6 Stay-Warm Secrets For Women Ice Climbers

I love being warm, and not to brag, but I'm really good at it. Hot springs, woodstoves, tropical beaches, and Bikram yoga are just a few of my favorite things. So it always comes as a surprise to people that I'm an ice climber and have dreams of arctic exploration. But like many women, I can be cold any time and would be content in an 8,000-meter suit on almost any day of the year. I've gotten pretty good at shivering my through 10 months of the year, and as we dig deep into ice climbing season, I've been re-visiting my stay-warm strategies.

  1. Eat more. Now is not the time to go on a diet. Fat and calories correlate directly with warmth. I'm not saying this is a license to binge out on cheeseburgers and donuts—or maybe it is—but if you're headed out to climb, at least start your day with a big breakfast. And if you're going to be out all day, bring along high-calorie foods: nuts, peanut butter sandwiches, chocolate. On really cold days, some food will freeze solid; keep these things in a pocket, otherwise you might not have anything to eat at all. Or you'll destroy your teeth trying.
  2. Drink more. But not coffee and alcohol. Dehydration and low blood volume will make you feel extra cold. If, like me, you're not inclined to drink cold water when you're already cold, you'll want to invest in a big thermos. Green and herbal teas are great thermos fillers; I spike mine with ginger and white pepper for added heat. If you're staying well hydrated, you'll probably have to pee more, too. Whatever you do, don't try to avoid peeing all day just because it's a hassle. Your body will spend a lot of energy trying to keep your overworked bladder warm, when it should be concentrating on more distal extremities like toes and fingers.
  3. Wear more. That's right, it's okay to climb in your puffy belay jacket—I do! Though I usually try to save my biggest, warmest parka for belaying and standing around, there are a lot of good insulating layers out there that are ideal to wear while climbing. Think Halogen Hoody and Havoc Jacket with a base layer and fleece underneath. Remember to use your hood (all of them, if you have several jackets on) and definitely make sure zippers, including pockets, are zipped so heat can't escape. If you've just come down from a climb, don't wait until you get cold to put your belay jacket on. Trap whatever heat you've generated as soon as possible. If you're an ice and alpine climber and don't already own insulated belay/puffy pants, invest in some. You'll be amazed at how much warmer these keep you and your feet. Make sure they're full side zip, which are much easier to get on and off without removing crampons, harness, or skis. I strip mine off to climb but feel cold and naked without them.
  4. Manage cold feet and hands. This is perhaps the biggest struggle for ice climbers, especially women. Glove choice while climbing is really important, and bigger isn't always better. I like to rotate through several pairs of relatively thin, dexterous gloves, preferably wind-block fleece Gripper Gloves or soft-shell, leather palmed Stormtracker Gloves. On very cold or wet days, I'll also add a merino liner glove and very often I use chemical handwarmers as part of the whole system. If—when—your hands get unmanageably cold and dysfunctional, another good trick is to put your bare hands somewhere warm like your neck or armpit for a minute or two until they thaw a little. As soon as I finish a pitch and it's my turn to belay, my climbing gloves go inside my jacket to stay warm and my bulky belay gloves or mittens come out. On any given day of ice climbing, I carry no less than three pairs of gloves. As for feet, make sure your boots fit well; they should be big enough to wear warm socks, wiggle your toes around, and not have any circulation cut off. Some people have good luck using chemical footwarmers. Place these on top of your toes and between your sock and boot, not directly on skin. Lastly, metal crampons do a great job of conducting cold into your boot sole.  When ice cragging, take your crampons off when not climbing. Obviously this isn't advisable if there's any chance you'll drop them or risk sliding on ice or snow.
  5. Don't just stand there. If you're already wearing everything you own and are still shivery, or your hands feel like ice blocks, avoid the temptation to let coldness consume you. Now is the time to get aerobic; take a good ten minutes to walk, jog, or run up and down a hill to provoke some heat and raise your heart rate. If your hands are cold, aggressively swing your arms in full, baseball-pitcher circles—I do 20 full arm rotations in each direction, on both arms—until you feel blood being forced back into your fingers. This is something you should find yourself doing all day long to maintain good finger circulation. You can also do this while on the climb. Just don't get too carried away and knock a tool out of the ice or snag your 800-fill down jacket on an ice screw on your harness. 
  6. Accept being cold. This one takes some practice, but like all climbing, half the battle is mental. Ice climbing is a cold sport, there's no way around it. Dwelling on the discomfort only makes things worse. So if you can turn the negative thoughts off, you'll ultimately find ice climbing more enjoyable. And if not, there's always that tropical beach to dream about.