By SP Parker
Photo: SP Parker
Learning the techniques for climbing thin ice on Chouinard Falls, Lee Vining Canyon.
Don’t put your summit fever away for the year. Once temperatures drop and snow falls, your climbing rack can be put to good use aiming for the cold-capped peaks of winter. Sure, winter in the mountain ranges of California can be cold and stormy but winter mountaineering provides the chance to explore the state’s peaks at a time when few folks reach them.
The Sierra Nevada and Cascade regions bless Californians with a playground where blue skies are the norm and brief storms can dump tons of fluffy white sand in the sandbox, so to speak, overnight. Meanwhile, California rarely endures the weeks of bad weather common in many other of the world’s mountain ranges.
Since the stakes are higher in the inclement conditions of winter, you need to be prepared with solid equipment, the right skills and a proper mindset. Make an investment and approach it with a ready mind and credit cards standing by.
Equipment: The Difference Between You and a Popsicle
Your local gear shop will be happy to help and glad to see you coming. To deal with extreme and fickle conditions, you’ll need more technical gear than you would in summer. In fact, aiming for peaks in the winter requires more gear, period.
Safety Starts with Being Warm and Dry
Having proper footwear is essential. Don’t skimp on footwear when the weather gets so cold that even the mercury shivers. If you are truly serious about winter mountaineering, fork out for high-end plastic boots. Plastic boots stay drier and insulate better. However, some people are very happy with leather boots. Whichever you choose, look for boots that don’t pinch, bind or bang up your shins. Buy boots a little loose since your toes will stay warmer if they have room to wiggle. Avoid the temptation to fill the space by wearing extra socks, which can cut off circulation to your toes. Frostbite damaged toes are souvenirs that can’t be returned or repaired.
Hands also need good insulation. Mittens will keep you warmer than gloves, although you’ll compromise dexterity. Wear a pair of liner gloves inside your mittens. That way, you can quickly pull off the shells if necessary and then yank them back on before the cold settles into your bones. Make sure that your mittens and gloves have an attachment system, such as a wrist loop, or clip to the jacket. Too often, gloves get sucked away by a strong wind, never to be seen again.
You should also invest in technical undergarments. Buy a stash of synthetic or wool (the new crop is made of soft, superfine weaves) under layers in a variety of thicknesses. Experiment with layering undershirts and bottoms. Eventually, you’ll find the right combination to keep you warm, but not too warm, in a variety of conditions.You’ll also want to buy a good waterproof, windproof jacket or shell, pair of pants and gaiters (to keep the snow out of your boots). Look for outer layers that are made of Gore-Tex, HyVent or similar windproof/waterproof materials. These fabrics will help you stay warm, even in a serious winter tempest.
Bivy or Bust
If you plan on overnight expeditions, there is great gear available to keep you cozy and protected from the elements while you sleep.
A down sleeping bag is highly preferable since it is warmer and less bulky than a synthetic bag. But just how warm a bag will you need? Manufacturer’s ratings are pretty subjective and everyone has a different metabolic rate. One person’s oven might be another person’s freezer. Women will likely want to invest in a bag tailored to the female form. Once you have found a bag shape that fits you well, look for a version with a water-resistant shell. Your breath will probably condense overnight in the tent. Besides, at some point somebody will spill their hot chocolate or soup on your bag.
Find a tent that is easy to pitch in strong winds and can support the weight of a night’s snowfall. Do your research; sit in the tent before buying it and ask yourself if you can live in it for a few days. For snow camping, color is an often overlooked feature, but it matters when the landscape is white and conditions are bleak. Yellow or orange are good choices for visibility, and also offer warmth and cheer when you’re tent bound. Finally, look for a tent designed for four season use and make sure that it features plenty of tie downs. A poorly made tent that lets snow or moisture seep in will make for a miserable night’s rest.
In most conditions you’ll need to use either snowshoes or skis to access the winter backcountry. Snowshoeing is easy and inexpensive. The newer generation shoes with Lexan frames and hypalon decks are far more user-friendly than the old wooden Alaskan-style shoes. Look for snowshoes with metal side rails on the base and a metal claw under the toe since these features will keep you from slipping when traversing or climbing straight up a steep slope.
While snowshoeing is beginner-friendly, skiing in the backcountry requires real skills and technique. Try renting first to find what equipment works best for you. The retail price of a full setup will put a major dent in your credit card limit so get it right the first time.
If you are a downhill skier consider a randonnée ski setup (also know as an AT or alpine touring setup). This skiing style allows you to release your heel for uphill climbing and lock it down for the downhills. Randonnée boots are usually softer than downhill boots so take them out for a day at your local resort to get familiar with them.
Telemark gear provides another skiing option, but you’ll need the requisite skills to take it to the backcountry.
Whatever you choose, the bottom line is to be conservative. You will be carrying a heavy pack and if you are on skis this will affect your skiing enormously. You will not get in the turns you usually do. And if you fall often, any time or energy advantage skiing provides will be burned up. If you doubt your skiing ability, take snowshoes.
Finally, always bring crampons and an ice axe, even if you think they may not be necessary. These traditional winter climbing tools may be unnecessary in soft snow conditions, but for firm snow they are a definite must.
You may need a bigger pack to carry all this equipment. If so, find one that will fit all your gear while carrying it as snugly as possible to minimize pack swing while skiing or snowshoeing. Remember the first law of backpacking: “Gear always expands to fill available space.” Don’t buy a pack bigger than you can reasonably carry when loaded.
There is no substitute for the combination of preparation and experience. The best way to begin is to take winter mountaineering and avalanche courses from a recognized guide outfit (see sidebar for a list of Nor Cal region guide services). You’ll learn heaps and meet great people, possibly some future adventure partners. Next, go with competent friends and learn from them while you rack up a few ascents and some hard-earned experience.
In winter months, avalanches are a primary concern. The danger of encountering one rises quickly after a storm. An avalanche course that teaches you avalanche assessment is the single best investment you can make for safe winter travel in the backcountry. Just remember that avalanche assessment is tricky; in a given situation, you may never know if you made the right choice or simply got away with something. Experience is ultimately the best way to become proficient at recognizing danger. Before you head out every season it’s a good idea to read and review avy science books. One of the most popular and concise is Snow Sense by noted avy forecasters Jill Fredston and Doug Fessler. No matter what, you should definitely take an avy course from certified instructors (look for AMGA or IFMGA certification) for on-the-snow practice and understanding.
Tuning Up for Exertion and Elevation
Climbing lore has it that in the 1970s, British climbers Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker slept in a frozen meat locker to test their gear and toughen up before climbing the Himalayan peak of Changabang. You don’t have to go to that extreme but you will want to be in good shape. Running is a good way to build cardiovascular fitness. To better simulate a long climb like Shasta, crank away on a Stairmaster to build the quad strength needed for steep climbing.
For high elevation climbs, acclimatization is of utmost importance. Unfortunately, this is largely a function of time rather than exercise. A sure formula for failure is to jump in the car from sea level and then start hiking at 8,000 feet early the next morning. Before long your head will be spinning you’ll feel ready to throw up. To avoid feeling this bad, let the body adapt to the lowered oxygen levels of elevation in smaller chunks. Altitude sickness can hit hard so monitor your body. If you don’t feel well, go lower and wait. Most people don’t have major problems but it is possible to develop pulmonary or cerebral edemas, which can result in death.
The Right Mindset
Perhaps the most important thing to bring on a winter mountaineering is the right mindset. Don’t push for a peak in winter with an “at-all-cost” approach, which can backfire. Above all, be careful. If you don’t like the conditions – head home. The mountains will still be there whether you tag the top this time or the next.
Originally from New Zealand, SP Parker has lived in the Eastern Sierra for 25 years. Certified in rock, alpine and ski disciplines by the American Mountain Guides Association and with international IFMGA certification, he runs a guide service based in Bishop and leads trips throughout the Sierra and worldwide.