I’ve been spending quite a bit of time this winter in Rocky Mountain National Park, the Front Range’s alpine playground. From big solo days to scary mixed routes to speed climbing on the Diamond, I’ve refined my clothing and gear kit down to the most essential and practical items. A few folks have contacted me with questions about the ideal gear, so here’s a breakdown of my favorites for winter climbing in RMNP.
Note: For the past year I’ve been working closely with two amazing companies: Rab and CAMP. These great folks provide me with cutting edge clothing and gear, which helps me pack the ideal kit for the mountains. Previously, I’ve been hesitant to plug their gear on my site, so as not to seem biased. Now, though, I’ve had plenty of time to judge the gear on it’s merits, and feel as though I can offer honest recommendations.
Below I’ve described my recommended gear in general terms, and then provided links to the actual items that I use.
Hallets Peak and the Dragontail Spires
RMNP, like Patagonia and many of my favorite alpine areas, tends to have predictable weather in the winter. Good climbing days are typically high-pressure, sunny, windy, dry and cold. The ideal clothing setup consists of multiple layers, to prevent overheating while approaching and avoid hypothermia at belays. It should be windproof but breathable; tight fitting but non-restrictive; light but warm.
Powerstretch Fleece Pants: These comfortable pants are form fitting and stretchy. They dry quickly, so any sweat accumulated on approach won’t keep you cold while climbing. Rab PS Pants, 220g
Fleece hoody: This is an essential piece that I wear on literally every winter climb. Mine is tight fitting; the balaclava-style hood that fits under my helmet and doesn’t restrict my vision. Rab Baseline Hoody, 340g.
Balaclava: When it’s really cold, I layer a thin balaclava under my baselayer’s hood. I can wear it just as a neck warmer, or pull it all the way up to protect my chin and cheeks. Rab Meco 165 Balaclava
For day trips with good forecasts, I’m less concerned about moisture from outside (precipitation) than I am with sweat. Breathabilty is key to staying dry when you’re working hard in the mountains, so I opt for a lightweight softshell that keeps the wind out. I also aim for a tight fit, especially in the pants to prevent crampons from catching on excess material.
Softshell pants: I wear my summer-weight softshells, over the fleece pants, and I think they keep me warm enough in temps down to -15c. Mine are modified for winter with the addition of glove-friendly zipper pulls. Elastic hems at the ankles, plus elastic spats to hold them down, negate the need for gaiters. Rab Scimitar Pants, 380g.
Tip: Make glove-friendly zipper pulls by melting little loops of 2-3mm cord with a lighter.
Mike Arnold, in his Scimitar jacket, starting up the Englishman’s Route on Hallets (M6, 300m). His Infinity belay jacket is clipped to his harness.
Softshell jacket: Fit is key here. You need to be able to raise your arms high without pulling the waist up (and out from under your harness.) Also look for a hood that fits well over your helmet. I love Rab’s wire brim hoods, which keep falling snow and rain off my face. Drawstrings getting caught in my gear is a major pet-peeve of mine, so I tie up the elastic into knots, so they don’t hang down by my harness. Rab Scimitar Jacket, 580g.
My Infinity puffy tries to cheer me up in a cold snow cave on the East face of Long’s.
Belay Jacket: Whenever I’m not moving (while brewing up, belaying, etc), the very first thing I do is pull on my puffy. In dry environments, down is unbeatable. Look for a jacket that packs the most down into the lightest package. Find a stuff sack that’s easy to stuff (I hate wrestling jackets into tiny bags!) and sports a bomber clip-in point. Rab’s Infinity Endurance jacket uses 210g of 850 fill power down to stave off hypothermia, and weighs just 480g (with a water-resistant outer to boot!)
Climbing gloves: Dexterity is crucial; find tight fitting leather gloves that will allow you to handle ‘biners and ice tools. I also love rockclimbing in gloves; jamming is comfy and crimping is surprisingly secure. Practice gloved climbing on chilly days at the crag! Rab Alpine gloves.
Alpine gloves, cranking on the Diamond!
Belay gloves: As with the puffy jacket, I put on my warmer gloves as soon as I stop moving. I don’t like huge unwieldy mitts, since I always need dexterity to put on layers, work the stove, belay, etc. Rab’s Latok gloves are my standard here: a good balance of warmth and usability. The eVent lining is nice when you’re swimming through loose snow, too.
Approach gloves: I’ll usually bring a third pair of gloves to wear on approach, to prevent my other pairs from getting sweaty. Thin and windproof is nice. Rab Phantom grip gloves.
Colin Simon in the North Chimney, below the Diamond. We took one tool each, to save weight while climbing the Diamond.
TOOLS: There are a million considerations when looking at ice tools, but for RMNP I generally look for a lightweight and versatile tool capable of plunging up steep snow, getting sticks in thinly bonded ice, and hooking on small incut edges. A hammer is important for pounding the occasional pin, but I don’t find an adze useful. I use Cassin’s All Mountain Tools (with one hammer), 628g/tool. Because I’m clumsy, I like to use an elasticized tether on my tools. CAMP’s Gyro is nice, as it allows the tools to rotate independently.
CRAMPONS: For steep climbing, on ice and rock, I prefer a monopoint setup (easier to balance on tiny holds). Cassin’s C Comp model (850g/pair) is a minimalist ‘pon that keeps you light on your feet, while still providing enough points for all manners of climbing. After scratching around for a season on RMNP granite, dull front points can easily be replaced (an advantage over single-piece ‘pons like the Petzl Dart).
For lower angle climbing, on steep snow and icy gullies, I sometimes opt to go even lighter with the XLC Nanotech hybrid Aluminum/Steel ‘pons. Steel frontpoints let you kick into ice, while the aluminum body keep the whole rig at 478g!
RACK: In RMNP, where ice is rare and most of the climbing is on snow covered rock, I will often take my standard summer rack, maybe with a few small pitons. I do swap out my Nano mini-biners for the full sized Photons, which at 29g are still as light as most competitors mini-biners.
PACK: I find that I’m more likely to bring a pack along on winter climbs, since I often carry over a peak, and have stove, jackets, etc to lug. As always, weight is important, as well as flexible capacity, a streamlined profile, and good ice tool attachments. The Cilogear 45L fits these requirements perfectly! After removing the lid, framesheet, and hipbelt mine clocks in at 635g. On route, the narrow shape keeps it out of my way, and the buckle system lets me vary the capacity from 75L to 22L. As with all of my packs, I replaced the framesheet with a piece of sleeping pad foam, which I can use as a butt-pad at breaks.
Cilogear’s simple tool attachment sleeves.
Tip: Once you make elastic “spats” on your pants, cut a channel on the bottom of your boot for the cord. This keeps it in place and prevents abrasion.
BOOTS: I know I harp on weight with all of my gear, but it’s most important with boots! Weight on your feet makes climbing cumbersome and awkward. I’m currently rocking the Asolo Cholatse (1700g/pair), which climb rock amazingly and sport a integrated neoprene gaiter to keep my ankles warm and dry. Though I haven’t tried them yet, I’m really excited to check out the Scarpa Rebel Carbon Ultras soon, which at 1420g/pair should feel like rock shoes!
STOVE: Even for day trips, I almost always carry a stove while winter climbing. Consider that the Jetboil Sol TI weights 245g, and a small fuel canister is 200g. (1mL of H2O=1g). So you could carry half a liter of water, or bring a jetboil and have the ability to melt snow into unlimited hot drinks! Of course, melting snow takes time, and in very windy conditions can be impossible. So I usually bring a 500ml thermos with hot tea, and brew up a couple times per day to refill it.
I like to bring a variety of hot drinks, including tea bags, Emergen-C packets (excellent warm!), hot cocoa, and instant soup. Adding milk powder to tea provides extra calories.
Have redundancy in your stove lighting tools! The jetboil’s built-in ignitor fails after a few months, in my experience. After that I tear it out to save weight. Mini lighters are handy, but are useless when wet. I love the simplicity of flint and steel (Light My Fire FireSteel Mini, 28g), which still won’t work when wet, but is more easily dried.
Fuel canisters can have trouble in extreme cold. Most canisters have a mix of Propane and Isobutane. Isobutane has a higher boiling point (-1c) than propane (-42c), so in cold temperature it will remain in liquid form (it won’t create the vapor pressure needed to force it out of the canister). Look for canisters with a higher propane content, so that the fuel stays in gaseous form at a lower temperature. Warm the canister inside your jacket prior to use, and with your hands during use.
ROPE: Decide, based on the route, if you need to bring one or two ropes. If the descent allows, I’ll usually choose a single line for weight and simplicity. A 70 or 80 meter cord allow for long pitches and rappels, and is especially useful while shortfixing. On easier routes, where you might be simuling long sections, a 6om rope will be less cumbersome. Look for a dry coating, and go with the smallest diameter with which you’re comfortable.
On solo adventures, when I only need a rope for rappels, I like my Edelrid Rap Line (6mm x 60m).
I hope that helps inspire you to get out in “The Park” and enjoy it’s unique style of climbing. With the right kit, it can actually be fun!