Winter Climbing 101: The Belay Parka

Last night, in seven-degree temperature I groveled beneath the crawl space in my house trying to unthaw my frozen-assed pipes. An hour later they burst, drenching everything. Sounds a lot like winter climbing.

First, I know, winter climbing can suck – but mostly just because it’s cold. Sometimes I think the gangsta-wannabe types, using their big jackets just for chillin’ like Biggie Smalls, might be on to something. But the actual climbing is usually fun, even brilliant in good conditions, and there’s something especially cool about climbing a transient medium in a snow-blanketed, serene environment. Granted, it’s often Type II fun, with badly formed ice and snow-covered rock, the dreaded and beloved g-climbing (g is for grovel, and G-climbing is another topic all together).

Anyway, the main reason people get cold and uncomfortable relates to their clothing. While there’s lots to address there, we know most of it – don’t wear cotton, start with a wicking baselayer, add the right amount of insulation, put on a shell. Wear a hat. But people often wear too much insulation – too much? Yes, definitely. They dress for standing around, which makes sense except that then you overheat when you’re moving. That makes you sweat. Then your clothes get damp and lose some insulating value – even the fancy synthetics lose some when wet. And wearing too much is bulky and uncomfortable, restricting your movement so you can’t climb as well, thus having less fun. Solution? Fairly simple: belay parka.

It goes like this:

Nice DAS Parka, nice! Staying wam after leading a pitch tagged with skull & crossbones on a the original topo -- grrr -- on a 2003 attempt at Deprivation (Mt. Hunter, AK) with Jonny Copp. We bailed from the third ice band later in the day.

1. Dress for action. Since you’ll have a harness on, this means you can’t realistically swap-out under-layers. Dress to keep yourself warm when actually moving. Movement warms you up big-time. Overdress, especially in the upper body, and you soak your layers in sweat. But it’s a bit of an art, because you also want to stay warm – especially in the core, toasty warm in the core, go what I call “+ 1” in the core, meaning an extra layer there (a short-sleeved T or a vest) – which therefore allows shunting of warm blood to your extremities, keeping your hands warm enough that you can wear thinner, more dexterous gloves. Dressing like this means you’ll be chilly just standing around. BUT…you can simply add a layer over the top to warm you when you aren’t climbing. Thus:

2. Use the belay parka. Or puffy coat, whatever you want to call it. The standard layering approach that even your grandma has heard about just isn’t practical in the middle of a climb – what, like when you need to adjust your heat you’re gonna unbuckle your harness, remove your shell, change mid-layers, tuck them back in, they put your harness back on? No, you dress for action, then throw on an overlayer.

When?

Anytime you stop. If you stop for any longer than, say, taking a leak, throw on the belay parka to trap your heat before it leaves you. Even on multi-pitch climbs, do this immediately atop each pitch, even though you reach the belay and feel warm. Don’t do it and you’ll get cold fast. Trap your hard-earned heat. Since you’re no longer moving, you won’t overheat and sweat-out. Perfect. Before the next pitch, the very last thing you do – after eating, drinking, changing gloves, breaking down the belay to a single good piece – is take it off.

Some nice details to look for:

  • A good hood. Should be helmet compatible (just as you aren’t gonna adjust underlayers with a harness on, you don’t want to be taking on/off your helmet, especially on ice climbs when stuff’s falling down everywhere), zip high onto the chin and lower face, and cinch down around your helmet and face – when it’s gnarly out, you want to be so snug you look like Kenny from South Park.
  • Double zipper pulls are a nice bonus, so that you can open up the bottom of the coat while zipped and thus see your belay device (only needed in the super puffy winter parkas).
  • Internal mesh pockets – handy for keeping gloves warm, but not crucial since putting them deeper in your layers – inside your main shell – keeps them even warmer. But sometimes you don’t want to open-up your main shell.
  • Self-stuff (like into its own pocket with clip-in loop – rare for big jackets, common for 3-season style Puffball style) or an included stuff-sack with a clip-in loop. Super handy for multi-pitch routes. Of course you can use your own stuff sack and sew-in a clip-in loop, or tie the drawcord and clip it, but having one correctly sized with the jacket is nice. Granted, on some multi-pitch routes you’ll have the second climbing with a light pack, so he can carry the parkas. But that doesn’t help you while you’re belaying up the second, and so often you just want to clip your belay parka onto your harness and thus have it always ready. Sometimes, like in more moderate conditions, you can bring only one belay parka up a route and share it – the second always gets it. Idea being that by the time the leader cools down, the second arrives and gives you the parka (if swinging leads) or you take off leading again (if leading in blocks).

There’s plenty more to consider, like big coat vs small coat, synthetic vs down, and hard shell (waterproof) vs lighter shell. Intended usage, including conditions expected, affect your choices. More on that soon. Choices, choices.

But this was just the basics, to get us through while I grovel under the crawl space and fix my damned busted pipes instead of going climbing as I’d planned. But once I’m done and enjoying my marg, I’ll still pull on my belay parka – just so I can look like Biggie Smalls for a day.

6 thoughts on “Winter Climbing 101: The Belay Parka

  1. Yeah, the idea makes a lot of sense and Patagonia got it right with the DAS parka. Now, if you could make a parka that is warm and the DAS but small as the nano… well, that’ll be the perfect parka.
    I’d like to add also a pair of insulated pants for the bivy, it’s priceless.
    Thanks for the tips Kelly.
    How was Utah?

    • thx Uri. yeah, Utah was great. been traveling lots lately, though, has been nice to hang at home (though my pipes froze and burst the other night, which sure sucked). indeed, the DAS kicas ass. ha, warm as the DAS, small as the Nano…not there yet. but given how things progress, someday it’ll surely happen.
      good point on the insulated pants, like the Puff Ball Pants — allows you to bring a lighter sleeping bag, and since they can double as climbing gear on routes where you might have a burly cold summit day, totally makes sense. as often as possible, i think gear should serve more than one purpose (at least on routes where weight matters).

    • well, certainly no more uncouth than turning margarita monday into evan williams monday, deargodman! ok, recipe coming, stay tuned — and remember that you asked for cheap :)

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