Croz Spur, courtesy of Ben O'Connor Croft
By Dave Searle
When the aim of the game in alpine climbing is to stay warm and dry it's no wonder that we all spend so much time agonizing over our shells without spending much time worrying about mid layers. “What's going to be best today? Softshell, hardshell, wind-shirt, or can I get away with just a mid-layer?” It's inevitable that we get it wrong at some point and will be cursing the Gods as we shiver out a long belay, get a good drenching or feel the sweat run down the small of our backs whilst our mouths dry up as we're sucking in that cold, dry air and remembering the measly amount of water that is left in our bag.....
Something that I have realized over the last few years is that most of our problems run deeper than the shell. Finding a mid-layer system that works well can often be overlooked by most climbers and skiers. My problem is I have slightly ridiculously long arms. This causes me all kinds of problems, things that I never thought about when I was starting out. First off having such long arms means that every time I reach up above my head (which strangely I do quite a lot whilst climbing) my sleeves start to creep up my forearms. Not a big problem you say, well actually it is a massive problem. Something that I have discovered (or maybe no one ever told me) is if my wrists get cold my hands are cold almost instantly afterwards, hardly surprising when you think where the blood that should be keeping your hands warm comes from. For me sleeves either have to be equally as ridiculously long or they need thumb loops. Ideally they should be both because if they aren't long enough but have thumb loops then you get another problem manifesting around the harness area. You'll know what I am talking about if you normally climb in trousers as opposed to salopettes. Being “un-tucked” around the waist can range from a slight draft to full blown harness-hip chaffing. I usually keep my climbers partners updated about this problem during a climb with a simple 1-10 scale. '1' being all tucked and correct, '2' being a slight draft/small patch of skin showing up to '10' being horrendous multiple layers out of the top of the harness with full lead-rack/harness-hip interface. Seriously though, I got my layering system wrong a few times in the last few years and ended up with some seriously rubbed hips to show for it.
There are many different types of mid-layers from the super sleek and thin fleeces such as the Patagonia R1 Hoody and the NWAlpine Spider Light Hoody (I have one of the latter and I'm super impressed with it so far, just need to get out there and give it a good test) all the way up to synthetic or down insulated offerings like the Arc'teryx Atom (a firm favourite of Dane's). I am going to concentrate on the fleece type here as that's what I use most of the time in the Alps. I've only written a few up here but it should give you a good idea of what I look for in a mid layer and how important they are.
(edit by Dane: Just to be clear I don't use the Atom LT as a mid layer as Dave implies here, but as my outer layer/action suit top. A R1 or the other tops Dave is discussing in this review I use as my base layer. More here on how I layer. http://coldthistle.blogspot.com/2011/09/winter-layers.html )
During the day, before myself and Ally headed over over to Grindlewald to climb the '38 route on the north face of the Eiger, I was getting stressed out about what I was going to wear on the climb. All my kit was in order and I was tossing up what I was going to do about my top half insulation. I decided, to calm my nerves, I should take a trip to Snell sports in Chamonix to buy some more energy gels (as you can never have enough, Yum) and check out what was the latest offering was for a mid-layer. I spent some time trying on various brands and settled on one that I liked. I went for the Mammut Yukon hoody and shelled out half a week's wage buying one at full price, hours before we set off (and the other half on energy gels!). That was almost a year ago and I haven't regretted buying it for one minute and it has come with me on nearly every outing into the mountains in the last year.
Golden granite is on the Direct des Capucin courtesy of Gavin Pike
It has everything I was looking for. A light hood that can be worn under a helmet and is also stretchy enough to pull over the top at a belay. Thumb loops and long sleeves keep my wrists warm and hovering between 1-3 on the 'Un-tucked Scale'. The thumb loops are well thought out and comfortable next to the skin and stretchy enough to pull over the top of thin gloves. The main body material is slightly wind-proof without sacrificing any breath-ability and is also very stretchy and hard-wearing. The one small pocket on the chest is big enough for my camera and I like that it doesn't have 'handwarmer pockets' because I never need or use them. If I could change one thing about this I would get rid of the full length zip for a ½ length one to keep things simpler. Apart from this it really is the ideal mid layer fleece.
Like I said I am really looking forward to giving the NWAlpine Spider Light Hoody a run for its money when I get the chance.
It's more of a fitted mid layer that can be worn next to the skin and would be great for really fast paced alpine routes where you might just be wearing a wind-proof or light shell over the top. It's got a ½ length zip that curves to the side to eliminate the dreaded chest bulge that you can get when you raise your arms in some mid layers. The thumb loops feel good, the hood is great for going under a helmet, and it's got a chest pocket too. This is a proper dedicated climbing base/mid layer fleece. I can't imagine it would stand up to granite stemming in the same way that my Yukon did but it's designed to be used under a shell because they have used thinner, more breathable fabric.
When I was given a First Ascent Hangfire Hoody to test I really wanted to like it. I really did. It looked and felt great and seemed to be fairly similar in design and features to my beloved (now slightly worn out) Yukon Hoody.
The thing is that it's just not quite right. First of all I was puzzled as to why it hasn't got thumb loops. I know they probably cost a little extra to add to a jacket but for me it not worth having a jacket like this without them. The body fitted me really well and was almost better than my Yukon. Unfortunately the lack of thumb loops and much shorter sleeves on the Hangfire meant that they would ride a few inches up my forearms and pull the bottom out of my harness and the cut around the shoulders means that you get a large chest bulge with your hands above your head. Not ideal if you need to look for that next foothold. Also the hood on the Hangfire is neither stretchy enough to go over a helmet or thin enough to wear underneath, rendering itself slightly pointless. The main body material seems a lot tougher than that on my Yukon and it does shed light precipitation which is a plus on some approaches. This jacket hasn't found its way into my action range because it just not quite dedicated enough. I can see what they've done, I can spot it a mile off. It's a more casual, around town, going cragging hoody.... It's just not trying hard enough to come out with me on a big alpine face I'm afraid, so a Cragging/Pub hoody it will remain. I was hoping to use it as a skiing mid-layer this winter, of which I'm sure it would have been very well suited... unfortunately being British I still haven't learnt how to ski so I thought I would just give this winter a miss and sit about at my mum's house in the UK eating chocolate. :-)