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The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Winter Layers?

This is a post from Feb of '10 . But as the season is just getting started for the winter of  '11/'12, thought it worth reposting with a few updates from what I have learned over the last two winters.

Winter layers?

(or in this case lack of layers)

If you have seen this all before skip down to "layer ONE".

I get to spend time ice climbing around Banff and on the Icefield's Parkway in Alberta Canada. Places I have climbed and skied in most winters for years.  Last winter I was lucky enough to spend a few months in Chamonix.

Besides the obvious high quality ice climbing I always look 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 have learned in the last two years, 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. Some times even these will 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 Polartec fabrics) 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 changes drastically. Tools te 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  (while not getting chilled) at the base of the climbing.  That generally means I bring an extra top layer if the approach is long.

To stay dry on the climb 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.
The trick here is to make sure your clothing system will dry out with body heat alone.  One wrong layer and the system may not work efficiently.  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.  Which if you look at much of what is available today for cutting edge fabrics here in the US is actually a Polartec product.   But early on unbelieving on just how far I really needed to go I bought all the gear in a insulated form. I have worn out a set of both over time. And I still love both of them for climbing. For everything but the very coldest weather (below -10C) I find the insulated soft shells to be too much insulation and not breathable enough.

That was then (2010) ...and it may still be true.  But last winter at the OR show in Salt Lake City, there were several new fabrics that were getting a buzz.  I was lucky enough to get a Neoshell Westcomb Apoc jacket to try out.  Previous I had spent years in hard shell Goretex garments and finally abandoned them it for winter climbing.  Neoshell was the first of the "modern shells"  I have been able to use.

And by most accounts Neoshell is what all the rest of the new fabrics are being judged by if the early reports are accurate.

I am currently testing some of the newest variations on that idea from Polartec.  And it would seem that we might actually have more breathable and more water repellant soft shell options available soon.  But I'll report what I do find if there is a significant change.

So 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?"

This year Arcteryx has changed the material on the Gamma MX Hoody and is offering an alternative to that technology in the Venta MX Hoody.  Both are suppose to be more breathable.  Patagonia is there as well using Polartec fabrics.  Mountain Hardware, Eddie Bauer and Outdoor Reasearch and even Cabella's have joined the game as well.

All with one idea, to stay warm you must stay dry.

Last year I thought the Gamma MX hoody would be the one piece of clothing I would always take on alpine/ice routes. Last winter I didn't use the Gamma MX at all climbing, but did for one day of skiing in the Alps.  So, yes it is a big change for me as well.  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? And 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 for price point.  Buy I do like the detailing offered by the R1.  I want to be comfortable and the R1s details like a long cut, easily tucked in and off the face zipper make a difference to me.  Not a $100 difference mind you as I'll find the R1 on sale before paying retail.

Yes, 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.  Last winter in the Alps on  the-20C days I would use two layers of the Paradox longs and lwt soft shell pant.  So the system isn't perfect.  I'd also add a Merino wool hoody from Sherpa Adventure Gear under my R1 on the really cold days.   But even when adding layers for more warmth in the Alps I know the material I was using would breath.

This new technology (again a Polartec concept) Cabela's E.C.W.C.S Thermal Zone® Polartec® Power Dry® might be much better yet than simply dbl layering as I have done in the past to gain warmth.
This technology with a hood would be hard to beat.

Generation III Extended Cold Weather Clothing System (GEN III ECWCS) from PEO Soldier on Vimeo.

It shouldn't be a huge surprise that Mark Twight has his design fingers in the US Military's current cold weather systems,

Layer TWO:

That depends on the outside temps and the level of aerobic action I expect.

In the past I have used the 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.   And now discontinued.

But here is where the newest fabrics get interesting.  There are now several offerings from Polartec that are soft shell and "hard" shells that might well replace what I thought was a good use of the fabric technology in the EB Front Point.

Patagonia is offering a new Power Shield Pro product, Marmot is offering a Power Shield '02.  That is just touching the surface as Mountain Hardware is in the game as is Outdoor Reasearch and Arc'teryx.

We can thank our tax dollars and the US miitary for testing much of this gear and the budgets that enabled Polartec and others to do the research and development.



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. I use a Nano puff to layer over my Atom light in many cold weather instances.  Mtn Hardware has one as well with the stretch side panels . But there is no separate insulation layer short of the belay sweater (like how I am using the Nano Puff)  and a actual 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 three 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 -10C to well above freezing and still breath enough on the "death marches" while toiling and 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)

I use this combo now with a Arcteryx Atom SV and have been happy with it to -20C as well. 

Any of these trhee will offer even more warmth if required
Narrona Hooded Down

Arcteryx Duelly

Eddie Bauer XV

As a system that is it...THREE... layers total. And one generally will be in the pack or going in and out of the pack.  Only times I have found myself climbing continuously in all three layers on my upper body last winter I was either very tired or more likely it was dark and I was tired.

Staying hydrated and your food intake up as required has not been mentioned.  But the fastest way to get frost bite is get dehydrated.  Fastest way to get tired and stat moving slowly is not eat enough.  You need to manage your clothing system and what you east and drink.

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 currently.

But there are new players here as well, Salewa, Mammut and Arcteryx again.  But it is hard to find bad gear these days.  Much easier to use the right gear in the wrong place though.  I think the newest materials and designs will sort themselves out in the next winter or two  and much of this will become common knowledge.  Right now it is hard to keep track as there is so much new gear and new applications it is hard to keep track.....I can't.

Bottom line to all this and the field testing? I'm climbing harder and faster with less effort and less clothes and in more comfort than ever before. Huge success for me.

I think you find a similar result.

An after thought..

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.


Chris ( said...

Amen to all that, sounds very close to my own setup. Do you have any thoughts on VBL?

Anonymous said...


I've noticed you never mention windshirts, any reason why you don't use them ?


marcello said...

On the look at softshells, do you like the windstopper softshell material.I have an arcteryx venta ar made with three versions of the material and have been using for 3 years now. I find it extremely water resistant and completely windproof. I use it for everything, but i think it is, now that i think of it, not breathable enough. could you?

I am very excited for the boot and glove post, can't wait!

Dane said...

Hi Chris, I've tried a VBL set up and even in socks these days I shy away from it. For sleeping bags at -30C or so it works fine but stinky after a few days...and these days I generally stay home when it is that cold.

Anon? I do use an Arcteyx/Patagonia windshirts a good bit if I am working hard over a R1 hoody in cold temps and a thin synthetic or wool layer if it is a little warmer. Mnay time as my only shell summer alpine trips in good weather. Hard to beat them for the protection and weight.

Marcello? I hadn't even seen some of the newest windstopper fabrics until today. I have been talking with Polartec reps. And some of the manufactures about their newest products (Arcteryx being one) using similar fabrics. I can't give you any honest feed back until I get to try them out myself. But a basic field test should be coming up next month hopefully.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post Dane.

I have ditched the Gore-Tex for over 10 years (except for an Arcteryx Alpha LT storm shell) using various Schoeller pants and soft shell tops. I prefer the Arcteryx Epsilon soft shell top as it is way more breathable than my old Gamma MX. The Gamma is probably a better choice in colder climates like the Rockies but here in BC we rarely get below -10C. I've bought two Epsilons (hoody and jacket) and find they have the best breathablity to warmth for our climate.
Regardless of the brand the new clothing systems keep you warm and dry which I thing adds a margin of safety as well as allowing you to move faster and in more comfort which is all good.


cliff shaz said...

hmm,interesting reading ive tried allsorts over the years and generally are going thinner and lighter but of course it all depends on conditions..
i wear gamma mx sallopettes which are amazing but no longer made and a gamma mx jacket which is sometimes too warm so for grade 6's i generally wear just a base and mid and no top,although i just bought a thin direct alpine top for £48 ! so thought i would give it a try,no long johns unless its below -15/20.i prefer capilene to merino because it (feels) warmer regardless whether it is or not if you know what i mean,im short but with a long body and find womens base layers are longer,more come with hoods and are always in the sales,cap 4 hoody is da bomb.also no longer made :-(,r1 as mid would like a hoody but just too pricey me thinks.the last 3 years ive carried a belay jacket (dually..very warm indeed and packable)in a cierzo 18 pack whilst climbing,out of all the packs ive tried that say they dont hinder climbing this is the only one that works,you really dont know its there.i love gamma lt's for rock and everything else but wonder about getting a wet arse on belays.ive worn or alibi's for years now,on my third pair and although i tried the alpine alibi i still reach for the skinnys for the hardest climbs.if its dripping iwear an old stretch element (why does nobody put crotch straps on jackets anymore)but its a last will be intersting to see how fabrics develop,hopefully stuff will get more waterproof/breathable and lighter..
nice to see someone else rates the helix like i do..great site

Dane said...

Hi Cliff, seems like if you do this long enough and aren't fully sponsored we all generally end up with the same kit and gear.

I have a bunch of new stuff to me to test this next couple of weeks. Newest gloves look promising as do some of the shells. NW Alpine makes a nice Salopette to replace the Arcteryx Gammas but lighter, which i like.

Dane said...

Hi Sean, the Xenon? I'd own one except for the fact that the hand warmer pockets have no zip, no nothing.

Idiot mistake on a other wise nice jacket. But missing that detail makes it worthless to me as I would have to sew up the pockets.

Dave said...

Hi Dane, thank u very much for the blog, it's great and extremly usefull!!

My question is about the "new" gamma mx hoddy, could you check it finally? Do U think is more breathable than the last season's one? What do u think about the materials?

Thanks and keep written!!!

Dane said...

Hi Dave I have not seen he new MX. But have a Venta and a new Acto here now.

Check this out from a sponsored Arc'teryx climber.

I haven't seen the MX but if the Venta in an example of the "update" (I have the older model) I would guess the new one will have similar limitations.

One of the reasons I am doing the up coming shell test is that some of the newest materials mimic hard shell and soft shell technology and a much lighter weight.

Take a look here:

and then compare these to the published weights of the MX Hoody on the "weights" pages here at CT.