Winter Mountaineering Advice
This is advice from the participants on the club's winter mountaineering trips from years past.
These are all written by different authors and not edited. Take all of it with a grain of salt!
From the 2012 trips
- I should have practiced rappelling before coming on the trip. I could have done this at a local climbing gym for instance. By being slow at rappelling, I caused the entire group to be slowed down and spend uncomfortable time in cold and wind.
- Read and actually utilize the advice on this page! I read this page before the trip, yet made many of the same mistakes because I didn't actually put the advice into practice. Some might seem trivial, but they are not.
- Never glissade in crampons as it is very dangerous! I was surprised to see many people attempting this. The crampon spikes can get caught a patch of ice, breaking your leg or sending you headfirst down the slope. The snow can turn from slush to hard ice in a few feet without much warning.
- Put your breakfast bars and sunscreen in a small plastic bag in the bottom of your sleeping bag. In the morning you will actually be able to chew the bar and get sunscreen out of the tube.
From the 2011 trips
- If you are carrying a growler, keep it inside your tent or wrapped in something inside your pack. Glass can shatter quickly and create undesirable frozen beerfalls.
- Dig a pit in front of your tent door to catch snow off boots and prevent kicking it inside. If necessary, sink a narrow shaft with an ice axe for nocturnal fluid disposal.
- Cold feet inside the sleeping bag? Took your Nalgene inside to keep the water from freezing ? Make sure to rub the snow off and *close the lid tight*.
- Also, a Nalgene full of boiling water can keep your toes toasty all night!
- If your nalgene lid is already frozen stiff, boil some water (melt snow if you need to) and place bottle upside down in boiling water to melt the ice and get at your water again.
- or stick it in your armpit - sometimes works
- A tip to prevent the cap of your water bottle from freezing on: store the water bottle upside down. The bulk of the water will freeze slower than any thin film of water will.
- Tape some duct-tape around your ice-axe shaft or hiking poles [or water bottle]. Torn gaiters, or down jacket discarding feathers, or rip in your pants from crampons... duct-tape is always SO useful!
- Or, use clear packaging tape, which is used for packages and designed to withstand the cold temperatures of an airplane's cargo hold.
- Sunscreen the underside of your nose and the skin just inside your nostrils.
- Or, try chapstick on the underside of your nose.
- Dig a pit inside your tent vestibule so that if you puke out your tent door in the middle of the night it stays contained and doesn't get all over your tent.
- Using an MSR dragonfly I found went through about 20 oz of fuel for two people. Taking 1 liter of fuel should be enough for two people to melt snow and make a hot dinner. Taking a single 20 oz bottle (the medium size MSR red bottle) might be cutting it close if you need to melt snow both nights
- Taking a foam sleeping pad, or a small foam square to sit on the snow can be quite nice and save you from a cold (or wet) butt.
- It's nice to have the capacity to hold 3+ liters of water. On summit day you'll want to drink at least 0.5 liters water before you start the hike, plus another 1-2 liters to the summit and back. If you only have 2 liters of water capacity, you may need to sit around at Iceberg Lake melting snow (which takes a LONG time) before you start hiking back to the car. If instead you filled up four liters of water the previous night, you'd have plenty of water for the summit and the push home. Platypus makes plastic, collapsible containers that are quite light.
- Always check that your crampons fit your boots before leaving Pasadena (or at least before starting the hike). Finding out your crampons don't fit on your boot halfway up the trail is not good.
- If you have large feet, you might need a crampon extender bar.
- Always keep your crampons fairly accessible. You can't always anticipate when you may or may not need them, and you'll be annoyed if they're buried deep in your pack, and even more annoyed if you gave them to someone else to carry and need to do some sketchy as a result.
- If you're a driver, bring a spare key for your car and hide it somewhere or give it to someone else to carry.
- Mix gatorade or just salt in your water. At very low temperatures it still might stay slush instead of becoming ice. Very common sense, but I did not see this much in practice even though it is such a relief.
From the 2010 trips
- Garlic (chew on cloves or mix powder with food) works well with rapid acclimatization needs. A certain herb capsule called "Gingko Biloba" is also pretty good, but a lot depends on the exact brand. I have the one from VONS (called "Nature's Bounty"), and it seems to work well. Also, these two do not have any known major side effects. See Climbing Nutrition for more info
- Snowshoes were unnecessary for Whitney this year - I don't know how often that's true in March, but it's worth checking the portal store forum for recent reports before you go.
- in my opinion cooking food is not worth the effort, but I'm pretty lazy. It's certainly something to consider - it only recently occurred to me not to bring food that needs to be cooked. Later in the season when you don't have to melt snow to get water, you can save a few pounds not bringing a stove.
- After a calm night, didn't anchor the tent well so it nearly blew away in the morning when the wind kicked up
- Bring a platform to set the stove on
- Pad and sleeping bag blew away at Iceberg Lake even though they were anchored with a couple medium-sized rocks.
From the 2009 trips
- Stephen's "Special Gatorade" makes you sleep a lot better.
- Hot-water bottles are better at keeping you warm inside your sleeping bag than hot-water camelbaks.
From the 2008 trips
- Participant A
- I was using a water filter and it failed probably because it got frozen. So, next time I would use iodine instead of filtering.
- Participant B
- my feet were really cold all the time outside. ... I realize now I never hiked with these boots in winter, so either the boots are poor winter shoes, or my feet are very sensitive to cold or a combination of both but in any case, I'll need to know that and get more insulated boots next time.
- training. I have trained a bit for this ( running swimming, hiking Baldy a few times), but I sure was not prepared to carry 25 kg up 4000ft. So next time I do this, I'll take 20 to 30kg in a back pack and go up and down stairs a few times a day. I think that would have prepared me much better.
- I had not hiked with poles before and I thought they helped a tremendous amount with heavy load going up and down.
- melting snow. That was a pain. If I ever need to do this again, I will get a bigger pot ( having only a 600ml capacity pot means you need to do 5 to 6 melts to get 3 liters. Also trying to fill small platypus opening without pouring half of it on your gloves (which happened) is hard, so I'll get wider opening containers next time. Finally it's nice to be able to put the hot water bottle in your sleeping bag so it doesn't freeze and so it warms you up, but if that container does not have a closed top ( like the platypus which you bite to drink), then you can't so your water freezes in your tent.
- Participant C
- 8lbs more in your pack can make a huge difference. Strap on the snowshoes, ice ax and crampons. Pack your heavy winter jackets and any other warmer clothing which you probably won't be hiking in. Get any food that's in the refrigerator. Fill all your water bottles. And another pound or two for group gear. Make your pack the heaviest that you can imagine yourself carrying. Then try carrying the fully loaded pack. My pack felt as comfortable as I imagine a 46 lbs pack could feel; I went on several overnight trips with the pack in the mid 40's. But I discovered at the trail head that carrying 54lbs was basically impossible; with 8 more pounds, the pack somehow settled in a position lower on my back in a way which caused it to hurt. Perhaps, I simply do not know how to adjust my pack, or perhaps my pack is the wrong size; either way, it felt fine before adding all of the extra winter gear.
- Also, I tried fitting my gear in a new 4500 cubic inch internal frame pack; it was hopeless. I know some people managed with packs smaller than my external frame; but don't count on performing similar packing miracles.
- If you can afford it, buy a Jetboil stove or something similar. We regretted skimping on the stove since we already had one; boiling water takes forever, especially when you are exhausted.
- Altitude sickness sucks. Be prepared to turn around when you need to, which means recognizing that no matter how hard you try, failure can be inevitable on the trip. The mountain will still be there next time.
- Wool sweater over long underwear is a great combination for hiking in winter. Having a full length zipper on the sweater is even better.
- At night, turn your sleeping bag stuff sack inside out, place your boots inside, and put it in the sleeping bag. Freezing cold boots don't help to motivate one in the morning.
- Participant D
- My experience is that you feel warmer in your sleeping bag if you wear less cloth.
- If you use a camelback, blow out the tube if temperature < 273.15 K.
- When Hillary and Norgay did the FA of Everest, Hillary took off his boots in the last camp, Norgay didn't. It took them quite some time to unfreez Hillary's boots. Make sure your boots stay dry and warm over night.
- Snow will reflect sun, be sure to apply sun lotion also to the lower side of your nose and ears.
- Participant E
- Bring a second wag bag, just in case. And don't put your used one in your pack next to your crampons...
- And don't leave your wag out in the open while you are climbing, or else some hungry birds will peck at it and make a mess.
- Participant F: Tips for avoiding altitude sickness
- Be in shape! Shocking you body into carrying a 50 pound pack up 4 or 5 thousand feet can sometimes be just too much. Get out and run, do the stair master, get your heart rate up, etc.
- Spend some time at altitude immediately before the trip. The Baldy practice trips help, try to spend the night at or above 6000 feet twice the week before you go. Also make sure you sleep at the trail head the night before heading up. The more time you spend at altitude, the better.
- Drink tons of water! A man who has summited Everest several times told me the old rule used to be 2-3 liters of water for every thousand feet. Used gatorade mix or anything sweet to help you get it down. You should be having to pee all the time. Also, make sure you eat enough, even if it means forcing it down. You can also take a pill or 2 of ibuprofen.
- Take it easy! There is no need to blast up the trail. I've been sick from hiking hard from 6k to 10k one day and then made it to over 15k the next day just by re-hydrating and taking it more easily.
- Be patient and understanding of your self and others around you if you are feeling altitude sick. Resist the urge to tell someone who is altitude sick to go faster or suck it up. Know that altitude sickness can manifest itself in different forms, some people get head aches while others get nausea.
- Recognize the signs of AMS and of possible more severe altitude sickness. If you develop a severe splitting headache that does not go away with pain killers, hallucinate, or have an out of body experience, you may have HACE and need to descend immedeatly. If you are intially feeling strong but develope a hacking cough or a gurgling in your lungs that won't go away, you may have HAPE and need to descend to sea level as soon as possible. This are very unlikely to happen on the alpine club trips, but I've seen them on Orizaba and in the Himalayas and they should not be taken lightly.
From the old website, prior to 2008 trip
All written by Stephen, and copied here from http://www.its.caltech.edu/~alpine/whitney_tips.shtml.
Before the trip
Common sense applies: get plenty of sleep, don't tire yourself out too much the day before. For the two weeks prior, practice hiking with a full backpack and use your boots. If you have a caffeine habit, I recommend either stopping the habit a week or more before the trip, or else taking caffeine along on the trip. Just a bit of caffeine (half a caffeine pill or some black tea or chocolate-covered coffee beens) will help prevent caffeine headaches.
Food and gear
For food, take a lot of high-calorie stuff. Many people have reduced appetite at altitude. Food is the most-efficient way to stay warm; taking the time and fuel to boil a cup of tea is less effective than a tasty slice of brie cheese. During the day, you might want to have many small, light snacks. These are more easily digestible than heavy meals, and it's warmer to eat lunch over several brief stops rather than getting cold and eating a large meal all at once. Small snacks low in fat might help with altitude sickness. In fact, Houston reports that AMS is greatly reduced if you eat a diet of zero-fat; however, in practice, Houston says it is impractical to have such a diet, as even a small amount of fat reduces the effect. In winter, fatty food before bedtime will help keep you warm.
In the morning, it is quickest if you have food that does not require cooking. This is contrary to what many backpackers do, but since we'll be waking up at 3 AM or so, it's better to have the extra sleep rather than waiting for water to boil.
Dried fruit makes great snacks. I recommend the dried mangoes and dried pineapple at Lake Produce Center (752 N. Lake Ave).
If you wear contacts, you should be OK at high altitude, although expect very dry air. Contacts are nicer than glasses because you can easily wear sunglasses and goggles. If you wear glasses, you need either a good UV coating or attachable shades (or preferably both).
For large group trips, or for technical climbs (i.e. with belayed pitches), the good-old "dress in layers" does not exactly apply. A large group can't stop every time one person needs to take off or put on a layer. It isn't unreasonable to make some stops as a group, but you can't expect the timing of the group's stops to coincide perfectly with your need for a stop.
The generally accepted replacement for "dress in layers" is to use a warm down jacket that you only wear when you're not moving. Underneath the jacket you wear only a few layers, few enough that you won't sweat heavily after 20 minutes of hard hiking or climbing. This might mean that you're a bit cold when you first start hiking. When you stop for any reason (or when you belay), you wear the down jacket. This system is best for technical climbing, when you have long periods of belaying followed by intense periods of climbing (in cold temperatures, many climbers lead in blocks to minimize this effect). For hiking in groups, you don't need to follow this system as rigidly, but it's something to keep in mind.
See Climbing Nutrition.