Some of my coldest days climbing were not spent ice climbing or in the mountains. The most frozen I’ve ever been was sport climbing on the side of a highway at the Virgin River Gorge in Arizona. Hunkered down in a puffy above I-15, with semi-trucks roaring by so loudly you couldn’t hear your climber, I’d belay my partners for hours on their projects, unable to move while perched on a slab, in the shade with gusty winds, in the middle of the high-desert winter.
Why suffer through this kind of cold? Conditions at the VRG are tricky, and friction on this particular rock, as at many venues, is better when it’s colder. With conditions like these—air temperatures in the 50s and 60s, with the rock in the shade—once you get moving on the stone you’re usually not cold, but belaying can be brutal. And if you stay cold too long, you may feel like a tin-person once it's your time to climb, with tendons ready to snap like a frosty tree limb and muscles that don’t respond to basic commands.
So, how do you climb in the cold and how do you stay warm belaying? I’ve come up with a few strategies.
First of all, proper layering is essential. Make sure you have a base-layer, mid-layer, and puffy jacket. Much of the heat generated in your body is lost through your head, so wear a beanie or a headband, and make sure you have warm socks and gloves for those digits. One of the most overlooked layers in climbing is a second layer of pants. I prefer to wear leg warmers over my lightweight climbing pants, for ease of slipping on a kneepad when needed (and don’t worry, it’s not just for the ladies—my husband has leg-warmers, too!). While belaying, I like to put on a pair of puffy pants as soon as I get down from my climb to help keep me warm. It’s amazing how much warmer you’ll feel with an extra layer for your legs.
Another trick to keep warm on the chilliest of days is to use a heated chalk bag or chemical warmers. I always have a hand warmer in my chalk bag so that I can get feeling back in my fingers from the frozen rock, but I’ll also strap a body warmer (basically, a bigger version of a hand warmer; I like Grabber’s “Peel N Stick” body warmer) to my chest near my heart to keep my core toasty. By keeping your heart warm, you’re warming all the blood being pumped to your extremities. Just don’t put the body warmer directly on your skin because it can burn you. I put mine on the outside of my sports bra, and, boys, you can put it on the outside of your base layer (it has a sticky backing so it shouldn’t fall off).
Right before I’m ready to climb, I’ll do “the penguin,” a maneuver in which you force your arms and hands down quickly by your sides, flicking the wrists and extending the fingers all in one motion. This helps increase blood flow to your extremities. I’ll also do jumping jacks to help get the blood pumping and increase my core temp. I like to make sure my hands are warm before I start, so I’ll rub them together quickly, creating heat through friction, just before getting on the wall.
Numb Out to Improve Circulation Later
When climbing on these frozen days, many times you’ll “numb out” on your first pitch of the day. This is commonly followed by the painful “screaming barfies” phenomenon in which the warm blood returns to your frozen fingers as soon as you stop climbing. It’s a painful process, but surprisingly, this usually only happens once a day. (You can even—if you know the rock is going to be chilly—deliberately do your numbing out on the ground, using snow, a stream, or a cold rock to chill your hands, then rewarm them before you climb.) So, expect this discomfort and bear through it for the sake that it likely won’t happen again—you’re going to be able to feel those holds on your redpoint burn. And after all, it can be a cold world out there: No pain, no gain, right?
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