Winter mountaineering: All you need to know!

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Winter is approaching in the north and you should start thinking of your adventure endeavours this winter. Winter is not just about skiing. We definitely recommend winter ascents as the ultimate quest for an integral mountaineering experience. Reaching a summit in winter requires a combination of stamina, mountaineering skills, stable weather conditions, good temperatures and some luck. Without all the crowds of the summer, the experience is more than worth it and it can be easily combined with ski touring.

Although winter peak ascents are for experienced climbers, ascending with a professional guide is always an option.

Conditions may dictate the use of ice and rock gear. Approaches and descents are best done on skis and high avalanche hazard may require last minute changes in routes or dates.

  • Why do it? Winter peak ascents are a powerful experience. There are moments full of adrenaline, unforeseen circumstances to be solved and last minute decisions to be made. No crowds, deep connection to the mountain, hardship and extraordinary rewards. The beauty of snow, the silence, strong winds and low temperatures. Winter mountaineering is definitely the ultimate test of mountaineering skills.

  • How to start? we would recommend trying some early or late winter, easy ascents with good professional guidance on your side. Never head to the mountain alone! Snow, ice, avalanche hazards bring difficulties which only an experienced mountaineer can interpret with caution. Hiring a local guide would be the first priority!

  • Taking lessons? Winter mountaineering needs practise. We would recommend that you take an avalanche safety & rescue course and enrol in a mountain club to share the learning process with other people. In the US reach out to AIARE for courses. In Europe Ortovox organises courses across the alps.

  • Physical Intensity: very demanding

  • Risk level: High. In winter mountaineering, the moto “the summit can wait" should always guide you through the experience.

  • Do I need a certification? No, but definitely look for a guide if you are not a seasoned climber!

  • What to buy? Essential clothing and layers for low temperatures and wet conditions are mandatory. For the rest, it all depends on the mountain, season, height, temperatures, climbing conditions and techniques. Read more about recommended gear bellow.

Winter climbing in the Slovenian Alps (Europe).

Winter climbing in the Slovenian Alps (Europe).

In climbing, style is my first concern. The decision-making process is the challenge. Doubt and uncertanity are the essence. Trying to balance them with my choices is the passion. No regrets is the rule.
— Marko Prezelj, Slovenian extreme climber, 4 times Piolet d’Or award winner

Winter mountaineering equipment list

Before heading to buy equipment, we would recommend that you buy on demand, always thinking the mountain you considering to climb.

Our basic list:

Skin layers:

  • Short sleeve T-shirt – light merino wool or capilene

  • Long sleeve light merino wool or capilene zip T-neck Merino wool or capilene briefs

  • Merino wool or capilene light long tights

  • Ski socks – wool/nylon blend or similar (2 pairs)

Outer layers:

  • Soft-shell jacket (lightly insulated) or fleece pullover or full zip

  • Soft-shell mountain pants (synthetic stretch woven fabric)

  • Puff jacket (nylon with synthetic insulation)

  • Light outer shell (waterproof/breathable jacket and pants)

  • Light wool or fleece hat

  • Fleece neck gaiter for storm conditions

  • Gloves – heavy weight, warm ski gloves and light gloves for spring conditions

  • Light down booties

  • Bandana

Above, we have compiled a list of a recommended optimum layering system to stay warm, not accumulating moisture and having external wind and precipitation resistance layers. Weight and packability are essential. Never use cotton!

Snow safety gear

  • Avalanche transceiver with fresh batteries

  • probe and shovel

  • Optional climbing gear

  • Ice axe - 60-70 cm traditional curved pick

  • Climbing Harness with adjustable leg loops that will fit correctly with a variety of clothing layers

  • Crampons - 12 points. Carefully adjusted with straps or clip-up bindings

  • Boots: plastic double mountaineering boots or 3/4, or full shanked, stiff leather, well waterproofed, mountaineering boots, with welt designed to hold crampons.

  • 1 or 2 locking carabiners, 2 to 4 regular carabiners

  • Pack – light mountaineering alpine Ascent Pack (45-55 liters).

  • Sleeping Bag - down or fiberfill, warm to 15° or 20° should weigh less than 2 kgs.

  • Sleeping Pad or full length light Thermarest ®

Other equipment:

  • 1 liter water container

  • Sunglasses with retainer

  • Goggles with light lenses for storm conditions

  • Sunscreen – 50+ SPF (small amount in squeeze bottle)

  • Lip balm – 50+ SPF

  • Small personal first aid kit – bandaids, moleskin, tape, aspirin

  • Toilet paper in zip-lock bag with matches

  • Light headlamp with fresh batteries

  • Small pocket knife

  • Small 2-way FRS radio transmitters

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“The traveler who crosses a mountain in the direction of a star runs the risk of forgetting which is his guiding star if he concentrates too exclusively on the climbing problems. If he only acts for action's sake, he will get nowhere.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry from “Letter to a hostage”

How to prepare for winter mountaineering

Training is possible (and fun!) even if you don’t live in a mountainous area, you just need to use your imagination to work out the key parts of your body: your core, hips, back, legs and ankles. It’s important to improve your endurance and train your strength. From climbing stairs, to using ankle weights (to strengthen your hip muscles), the possibilities are countless.

In general try to have a good level of aerobic fitness in order to approach the mountain with good levels of heart and lung strength. Climbing mountains in winter is a highly demanding activity that will test your body's oxygen utilisation.

Beautiful winter day in the Bernese Alps, with perfect conditions for summiting the Jungfrau. At 4,158 metres is one of the main summits of the Bernese Alps, located between the northern canton of Bern and the southern canton of Valais in Switzerland, halfway between Interlaken and Fiesch. Together with the Eiger and Mönch, the Jungfrau forms a massive wall overlooking the Bernese Oberland and the Swiss Plateau, one of the most distinctive sights of the Swiss Alps.