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The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

Monday, November 22, 2010

Winter Layers?

This is a post from Feb of '10 . But as the season is just getting started for '10/'11, thought it worth re posting again as nothing has changed besides more manufacturers offering similar garments this winter.

(or in this case lack of layers)

I was lucky enough to spend the last week ice climbing around Banff and on the Icefield's Parkway in Alberta Canada. Places I have climbed and skied in most winters for years.

Besides the obvious high quality ice climbing I was really looking forward to field testing some new (for me anyway) pieces of clothing and ideas on cold weather use.

But before I get to what I used on this trip and the results, let me back up a bit and tell you what I have used in years previously and have been happy with generally.

The coldest temps we would actually climb in hover around -25/-30C (-22F). Anything colder and I retreat to a shelter, hot springs and good food. Not uncommon to see
+10C (50F) on calm days in the sun on sheltered ice climbs.

Base layers?
Generally Merino wool or Capilene, two piece set ups and one piece union suits depending on the temperatures. Some times even those would get layered.

Mid layer/insulation ?
Pile. Pick your weight and material but generally some sort of pile gear. Pile pants and pile shirts or sweaters.

Outer layer/ protection?
Early on it was nylon shells, then Goretex and then Shoeller style soft shells of wool/spandex (25 years ago) and more recently synthetics (Shoeller and its copies) with real 4 way stretch.

Boots were singles and dbls. Often times with Supergators on the singles and even the dbls when required.


Old stand-bys were boiled wool Dachsteins with/without over mitts. My favorite were Dachsteins and Helly Hansen over mitts and when required a foam pad between the layers to keep your hands from getting too beat up with straight shafted tools. Dachstein gloves had their place as well...but generally considered a luxury. Goretex shelled gauntlet gloves with thick pile liner came next and have remained a standard with leashed tools.

Leashed tools? Leashless tools? Here is where much of the info I am relating splits. True leashless tools like the newest BD Cobra and Fusion or the Petzl Nomic and Quarks have in many ways redefined what we use for clothing on ice/mixed climbs. Gear that easily works leashless will NOT be warm enough, in my experience, for leashed climbing.

OK..back to the clothing systems.

An old saying I heard as a kid was, "Eskimos never sweat." The thought behind that? It was just too cold in an Arctic environment to ever risk getting wet, soaking your insulation and then having that insulation freeze. Makes sense, but how do you ever get anything done and not sweat if you are working hard and trying to climb fast?

(I'm about to repeat info now that can be better understood by reading Mark Twight's and Will Gadd's ice climbing/technique books)

Obviously you'll sweat on the approach unless you really back off the pace. I don't do approaches longer than just a few minutes in my climbing upper layer. I dress really lightly on the top layer for the walk in and then dry off and change to dry clothes at the base of the climbing.

To stay dry I use a belay sweater/jacket (depending on insulation required by the temps) to let my body heat dry me off and keep me warm while drying out at the belay if I have broken a sweat climbing. Better yet climb with a light enough and breathable enough set of clothing that you don't wet your body or gear on anything but the hardest leads. It is a tough balancing act.

Light enough...breathable enough?

Four words that are saying a lot! You need to push the definition of both imo.

I switched a few years ago to all Shoeller style clothing. But unbelieving in just how far I really needed to go I bought all the gear in a insulated form. To be specific Arteryx Gamma MX hoody and pants. I have worn out a set of both over time. And I still love both of them for climbing. But for everything but the very coldest weather (below -20C) I find that material (Polartec Power Shield in the Gamma MX line) to be too much now.

Why too much? Too heavy physically, too warm and not breathable enough.

OK, you ask, "WTF, Dane?" "That is a $400 piece of kit (Gamma MX Hoody) you encouraged me to buy last year and now you are telling me it is rubbish?...too warm?...too heavy?"

Last year I thought the Gamma MX hoody would be the one piece of clothing I would always take on alpine/ice routes. Now I am saying it is too much? Yes....but don't throw it away just yet :)

You need to go back to the idea that "cool muscles work more efficiently".

Mind you it might take you a bit of effort to find out just how "cool" you are willing to work at to make this all work. That might include a trip where you dress too light and freeze your ass off to find out just how "cool" you'll want to be :) I'd suggest you make that trip, a low risk, high energy event. If you blow it bad on the clothing combos at least movement will generally keep you warm. You need to iron out your system in a fairly controlled environment.

The rewards are worth the risk imo. But to be sure, blow these combinations in a big way and cold injury is almost certain or even death will be the end result. I have used the system at a fine edge half a dozen times now and I had significant performance and recovery break through each time. I also look back and thank my lucky stars that there was no "incident" on those climbs that could have easily precipitated a disaster. An unplanned night out in bad weather while cutting it close on gear can be more than just uncomfortable.

The results of 24 unplanned hrs out in 10F temps? A full year of recovery.

Here are my current thoughts on winter clothing systems. Limit the layers. Yes, limit the layers! The first picture in this post is me climbing early in my career in mostly wool, with temps rapidly going to -40 as the sun went down. It was pretty miserable at the time and to be honest a little scary. I had never been in such temps and that exposed before.

But a couple of things made a big difference. I was mobile, light layers made that possible. I was dry internally because the clothing breathed well and so I stayed warm if I kept moving. Funny now because I realised as I typed this morning that the clothing pictured there (circa 1973) would be a perfect set up for leashless climbing now in very cold temps...say -20C but not at
-40C :)

So limit the layers and stay mobile. Easy to do now with modern clothing.

Layer ONE:

I am using a R1 Hoody inner layer. MEC makes R1 tops and bottoms for something like $60 retail. Or you can buy Patagonia's for $150. Same exact material and in several ways the MEC clothing is better designed imo. Now there is a easy decision?!

Yep, just the R1 and nothing between it and my skin. Although my lowers are actually Costco longs...almost expedition weight but some brand name called "Paradox". The R1 seems to be just a bit much on my legs and I lose some mobility compared to the Paradox lowers which seem to slide in the outer shell pants I am using easier.

Layer TWO:

That depends on the outside temps and the level of aerobic action I expect. My current choices going warm to colder temps are:

Eddie Bauer Front Point is a combo hard shell and soft shell . Very water resistant (my top was dry in a soaking waterfall that went straight through my pants and filled my boots to the brim) and very breathable. I am highly impressed with the details of this garment and the combo of materials used. A surprising and almost immediate favorite for cold technical climbing. But there are other lwt shells that will fit this catagory.


Arcteryx Atom Lt Hoody....lightly insulated shell with stretch vented sides and under the arms. Again a surprise, water resistant as well but not tested to any extreme yet. Very warm for its weight and thickness but useful in the right temps (cold) for hard climbing because the stretch side panels and insulated body breath so well.

Worth noting that I have now cut one full layer from the previous suggestions from even last year's system. Insulation is used as required in the base layer and in the outer layer. And most manufactures are now making something similar..Patagonia's Nano series is another example. Mtn Hardware has one as well. But there is no seperate insulation layer short of the belay jacket. The real insulation is in layer THREE where the insulation can EASILY be added or just as likely removed to keep you dry and mobile.

For my pants I have been using the Arcteryx Gamma Lt. for two winters now. I did add a set of grommets to use them as a pant gaiter. And no one more surprised than me that a set of generic long johns and a Gamma Lt. would be good enough to keep me warm and toasty from -20C to well above freezing and still breath enough on the "death marches" while toiling amd dripping in in sweat. Only disadvantages I see are they aren't very durable and the lower left leg could be more tapered if my crampon "wear" is any indication.

Layer THREE:

A Belay jacket chosen for the degree of warmth required and how much drying will be required.

Listed in amount of warmth is required. Warm temps to cold and how much moisture I expect:

Mountain Hardware Compressor Hoody (Primaloft 1)
*shown here in combo with the Atom Lt @ -20C in the shade* (lots of other high qulaity jackets in this catagory now)

Narrona Hooded Down

MEC Tango Belay Jacket (Primaloft 1)

Eddie Bauer XV

As a system that is it...THREE... layers total. And one generally will be in the pack.

Gloves and boots?

Maintaining your mobility, cutting down on weight by doing so allows you to move faster. You can then use lighter weight boots and gloves and still stay equally as warm or warmer while moving faster with less effort! Add the advantages of leashless tools and the differences of what you can get away with for a glove system while still being comfortable is simply...amazing.

You have to remember it is a SYSTEM. If required I could carry and use both layer TWO pieces together for extra warmth. I'll do another post and describe the boot and glove systems I am using with this clothing combo. Scarpa and La Sportiva for boots and Outdoor Research and Mtn Hardware for gloves cover the brand names here for me.

Bottom line on the field testing? Climbed harder and faster with less effort and less clothes and in more comfort than ever before in Canada. Huge success for me.

An after note..

A long time climbing buddy who on rare occasion reads the blog busted on me for listing all the brand names I use. I search out the best gear for my own use and buy it at retail. No one giving this stuff to me. But that doesn't make it the best gear for your use. I list the manufacturers simply so you can make direct comparison for your own benefit.


Unknown said...

I really appreciate you posting brand names (!)- materials vary too much, and gear reviews are too easy on their advertisers. I've also been stung by things that look and feel alike that don't perform that way.

Toby - Northern Light Blog said...

Hi Dane. I have a Patagonia R1 pullover - not the hoody just the basic one, and then I have the MEC hooded expedition weight baselayer. They are similar, both using the clever grid style weave, but the material isn't the same. The MEC material is noticeably thinner. I haven't had the MEC one for long enough to be really sure, but I would expect it to be less warm a layer than the Patagonia one due to its thinner weave.


Runar said...

Hi Dane. Nice to see some love for Norrøna. It warms my Norwegian heart.
After reading your other posts on salopettes I found this product: Wool Overall
It's a wool overall. Warm but hard to changed. And this Wool Net
Netting should breath, and from what i gather your system breathes and dries quickly. Could you change out the R1 with netting and a balaclava?

Dane said...


Narrona is great stuff as you already know! Net? I use is at times but generally on hard fast approaches to stay dry or drier is more likely because I know I will soak it with sweat. But easy to dry out with body heat once you slow down and add a layer. I think all this stuff will work. The R1 isn't magic. Just a good over all design. I have 3 or 4 different garments in the same design but slightly different weights and details that I try to match to the outing. Sometimes I get it right some times I don't. Not a big failure generally.

Overall/union suit/one piece suits?
I have used them and like them because they are so warm for the weight but other problems wih the zippers and trap doors then occur.

I am not a fan of the rainbow or crotch zipper on a garment having used both. But prefer the crotch zip if you have to have one. None are fun or practical imo once you get to the multiple layers of zips.

Nothing is ever free, usually some type of payment due.

James said...

Dane, I love this. I wrote an article in my blog about staying warm, and I went with much the same thing. Fewer layers and more breathability equals comfort. Last winter, I got caught out with absolutely no extra clothing except for a Powershield Softshell. Stoic Welder. I ended up wearing that as a baselayer, midlayer, and outer layer down to zero, and as long as I was working hard, it kept me warm. Now, I've changed the system a little bit and use a Patagonia R1 layered over an eVent hardshell. Works quite well for me, keeps me warm and dry. Anyway, all that to say, I appreciate the promotion of a non-layering approach. It seems so much more of a hassle to stay at a comfortable temperature when you've got lots of layers.

Anonymous said...

i think you sweat too much because you are skimping on legware and boots. When you forget to insulate properly your legs and feet(boots) you are overloading the system and therefore have to compensate adding more to your top. This doesn't help and you add more, then overheat and sweat badly.
Most people just don't realize this because it is hard to feel that your legs are cold when it is just starting to be cold, because legs are bones and muscles basically and can be pushed hard.
Try adding adecuate insulation to your legs.
Question1: how many tops do you own?
Question2: how many bottoms do you own?
This will give you the figure...