metolius Light Rail. These portable hangboards allow for gentle pulling exercises that get your fingers warm.

When you are just starting out, it is probably worth completing warm up climbs in the area. This will allow you to become used to the cold rock and will force a slower warm up. If you are more experienced, warming up on your project is possible and increases your chance of completing it. In either case, warming up is important.

Staying warm

This is, by far, the most challenging aspect of climbing in the winter. When temperatures drop below freezing, retaining heat in the fingers, toes, and body becomes a full-time occupation. Though it is recommended to climb in clothes that do on encumber your movement, the moment that you are not burning, you will want to put on each and every article of clothing you brought with you.

At a certain temperature, around negative six and below, resting for too long becomes more of a hindrance than a benefit. This is avoidable if you have a heater for your hands, but if you allow your body to become too cold, you will probably not feel like climbing anymore. Chemical hand warmers really help and are an affordable way to keep your hands warm, albeit temporarily.

Ultimately, bouldering in the winter is fun, easy to do safely with the right precautions, and an exceptional way to reintroduce the adventure to your local crag. It has its risks, difficulties and complications, but it is also worth figuring out and completing safely. This is certainly a nonexhaustive list of rules by which to boulder safely, but it is a place to start. If you are entirely new to bouldering, learning in the winter can be difficult and is only recommended if you have a proficient climber with you. Remember, the pandemic is still pandemic-ing so climbing safely to avoid putting additional stress on the health-care system is important.

Feature Image of Jacquie Des Rosiers by Cisco Juanes