Thursday, March 12, 2009

Staying Warm

While walking into the climbs on Saturday morning I did something stupid and ended up paying for it for the rest of the day. The first rule of staying warm while climbing in the winter is to not get sweaty on the approach. If you do and you have no means of drying out your gear, you will be cold all day.

On Saturday I broke this rule. Because it was such a beautiful morning, I kept stopping to take pictures and loosing my group. Then I was jogging to catch up to them. I never stopped to take a layer off, even when I started sweating. At 5 degrees in the canyon, I was pretty much cold for the rest of the day.

I have been thinking a lot about how to stay warm in winter when out in the mountains, and this day just made me think about it more. Sunday I was determined to not suffer the same fate, so I monitored myself throughout the day and used all of the techniques I have been taught for staying warm. I also talked to my friend Laura, who took a beginner class on Sunday and was freezing the whole time. It made her not want to ice climb.

Not cool. So, I wanted to share some techniques for staying warm in the back country. These are mostly related to ice climbing, during which you hike, stand around a lot and climb in small spurts, but these methods can be used for staying warm outside in the winter no matter what you are doing.

1. The key is to never get cold. Once I let myself get really cold, I don't warm up again until after I get home, take a shower, and bundle myself up in blankets by the fire with a cup of tea for a few hours. So don't let it get to this point!

2. Don't sweat on the approach. This sounds impossible to control, but it's easy. When you leave the car in the morning, you should feel a little bit cold. Don't wear all of your layers. Wear a light pair of gloves that you are not going to climb in. I try to monitor my temperature on the hike into a climb. If I start to feel like the pace that is being set is too fast, I slow down. Stop and take a layer off if you feel yourself starting to overheat. If you're with a group that is faster than you and you don't want to tell them to stop, take off your hat and unzip your pit zips and leg zips as you are walking.

3. Layer properly. I wear a wicking camisole, a wicking short sleeve shirt, and then a merino wool or Capilene base layer. I love Patagonia's Capeline tops, because they are long and extend down over your butt. On top of that I wear my insulating layer, which is sometimes a fleece, but usually a Marmot Driclime, which is amazing and also wicks sweat away from your body. On the very top I wear a Gore-Tex hard shell with pit zips. When I bike in these layers (an acitivity in which I sweat a lot) a layer of sweat is usually pulled out to the outside of my Driclime and trapped under my hard shell. If I undo the pit zips the sweat is free to escape completely.

On my feet I wear a wicking sock liner and expedition weight wool socks. Wool will retain their insulation even after it gets wet, so this is your best bet for feet. On my head I wear a light fleece liner hat under my helmet. I always carry an extra hat in my pack in case my head gets wet while climbing.

4. Retain the heat you create. Your muscles create a tremendous amount of heat on a hike with a big pack. That is why you hear people saying things like, "It's really warmed up." after hiking in. It hasn't really warmed up, you just feel warmer because your muscles have been working. Don't waste this heat you have created. When you arrive at the climb, there is usually a bit of standing around. You should immediately put on your puffy down or synthetic jacket. I wear a Patagonia Das Parka, which I love. Again it is long enough to cover my butt. On really cold days I will immediately put on my down pants. The biggest muscles in your body are in your legs, why let all of that heat escape? Down Mountain Hardwear Chugach pants are great for this. They are like a sleeping bag for each leg.

5. If something gets wet, dry it out. Sometimes my hands sweat so much when I climb that my gloves get wet from the inside. Keeping my hands inside of these gloves after they get wet is just asking for trouble. I change my gloves and dry out the wet ones inside my puffy jacket. All that heat that your body creates is great for drying out gear too. Always carry an extra pair of socks in case your feet get wet.

6. Eat, drink and be merry (and warm). Eating and drinking kicks your metabolism into high gear and causes you to warm up. Most of us know this, but still don't eat and drink enough, because we are not hungry. I bring real food out there that I can look forward too. No power bars please. My latest favorites are cold pizza, macaroni and cheese and burritos from the Burrito Factory. Mmm.

7. Move. As a last resort if you feel yourself getting cold, move around. Stomp your feet, swing your arms, pace back and forth. Do not stand in one place, and DO NOT sit on the cold ground. If you have to sit, sit on your pack.

It's kind of a long post, but I think this is an important subject and I want to have something to go back to for the next time I make a mistake and let myself get cold. You don't have to suffer even when it is below zero. But you do have to use all of these techniques, not just one or two.

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