Winter Alps; tips for dealing with altitude & extreme cold

Over ninety percent of all of my mountaineering experience has been gained from climbing on Mount Blanc in January. The first time I donned crampons in anger it was walking off Aguille de Midi January 3rd 2004 after a night sleeping rough in Chamonix. In the following few days I learnt a lot about living in the cold – the first lesson being after 5 minutes; a platypus hose is utterly pointless.

When getting my annual cold-fix I typically fly out from London on an early morning flight and, by 5pm, I am dug in to the side of the Mt.Blanc massif with enough supplies to stick it out a week. Its pretty cool – however being prepared for the cold and sudden increase in altitude is pretty important.

Climbing in the Winter Alps, especially if your sticking it out for extended periods is generally tough and, from what people experienced in Summer Alpine climbing say,  it is incomparable. In the summer 2 routes in a day can be a blast but in winter, when contending with the environment and it’s effects on your body, if you get 2 decent routes in a week and you haven’t done badly.

Dealing with the cold

The weather in January at 3,800m is generally pretty brisk, and I have experienced everything from sunny pleasant mornings where it feels like +5°C (until any wind picks up) to bitter cold in the regions of -35°C or lower. The general temperature is -15 to -20 and it is often very windy meaning the wind chill can be severe enough to freeze exposed skin and make talking difficult due to the cold’s effect on your mouth and face.

Long term exposure in temperature likes this, especially while on routes means a high risk of cold injury. Typically in the form of frost nip or frost bite but the cold dry air can also accelerate dehydration. If you have the right clothing hypothermia should not be a likely problem unless you end up in a very exposed bivi in bad weather/very extended belay.

Nathan Murphy
Back in the day.. 2004

Sleeping:

  • In winter it is so cold a down sleeping bag is generally fine – not much is going to melt on to it – so it is unlikely to get wet very quickly
  • It is good to melt tomorrow’s water in the evening – put it in a platypus or water bottle and put it in your sleeping bag – this can really make things toasty
  • Sleep with anything you do not want to freeze; boot-inners, socks, gloves. I usually put soft items in the front of my salopette’s bib so they dry out well and moisture can escape through the top of the bag
  • I usually keep my bag in a bivi bag; stops general snow from snow hole (or other ice) melting on to it and keeps it drier – however when you sleep you must push the bivi bag down around mid-stomach else the moisture leaving your gloves/socks etc – hits the bivi-bag shell, freezes in sheets and when you move it falls on to your bag and melts into it.. making it damp
  • Often when you go to bed your feet are the coldest part of your body – do not isolate them as such; open up clothing, salopettes, jackets, take your socks off so your feet can dry & warm up and so that your body heat circulates within your sleeping bag
  • Snow holes can be pretty good, it is not going to be zero degrees (this is pretty hypothetical) unless you are cooking at the time; it has advantages like you can just piss down a hole beside you and your living inside a water supply. However they take a while to build, it is a more damp atmosphere and can be as equally cold as a hut or a tent – greatly depending on how well you are able to block up the entrance with your bags
Oh yea - didn't bring a tent? Fun times digging an unplanned snow hole
Oh yea – didn’t bring a tent? Fun times digging an unplanned snow hole (Alex Johnson clearly loving digging)

Eating

  • See this post for cooking in the winter alps (to be written)
  • I find it works to eat non-cooked food for breakfast and lunch (mint-choc-biscuit-bars, flap jacks, energy gels) for the more active part of the day
  • Before I go to bed it is good to carbo load; any quick cook pasta type thing works well (tortellini) or perhaps couscous. The big dose of carbs in the evening soon works through and after an hour or so in your sleeping bag you become toasty warm
  • Forcing yourself to eat a certain amount is a good idea..

Hydrating

The dry air sucks moisture out of you and replacing it can be fairy tricky

  • When on-route, if you can, bring your water wrapped in the leader’s down jacket in the second’s bag
  • Try to drink throughout the day!
  • Fluid in the form of energy gels can help keep up energy and water intake – once we got some support from Lucozade which saved pretty penny as gels are not cheap
  • Force yourself to drink a couple of liters a day
  • Hot Chocolate – practically essential! Your dirty cooking container does not make nice water – but you wouldn’t know it once you have mixed in a heap of chocolate powder!

Climbing

  • Welcome to the world of hot aches.. and if conditions are bad, and your on belay for a long time these can be excruciating. There is potential to help your hands by doing wind-mill type things and forcing the blood down – although I can not guarantee the science of this!
  • If you feel your core temperature drop to a point where you are deeply cold (this has happened a couple of times in very exposed positions) do not just stand there! I have a routine of tensing my hands, forearms, biceps, chest, stomach, thighs, calves, feet, toes and back again in a kind of bod- tensing Mexican-wave. Usually in sets of 10 or 20 repetitions while praying that the out-of-sight leader builds a belay soon..
  • Feet – if you can’t feel them – this is not a good thing! (Despite a potential reduction of pain in kicking that horrid rock-hard black ice you can come across in winter!) If they are getting too cold – constantly work them by opening and closing your toes
  • > If you get stuck out and have to bivi over night; loosen your boots right up to improve blood flow and get them working hard! Frost bite is no fun at all…
  • Your face can be vulnerable to freezing – more than once I have pointed out to a friend that the skin has gone a whitish colour in patches; here you should apply a bare hand to it gently (do not rub) and warm the area until blood flow is restored – a balaclava should be in your pack
  • Have Goggles on hand if there wind is up with fresh snow – preferably in a pocket – wind blasting your eyes with spin drift can freeze them together while you climb or freeze nodules of ice to your eye lashes which can be surprisingly hard to shift!
Nathan Murphy Cold but good conditions!
Cold but good conditions!

Clothing

  • I bought some Paramo Aspira Salopettes back in 2009 and they have served well ever since (old version) but never sweated and always warm. A bib-based system  with braces makes a lot of sense – especially if snow-holing as it greatly reduces the chance of  snow getting in and melting in to your clothes – I tend to wear a light pair of trousers under this
  • I tend to go for a couple of base layer tee-shirts, a light jumper, a synthetic (used a Rab Xenon till some f**ker stole it – excellent light-weight jacket), a down jacket for belay and a hard-shell waterproof to go over the top keeping general snow/spin out of my clothing system
  • Gloves – the best gloves I have come across for climbing are these Mammut ones they are light, give great dexterity (to a point of being able to put in screws while wearing them) and are excellent value for money
  • It is good to have a mitt or two as a back up; a lost glove in the wrong time and place could mean lost fingers
  • Bring a balaclava that fits, sun glasses, goggles and down-booties are a nice luxury!

Footwear

  • Plastics are a must. “4 Season” boots just do not cut it here  especially if something doesn’t go to plan. You should approach the Winter Alps with an almost Himalaya-style attitude – it has long been used as a training ground for the greater ranges
  • Get boots with removable inners unless you enjoy putting your feet in to ice cubes every morning (more importantly it means you can dry them out in your sleeping bag every night increasing the heat-retention properties for the next day)
  • I spent a few years walking around just wearing crampons due to (a) little money and (b) pack size – but now I am likely to hire some snow shoes.. not overly cheap but so much better than plodding which is slow, utterly exhausting and gives you very cold feet (better if you can; learn to ski!)
  • I have tried to use antiperspirant on my feet to reduce moisture in my boots – but to be honest apart from nicer smelling feet – found no noticeable benefit
Worst thing to find in Mc.Donalds
Worst thing to find in Mc.Donalds

Dealing with altitude

Moving from London (altitude of sea-level to 50m) to camping out at 3,500m in the evening, and looking to climb up to 4,500m over the following days is not ideal acclimatisation to say the least! You should be well aware of altitude sickness and it’s signs when climbing up – if your friend is throwing up on route and falling asleep on the belay – it is not a good sign. Many people have died due to altitude sickness on Mt.Blanc and not affecting you one year does not mean it won’t the next.

Thanks to the altitude you can expect;

  • Constant headaches
    I cannot give you the science – but perhaps it combines with poor hydration – but I find I will often have a constant mild headache which, for a week, actually is not all that much fun; to counteract this I bring a load of Aspirin with me and eat them whenever I feel the need – apparently they thin the blood too which can aid circulation when cold
  • Sleepless nights
    This is the real killer! Not literally – but because you have to take more breaths to get the same amount of oxygen during sleep – your heart has to beat faster in order to deliver it. This means the nights can seem epicly long due to very light sleeping. Many times I have just quietly asked my climbing partner the time as the chance of them being awake is so high. After a week this can really get to you on a physical and motivational level… but it’s not meant to be easy! I have often thought about sleeping pills – but totally unsure of side-effects or risks with doing this at altitude. Love to know your thoughts/experiences – feel free to add in the comments!
  • Loss of appetite
    Again – not sure of the science – but you just don’t feel as hungry and with those frozen flap jacks or choc-biscuit bars eating more than one or two can make you feel sick. My rule is to set my intake and stick to it – even if I am still munching on the way to the route. If you don’t eat you wont have the energy to climb quickly. A partner of mine was once feeling utterly trashed in a walk-off carrying 35kg (deep snow plodding) probably a direct result of eating one flap-jack over a 12hr period.
  • Breathlessness
    The obvious one! Something that would be fairly easy at home – perhaps climbing over a steep section of berchund  – can leave you out of breath. Generally it will all take more effort than you would like – but that is part of the challenge. Not much you can do about this apart from get your carido fitness up! (unless perhaps taking prescription drugs)

I am sure I have missed a heap of things and I would love to hear your thoughts – or other tips especially if I can use them on my next trip.

two cool guys
Two rather cold guys about to emergency bivi on route in Jan 2005, approx 4,200m
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