8 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Ice Climbing

Finding yourself shivering at belays? Wondering whether ice climbing is even that fun? Sarah Garlick has learned a thing or two in her years of ice climbing—a few things that might make your time weilding tools much more fun, and much less miserable. Here are her eight essential lessons for stayng comfortable, so you can fully enjoy your time on water ice.

1. Always lead the first pitch. Okay, okay, not always possible. But taking the lead right off the bat lets you hold on to the warmth you generated during the approach, often for the rest of the day.

2. Strip at the base. Despite all my efforts—and the efforts of all the fancy tech fabrics on the market—to regulate my heat output when approaching a climb, I still inevitably sweat. Changing out your base layer top at the base of your route may seem extreme, but if you tend toward the cold end of the personal temperature spectrum like I do, this step can make all the difference.

3. Ignore your partner. People have different internal thermostats, so pay attention to your own body, not your partner’s. I climb with some guys who I swear are shedding down to base layers while I’m adding loft.

4. You need at least four sets of gloves. Well, I do, anyway. One pair for the approach, two high-performance pairs for climbing, and one warm pair for belaying—at a minimum. If it’s really cold, I carry a pair of warm gloves I can follow a route in and a pair of puffy mittens for belaying. And if the climbing is hard, I try to bring one pair of thin gloves for each pitch I’m going to lead. I know, it probably sounds crazy—and expensive—but if you have that oh-so-enviable combination of cold and sweaty hands like I do, your glove management system means everything.

5. Remember: The screaming barfies will stop eventually and you probably won’t die from them. The crazy pain of re-warming cold hands is unlike any other sensation. I haven’t actually barfed from them, but I’ve suffered enough to wonder if I was going to pass out. For me, they usually hit when I’m following a pitch after a long belay session, so at least I’m on top-rope. The good news is that the pain really does go away and most folks only experience one attack of the screaming barfies in an outing.

6. Never underestimate the power of a neck gaiter. Those unassumingly simple fleece tubes provide a crazy amount of warmth when you’re climbing in the cold. For me, the neck gaiter is just as essential as a warm hat on cold days.

7. Don’t dis the over-pants. If you’re going cragging, throw a pair of insulated puff pants into your pack. I like mine slightly oversized with full side zips so I can easily zip them on over everything when I’m belaying or taking a break at the base. Heck, sometimes I even climb in them, though you have to be extra careful not to shred them with your crampons or ice screws dangling from your harness. They might not always look cool, but you lose more heat to through your legs than most people realize.

8. Four words: Belay. Stance. Dance. Party. We all know that keeping moving helps you stay warm, but that’s not always easy, especially at a hanging belay. A fun way to nudge yourself to move when a growing part of you just wants to hunker down and whimper is to think of a cheesy pop song and throw yourself your own one-person dance party. Some days I end up more sore from my belay-stance antics than the climbing itself. Just remember to keep your break hand on the rope!