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The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Climbing Salopettes (bibs) and the "NWAlpinist Salopette"

The idea of a bibbed pant is so old to me now that I am a not sure sure how I came to it. 

Some where between a hike out Marble canyon from Deltaform in June of 1975 or coming down the cow path after doing Ptarmigan Ridge in single boots and the resulting frozen feet that fall certainly had something to do with the thought process.

I do remember finally taking my wool knickers off  and walking in my shorts as my thighs were bleeding by the end of the wet 25k hike out from Deltaform.  My feet?  Still an issue with cold today.

I've no doubt that the winter gear suggestions of British Alpinists Joe Tasker and Dick Renshaw in MOUNTAIN LIFE, August/September 1975 had a big impact on us after Ptarmigan Ridge.

Gwain, three days out, after a harried retreat down through the ice fall on the north side of Mt Deborah.
By the spring of 1976 we were kitted in lightly insulated, nylon shelled,  ski salopettes with minor modifications to make them climbing friendly.   They worked great.  Warmer than a normal pant set up while generally enabling you to drop a layer and on long trips and a distinct lack of another "waist".  The harness is more than enough there.

By the early '80s many of  the professionals working in the mtns around Banff were using a Swiss made wool/nylon blend salopette with cotton canvas reinforcements.  The canvas dried slowly and wore quickly so just as common to cut the knee and butt reinforcements off pretty quickly.  But the wonderful and warm wool stretch material they used, the chest pocket, internal gaiter (which many just cut out as well) and side zip were a glimpse as the future in technical mountain pants.  It was the '80s so even my shoe laces matched but these saloppetes really rocked!  Now way to get lost in a white out either so big bonus points there for pictures.

Take it to the extreme and you get something like our friend Kim wore on the 1st ascent of the East Face of Everest in '83.  And he was back on Kanchenjunga with them in 1985.  Shown here.  Fully insulated and Gortex salopettes by Wilderness Experience.  Gregg Cronn photo of Kim on Kanchenjunga. "It's a magical thing with me. It's tough to stay in Kansas when you've been to Oz."  (Kim Momb, 1956-1986)

As you might imagine a good pair of salopettes aren't what you would generally see on a day out cragging in Hyalite Canyon for example.  The additional warmth and comfort of a pair of salopettes aren't a high priority when some actually put their crampons on at in the parking lot.

The result of the "sport climbing" community in the ice climbing environment is much of the gear and clothing gets dummied down (and I know people will just LOVE that) to fit the much bigger customer base.  No longer a need for double boots, salopettes, or a small, super light weight climbing pack if you are top roping or leading 50m climbs as the ultimate expression of the sport.

One of the main reasons I write the blog is to make others aware of what is out there for specialised gear and may be even reintroduce some old technology that has gone by the way side. that clearly should not have IMO.

Which is why I beat the "light is right" campaign, double boots, specialised climbing sacs, better crampon fit/designs and now I am going to get deep into the clothing discussion in a number of up coming blogs posts.

One of the reasons those old red salopettes were so functional is that they were wool, they were a bit stretchy and they breathed well.  Sounds pretty modern now for a piece of 30 year old kit doesn't it?

20 years on (2002) and leave it to Alteryx to come up with a better version.   Those in the "know" searched them out promptly and bought the Alteryx Gamma Saloppete and proceeded to love them to death.   Known butts I have seen well worn Arcteryx saloppetes on are Cosmin Andron, Steve Swenson, Wayne Wallace, Michael Layton and Bill Belcourt...and trust me I don't make a habit of looking at men's butts!   I suspect there are more salopettes out there stashed away for that next "big" project. This was the last time I pulled mine out. 

GCC photos below are courtesy of Ken Glover

But the great thing about a correctly designed and sewn set of salopettes is they can be used for cold weather cragging just as easily as on any big north face..

The Arcteryx Salopette reviewed by John Graham @
January 1, 2002

"This one-piece sleeveless suit has power shield on the lower half and Schoeller fabric on the top, with nylon facing on the upper front. It zips all the way down the front and up the legs. It has removable knee pads that really save the arthritic knees. I wear this instead of bibs and it really comes into its own when exposed to the wind. It can get a little hot climbing steeply below treeline, but vents very well. I wear it with mid weight polypro bottoms and a power stretch top. When I hit treeline, I pair it with the Gamma SV and a balaclava and I'm good to go. Every detail is well thought out and of course the Arc'Tyrex fit is perfect, as usual."

John's comments are pretty much as I found my own pair of Gamma Saloppetes.

Arcteryx Gamma Salopettes design details:
Designed for mountaineering applications, this breathable garment sheds snow and provides liberating stretch. Special features include removable kneepads and through-the-crotch WaterTight zips.

Adjustable cuff shock cord
Breathable, wind and water resistant
Four way polyester stretch upper
Internal knee pad pockets
Keprotec instep patches
Removable molded EVA foam kneepads
Stretch woven lower
Two chest pockets with laminated zips
WaterTight side and through-the-crotch zips

Polartec Power Shield
Rentex Lofted Lycra
Schoeller Keprotec

It doesn't take much imagination to see that salopettes are a pretty specialised piece of kit and not the best in warm weather.  Additionally if you are using a soft shell material like my original  wool blend Swiss salopettes or the more recent Arcteryx Gamma how warm do you want to make them, at the risk of making them too warm?

With all the new wonder fabrics and some good design work one would think you could make an almost perfect climbing salopette these days.  Likely the biggest *trick* to that would be getting someone that was willing to design with no compromise.   No fufu ski fashions or snow board shredders needed here.  How about for once just a honest to GOD climbing salopette?    Just as Tasker and Renshaw first envisioned them 35 years ago while climbing the hardest North faces in the Alps, mid winter?

I'd pony up some cash  for a couple pair of those! 

Enter Bill Almos and his start up climbing clothing company NWAlpine.
Bill is, if nothing else, an alpine climber himself.  And willing to take risks.

So when we first talked about light weight pile hoodies and Shoeller style alpine climbing pants we were talking mostly the same language.  I'm old so I am not sure what he thought of a "new" old pant idea as a NWAlpine offering.  But he didn't say no.  So I boxed my last two remaining pair of salopettes up and off to Portland they went.    Having never met Bill or owned any NWAlpine clothing (I own several now items now) I wondered for a moment or two if I would ever actually see my original and much loved salopettes again.   Similar things have happened in the past.  Same situation and sadly, most unreliable people.

Not so this time!

So Bill and I began brain storming via emails, what would we do to make a better *alpine climbing* specific bib?  It was a short storm.  I wanted a bib that would be warm enough, if a little cool for Alaska in the spring.  Hopefully they would be fine for most things if you could move quickly in the Rockies or Alps in winter.  And a plenty warm pant for anything in the lower 48.  Again, specifically for winter or cold alpine climbs.  Ptarmigan Ridge on Rainier or anything in the Columbia Icefields in Oct or Feb was the environment I envisioned.

I am doing much of my own climbing in a pair of Arcteyx Gamma LT pants these days and s single pair of mid weight Costco long johns.  I won't kid anyone, at times it is just barely enough when the temps drop below -10C or a nasty cold wind picks up.  But going on the theory that cool muscles work more far it has been enough.   But for a new pair of Saloppetes I wanted just a bit more.  Not as much as the last Arcteryx Gamma MX salopettes mind you.  They were more akin to the current Gamma MX pants (Polartec® Power Shield®) which is lightly insulated.  But I wanted these to be some where just short of that extra insulation and lighter in over all weight. MUCH, much lighter, and way less complicated.  Less zippers, less pockets for sure, but still a usable.  The idea was a lwt climbing pant where just the additional bib will add some warmth by design without adding weight.  One less belt at the waist line and more comfort was the goal.

Weight comparisons?

ARC Gamma Lt large 12.4 oz
H. Ridge Runner 3/4 16oz
ARC Gamma MX large 19oz
NWAlpine salopettes large 21.6oz
ARC Gamma MX salopettes large 30.4oz

I have to admit "formal", as in basic black, climbing pants is getting old.

"My" salopettes need to be warm, wind proof,  extremely breathable on the upper bib portion, breathable enough in the leg and waist and all made of a 4 way stretch fabric.  No  baggy legs to snag crampons on, hardcore and durable patches of some type on the lower inside of the calf for when you will eventually snag a crampon. Turned over double hemmed cuffs for "gaiter" durability.  Simple eyelets for elastic cord to snug down your "pant gaiter". Simple. Succinct. Specific.

Reinforced inside of the leg for crampons and simple gaiter grommets

Cuffed hems to reinforce the bungee gaiter strap and seal the leg's gaiter, which were designed up front to take a big dbl boot like the La Sportiva Spantik.

A THREE slider, chest and crotch, water resistant zipper.  For the call of nature, ventilation and getting in and out of the garment.   Easiest  pee portal in the world with a harness on.  Easy for me and I suspect even better for a woman. 

Hey, no laughing here!  This is a hard photo to post in public let alone take by yourself!  Zipper runs from sternum to tailbone.

NWAlpinist Salopette details:
Suggested Retail is $250  sizes XS through XL
The first production run will be presold. via the NWAlpine web site

Everyone in the industry these days is using either a proprietary material or something from Polartec and/or Shoeller.  almost no one is sewing in the USA.  These bibs are proudly sewn in Portland Oregon.
The pant material  currently in the NWAlpinist Saloppetes is a proprietary material.  Bill is already prepared to change the material and still keep the quality if the original supply can't keep up with demand after the first production run.  Currently the pant is made of a a high quality four-way stretch, woven, breathable softshell fabric with a abrasion resistant face with DWR coating. The usual suspects use exactly the same material at the moment.  Your imagination won't have to roam far to imagine this material. 

The upper fabric of the bib  is a "micro denier fleece back lycra".  My thought is, it is perfect for the job.  And I am really picky here because the upper material has to breath extremely well to make the salopette idea work like it needs to.  (SAG's) Merino wool hoody shown in the photo as well.  More on it lower down the page.

Trust me, this light weight bib top is breathable.  It is likely the first thing you'll notice if you try to use these Salopettes without enough insulation on your upper body as I did.  You'll likely not make that mistake twice.

How the upper body fits in the shoulders, arms and around the neck defines how salopettes fit in many ways...these are exceptional on me.

There is a couple of things that become glaringly obvious when you are 50+ and modeling a one piece lycra suit.  The first, much to my surprise you know, is I obviously aint a flat bellied stallion no more :)  No hiding that one from a camera.  But being shaped more like a Pear (as in fruit) also tells me a lot about how well these salopettes might fit,  shall we say, a more athletic proportioned climber.  They should fit normal climbers exceptionally well.  I have a 21" back which is pretty long for my height @ 6'1".  So the typical issues and where you will have a problem, of not having enough length in the body and having  "crotch bite"  or baggy pants, shouldn't be a problem for most with this pattern.   Mine are a "Large" and me fit perfectly..well close, if I suck in the Pear anyway.

This is how I see myself......a long lean climbing machine.  It is what I can't see that may be a problem with that glorified self image :)

"A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing to add but when there is nothing left to take away"    Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Wind, Sand and Stars (French title:Terre des hommes (Land of Men)) by Antoine de Saint Exupéry published in 1939

I suspect the next question is how do you layer under and over salopettes.   No question it is a learned skill.  The first pictures of this blog show Gwain in the mid '70s with several light layers inside and a wool shirt on the out side.  These days most of our mid layers have snug hems.  You don't need to tuck everything in and you'll stay warmer in many cases by not doing so with Salopettes.  So nothing has really changed.  Just the upper insulation garments have gotten even better and easier to use with Salopettes.  My current "go to pieces" for the upper body (with salopettes or pants) are the super light weight Sherpa Adventure Gear (SAG) Merino wool hoody shown in the pictures above, called the "Khushi" (it is a must have).  Or the NWAlpine LT Hoody (another must have).  Next up is the RI Hoody or the SAG "Tchimi" hoody or again the NWAlpine Black Spider Hoody.

All light weight hoodies suggested here with only the amount of insulation and how well they breath changes for the project, the level of effort involved and temps.

Next up?  Lots of mid layer pile pieces to choose from but one I am thrilled with, especially if you are using salopettes, is the Sherpa Adventure Gear sweater made of of Merino wool arms and Primaloft One body.  It is called the  "Mantra".

It a different piece and you'll likely need to figure out if it will work for your system.  I really like light to mid weight Merino wool sweaters with full or half zip for climbings.  I buy them at Men's Warehouse on sale and literally wear them untill I have holes in them.  So the Matra fits right in and adds some extra warmth with less weight in the Primaloft 1 body.  But more importantly the Primaloft One is much easier to dry out than wool and  looses only a tiny bit of its insulation values when wet.   A hood would make the men's Mantra much more user friendly for hard climbing.  It is a truly dapper casual, around town, garment that I use climbing without a hood.  But I'd really like to have both as an option!  If you think so too let Sherpa Adventure Gear know!   I'll buy the first.

I am a big hoody fan.  If you are a woman the Mantra comes with a hood in the women's verion.  I can't imagine a better winter climbing system than a pair of NWAlpinist salopettes and the "Kushi" mated up with Mantra hoody and one or both of the Arcteryx's Atom LT and Atom SV jackets.  San's that hood it is my current system.   And damn..I'll be looking simply dapper in the Chamonix bar scene in that black (hid the spare tire) Mantra!  The woman's Mantra is good enough I bought my wife one...and she is NEVER going to alpine climb.  She calls me a "girl" quite a lot so may be I do know something about women's clothing :)

I'll have to ask.

I have another blog started on hoodies, light and mid weights, and how they fit into my systems along with my pant and base layer choices.  But I wanted to give the basics of what I use with salopettes as many have likely never used a pair climbing.

And if you wondered?  I have no financial connection to NWAlpine but I did come up with the name NWAlpinist Salopettes but only after getting my originals back!


Erik W said...

Stellar review, Dane, and thanks for the lead on NWAlpinist. My Arcteryx Gamma Salopettes have been my favorite piece of gear for years. I've babied them ever since Arcteryx stopped production, and had planned to send them to a seamstress friend of mine when the they [bibs] finally met their demise so she could pattern and sew me up a new pair. So it's good to know there's a new outfit in town making quality salopettes.

I evangelize softshell salopettes to just about everyone I climb with during the winter. At 6'4" and with a 23.5" back, the biggest draw for me was not having an exposed midsection when climbing or belaying. But once I got the clothing system dialed with the salopettes it became evident that they provide a giant boost in warmth and efficiency over standard pants+tops combos.

The only problem I have with them is when having to take a dump. The salopette crotch zipper goes in one direction ("spread 'em"), whereas thermals underneath go in the other direction ("drop 'em")... which makes things pretty difficult in a squat position since both pieces of clothing want to snap back to their original position due to the tension placed on them in the squat position. I remember Arcteryx used to have a thermal that a compatible crotch style opening, but I never got one.

Still, that once-a-day drawback is largely outweighed by the numerous benefits the salopette has. Kudos for NWAlpine for bringing them back.

Jon B said...


Way back in the day (I'm your age) I bought a pair of Rohan Designs climbing salopettes (might even have been the ones worn by Tasker and Renshaw - they were starting their big alpine routes when I was in England). They looked a lot like your red ones except they were "knicker" length and no canvas reinforcements. Also, I think they were also made of helanca nylon, the mid 70s version of soft shell. I bought these in London and used them for all my mountaineering for many many years. In some ways I prefer their design to the NWAlpinist, but they were for different purpose - all around mountaineering rather than strictly in the cold.

I prefer suspenders to a sleeveless top., mostly because your body really has to match the pattern used for the NWAlpinist version, i.e., no adjustablity. I know the clips on suspenders break, I broke one on my Rohans. But I rarely fit patterns used by outdoor clothing manufacturers when all you get is XS-XL.

I also liked the climate versatility of the Rohans. I could wear them without gaiters and socks rolled down on approaches to the Tetons in the summer, but I could also wear them with long underwear for ice climbing in the Adirondak winter.

They were a great set up, but again, the dump issue is always there. On the Rohans you had to pull them all the way down. But I looked the height of Alpine fashion in my Rohan salopettes. Le Trappeur Pros, Chouinard-Frost 55mm piolet, and silk scaf headband in 1976.

Dane said...

hey Jon, great story, thank you! FWIW I'd have prefered we copied the red ones for pattern. But way too complicated and the fit could have been better on those even back in the day.

Best thing about the modern materials is how it stretches and breatehr but is still wind proof. We never even imagined how good clothing would get back in the '70's. Or how versital. The NW Alpinist salopettes will be warmer in winter and breath better in summer than anything I have ever owned.


Aaron Montgomery said...

I thought of you when I started reading this.

You forgot the best part about wearing bibs! When you have your harness on you can put the gloves that you are not currently wearing in them to keep them super worm. There is nothing like pulling on a warm pair of gloves on your cold hands.


Kai said...

Two of my favorite climbing salopettes were designed by Jeff Lowe: The Keeler Kneelers were great. Comfortable, bomber schoeller fabric pants that could stand up to anything. The Cloudwalker Ama Dablam bibs were the more recent Jeff Lowe salopettes, and were also awesome.

Chris said...

And I need a new pair of alpine pants badly...

The thing that scares me is sizing. I'm 155-160lbs depending on how much cycling I'm doing. 5'11" with a 34.5" inseam and big thighs but a 30" waist. Mail order only clothing makes it pretty hard to pull the trigger. I'm currently wearing a pair of Patagonia Alpine Guides in 30" and yes, they are comically short in the leg.

And Aaron I do that with my gloves now, i'm just always worried I might lose them!

(is it bad that 2 of the responders to this thread are my climbing partners?)

Dane said...

Chris the cool thing about NWAlpine is every piece is a custom piece. And it is sewn locally. You can tell Bill exactly what you need and he can cut them for you. No more BS sizing.

Dane said...

Forgot...Hey you guys...get that skinny Chris dude out there breaking trail!


Cosmin Andron said...

The Arc'teryx Gamma Salopette was/is by far the best I've ever had. I was totally bummed to se that shortly after i received mine they stopped producing it... I got mine in 2006 and used it on every single winter climb or ski day and they are still going (stitched a bit and more water absorbent but) still my choice for a long day out or expeditions.

At the beginning I thought - damn these foam pads. What a stupid thing! Then spending countless hours on hanging belays, knees braced against the wall made me realise that the only stupid thing was me...

I don't understand why they discontinued them.... Why? why? :)

(Uncomfortable confession) On the first attempt on this route

on 6th of Feb 2010 i realised, half way up the first tech pitch that the food poisoning I have been suspecting was not imaginary... and it was acute! Very very acute! No belay, no rope, just my tools and seconds to spare. I jammed by tools, hung off my Grivel umbilicals, and did the deed while hanging in my harness! Not pretty! Not a story to be proud of or share very often BUT I dare you find another pair of pants you can do that.......

Aaron Montgomery said...


Is NW Alpinist still in business? I have tried to call them several times and have now tried to email them with no response.


Dane said...

They are. I know the owner has been in the hospital most recently (this last week) which I suspect is the set back. It is worth checking back.

Anonymous said...

Hey Dane,

Thinking about getting a pair of these to wear on Denali next year.

What do you recommend to wear under them?



Dane said...

I just use a mid weight long john.

But there might be an even warrmer version in the works as well.

Anonymous said...

Cheers Dane

Would you not need something a bit warmer? Or would you put primaloft pant over the top for the summit day?

I've not climbed in Alaska before.

What would be your idealclothing set up for a fast ascent of the Cassin?



Ski Wear said...

Wow, this is a really great post! Thanks for showing everyone how great salopettes can really be when it comes to outdoor winter activities. It is something that everyone should know.

Ed Wong said...

Thanks for this blog

I happen to have a FEW pairs of Salopette - and they seem to come and go as they are so specialized kit

Latok - GTX Salopette (its a shell) (bought after freezing my tush off on WIllard's Slide NH while climbing - I didnt care about the cost - I was COLD)

Summit Research - Salopette (wool ish fabric)

Marmot -Alpine Suit (its a shell pant - very alpine climbing specific - can NOT be used for skiing)

Arcteryx - Gamma Salopette - can be used for tele skiing - a bit loose in the thigh makes it not so great for cold tele skiing due to pumping losses - needs to have a thin "boot cut" underwear layer (and not wool boxers)

Jes said...

How does this hold up skiing down after a climb, or even a full few days of skiing?

thanks in advance :)

Dane said...

Last three years I've only used soft shell bibs and pants to ski in. Chamonix, the Cascades and the Rockies. Likely never ski in a hard shell again.

Jes said...

Thanks Dane.