Winter Climbing tips
10 February 2011
Note: Many of these articles are very old, and although the technical information is still relevant the equipment mentioned may not be (for example a Stormy cooker was state of that art in 1995, but not in 2021).
When to see Powell and Pressburger’s magnificent The Red Shoes the other night, a film that would convert even the most jaded of culture trolls into a ballet lover (and I’m not talking old school Boreal rock boots). If it comes to a cinema near you (it’s been remastered and re rereleased) go and see it.
One thing that ballet dancers and climbers share is the knowledge that it’s all in the feet, even on the steepest of pitches or most acrobatic of moves.
In winter climbing this is, even more, the case, but with a few extra points (no pun intended) that are worth thinking about.
First off, unlike a rock boot, there is less room for error, as the connection between you and your foothold is dulled by many layers of rubber, steel, plastic and wool, not to mention frozen toes and feet that are hidden by lots of clothing and a tangled rack. With a rock boot, you have a much higher degree of leeway and creep. In most cases when your feet pop, you know it already.
With crampons, this isn’t the case, and very often your foot has little room to move before it skates, meaning when you place it, try and keep it still.
Also, exploit more than just your front points. If you’re about to start a long search for some gear, try using your heel instead of your toes to take your weight.
But the most important lesson to learn is to not undermine your feet - the major engine of your ascent - by focusing too much on your arms.
By this I mean that the winter climber focuses on their tools, after all, they are right in front of your face; and what we do is look for a tool placement; set our feet; pull with the axes and push with the feet. But very often we have good footholds, but nothing for our axes to pull on. Worse still is pulling on crap placements when we have stonking footholds that we could climb in balance, if not for the fact we’re pulling on crap.
What I’m saying is that sometimes you’re better to drop your tools (hook them on your shoulder) and just use your feet, using balance and pressing hands to make the move.
This approach is used by many instructors with new ice climbers; making them climb without tools at all, but it’s a skill we can all learn from for mixed adventures as well.