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”

Calf training for winter climbing

If you have ever had the pleasure of your calves being so pumped out that you have to hang on your axes to de-pump or when the idea of taking a 60ft fall is tempting just so you would be able to sit for a while – you will understand why when I try to get in shape for a winter trip, if I do nothing else, I will beast my calves.

I find nothing more discomforting than, when on a ice route, your calves pack up. My theory is that, while you are able to stand happily on your front points, you remain in control and therefore can remain fairly safe . In early January 2009 I was going to go to the Mt.Blanc massif and go soloing for a week – the aim was to be self sufficient – live in a snow hole and do some routes on the Tucal. Therefore calves were an important part of my training.

When soloing in winter, the way I see it, you have to bear a few of things in mind;

  1. It is very cold
  2. You need to carry enough to stay warm & rap a route
  3. If you fall you will probably die, and if you are lucky enough to get away with just being severely injured there will be no one around to help so you will probably die
  4. There is a lot of ice, often bullet hard, meaning lots of front pointing.

Weight wise – with plastic boots & crampons,  axes, various clothing required, rucsac, a couple of ice screws/abolokov threader, a pair of 60m half ropes to rap, tat, harness, a bit of water and some snacks you are probably going to weigh around 20kg more than if you stood naked. So bearing that in mind that you are going to be heavier than if you are leading when climbing as a pair – making sure your calves are have good strength and endurance is critical to  your safety.

At the time I had a spare room in my house & a load of wood from an old fingerboard frame and an ikea bed I recently dismantled – so feeling fairly creative I made the mother of all calf training rigs..

The mother of all calf training rigs
The mother of all calf training rigs

This rig enabled me to stand on my front points, carrying a 20kg weight bag and do sets of one/two foot calf raises to build strength or spend around 5 minutes at a time on one foot to build up endurance. With the stack of rungs – I was also able to use it to train my thighs in a style similar to the requirement Continue reading “Calf training for winter climbing”

Climbing in Chamonix with Oli Lyon

My and a good friend Oli Lyon decided to get a winter trip in, Oli has been living in Chamonix for the winter season so I was keen to get over and do some routes with him.

I flew out on an early morning flight from London City airport and by 4pm we were already up on the hill on way to the Abri Simmond hut (only open in winter) where we planned to stay. The weather when we arrived was brilliant and the sunset led to some great photographic conditions.

Oli skiing in dragging his sled.

The alpen glow was epic and we got some good shots of the Midi!

We decamped at the hut (3600m) the temperature was probably about -18 degrees Celcius – so cold and high enough to feel fairly rotten. We ate tortellini with Spicy Italian Dolmio sauce with cheddar chunks melted in. This heavy carb dinner had our bodies burning hot which helped us get to sleep in the cold.

I have been on 6 winter trips to the Alps and I have never seen the face of Tacul looking this snow covered; there was in places 2 ft of rime! It made it look really wintery and pretty cool.

We got up the next morning to go and climb Chere couloir a fantastic ice route with the odd 90 degree section, although actually having done it before in winter, it is a great warm up climb to get you into the ice climbing mind set.

We climbed the steep burchund, soloed up the first pitch to the base of the steeper climbing.

The climbing was fantastic, and the weather was pretty stable throughout the day, we climbed the 400m route quickly and ended up on the top of the ridge after a couple of hours. We rappelled back down, the route has bolts on belay anchors so this is a really quick process. at the bottom our ropes were not long enough so we ended up rapping off some very thin looking Abolkov threads left by another climber which I was glad to say held for both of us. Sooo much fun!

Nathan Murphy abseiling
Nathan Murphy abseiling

Ice climbing in Conge

I was not expecting to go to Italy, but we (me and the seasoned climber/extreme skier Oli Lyon) decided to do a road trip and find some water fall ice to climb. We arrived in Conge on a week day evening and it was like a ghost town, the snow was falling lightly at just the rate you would want if you were doing a snowy scene in a film.

We climbed a few routes, then did a bit of soloing which was great! Ice cragging (first time for me) was fun, but won’t not replace mountaineering for me.

Oli Lyon wrecking the place
Nathan Murphy soloing
Nathan Murphy soloing

Ever had Italian strudel? (if it is Italian) was very very rich and heavy – it tasted like there was a spirit in it of some kind – but over all nice if expensive!