the additional hazards—and safety precautions—of winter

IF YOU ARE HEADING OUT for an alpine or ice climb in the winter, you face a lot of increased risks due to the extreme elements and fewer chances of help from other people. Once you leave your house, you need to be prepared for anything. What if the pass you need to go over is closed, but you can’t get back the way you came due to avalanche danger? What happens if a large tree falls on the road and prevents you from driving that night? Even the most mundane scenario can be deadly in the winter. Imagine if your car slides off the road at a remote trailhead and you can’t get unstuck. Can you survive the night in your vehicle if necessary? What about an accident while on the approach or on the route? Can you or your partner make it until you can get help? Winter travel requires additional planning, but with a little help, you can increase your odds of getting out safely. Here are some of the essentials to have in your pack and in your vehicle to stay safe in the winter.
Snow reflects the sun, intensifies UV rays, and exposes normally protected parts of your body, which can add up to horrible sunburn, dehydration, fatigue, and snow blindness. Protect your exposed skin, remembering that the sun also reflects upwards meaning you need to coat the underside of your chin and nose. While a sunburn might just seem like a temporary inconvenience, skin cancer is caused from repeated exposure to the sun. Using a Buff® neck gaiter can increase protection for your neck, which typically can get the most exposure on your body. The sun, cold, and wind can also wreak havoc on your lips, so be sure to bring an SPF lip balm to help sooth splits and chapped lips.

Reflecting sunlight on the snow can damage your eyes , make it hard to see, and cause pain. Make sure to wear sunglasses for eye protection, even when it seem cloudy. Look for glasses with ventilation, but good coverage on the sides.

There aren’t too many activities where you strap sharp, pointy objects all over your body. A fall while rock climbing might mean some scrapes or bruises, but a fall or slip on the ice could lead to a severe injury or puncture wound. Carry a small first aid kit with supplies focused on stopping bleeding for a deep cut or puncture: cloth tape, QuikClot® gauze, and some type of tourniquet. A small tampon can be inserted in a puncture wound or help stop bleeding for a broken nose. Aspirin and ibuprofen can help smooth out the pains of a long day. A few high-strength painkillers can be invaluable on a multiday route if something goes wrong. Bring antibiotics for multiday trips.

Keep an emergency survival kit, including a space blanket, multiple fire starters (e.g., waterproof matches, lighters, or magnesium strikers), waterproof fuel starters, and a small knife. Wrap three to six feet of duct tape around your trekking pole or water bottle to patch rips, plug holes, or fix broken items.

Consider taking a Wilderness First Aid or Wilderness First Responder course. If you spend a lot of time in the outdoors, chances are that you will encounter a need for first aid, whether it’s your own party or one you come across on your journey. Having the necessary skills to help someone in need can make the difference between life and death. https://www.rei.com/events/a/wilderness-medicine

Winter roads are unpredictable. Snow, ice, mud, downed trees, rockfall, and avalanches can force even the best of drivers off the road or cause an unplanned shiver-bivy in your car. Plan for the unexpected. In the winter, keep the following items in your vehicle at all times:
  • Jumper cables, standard cables or self-contained, battery-charged cables
  • At least one shovel
  • Tow straps
  • A 0° sleeping bag
  • Headlamp
  • Food and water
Before you head out, make sure others know where you are headed and what your planned objective is. Providing a “pin drop” on an online map of your intended trailhead parking as well as information on the route can make a huge difference to first responders if something bad happens. Take a photo of the guidebook description, topos, and maps and make sure someone at home has them in case of an emergency. Canadian ice climbers have a tradition of visibly displaying the route they are heading to on their vehicle, so that other climbers arriving after them can decide whether or not to hike to the same route. This can also help first responders to know where you are planning on being.
Ice climbing can take us to remote parts of the mountains where we might not see anyone else for days. This is part of the draw for many of us, but it can also mean that help might not arrive in time if something goes wrong. Satellite beacons and messaging devices have never been smaller and less expensive to use. Brands like InReach or Spot make compact devices with many options for service plans. Hopefully, you never have to use them, but having one in your pack can bring peace of mind.
avalanche safety
Many ice climbs form in gullies, which can be deadly terrain traps for avalanches. To stay safe, here are a few things to consider: