Ice climbing requires a surprising amount of equipment. First off there is all the gear to actually climb the ice, then there is the gear to protect the climb, and finally there is all the equipment you wear to stay warm in temperatures potentially below -20C. This article details the equipment we found to be most useful while ice climbing in Canada one January. We were generally climbing 3+ pitch routes, but we also spent some time both cragging and doing longer routes. Conditions varied from -25C (In Maligne Canyon) to 0C (On the Weeping Wall).
What to wear for a day's winter climbing is a source for endless debate, and everyone will have different ideas about what constitutes the ideal system. What is undebatable is the end goal - being warm, dry, and actually able to climb, in a range of temperatures and conditions. That means that the basic clothes I wear never change, whether it's 0°C and sleeting in New Zealand or -30°C and dry in Canada.
Alpine climbing is extremely physically demanding. Most other sports have a history and culture of systematic training. Yet in alpine climbing, despite these demands, and the potential benefits that training can bring, few do. Many climbers come from outside this culture of mainstream sports, so do not have the background in training to apply themselves, and there are no coaches out there to guide you. There is good knowledge out there on training for endurance sports and for rock climbing, but not covering the wide spectrum of demands involved in doing long, hard routes in the mountains.
It surprises me how few mountain climbers understand or know a safe and simple method to abseil down a climb leaving minimal gear. Usually if you plan to abseil down a climb either placing your own abseil points or by using old ones already in place you will need a few basic things.
In addition to your standard rack of climbing gear pack some extra 6mm cord. (usually around 10m), a knife, two screamers (expanding quick draws), short prussic, belay device, daisy/safety chain, and your ropes.
In fine weather a unplanned or a planned bivvy generally involves little suffering. Fine weather can also be very forgiving when it comes to small mistakes in gear management. Bivvying can be broken into two categories. Planned and Unplanned. I will start with the planned type, as an unplanned bivvy is more about enduring with what you have rather than planning for something you know is coming.
So you’ve got the basics of ice and mixing climbing sorted and would like to get proficient on steeper (i.e. vertical to overhanging) or more difficult routes. The only sure way to do this is to climb more, but in addition there a whole range of practical things to work on that can help you along the way. Below are ten of the things that have worked for me (but I’m by no means good at).
Most alpine climbers use V-threads (Abalakov threads) occasionally (if you don’t know how to do a v-thread you may want to google that before reading further), but not many choose to set out on a climb planning to use them to descend many hundreds of metres down a large ice face. I used to think of V-threads as something for ice cragging and occasional use in the mountains but I’d never considered that a steep ice face could actually be a sensible, safe and fast way to get off a big peak.
There is nothing more frustrating than moving slowly on a long multi pitch route. Saving a few minutes on each pitch can often mean the difference between spending an unplanned night out, getting caught by a change in the weather or making it back to camp early with enough time to be rested for the next day of climbing. Learning how to safely increase your efficiency and speed on a multi-pitch route will also open the door to longer challenging climbs.
Sometimes you want to climb on a single rope, (for example, shortfixing and second is jugging) but still want to do full length abseils. Rather than bring a 2nd full rope to abseil off, you can bring a lightweight tag line (6mm). This is too thin and weak to abseil directly on, but can be used to pull your main rope down.