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When the lowlands simmer, climbing at altitude offers the opportunity for cooler weather, better conditions, and mountain vistas. After 15 years of bouldering across the high-country zones of Colorado, Washington, Switzerland, and California, I’ve hashed out a few tips and methods to streamline the day-to-day.
Alpine nuts and bolts
In spring 2002, I huffed up a steep trail with my friend Anthony, on the hunt for the “new stuff” near Estes Park, Colorado. I wheezed, wishing that we’d already arrived at the bowl holding Lake Haiyaha/Chaos Canyon and the hard, new boulders. Unfortunately, we weren’t even halfway. Alpine bouldering, I learned, requires way more effort and consideration than a casual day at your roadside rocks.
Hiking two miles to Chaos Canyon (10,000-plus feet) in Rocky Mountain National Park after a spring bouldering in Little Rock City (1,700 feet) will work you. Rapid altitude changes and the ensuing sickness affect everyone differently. Many people experience headaches, dizziness, and fatigue. Expect shortness of breath even on the easiest climbs. If you experience nausea, confusion, or a severe cough, descend quickly. Acclimatization takes a week or two, and the physiological benefits of climbing and hiking up high will stretch out up to three months.
Combat altitude sickness by staying hydrated and well-fed. Consider three liters of water per day a minimum. For longer approaches, carry a water bottle and a purification device. You’ll burn more calories at altitude, so bring calorie-dense foods. Whatever food you pack, bring extra to avoid bonking.
Rest well, especially on your first days, as recovery will be slower. After the approach, take 15 minutes to collect yourself, hydrate, and snack. Finally, remember shades and sunblock. The sun becomes brutal at altitude, especially when reflected off the snow.
In the mountains, storms appear suddenly. The typical afternoon thunderstorms can come and go in minutes or hang for hours. Check NOAA point forecasts and general weather reports. Pack for the worst: Temperatures can drop in minutes, and rain can quickly turn to hail or snow. Carry a down jacket or large puffy and a rain shell.
If caught in a storm, either hightail it home or hunker under cover and let the weather pass. These storms often move quickly, and with wind and sunshine, you could be back climbing within the hour. Consider an alpine start—you might get six-plus hours of bouldering before the storm hits. Another option is a late-evening session, driving to the boulders while the storm is raging, starting the hike while it’s drying, and then getting in a session when it’s dry (bring a headlamp for night climbing and/or the hike out).
Bet on a serious snowpack in most areas. Watch your step in the talus to avoid punching through into a shin-banger block or small cave—follow established trails as much as possible. For the snowy bits, boots or high-topped approach shoes are essential, and gaiters and trekking poles both for stability while hiking and for testing snow depth are life-savers.
A pair of Microspikes will help on icy trails and talus. Snowshoes are the next step up for deeper snow. Post-holing is exhausting, and a good way to get soaked, then cold, then sent home.
Prepping to climb
When you arrive, aim to stay dry—especially in the early season when snow blankets the rocks. Find a dry spot like a flat rock or tree well to set down your gear. If one’s not available, use a shovel to excavate a flat, square area in the sun, and then line it with a tarp.
If the boulder is covered in snow, get digging. Bring a rope if needed, as the topout may be icy. Consider runoff from snowmelt—and where it will flow—as you clear the boulder. Use a plastic-bladed deck shovel instead of metal to avoid damaging the stone. A pushbroom or whiskbroom can help with the last bits of snow—just avoid throwing snow into the landing zone. For any remaining ice, carefully use a plastic automotive ice scraper. Unfortunately, some folks have used torches to melt ice and dry the rock, but the sudden temperature change can damage the stone.
Finally, be patient: If the boulder is buried, you may need to clean it one day and then return to climb after the sun has dried it.
Making a landing zone
Snow helps make horrorshow landings over jagged talus totally flat. Still, you may need to shovel out the problem and/or level the landing. Use your shovel (or gloved hands, in the right conditions) to carve out blocks of snow to create a perimeter and fill it in, and then powder to level it out. Boot-pack it all to stabilize the LZ. If you’re digging down, consider a terraced area that can hold a few pads, plus a stairway.
Finally, cut room for your spotters! Many alpine bouldering areas sit in high-country talus so coverage and spotting become crucial, snow or no. A large pad supplemented with a stiff, regular-sized pad should be the bare minimum for your standard-height (8–12 feet) problem. Use a tarp to keep your pads dry and increase your workspace, but be aware that on any kind of slope, the area becomes a giant slip-n-slide.
Getting ready to climb
Keep your shoes in your coat to keep the toebox warm and flexible; put hand warmers in your chalk bucket or coat pocket. If you’re close to a road or don’t mind the weight, pack a portable propane heater.
Before you launch, use a hand towel or two to clean your shoes and swat snow from the pads. A clean workspace is a functional one.
The 7 alpine-bouldering essentials
Climbing in the high country demands a kit beyond a normal bouldering day. Always bring the following:
- Clothing: Midlayer, rain shell, insulating layer.
- Sun protection: Hat, shades, sunblock (≥ SPF 30).
- Sustenance: Stay hydrated and well fed.
- Footwear: Heavy approachers with sticky rubber.
- Headlamp: Keep a headlamp (with extra batteries) in your pack lid.
- A sense of direction: Always carry a map, know where you can get phone service, have a good guidebook, and/or be familiar with the climbing area.
- Respect: Practice Leave No Trace principles wherever and whenever you go—for your own, other visitors’, and the mountains’ sake.
Chris Schulte climbs, writes, shoots photos and video, and is based more or less out of Boulder, Colorado. He spends his time searching for FAs, scribbling notes on his phone, and wishing for better conditions.