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How to Enjoy…and Survive, Your First Mixed-Ice Climbing Experience

[ This article is part of a 2-part series about Mixed-Ice Climbing, by Mike Caputo ]

Fall and winter are coming up soon…here is some advice for winter alpine climbing.

For the past few weeks, I’ve turned to the dark side of climbing and have experienced all of the side effects of higher altitude cragging.  The reason I say dark side is because mixed-ice climbing takes place in harsh, wet and generally un-savory places.  However, don’t be dissuaded from trying this amazing discipline of climbing.  Winter in the backcountry can be a very awe-inspiring and magical place.  Here are some tips to stay warm, dry, and most importantly, have fun.  This means, of course, to do whatever you can to avoid the “screaming barfies,” (Over-gripping the tool; your hands above your head for too long; just being out in the bitter cold until they are numb.  Once you have a chance to thaw your hands, blood starts flowing again and your fingers start to tingle and burn with such intensity, you just might be compelled to scream your head off and feel like vomiting…the “screaming barfies”.)
Every climb has five parts: planning, the approach, sitting around (going over the climb or just trying to stay warm), climbing, and the hike out.  Doing this helps you organize how to layer your clothing and what order you want to pack your gear.  I pack my bag so that my crampons, harness, belay gloves, and jacket on top to increase accessibility and minimize the exposure of my hands.
Every time you go out climbing you should follow the seven P’s; Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.  That is an easy way to remember that every thing you bring should benefit your climbing experience, and avoid epics.
It’s very important to choose the right footwear and clothing, especially for the hike in.  I choose to wear my mountaineering boots that fit my crampons so I can just step in my crampons and climb when I get to the crag.  Some of my climbing partners choose to carry their climbing boots and hike in pack boots such as Sorel’s.  These options have their own advantages and disadvantages.  Carrying climbing boots take up space in your pack and add more weight, yet this option may be easier on your feet.  Hiking in your mountaineering boots saves on weight and leaving more room in your pack for food, clothes, and gear.
Layering for the hike in (approach) is also very important because you don’t want to over heat and sweat resulting in being very cold when the sweat freezes.  The pants you have on for your approach are most likely the ones you will climb in (changing pants presents it’s own difficulties such as getting them on and off over your snow covered boots.)  Your outer layers will help regulate your body temperature.
Once you get to the crag, it’s time to rack up and get ready to climb.  Make sure to plan for the time you aren’t climbing as it can get very cold…so be ready to add more layers if need be.  For just standing around, I like to have a fleece jacket and vest (wind stopper is nice as well) and a down or synthetic jacket.  Down will keep you warmer if you can keep it dry…which can sometimes be problematic on ice.  Just as much as proper clothing, gloves are the key to happiness: cold hands mean no fun!  Before you head out to the backcountry, try different gloves with different styles and find the ones that work the best for you.  If your hands get cold easily, try mittens or heavy gloves that still allow for dexterous movement.  Last but not least, make sure you pack some hand warmers such as Hot Hands for belaying.

To be continued…

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