Climbing (or not climbing) in -20*C temps in Canmore

I’m still warming up from a month and a half spent in Canmore this winter.  With a work situation that was a bit flexible, I was there for some of January and most of February. The back to back climbing days really zapped some of my energy, but I think it was the cold at the end of the trip that really wore me down the most.  This blog post is about layering for very cold temperatures in Canmore, and some of my future rules of thumb for *cold* ice climbing days.

Rule 1: Unless you have no other option, just wait until it gets warmer

I was fortunate enough to have a lot of time in the Bow Valley.  On cold days where I wanted to get outside, I often went skate skiing instead. Most of the locals will choose skiiing as their sport for the -20*C temps, or they won’t go out at all.  Without the luxury of waiting out the whole season, I did my best to bear with the cold temperatures, but some days it just isn’t worth it.


This climb was the wrong choice for really cold temps. I wanted the dexterity of thin gloves but had to switch them out after 20 ft. Picture: Jimmy Voorhis

Rule 2: If it is -20*C, climb easy ice and thick gloves are your friends

On the cold days I did go out, I made some better choices and some poor ones. The most memorable, and least enjoyable decision, was trekking into the Waiprous to try to snatch the second ascent for a new route my roommate had put up the week prior.  The idea of following a new route, that was mostly gear protected limestone mixed climbing, was so exciting that we forgot to check the temperatures, and climbed too late in the day to take advantage of much sun.

The route grades hadn’t really been established yet, but the first ascensionismts were thinking something like M7.  The problem was that it being hard and my having to place gear rather than clip bolts, I wanted to wear thin gloves.   My hands instantly froze and I had to stop to dawn a thicker pair.  Those froze solid too.  Needless to say, picking something a bit easier might have been a more suitable choice for the temperatures.


Rule 3: Pick sunny aspects

Rule 3 precipitates out of the my story in rule 2. Prior to my trip, I was quite unfamiliar with the Rockies, and had consistently been told “Its so neat there, you can climb ice in the sunshine!”  I didn’t put together that this was because it is so cold, and climbing sunny aspects was sometimes a necessary condition to making things enjoyable.

Asylum was a decent choice in terms of aspects go, it is also to the west of the crest and therefore the temps are ever slightly more moderate. Picture: Jimmy Voorhis

Rule 4: Layering

With any cold weather sport, layering obviously rides up the priority least and doing it right has the potential to make me a pretty happy camper. Here are a few things I noticed:

  • There wasn’t a day I went out without at least one pair of long underwear (whereas I have often gotten away without it in places like Bozeman, MT or the Cascades).
  • Two pairs are better than one…some of my partners actually wore two pairs of long underwear on cold days. I was wearing OR’s Alpine ice pants which have a fleece lining.  I am sure without this I would have done the same thing.
  • A second set of approach socks and an extra base layer are key pieces of kit.  Changing these items out just after arriving at the climb can make all the difference, and seems to be the go to approach for dealing with sweating out your layers.
  • Thicker gloves – I don’t think there was a day I wore a thinner pair of climbing gloves than something like the OR Project’s.
Steve Swenson’s layering system: approach in full Gore so falling snow and snow falling off of branches does not get him wet, then change layers at the base of the climb

Rule 5: Many pairs of gloves

I seem to always underestimate how many pairs of gloves I will actually want. I found while climbing out of Canmore that while sometimes my fingers might be warm enough, they would dry out significantly due to condensation inside the gloves doing bad things to my skin.  I would recommend changing out gloves even when they are not soaked through to keep your skin in good condition. I still feel as through my nerves and skin are recovering from some of the colder moments and the abuse.

Some additional information

For the person who is seeking additional information on what to wear while ice climbing there, I would also provide the following notes:

  • I climbed consistently in the new La Sportiva G5 boots with a mid-weight sock.  For the most part my feet were comfortable.  Usually when the pair of socks I wore were too thick, I ran into issues. Simply down-sizing my sock fixed the trick. Long story short, the G5s are great, warm boots.
  • Some of the other essentials for cold days in the Rockies include a good down belay parka – make sure it comes well below your waist.  Mine fits a little snug and high, thus letting warm air into my back.

Hopefully with all this information, you can stay warmer in the Rockies than I did. Next year I would like to head back better armed to deal with the cold temperatures, which zap my energy when I am not fully prepared. Happy climbing!

One thought on “Climbing (or not climbing) in -20*C temps in Canmore

  1. Olivier Bock

    Hey man, I have really appreciated your blog and your approach (to climbing and life). You write well and you have so much to offer as a teacher. Seeing as this post is over a year old, you have either lost ideas for content or had an unfortunate experience in the wild (hopefully the former). I would love some advice on a starter alpine kit for the cascades, or a starter approach. I am experienced in multi-pitch rock climbing but the world of crampons and axes is a big mystery to me. I’m sure it depends on what I wish to climb, but let’s say for now I’d like to: a. be safe on icy approaches to rock climbs, b. hone my skills on a volcano nearby (i.e. not too technical) and c. have some room to grow. All of your technical content has been excellent, from diet to what goes on your rack, and the trip reports have been inspiring. Keep it UP! And Thank You!

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