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A Complete(ish) Guide to Cold-Weather Bouldering

Because good friction and warm weather have very little in common.

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As a New Englander, I have always liked climbing in the winter. Sure, it gets icy and snowy. And sure, you have to pick your projects based on the snow levels, shifting your sights on southern objectives as autumn gives to winter and then looking north again when the snow melts and days lengthen. But the friction is good when it’s cold, and the boulders are less crowded, and (old soul that I am) I really love winter’s slant light and rattling leaves.

Growing up in New Hampshire and going to school in Vermont—insular communities in which climbing through winter is something of a point of pride—I took it for granted that dealing with the cold was something all rock climbers knew how to do. But then I moved to New York City for graduate school in 2014 and met J.

J. is a very strong boulderer—far stronger than me—but when I met him, he only climbed outside in what I would consider too-warm conditions. He started his season in April, finished it by mid-October, and trained in the gym all through the friction-rich southern New England winter. As a result, his hardest outdoor boulders were roughly four grades below what he was climbing in the gym. When I asked him about it, he said it wasn’t that he didn’t want to climb in good conditions, but he’d never figured out a way to stay warm enough on those cold days to really capitalize on them. And he thought, rather absurdly, that this failing was something endemic to him.

“I’m just not tough enough, dude,” was his refrain.

But after watching him crank out weighted one-arms and nauseating core workouts, I decided not to trust J.’s analysis of himself and instead proposed that we help each other. He would write me a training plan that would turn me into a new and better version of myself, and I would give him pointers about how to climb well in the cold by avoiding getting cold in the first place. 

The results of our arrangement were predictable: I, being myself, was too undisciplined to follow his training plan for more than a few weeks and therefor stayed the same person I’d started. 

J., meanwhile, soon found himself topping out his first V12.

Quentin Roberts taking advantage of the friction at the Band M boulders in New Hampshire. (Photo: Kiff Alcocer)

Part I. Attire

First, let me begin with some super obvious things.

You should bring a down jacket. This is not to be confused with a down vest or a sweatshirt or a fleece jacket or a rain jacket. I’ve heard rumors of certain ski jackets that aren’t down but are warm, and though I’m skeptical, I will concede my ignorance here. You should wear a winter hat, not a ballcap or a bandana or a top hat or whatever. It should cover your ears. It should be warm. You should wear wool socks or the modern plasticized equivalent. Just trust me on this. And you should wear multiple layers: the giant puffy is an important part of your kit, but being able to add and shed layers to regulate your temperature throughout the day is just as important. (For my upper body, I generally wear/bring a lightweight baselayer, a midweight base layer, a wool sweater, a Patagonia down sweater, and a down jacket. It’s also nice to have something with a hood, particularly if there’s wind.)

Long underwear

Long underwear (on top and bottom) is by far the most important piece of clothing that my New York friends consistently forget to wear when they go bouldering in the winter. (Indeed, there are three kernels of advice in this article that I consider absolutely crucial to cold-weather bouldering, and long underwear is one of them.) Basically, by keeping your legs warm, you’re keeping your core warm. It’s all connected. (For those looking to go the extra mile, my fellow digital editors inform me that puffy pants are an excellent additional outer layer. But I’ve not tried them yet.)

Wear mittens, not gloves

Mittens are categorically warmer than gloves. Your fingers are fragile little furnaces, and if you’re not dealing with ice axes and ropes, I see no reason why to deprive them of the others’ warmth. For me, mittens are as crucial to cold-weather climbing as longjohns are (#2 on the crucial list). I literally don’t go climbing without them if the temperature is even remotely close to freezing.  

Down booties

While boots and socks can keep you warm, wrangling with socks and frozen laces between every try is pretty unsustainable. Down booties allow you to keep your feet warm while taking short breaks from climbing. I was skeptical about them at first, but my experience with down booties was a bit like my experience with FrictionLabs chalk: once I tried them, I couldn’t go back. 

Hack: if you don’t have down booties, even a pair of insulated house slippers can be nice. Basically you want something warm that you can slip on and off your feet between goes. (I should note that not all down booties have treads on their soles. I’d recommend looking for ones that do.)

Scarf (optional)

I’m a scarf guy. One reason I like scarves is because, at the impressionable age of 21, I watched Ty Landman in Between the Trees (2009) send something heinous in Fontainebleau while wearing a scarf. And since I couldn’t imitate Ty Landman by sending anything heinous of my own, it somehow made sense to imitate his fashion choices. Another reason I like scarves is that, like any self-respecting writer who used to live in New York City, I own a lot of them; so I figure that I might as well ruin the ones I have before changing my mind about how cool and useful they are.

But seriously, your body loses a lot of heat through your neck, so scarves are legitimately useful. Whether they work better than turtlenecks or those weird-looking ski chokers, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll try one when my last scarf dies.

The author harnessing the power of his scarf. (Photo: Scottie Alexander)

Consider an extra coat

Oh yeah, and bring that extra down jacket, the old one covered in duct tape and chalk. It’s a nice thing to wrap your dog in if they get cold, and, if you’re having trouble warming up or staying warm, doubling your down jackets and running around for a few minutes often does the trick.

Part II. Tactics

Warmup before you start your warmup

Warming up correctly can be hard in the best of times; but when it’s 25° and you’re warming up on outdoor boulder problems, it can be even harder. The trick—or my trick—is to get your body warm before you actually start climbing.

Quentin Roberts knows it can be hard to get going on those cold days. (Photo: Kiff Alcocer)

 One way to do this—and it’ll sound counterintuitive to those runners and skiers among you—is to begin your approach wearing far too many clothes. I kid you not when I say that I have begun some approaches wearing my long johns, mittens, hat, scarf, all my mid layers, and both my down jackets. You can amend according to the weather. Your goal is to wear enough clothes that you have felt borderline overheated for several minutes when you arrive at the boulders. Sometimes you’ll get the math wrong and start sweating when you’re still a few hundred yards away, in which case it’s important to pause and shed some layers. You don’t actually want to get your underlayers wet.

 If the approach is short, or if I’m climbing roadside, I like to simulate an approach by putting on all my clothes and going for a jog or doing some jumping jacks or doing a quick and bastardized yoga sequence. The goal—or my goal—is to raise my body temperature. The good thing is that, if it’s properly cold, chances are that no else is there to witness you looking ridiculous. 

Don’t dally

Once you arrive at the boulders, huffing and puffing from the hike, don’t just hang around cooling down: Get on the rock while you’re still warm and start using that warmth to wake up your climbing-specific muscles.

That’s one thing about cold-weather bouldering that I think most people transitioning out of the gym struggle to adapt to: It’s not restful. Personally, I need to be consciously active in order to stay warm throughout my session. You don’t just lounge around between tries; you don’t “wait for the psych to hit” before you climb; instead, you’re either climbing or going for walks or cleaning holds or move pads or doing jumping jacks.

It’s far easier to keep yourself warm than it is to get warm again once you get cold.

Alternatively, warm up before you go out

Some folks like to warm up on a hangboard or a home wall or go to the gym before going outside, which is a great option if you or your gym live close enough to the crag. To the everlasting dismay of my hard climbing ambitions, hangboards don’t work for me temperamentally, so I don’t really use them. But I recommend their use nonetheless.

Keep your shoes in your jacket

This might be the best piece of advice in this article, so I’ll say it again: Keep your shoes zipped up inside your jacket when you’re not using them, thus allowing your body heat to warm them up. Aside from the comfort factor (cramming your toes into those size-zero Solutions is terrible in the best of times) there are two great benefits to the shoe-in-jacket technique.

  1. Climbing shoe rubber is harder and less grippy when it’s really cold. (I’ve always heard, but cannot seem to scientifically verify, that optimal temps for shoes is between 40° and 50°.) By warming your shoes inside your coat, you can ensure that your shoes don’t get stiff and slippery when it’s ~30°.
  2. Precise footwork, for me, anyway, requires being able to feel the rock with your feet; and feeling the rock with your feet requires having warm enough feet to feel things. Warming your shoes in your coat helps your feet stay warm for longer.

Make sure your hands are warm before pulling on the wall

Warm hands are not just about comfort. Subfreezing air retains far less humidity than its more-tolerable counterpart, which means that dry firing is a real hazard on cold boulders. Certain areas—the traprock at Bradley, Connecticut comes to mind—are actually far better when it’s 28° and snowing than when it’s 33° and clear, simply because the added moisture in the air makes it possible to stick to the rock. To counteract dry firing on those frigid dry days, make sure you keep your hands warm, almost sweaty, before you pull on the wall. I’ll often put my shoes on, take my coat off, then put my mittens back on and swing my arms around in the air for a minute before chalking up and pulling on the wall. (This is basically the opposite of what I try to do when it’s warm out, in which case I want my skin to be totally dry and, ideally, a little cold.)

The author waving his arms around while wearing everything he owns. Temp something like 18°. Note the mittens, booties, dog, and the thermos of tea. (Photo: Scottie Alexander)

Bring food and eat it

You might have noticed that staying warm when it’s cold is not a passive task. You’ve got to work for it. If you don’t give your body the fuel it needs to do that work, you’ll probably find the quality of your climbing day declining quite quickly.   

Part III. Accessories 

A thermos of tea

On the very coldest days, I generally don’t climb for very long. I just warm up, head to whatever local circuit or project I’m hoping to try, climb until I’ve sent everything or am no longer seeing progress, then leave. During that period, I don’t let myself have much down time.  

But when I’m going out for a longer day, constant movement isn’t really viable: Eventually it’ll just tire you out. So I generally try to bring an insulated thermos of herbal tea. Sometimes, between goes, I’ll try to move around. But sometimes I just huddle in my clothes and drink tea and let it warm my core up. I think it works great—better, in fact, than the stoves and handwarmers I’m about to mention. 

Note: I recommend going caffeine free on this. I like caffeine as much as the next person, but while a little bit of caffeine can boost performance, too much of it makes me feel jittery and imprecise. Since the purpose of the tea is to warm up your core, it’s nice not to have to limit your intake for fear of over-caffeination.

Handwarmers or hot rocks in your shoes or chalk bag

There are two camps here: those who swear by handwarmers and hot rocks and those who think that, if you’re doing everything else right, there’s really no reason to use them. I’m in the latter camp. I think that in between tries your hands should have a warm place to be that isn’t your chalkbag. (Hint: your gigantic mittens.) I also think that your shoes will actually be warmer—and the rubber softer—if you just keep them in your jacket between tries than if you rely on a foot warmer, which can only provide warmth to a small part of the shoe. 

I should note that my fiancée not only disagrees with me but seems to rely on handwarmers and footwarmers to survive any temperature below ~65°. So, yeah, there are other opinions on this. 

But I will say that if you do decide to use handwarmers, make sure not to rely on them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen climbers wearing fleeces and ball caps and shivering like crazy while cradling little pouches of fast-fading warmth between their hands. If anything, a handwarmer is a nice addition, a creature comfort; it’s not a substitute for a wool hat, a down jacket, longjohns, and mittens. 

(Also, the hot rock/handwarmer is a total gamechanger when you’re rope climbing. But we’re just talking about pebble wrestling here.)

Propane Heaters

The propane heater is to winter climbing what the Makita fan is to the opposite extreme—and it’s similarly divisive. Some people love it, others seem to think it’s the moral equivalent of murder or chipping. I fall somewhere in between. As a gear minimalist and a certified New England grouch, I don’t own a bouldering heater and probably never will, but I have huddled around other people’s heaters and appreciated them. If you’ve got the cash and don’t have qualms about burning propane when you don’t really need to, heaters can be nice. But they traffic in external warmth, which is no substitute for capturing and leveraging your body’s own heat. So, if you are going to buy a heater, remember that it’s an accessory, something you can supplement with proper clothing or smart tactics, not replace them.

The author not sending because, when it’s below 20 and close to dark, even he doesn’t do too well. (The photographer, however, being tougher than the author, completed the whole boulder.) (Photo: Scottie Alexander)

Conclusion. And remember: if you don’t send, you can always blame the weather

If I could give my younger self ten pieces of advice, number nine or ten might read “Accept the excuses available to you, but don’t let them rule you.”

In other words, be realistic. 

I’ll take 25° over 85° any day, but that doesn’t mean these are ideal conditions. It’s hard to send at your absolute max when it’s cold. I learned this firsthand nearly ten years ago, when I was projecting Fotowa Sit, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The climb faces southwest and bakes in the sun, which would make it prime for winter if the wall didn’t seep whenever the temperature crested 32°. I sent the stand start on a bluebird 35°-day in December, before the snows hit, in just a couple tries, then spent the winter sieging the sit, which only adds just two hand movements and two foot movements into the stand start. It was a snowy winter, which meant that whenever it was above freezing, the climb was soaked with snowmelt. This forced me to climb only when the temps were in the 20s. I put five days into the climb, which is a lot for me. (As a lapsed sport climber, I have trouble believing I can do boulder problems if I can’t do all the moves within a few tries; this is something that J. simply couldn’t understand about me, and it’s probably one of many reasons why he climbs harder than I do; it’s also why most of my hardest sends are kind of long.) I fell hundreds of times on the first move of the stand start, a jump to a slot that, in isolation, I could do about 25% of the time. Then, in March, after a week of rain, the snow melted. I went back out there on the first good day afterward—a day that, at 35° and sunny, felt almost too warm after a freezing winter. I sent the climb on my first try. With ease.

The lesson, if there is one, might be that I retroactively had an excuse for all those days of failure: Sometimes it’s just too damn cold to dance around on tiny crimps.