Winter mountaineering: It's Not What You Think!
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 mountaineering equipment list
Before heading to buy equipment, we would recommend that you buy on demand, always thinking the mountain you considering to climb.
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)
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
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 ®
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
“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.