Figure 1. Toasty, dry digits are an integral part of a successful ascent.
How to make digital toast
It’s a figure 8. Just tie the figure 8 and clip in to that biner,” you plead to your frozen fingers. “Really it’s not that hard. Pleeeease ...” But despite your cajoling, your fingers are going about things like salted banana slugs. Be it ice, snow, or alpine rock climbing, there are times when your hands become too cold to function properly. Here are a few tips to help keep your digits warm in all conditions.Put’em on the radiator. When the chill is setting in, access your body’s radiators. Armpits are good but sometimes hard to reach. My favorite location for a quick hand warming is the back of my neck. Even while you’re hanging by one hand, your neck is still accessible. When rock climbing in cold weather, slapping a hand on your neck can be much more helpful than habitual chalk-bag groping or furiously shaking out. Choose your apparel wisely. Glove management is a complex issue, even to those well versed in winter travel. Taking at least two pairs of gloves when climbing ice or snow will greatly increase the chances of having a warm, dry pair throughout a long route. Ideally one of the pairs has removable liners. When they are not being used, keep these liners inside your jacket, preferably under an insulating layer that will preheat the material and dry it if it has become damp (Figure 1). Avoid vapor lock. Moisture freezes. The last thing you want to do is let your hands or gloves become wet. Even a bit of dampness inside a glove can quickly turn to frost. Warming your hands by blowing on them creates condensation — a bad situation if you’re stuffing your hands right back into gloves. Sweating inside your gloves can cause the same problem, so keep your hands from becoming too hot as well as too cold. Perspiration is most often an issue on approaches or on lower angle slopes amid steeper terrain; wearing a thin glove or going bare handed if you begin to sweat helps battle moisture.Shake and bake. Chemical hand warmers, sold at ski and sporting goods stores, can be invaluable in frigid conditions. Shake them up, place them in your gloves, and enjoy a few hours of augmented warmth. Stay away from the reusable gel packs — they require too much maintenance to be practical in the mountains.Yo! Do the axe wrap. The axe wrap is a great defense against conduction in very cold conditions. On mountain routes, moderate terrain often necessitates that you grip the head of your ice axe for prolonged periods of time. The metal mass of the head and blade can quickly absorb copious amounts of heat from your hands, even through the warmest gloves. To limit this heat exchange, cut a four-inch square of closed-cell foam — a sleeping pad works well — and drape it over the top of your ice tool. Use athletic tape or duct tape to wrap and fix the foam in place (Figure 2). If cut and wrapped properly the foam will not obstruct the axe’s normal functionality. Finally, proper clothing management, and staying hydrated and well fed will also maximize your circulation. Wiggle and flex those phalanges. Keep them happy, and don’t let go.
Figure 2. A taped-on foam pad can insulate your hand from a frigid axe head.