Ten Top Tips for Winter Climbing

UKC's Chief Editor Jack Geldard gives ten top tips for a better winter experience. From boots and gloves through to how to dance on a belay; after reading this you'll be ready to tackle all that the UK winter can throw at you. Maybe.


If you're looking for advice specifically on clothing systems, then check out Viv Scott's Article: What to wear for Scottish Winter Climbing.

approaching the 1st belay  © frost
approaching the 1st belay
© frost, Mar 2010

1. Use a belay jacket.

Climbing and walking uphill are intense activities (when you're 20ft above that ice screw, sometimes a little too intense...). This means when you're in action you get warm. So you should dress yourself appropriately in your 'action suit'. An action suit is usually a thermal baselayer, a fleece type midlayer and a shell on top. Thin and not too bulky to climb in, but not all that warm either.

When you stop for a break, a belay, to sit and take in the view, to do whatever, this is when you whip out your insulated jacket and stick it on over the top of your 'action suit'.

Insulated jackets come in two forms. Down filled or synthetic filled. For UK winter I would recommend a synthetic filled jacket. Down is great until it gets wet. You are going to get it wet my friend! Synthetic retains much of its insulation properties even when wet - meaning you will stay warm even though you are damp.

Get one big enough to fit over your action suit. Get one with a very large inside pocket that you can easily shove things in. Stick a bit of cord on the zip so you can operate it with big mitts on your hands. Get one with a hood.

Essential extra tip: Buy loads of sweeties (the jelly types ones that come in unnatural colours and funny shapes). Stick some of these in your belay jacket pockets (and all other pockets you have). Instant easy-access energy food.

Nalgene water bottle with winter jacket  © UKC Articles
Nalgene water bottle with winter jacket
2. Drink something during the day.

It's cold. No, actually it's bloody freezing. A semi frozen bottle of water straight out of the Fort William public toilets does not seem appealing when you're chilled to the bone and huddled in the dark somewhere.

Carry a thermos flask and consider the following:

Get one of those tough plastic drinking bottles with a wide top.

Take this bottle, fill it with very hot juice, Ribena, sport drink or whatever you fancy and shove it straight in to your big pocket in your belay jacket (see tip number 1). Wrap your belay jacket around it a bit more, and stick it in your rucksack. (Make sure you put the lid on correctly...).

In average UK winter temperatures this technique will keep your bottle hot at least for the first few hours of the day, meaning when you get to the first belay of the route you can swig away on lovely warm juice. Keeping the bottle in your big pocket whilst you are wearing your jacket means it also acts as a little hot water bottle and warms up your belly from the outside as well as from the inside.

When the bottle runs dry or starts to get cold, you can then whip out your little thermos for the top-out glory drink - and you have already supped a good litre of juice during the route. Brilliant.

Some people wrap their bottle in a sleeve made from a chopped up old foam sleeping pad and gaffa tape. Or you can buy posh jackets (as in the photo). Both work well, but for UK temperatures I have found the jacket method to be adequate.

Good nick on Last Post  © Adam Long
Good nick on Last Post
© Adam Long, Feb 2010
3. Choose a route that matches the conditions.

With such a vast amount of information available on the internet, it is now easier than ever to find out what routes are likely to be 'in nick' and make choices about where to head to.

Check the UKC Winter Conditions Page

Remember that conditions can make a difference of several grades (or the difference between possible and impossible) in winter.

Early season is often a good time to try these 'snowed up rock routes' - when they are fully rimed up and white, but the cracks are not completely stuffed with verglass, meaning you can place rock gear more easily.

Ice climbs are best done... when the ice is fat! And also not in thaw conditions. Although soft wet ice can be easy to climb (your axes go in nicely) protecting the climbs in these conditions is difficult - ice screws will be fairly useless. Remember: Ice with running water behind it is structurally weaker than ice of the same thickness without running water.

Powder avalanche off the Mont Blanc du Tacul (late evening)  © Jonathan Griffith
Powder avalanche off the Mont Blanc du Tacul (late evening)
© Jonathan Griffith

4. Learn about avalanches.

They happen, they hurt, they kill and they can be avoided.

This article is too short to go in to avalanches in detail - but check out the MCofS website, do a bit of googling and why not go on an avalanche course? It might save your life.

Expedition mitts keeping Tony Stones hands warm at a evening brew-stop.   © Viv Scott
Expedition mitts keeping Tony Stones hands warm at a evening brew-stop.
© Viv Scott
5. Carry lots of gloves.

Your hands and feet are the hardest bits to keep warm when winter climbing. A good selection of gloves is essential for happy winter days out. It is very possible to get frostbite in the UK in winter, and you don't want it.

Different people have different systems of course, and temperatures and conditions can make a huge difference, but here is some general advice:

2 pairs of liner type gloves, one pair of climbing gloves and a spare set of warm gloves or mitts in case of emergency is a good minimum list of hand protection for a winter day out.

Stash 1 pair of liner gloves down your jumper and you will have a warm and dry emergency set in case you get wet hands, drop a glove or some such accident occurs.

Consider carrying a couple of the small chemical handwarmers for those cold hand emergencies.

I personally don't often change my gloves on belays, but many people switch out of their 'climbing gloves' in to something thick and warm for belaying (make sure you stick your climbing gloves down your jumper to keep them warm). The only time I do this is if I have chosen to wear a very thin pair of gloves for the climbing, which I do if it isn't very cold or if I am climbing something that I know will be very hard for me.


6. Don't just stand there.


Even with your super-warm belay jacket, your bottle of hot juice, your hood pulled up and your fantastic glove system, belays can still be cold.

Hopefully you have an auto-locking belay plate, so when your second is taking ages to retrieve the hex that you hammered deep in to that crack, you are free to let go of the rope and eat sweets, drink and take photos.

If you are getting cold (because your mate is SO SLOW!) what you should also do is the 'winter belay dance'. This involves stamping your feet in time to the music in your head, punching the air, jiggling, wiggling and any other such manoeuvres you see fit to keep yourself from freezing to death. Don't rip out your own belay though...! Keep your anchors snug, don't dance above them, and if you are on a dodgy belay - I'm afraid you might have to stay still. But when you have good anchors... don't just stand there until you are frozen solid. DANCE!

And remember - it IS possible to moonwalk in Nepal Extremes...


Winter navigation on Scafell  © Mick Ryan - UKClimbing.com
Winter navigation on Scafell
© Mick Ryan - UKClimbing.com
7. Have a map and compass but also buy a cheap GPS.


All winter climbers should be able to map read to a high standard. Getting yourself off the hill in bad weather or the dark is essential and is often the most difficult part of the day. Learn how to do it.

There is no replacement for a map and compass, along with the skill to use them, but a few years ago I bought a very cheap second hand GPS off the UKC forums for about £20.

I must confess I barely know how it works, but I do know how to turn it on and get a grid reference from it. It has now become another tool in my navigation armoury and has been very helpful on many occasions.


Branock foot measuring device  © UKC Articles
Branock foot measuring device
8. Get boots that fit you and sometimes wear trainers!


Cold feet are not good in the mountains in winter. A good pair of mountain boots is essential, but they won't do much if they don't fit.

Go to a specialist shop, have your feet measured properly and buy the right size boot. Try on loads of different models to get one that fits your feet well. Consider having custom footbeds made for your feet, they aren't that expensive and they will really help with boot-fitting.

Don't get your boots too tight. If your toes are cramped at the end of your boot they are much more likely to get cold and also to be painful. A pair of well fitting boots can be made too tight by wearing extra socks when they are not needed. Cramming two pairs of very thick mountain socks on to your feet is often the cause of cold feet, not the cure.

A thin pair of liner socks and one thicker pair of high quality (and quite new) socks is enough. Many people these days just opt for a single thick-ish sock. Make sure they are clean!

Stomping up long walk-ins in big mountain boots can be tough on the feet. As we often have minimal snow cover in the UK (the last two years perhaps being an exception) some climbers do much of the walk in a pair of approach shoes, switching to boots when the snowline is reached. Your trainers can be stashed, ready to be picked up on the way out or carried in your bag.

If your big boots are really causing you a problem, this can be a quick-fix solution.

Ueli Steck racing up the lower ice field on the Colton Macintyre- Grandes Jorasses  © Jon Griffith
Ueli Steck racing up the lower ice field on the Colton Macintyre- Grandes Jorasses
© Jon Griffith

9. Go leashless.

All your mates are doing it. Go on. Try it...

The best thing about leasless climbing, apart from the fact that you haven't got a strap tied round your arm, causing you all sorts of trouble when you want to place gear, have a pee, scratch your head etc. is that it makes you feel like a superhero.

You don't see Ueli Steck flying up the Grand Jorasses, but then stopping to take his hand out of his leash, do you!

But what you do see is Ueli using lanyards. And they are brilliant. You can of course make your own from cord or elastic, but I would strongly recommend buying a set of purpose designed ones. The reason I say this is that they are slightly better, and even this slight difference is important. You don't want to get tangled up in them, trip over them or anything like that - so the purpose designed ones win for me. Also when you factor in buying two small carabiners and all the cord, they really don't cost much more than a DIY job. You can get purpose made leashes from Grivel and Black Diamond.

Lanyards - It's like leashless, but you can't drop your tools.

ice pitch on Hells Lum  © abbeywall
ice pitch on Hells Lum
© abbeywall, Jan 2011
10. Take a camera!

Now you're all sorted with a belay jacket, gloves, boots, lanyards and all that, you'll soon realise that none of it counts unless you can update your UKC photo gallery to show your mates!

Seriously though, taking photos of some of the best days out of your life is not such a bad idea. But you don't want to drop your camera.

I carry mine in a camera bag that is either clipped to my gear loop or sometimes to my rucksack shoulder strap near my chest - a bit like a radio. And I go leashless with my camera - but I use a lanyard! This time it is home made. You are very likely to drop your camera as you will have icy gloves on most of the time, so tie it on.

The photo galleries on UKC are massively popular and provide a great resource for conditions checking and inspiration.

The superb shot on the right is in this week's top ten photos.

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31 Jan, 2011
"Lanyards - It's like leashless, but you can't drop your tools." Actually you can. Proven by my good self two weeks ago! :-o Good article Jack. Adam's Last Post photo is great.
31 Jan, 2011
Here's another couple: 1. Set off from the car somewhat cooler than you'd like - you *are* going to warm up no matter how slowly you think you are going. If necessary this means just a thin thermal layer and carrying your main climbing outer layers. 2. At the foot of the route change your now sweaty base layer (Usually just the top rather than trousers!) for that nice warm dry one that you packed in your sack (you did remember didn't you?). It takes a bit of grit to strip off in a Scottish gale but it's well worth it. Never bothered with a belay jacket myself but each to their own. ALC
31 Jan, 2011
Or use merino base layers and avoid the extra faff :P
31 Jan, 2011
There is a point where even merino is overwhelmed. I'm usually able to find it. But then I'm naturally very sweaty.
31 Jan, 2011
im just a bit adverse to consuming all that sugar. fat calories go further and i notice that partners who go hard just on sugar tend to have a rollercoaster of moods and energy slumps. chocolate which is also fatty i think is a better option, with nuts, pepperoni and bits of pretzl providing more - and better sustained - calories for the same handful.
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