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 wantContinue reading “Winter Alps; tips for dealing with altitude & extreme cold”