How to Succeed on Winter Alpine Routes

Some thoughts on success factors when climbing alpine routes in winter…

Stuart Taylor approaching the summit of Mount Index.Know the approach and descent. With short days you may  have to get to the base of the route in the dark or descend after sunset. Knowing where you’re going will be a bit help. Check it out beforehand, perhaps on a poor weather weekend.

Rehearse the climb. If you’re trying do a winter ascent of a line that climbs a summer route then climb the route in summer at least once. Getting off route in winter will waste time and saps your momentum. I’ve failed more than once after a slowing of upward movement turned into full blown retreat.

Watch the weather. In the Cascades at least weather is everything. Follow the weather forecast and read trip reports to keep up with conditions even if you can’t get out in the hills to check them out for yourself.

Mixed climbing on Dragontail's Backbone Ridge.Fast and Light isn’t always right. Going light will let you go faster and make the best of short days and weather windows. Often it’s a stretch be as fast as you might be in the summer and do the approach and the route in a single day. Often it’s better to approach the route during the day so you can get a good look at it. Climb the route the following day fast and light without bivvy gear making the most of the available daylight.

Worry about weight. One way or another winter climbing usually involves lugging more gear to and from and up and down the route. Ultra light gear can really make a difference. Really lightweight gear can make everything easier and even, dare I say it “fun”?

Alasdair Turner on the Serpentine Ridge, Dragontail Peak. Cache In. You might also consider caching gear near the base of the route. Not having to ski in with that second rope means another 7-8lbs you’re not carrying the day before the climb. You can combine setting up a cache with checking out the ascent  I’m not suggesting caching gear on the route. In my opinion that’s detracting from your winter ascent.

Expect to fail the first time. Winter climbing is hard. Route conditions are variable, the weather unpredictable and the days are short. Don’t be surprised if you don’t summit on the first attempt. This sounds negative but I’m not saying plan to fail, I mean don’t get discouraged if you do. Learn from the experience and try again.

Learn from your failures. This doesn’t just apply to winter alpine. When you fail sit down and ask yourself what went wrong, what would I do different next time? This might mean changing tactics for the next attempt or taking different gear.

abiel-1 Get Fit. Winter climbing isn’t for the unfit or lazy. Winter alpine means hard work in cold temperatures with heavy packs, its a full body workout. Make sure your body is up to the task. I train with a combination of CrossFit, running and regular workouts at the local climbing gym.


Of the half dozen or so first winter ascents I’ve done in the Cascades all of the above have played a part. Most of them have involved multiple attempts and knowledge of the approach and the route in summer.

Last of all have fun and be safe. Toping out in winter, especially a new route or first winter ascent is something special. Savor it!


  1. Kyle Flick:

    Good beta!

  2. Jason E:

    Nice summary of winter climbing considerations, Ade. well done on your recent Dragontail ascent!

    Cheers to you! Jason

  3. How to Succeed on Winter Alpine Routes — All Climbing:

    […] Miller offers some tips on how to succeed on winter alpine routes. Rehearse the climb. If you’re trying do a winter ascent of a line that climbs a summer route […]