Psychology of Winter Climbing
There are so many variables in winter climbing that it can be a daunting experience and quite hard to progress. So let’s try to work at these variables one by one to push up a grade and get into the climbing you really want to do.
Climbing in winter brings with it lots and lots of anxiety and stresses, things that play on your mind and hold you back. So, we should focus thought and energy on each one of these to reduce the anxiety attached to it, and to bring down the overall anxiety level. If your mind is not working away on whether there will be a cornice at the top, you will have less anxiety and more cognitive bandwidth for the stuff you need it for, the climbing right in front of you.
Chip away at all these stressors, assess them and box them away in your mind when you know they are now sorted or it is not worth worrying about them right now. By doing these things specifically, you will clear your mind and be able to focus on the climbing.
Is it in condition?
To answer this you need to know what good conditions are for that route. If it’s a mixed route, is it best with a coating of rime that brushes off with a wipe of your glove or does it need little patches of solid snow on ledges and frozen turf? If it’s an ice climb, does it need many weeks of freeze thaw action or is it a cascade ice climb that just needs a cold snap of a week?
Do some research, speak with people who have done the climb and work out what makes up optimal conditions, what pattern of weather will create these and then wait for them. Read up on the blogs to see what types of climbs have been done. The internet is useful for this but remember if someone says they had a very hard time on a climb it might mean either that the climb is not in good condition or that person is not very strong at that grade.
Later this year, the new edition of my Winter Climbs - Ben Nevis and Glen Coe will be in the shops and it will have lots of useful information to help you with the different styles of climbs, what style each route is and what it takes to bring each style of climb into good condition.
Am I Good Enough?
If you’re going from grade IV to grade V, first off climb lots of grade IV routes so you know you are happy on these in a variety of conditions. If you can get up a grade IV on a good day with perfect weather and it feels tough you are not ready for grade V.
Place protection on your grade IV climbs in tricky places to replicate what it will be like on grade V climbs.
Do not place as much protection as you can on the easy bits. Get used to some longer run outs on sections you know you can climb.
Get your belay management really slick so that hand-overs are done in a couple of minutes, not 10 or 15 minutes.
Get a buddy (or a guide) to lead you up some grade V climbs to experience them as a second so you know you can do the climbing.
Learn as much as you can about avalanche hazards, but on the day you push your grade do not let it be a factor that will contribute to your potential anxiety! Wait for a day when there is Low or Moderate avalanche hazard. This is often in the spring for ice climbs which is often when they are at their best anyway. Mixed climbs can be on buttresses facing away from the avalanche hazard so choose a venue that faces the prevailing wind at the time. Less anxiety about avalanches will mean less anxiety overall, and more cognitive bandwidth for the climbing.
Going through the whole day in your mind before you get there is a very useful thing to do. Practice visualising the feel, sounds and smells of everything from packing your bag, walking in, approaching the climb, stepping on to the climb, powering through the crux moves and reaching the top with energy and time to spare.
Also visualise the things that might go slightly wrong, how this will feel and then how you can get yourself back on track. For example, you might visualise dropping an ice screw, feeling that anger and annoyance, getting calm again and having the confidence to carry on without it.
Visualise each pitch after looking at it. Work out the tricky bits, the easier bits and where to place protection. Plan out where and when to place protection and have the gear ready in the right place on your harness.
Visualise the crux move on each pitch, the sequence of moves and pulling over it feeling strong.
Self reliance is a fundamental principle of mountaineering. By participating we accept this and take responsibility for the decisions we make. These blog posts and conditions reports are intended to help you make good decisions. They do not remove the need for you to make your own judgements when out in the hills.