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The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

Monday, August 6, 2012


I have been thinking about this subject since last last winter when I was first able to get back out on some Canadian ice.

Conversations over the week at OR just reminded of of the subject and encouraged me to finally put this one out there.  OR is if nothing else the ultimate gear head meeting in North America.  There are bigger shows but not on this side of the pond.

The comment I hear again and again is "how easy" the newest gear makes life in the mountains.

I agree 100%.

My story?  I am climbing harder in the mountains now while being older with less skill, being less fit and with less courage than I was 30 years ago.  How is that really possible?

First one that we forget is climate change.  It is in fact warmer every winter.  So for much of the climbing I do the conditions are a lot warmer.  That is a big one we often over look.  I am not sure the "systems" I use now would work as well if the conditions averaged were another 15 degrees colder.

None the less all of "us" are finding what we climb in for clothing today really has made climbing in general much, much easier.  The first rule of thumb is "stay dry to stay warm".

I'll start from the ground up and describe what I am using in typical winter conditions, in mid February on the north side of the Midi in Chamonix to Andromeda in the Canadian Ice fields.

I am using a very light weight, lightly insulated boots given the chance.  Fit is always a personal issue but so are the technical features such as crampon fit, mid sole flex, warmth, foot, ankle, calf support.

30 years ago if some one had told me I would be using a "soft" ice climbing boot on vertical ice in the future I would have laughed at them.

Yet the boot pictured above, the Scarpa Phantom Ultra, if given a choice is the boot I prefer to climb in today.  And while the boot pictured above is my size, I out weigh the user in this photo by 30#.  So in actual use I get an even softer flexing boot.   It makes them easier to walk in.  But given a slight change in climbing styles it also makes them a much more versatile and generally easier boot to climb in on technical ground for me.

Mind you I don't want a boot that is any softer or less supportive!   But this one (boot styles and technology)  surprised me in many ways.

The Phantom Ultra is by the manufactures description, "is the lightest of the next generation of the Phantom series. The new uppers are a made with combination of materials designed to save weight yet provide enough insulation and weather protection for Scottish winter climbing and summer alpinism."

Please be patient with me for a bit here as I relate all this back to the topic of  "systems".

A softer flexing boot allows your feet to stay warmer because it is moving and flexing more naturally. Given enough insulation from the ground to combat the cold temps and enough protection above the sole to keep moisture out you can have warm feet if your feet stay DRY and have good circulation in a similar boot.  Think of the old Army Mickey Mouse cold weather boot compared to a Spantik for flexibility.

Mind you I don't want to stand around in -30 temps in a pair of Ultras but I have.  And amazingly I stayed warm enough.

I believe (after all this is just theory on my part) that the Ultra stays drier inside during use than the older generation Batura or its big brother the Phantom Guide, because it lacks insulation and breaths better.  Your feet (at least mine do) sweat a lot.  Getting rid of that moisture is a priority.

Such a priority even the difference of using a pant gaiter over the boot instead of putting the pant into the boot gaiter is important to staying dry and keeping your feet dry.  And of course what the boot gaiter is made of and its ability to pass moisture is also equally as important.

Systems?  Light weight four way stretch materials that are both water proof or water repellent make a huge difference in pants.  The differing layers that can be worn under the "outer shell" or just as likely, now bonded to the outer shell are almost unlimited.

I have gone from 3 pairs of medium to heavy socks in my mtn boots to two pairs of really light layers.  The same thing has happened on my lower body.  I am down to a pair of long johns and a outer layer pant for the most part.  But I can see a time (and have used prototypes) that mean only a pair of half johns or boxer shorts and the outer layer....insulation included.   All the stripping of additional layers means more *comfort* and freedom with every step and climbing movement.  And with the current stretch materials added less effort involved.

These days, water proof, breathable (really breathable), 4 way stretch, durable and super light weight is not only possible but could be common place if you know where and what to look for.  Having seen some of this already I am getting even more curious as to what is available and even more demanding of my own choices.

Sad but true, if you are climbing in gear that is even 10 years old, and more likely even five years old, you are wasting energy.   That is a fact.  As much as I don't like a market driven economy in climbing..especially alpine climbing.... these changes are here to stay and the changes are making our goals in the mountains (or just outdoors) easier to obtain.

From easier to prepare and carry food to lighter weight, more flexible and more durable clothing things are changing for the better...rapidly.

On the upper body I have gone from several layers to 3 as a system.  The garments used may change depending on the temperatures expected but it is the same system.  I am hoping to hear from some of the more active outdoor designers themselves about the systems they are using.  I don't even see everything that is available in materials let alone get to test all of what is available out doors.  The OR show just drives that home to me with every edition.    More feed back from some of the guys at the "cutting edge" is really exciting for me.

It is really fun to still be involved at a time when every piece of kit from crampons, harness, tools,  boots, gloves, clothing through to helmets are changing radically in such a short time.

The newest helmets are 165g...a 1980's state of the art helmet 648g

A Nomic is 600g and 1980's Clog 875g

Clothing has gotten warmer, drier and much, much lighter across the board in everything from socks to gloves......while adding full four way stretch.

Cold weather, technical boots and crampons combos are still stuck at the magic 1350g (3# for a size 45) after a full 30 years of "development"!

There is always more to come!


Kevin Senefeld said...

The "Light is right" mentality has slowly been taking over, and I would emphasize the slowly in that statement. The industry is inching along, with few game changers. For outerwear, 4-way stretch with necessary water resistance is getting more breathable and durable. Base layers manage moisture better. Mid layers are lighter and more compressible. Technical climbing gear is getting easier to place (ice screws) and lighter. The changes over ten years ago is dramatic, but for the last five I think we've been seeing refinement and more good options to choose from. Is it any wonder the old alpine classics are approaching trivial difficulty, even compared to 1960s?

Unknown said...

Your advice has always worked great for me (!) and I like the idea of flexi-comfort, but I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of the flexible boot. Can you talk a bit more about it? I've seen non-rigid boots where the crampon ends up in funky positions, bowing, etc. and the climbers foot ends up unstable. How does the Phantom work?

Dane said...

Soft boots? Not every "soft" alpine boot will fit into this category. Until the Phantom Guide and Phantom Ultra came along I was't thinking I'd ever be converted. I would have thought a rigid crampon would be required like the Rambo to stiffen up the boot. But with a tight fit on the crampon connecting bar the Petzls Grivel and BDs work just fine with a bit of flex in the crampon and boot.

As long as the crampon's durability is up to the boot flex. Not all are. And importantly the boot flex is limited. Crampon fit is going to be even more important and needs to be perfect with this set up. But they do climb well, once you learn to use the extra foot and ankle flexability to your advantage. Not my choice for endurance ice yet but I am being swayed on every trip as I develope different leg and ankle, foot strengths.

Yves Hiernaux said...

Would you advise the use of the ULTRA instead of the Guide for a extended stay in the Andes with a few peaks around 6000 (6700 max)?

To be in the cold (even at -30) for a moment is something but during a whole expedition...

Dane said...

I would suggest a double boot. Perfect place for the Scarpa 6000.

Yves Hiernaux said...

Thank you Dane.

I was hoping to have found the perfect compromise between long expeditions in the Andes and shorter technical alpinism in the Alpes, but it doesn't sound feasible!

The Phantom guide might be better in this case...

Dane said...

I found the Ultra every bit as warm as the Guide. But I don't want either at -30C. Both are hard to dry out, but the Ultra is easier to dry.