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The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Climbing Sweater?

The German-Austrian expedition in the best kit of the day on Nanga Parbat, 1934.

One of the things I have recently realised is there is a big difference between a belay jacket and a bivy jacket designed specifically for climbing. It has only been with in the last couple of seasons that I have actually seen jackets that I consider real belay jackets. The difference to me is a belay jacket is something light enough that you can really climb hard technical ground in after freezing your ass off on a cold belay and NOT get way over heated and "fried" by the end of the pitch.

I still own a bivy jacket. The kind of jacket you would use with a half bag to bivy in ( or bivy in just the jacket) or on Denali for extra warmth with a light bag. But something you'd only climb in on the type of days you really shouldn't be out at all. Windy and cold summit days on Denali or Rainier in winter type of days. I have never used a jacket of that weight any where else.

A belay jacket you'll put on earlier and take off later and then realise you can use it to dry things out as you climb and still not over heat. Your own heat management will be more efficient because of it, if the design and materials are up to the task.

Using my terms, once you start climbing in a true belay jacket, the "bivy" jacket won't see much use. I wouldn't take a jacket that heavy to Denali now. And for many things you might start thinking 1/2 pound of well designed stretchy synthetic insulation might well be be really useful to climb in during some really cold weather...say alpine stuff in Canada's winter.

Kinda a heavy weight hoody (using the benchmark Patagonia R1 Hoody as a reference) with wind protection....more like a belay sweater? To coin a new label.

But really just a climbing specific, sweater.  By definition a very breathable and windproof garment with enough warmth to avoid adding a belay jacket for climbing generally.

I've not seen a garment to match that description till just recently. Although Ueli Steck mentioned a similar garment that he used when soloing the McIntyre/Colton last winter. While a great piece for climbing, Mountain Hardwear's original answer was the "Compressor Hoody". But the commercial version wasn't as light weight as what I was looking for. The Compressor Hoody makes a good outer layer and a great belay jacket, just a little too warm to climb in all the time.

The more I climb the more I go back to clothing ideas that have been used for the last 75 years or more.  The "climbing sweater" is one of them.  If you are trying to get to the bare essentials for weight and warmth hard to beat a thin base layer, a insulated layer, wind shell and finally your last bit of insulation, the belay jacket,  when it is required.

I generally us a R1 hoody or a lwt Merino wool sweater as a base layer but if it is cold enough I'll had a light weight layer of wool or synthetic under that.

The insulated layer for warmth  can be the original soft shell, a simple wool sweater.  Or it might be a boiled wool Dachstein sweater as pictured in the 1934 picture above.

More likely today it will be some sort of pile in the thickness, wind resistance and breath ability you require,  a wind shell combo with pile or a  lightly insulated soft shell.   I've use a similar systems myself until recently.

In the last few years I have almost totally stopped using pile insulation and soft shells in the mtns as an insulation layer.

I am back to using light weight wools sweaters or instead of a heavy wool sweater or pile I have switched to either a down or a synthetic layer that I would consider "sweater" weight.  By the looks of what is available today it seems I am not the only one.

Arcteryx Atom Lt used in cold (-20/-25C) climbing conditions.
As a comparison here is what the weights are of several pieces of clothing I use all the time for winter climbing.  Could be a day ice cragging in Bozeman or a full on winter day in the Icefields's at 10K feet or higher.

Belay sweater, insulated shell or just a sweater, your call and your label.

Arcteryx Squamish pullover XL 5.6oz  (pure wind shell)

Modern technical sweaters:

Patagonia Nano Puff  sweater 1/2 zip  large 11.5oz •60 gm/m² prima loft 1 insulation

Patagonia Nano Puff  Hooded sweater large 13.5oz •60 gm/m² prima loft 1 insulation

Arcteryx Atom LT Hoody large 14.3 oz •60 gm/m² Coreloft™ insulation

Arcteryx Atom Hoody LT XL  15.6 oz •60 gm/m² Coreloft™ insulation

Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody XL 15.6 800 fill

Patagonia Down Sweater XL 14.6 800 fill

EB 1st Ascent  Downlight Sweater XL 14.4 800 down fill

EB 1st Ascent Downlight Hoodie 1/2 zip XL 15.4 800 down fill

light weight insulated jackets as a comparison
Mtn Hardware Compressor Hoody 19.8oz (Primaloft)
Arcteryx Atom hoody SV 19.0oz
Patagonia  micro puff  Hoody 22 oz  (Primaloft)
Arcteryx Gamma MX Hoody XL 24oz (Polartec Power Shield soft shell)

I've been using an Arcteryx Atom LT Sweater now for a couple of seasons.  It is  10oz lighter than a soft shell MX Hoody and more water resistant from my experience.  Big plus is it also breathes better.  This winter simply because of the comfort and warmth of down clothing I have started using the Eddie Bauer Downlight series of sweaters and the Patagonia Hooded Down Sweater.   The use of down insulated clothing while ice and alpine climbing as base layers is clearly questionable.  And generally they are not very durable.

Some quick photos to see the sweaters used in combos.  Below: Here in -20C temps, no wind, with a Atom LT and a Compressor Hoody used at a belay stance.

Below: Colin Haley using the Patagonia Nano high on Denali while soloing the Cassin.
Below:Atom LT again in -20 temps and windy conditions.  Atom Lt over a R1 Hoody and a  Arcteryx Squamish pullover.  Just enough insulation if I kept moving.
Below: Same set up again but climbing slowly and cold shaded belays.  Perfect combo with the hood down for the temps which were around -10C.

Below: R1 Hoody here with a Polartec Power Shield Arcteryx Gamma MX Hoody, temps again a balmy -10/-15C with the hoods going up and down as I climbed.  No question the Gamma MX is the most durable of the "sweaters" under discussion.   It also weights in at 10oz more.

Below: This a combo for really cold weather (-15/-20C) I used for climbing a couple of years ago. On top of a R1 hoody again is  a med weight hooded  pile pull over jacket, and a Patagonia "Puff" pullover over that.  What I am using now is as warm but again half the weight.  By the time I retired my Puff  it was mostly held together by duct tape.  Warm, but not all that durable.

I would never recommend any of these sweaters in a down version for serious climbing.  Although I have to say I am using mine there on more and more occasions knowing full well just how worthless they are when wet from the environment or just as likely from perspiration while working hard.  Poking holes in a synthetic  sweater is bad enough.  Even worse with down gear.  It will happen if you are using them for ice or alpine.  Plan ahead. 

A synthetic belay jacket can dry a down sweater out pretty quickly with body heat alone but it still a huge hassle.   Best to know what will work or won't for your own use/project before getting into these too deep..

Besides Patagonia and Eddie Bauer, Mtn Hardware, Rab and Arcteryx are making similar products made with down or synthetic insulation.
If nothing else the "sweater" in any insulation material is another option you'll want to be fully aware of in your winter clothing system.

The following are comparison pictures and comments of the current sweaters I am using.  Most of it relates to the down versions with a few comments and pictures for the Arcteryz Atom LT.


Above: Blue jacket in this picture is the Patagonia Down Hoody,  the gold Jacket a Eddie Bauer Downlight Sweater.  Cuffs are virtually the same.

Above:  Again Pata and EB..pocket comparisons.  Same/same.

Above:  First major difference.  Both down versions are simple sewn through baffles. The Patagonia version (red) has a full front lining that adds some warmth and wind proofness.  The EB front lining (tan) only covers the lower torso behind the pockets.
 Above: Another small difference is the Patagonia version has a draw string at the waist.  EB version elastic only.

Above: Sewing quality is same/same form what I can see.
 Above: Patagonia's hooded version in blue.
 Above: Eddie Bauer's sweater collar in gold.
Above:  Eddie Bauer's Hooded version in a dark blue.

Above:  Arcteryx's Atom LT hood in lt blue with a red zipper pull.
 Above: Atom LT's (in blue) •Polartec® Power Stretch® with Hardface® Technology in the
stretch side panel vents in the side of the jacket.  High tech climbing gear here imo.  I really like it for my own use.  It is a bit of technology that can be down right nippy in a cold wind though.   The Atom SV is a very similar jacket but warmer and heavier with 100g fill (instead of 60g)  without the very breathable stretch side panels.  But it is very breathable in the under arm area with less insulation there.  More of a full blown jacket than  sweater though.   It is a bit warmer than the Atom LT but doesn't breath as well because of it.    Look for a update and comparison on the Atom SV and Atom LT in the near future.
Above:  Cuffs, L to R, from the EB, Pata, Arcteryx.  Again the Atom LT does it a bit better imo.
Above:  For those that wonder...between Patagonia and Eddie Bauer..800 fill down.  It is the good stuff.  Virtually the same weight jackets but the Eddie Bauer jackets show a lot more loft when measured side by side...almost twice the loft.  Which at best is still only 2 inches!   Patagonia Nano much less.  EB has 25% more down fill in any size sweater.  3oz for Patagonia to 4oz in the Eddie Bauer in a medium size men's.

Above:  The baffles size on the Patagonia garment are also smaller, so more sewn through seams and over all less insulation because of it.  Patagonia really needs that full front lining to be in the same category for warmth as the Eddie Bauer versions.
Finally, while I like the pull overs and they are very warm for their weight it limits their use a bit.  For example I use any insulation over my light weight sleeping bags when required.  I generally try not to sleep in every piece of clothing I own because it gets to confining.  A full zip sweater can add some insulation over the top of my bag.   While a pull over sweater can be used in the same manner it is much less likely to stay in place.
All of these patterns are very simple and easy to reconfigure.  If anyone at Eddie Bauer is listening...I'd like a full zip hoodie asap !

Retail on the Patagonia Down Hoodie is $250
Retail on the Patagonia Down Sweater is $200.

Retail on the Eddie Bauer Downlight Hoody is $189
Retail on the Eddie Bauer Downlight Sweater is $169

Sale prices?  Patagonia is difficult to find on sale.
Eddie Bauer is almost easy to buy at a factory story discount. 

-30 and snowing.. less than 16oz.....Jan 2011


Jon Rhoderick said...

Another similar layer to consider is the Bozeman Mountain Works Cocoon Hoody:
SImilar to the ones you suggested, but with thumbloops and only 9.7 oz in medium. Pertex quantum shell is light, but probably as durable as the others shown.
Happy Holidays Dane!

Chris said...

The Cocoon is the shit! I have the original grey one. It weighs in at 9.4oz in a medium on my scale. stuffs into a stuff sack from one of those emergency bivies and hangs on the harness easily. Winter sweater weight and summer belay jacket. Love it.

Dane said...

I'd be interested in the weight and thickness of the insulation of the Cocoon if anyone has the info.

Doug Shepherd said...

I am continually amazed at how small yet warm all of these pieces are. However, as the shell fabric continue to get lighter, the durability is definitely suffering.

For winter climbing where you do not expect to be mixed climbing, I find these pieces work very very well as the outer layer. However, I've shredded multiple manufacturers' version of this piece of clothing by mixed climbing in them. Especially if there is any chimney climbing or awkward pitches involved.

I am already on my second Rab Xenon, which I like the best in terms of material choices and cut, but has some puzzling design choices (e.g. the lack of zippers on the waist pockets and a small hood). The first one made it through a lot of climbing, including heavy use as my shell on four long new mixed routes in between Alaska and the Beartooth Range this past year before getting replaced a few weeks ago.

My poor Patagonia down hoody was shredded on a climb in which we had an unexpected traverse and I had to climb a rock pitch in it. It just hasn't been the same since. I use it more for cragging and around camp in AK now than anything else. Patagonia did repair the jacket and restuff the down for next to nothing, but I just can't get the DWR to stick anymore.

The Arc'teryx piece was nice, but I really did not like the stretch panels because they came up to the cuff and would soak out then freeze. That led to a very cold open bivy in the Rockies last winter. This was definitely my least favorite piece out of the three and I sold it before wearing it out. It did fit the best out of three.

I think all of the major manufacturers are making great versions of this piece now, but you definitely need to be intelligent as to when you use it or you will be buying a new one very quickly.

Dane said...

Thanks for the input guys.

Doug, just to clarify a couple of your comments. The Arcteryx Atom LT I mention has Polartec® Power Stretch® with Hardface® Technology in the side panels. That material is used from the arm pit down to the lower jacket hem. So nothing unusual in the sleeves of the Atom LT. The sleeves are fully insulated.

You also mentioned DWR? Everyone uses different technology there as well from what I have seen so far.

One of the local manufactures says "it" (DWR) comes off just going in and out of a stuff sack. Which is non sense of course from the ones I am familar with. But they are not all the same either.

The Arcteryx seems to be the best of the bunch on these three. It is a toss up on the Pata or EB as to which is better imo. But I have been wearing both down insulated versions in a lot of rain recently and a quick shake once indoors and the jackets are still dry. Not something I'd recommend btw.

I did wear the Patagonia Hoody out in a long day that turned into wet snow and lots of slogging up to my waist. At the end of the day my jacket was 1/2 the loft of where I started in the morning. Wet conditions and lots of perspiration together....not the perfect plan.

So much for a DWR finish and down....either way I'd have spent a cold night out if it had been required.

Stay dry to stay warm.

Doug Shepherd said...


Sorry, I was referring to the Atom MX, which does have the stretch fabric in the arm. I really didn't like it, I will have to check out the other offerings in the line.

DWR treatment is an interesting thing. I still think the EPIC encapsulation technique was/is the best. I have a few older jackets that use it (two from Patagonia and one homemade) and they have stood the test of time far and beyond the other companies. Not all DWRs are created equal and i can believe that the poor ones get rubbed off just through stuffing the material. I had an early pair of Patagonia Guide pants that had a worthless DWR, they were moving away from Encapsil at that point and just hadn't quite gotten it right.


Jon L. said...

Dane, another great post.

Just what do you think about using a mid weight merino wool like that of Minus33 or Icebreaker vs the R1?

After all fleece is trying to mimic wool and they are about the same weight? Come down to membrane maybe?


Dane said...

Hi Jono,
Thanks for the comments.

I use a -33 zip front sweater a bunch. No hood though. It weighs 21oz. The R1 with a hood is 12oz. I also use a zip front Merino wool sweater that I got on close out (cheap @ men's warehouse) that is just a lwt version of the -33. I bought a few of them as the weight seems perfect for my use. They weigh 11oz in the full zip version.

For the places I use the R1 a hood is a huge advantage for me. A hood adds more warmth for the weight involved than anything I can think of. So most of my climbing specific gear has a hood.

The Merino wool sweaters I generally use as approach gear. Stuff I am willing to soak out on the apporach and leave out to dry at the base or in my pack once on route. I really like the lwt weight merino wool for that. It is warm when wet but I don't think it transports moisture fast enough on route to use it any where except for a super thin base layer when it is really cold. I don't like risking getting my core wet and chilled when I am climbing. As a base layer when it is really cold I think it feels warmer than any synthetic. Although my super thin base is a merino/synthetic blend.
Great stuff to sleep in though.

I also like a full zip for approaches. Makes it easy on and off. I have also used the -33 sweater as a super warm for weight insulation layer on winter climbs where I go in super lwt, while working "cold". Once on the climb I add the wool layer. I like the instant warmth of wool when I am a little wet and going from approach pace to a slower climbing pace and adding a shell of some type.

I find that situation is where the slower drying effect of wool keeps me warmer I think than adding a fleece or pile layer. Nothing to prove that theory of course, just an opinion. I suspect it is the slower transport of moisture that actually keeps you warmer in that case.

So not a weight issue for me. More of a comfort issue and which will keep me drier. The R1 will keep me drier long or cold.

Really hard to beat the lwt grid pattern fleece in that situation.The R1 is one of the few pieces I am still using on every winter trip.

Wool works great for me as long as I don't over load its ability to transfer moisture. But used in the right place, soaking a lwt merino wool sweater and being able to wear it dry while still being comfortable can be the ultimate luxury in the mtns. It is a tough balancing act.

Ian said...

Dane, 2010 has been a year of clothing reorganization for me. I took a few of your cues and tried some new pieces out. One of them has been down sweaters. I bought a sweater in a medium and large with the intent to try one as an intermediate layer and one as an outer layer. The outer layer seams to work fin so long as its cold enough, the intermediate down layer I have all but given up on for the lower Cascades. I just get too hot and too sweaty.

I also have found that down traps too much moisture where as PL1 easily moves it away. Not much of a loss though, there are so many options that the concept remains viable even though the materials changed.

Thanks for the time you've put into writing this stuff out, even though my wife thinks I spent too much money I've probably saved more in the long run.

Dane said...

Thanks Ian,

I am using these sweaters (Down or P1) directly over nothing but a R1 hoody. Temps obviously matter but if it is cold enough the Down will transfer moisture very quickly and no loss in loft.

Outer materials and inner materials on the down sweaters matter as well. Both need to be breathable enough for your activity level. Where you (I) can use a down sweater, if I added a layer over (shell or another layer of down) it generally would be too warm.

But I have been using a Arcteryx Squamish pull over on top of my R1 hoody and then the down sweater or Atom LT seems to work fine as the pull over is a bit of a vbl.

If I was going to layer, use the down in the middle and the P1 over it to be able to dry out the down if wetted or to keep it dry in bad conditions. Also gives you the changce when it is really wet to just pack up the down and store it till needed and it is a dry environment again..say in a tent ;-)

Anonymous said...

Dane any thoughts on the Nano Puff/ED Seranno? Been looking for a booster over a R1 hoody for a bit for year round climbing - wondering if you had any thoughts?
Mainly wear a softshell so windproofing might be nice, but it feels odd wearing a synth where I would have worn a 200 weight fleece previously...

Dane said...

Anon, I am a huge fan of the Atom LT hoody by Arcteryx. I use it directly over my R1 hoody as a stand alone mid piece.

Check out the post on "winter layers" or in this sweater post.

I think it is a better for my use than the Nano which I looked at very hard before making a decision between the two on what to base my climbing system mid layer on.

Look around in the blog I mention the Atom LT several times and have the weights posted on both as well.

I looked at the Seranno and wasn't impressed. But don't remember why off hand.

Anonymous said...

Figured this was a good spot to post

Just noticed the First Ascent website and guess what...They are now making the downlight hoody as a full zip!

Be curious if anything else was changed (hopefully not)


Hogie said...

I'm a late poster, but thanks for all your great info.

I'm intrigued that independent of your blog I've come to much the same conclusion on the climbing sweater. However, I'm wondering your thoughts on durability.I use your exact system with different brands etc for when durability is not key.

However I often use a lighter version of the R1 hoody and add a pullover made out of the polartec hardface from the Atom Lt. Then use a 500g softshell over that as my action suit. This come out to about 200g heavier than your system. But with far more breathability if I take the softshell off, and quite durable either way. (think chimney grovels and the like). I'm not sure I'd like to armbar/ootch etc wearing a belay sweater as compared to a polatec hardface.

Your thoughts?

Dane said...

Hogie, No question the Atom Lt is not intended to be a mixed climbing garment. There I too want a soft shell of some sort. The idea here is to give others an idea what can be done not what they should use every time out.

I have left the Atom Lt in the closet all winter and only used soft shells when I was climbing just to rethink what I am doing and the best of the new fabrics. That review and the comments will be published shortly.

D said...

the LT fits funny and so does the Patagonia jackets on me so the search must go on, but Mont Bell and even the Compressor are too short, esp this year's version. The ME Fitzroy Jacket is my go to for Belays now but looking forward to the NWA version when they bring it out cos they make climbing cut clothing!

Marty Roberts said...

Any thoughts on the Black Diamond Coefficient hoody versus a Patagonia Piton Hybrid?

Dane said...

Hi Marty,
At retail and I suspect either can be had cheaper on the Internet...

Patagonia is $20 more and twice the garment IMO. Two different materials used to great effect by Patagonia. BD uses just the one fabric. When you are looking at a single fabric, mid layer hoodies, there are a dozen of them that will do the same and last just as long.

jual sweater pria dan wanita said...

i like it