Layering for Alpine Climbing in Moderate Climates

Before heading to Bozeman and Patagonia this year, Mark Allen and I spoke about layering for ice, mixed climbing, and alpine climbing.  He turned our conversation into a great post on the Outdoor Research Verticulture blog, and the layering system we discussed has been critical for  me throughout the year.  Previous to this year, I had done a lot of layering for backcountry skiing or spring ski mountaineering, but there are some subtle differences for climbing where you end up moving a lot, but then standing around a lot too. There are also some add-ons based on the temperature, precip and the mission-style worth mentioning.

First, at a high-level, here are some of the ideas that go into my selection for gear for the day:

  1. You often don’t need hard-shell pants if you going to be moving, and aren’t headed out in a down-pour.  I’ve climbed the entire year without them (Cascades, Chamonix and Patagonia).  A thick pair of soft-shells like the Cirque pants from OR do a great job of keeping me warm, rappelling water when it does come, and drying quickly.  I wear them over bare skin when ski-touring or climbing fast (no long, cold belays), or with a pair of long underwear underneath if I’ll be standing around a lot more.  I’ve noticed a lot of the European climbers do wear hard-shell pants.  The thing is, they nearly always have them unzipped the whole length of the leg because they are over-heating.
  2. Movement generates heat, layers keep the heat in. You often don’t need to bring a lot of layers if you commit to keeping up the pace.  For instance, when Eric and I did Dragontail recently, we brought a pretty minimal kit.  The only time we sat around was in the sun at the summit, in which case it was actually pretty warm.
  3. Layering isn’t just a fad.  Swapping in and out of jackets at the right time is the difference between being cold and wet or warm and dry.  Pay attention to when you are over-heating and sweating, and figure out which layers you can move in.  I run warm, but I dress a little cold all the time.   I know that it takes more energy to cool the body than to heat it.
  4. Get multi-purpose gear.  Like most people, I don’t have any real sponsorship and I like to do a lot of different activities.  I also already have more climbing gear than I know what to do with.  It just sort of happens.  Now when I buy things, I think about the multiple different use-cases for which it will be valuable, and how long it will last.
  5. If you want your hands to be warm, keep your core warm and stop over-gripping.  If there is anything I learned from ice climbing over the last few years, its that your hands will be warm enough if you relinquish that death grip on your tools.  I actually now use the temperature of my hands to help me to understand how relaxed or stressed I am on a route.  When your body is warm (and you aren’t cutting off circulation), your hands should be okay.
Generating heat on Dragontail. I climbed a bit above Eric the whole time so at certain points I would wait for him or he for me during little crux sections. If waiting for more than just a few minutes I would either throw on a layer or start climbing again to stay warm.
Photo: Eric Wehrly

So with those thoughts in mind, I often work with the following layers to put my outfit together every time I go out:

  • Brooks Range Base layer – Brooks Range hooked up the American Alpine Club volunteers with a cool base layer.  Its very similar to a piece that other companies have.  I wear this on cold days, or if I am standing around a lot.  If I bring this, I don’t bring my beanie, as the hood of this goes up underneath my helmet.
  • Ferosi soft-shell hoody – Absolute must have soft-shell for moderate climates where moisture is an issue.  I use it for EVERYTHING and they last years with a lot of abuse.  Mine has been up El cap twice. I’ve groveled up chimneys with it, I use it for running, rock climbing, road biking, backcountry touring, and cross-country skiing.  Its a great piece for aerobic activity.  The only thing I don’t do is wear it in social situations, because its a little stinky at this point – literally the thing has seen SO much mileage.
  • Synthetic layering jacket – A very similar set of things could be set about the Uberlayer.  Its super multi-purpose and super comfy.  I climb with it on in cold weather, and as the outermost piece if it is dry.   In the Cascades or Patagonia where stuff can get wet, its nice to have a layering piece that I don’t need to worry about like you do down.  Patagonia has a very similar piece.  Both do breath remarkably.
  • Mid-weight down hoody – The next piece go to piece I own is the Transcendent down hoody from OR.  Its a mid-weight down jacket, that I find a lot more useful than a heavier down piece like the Incandescent.  Here is why – I don’t like getting my down wet, and the fabric is really fragile to keep the thing light, but because of its size, I can fit it underneath my hardshell.  You cannot do this well with a heavier down jacket.  In snowy/cold environments, like in Patagonia this year, typically we would bring one heavy belay parka and this piece.  The heavy down jacket stays with the belayer, and the mid-weight jacket goes with the leader, likely hanging off their harness.
  • Axiom Hard-shell jacket – I like this piece from OR, but honestly don’t wear it much.  Hard-shells are meant for the bottom of the pack until the weather rolls in. That being said I nearly always have it with me in wet environments in the winter, because it shields you from the world so effectively when you really need it.

Because I run pretty warm, this setup works well for me.  Depending on the temperature, I wear either a quick dry T as a base-layer, or a long sleeve base layer.

Lets talk about layering…specifically in the context of a few different outings.

Scenario 1 – Attempting Exocet (Argentine Patagonia) during austral summer

Layering on this climb is useful to look at for a few reasons:

  1. we went fast and light and didn’t bring any sort of bivvy kit
  2. we did a 4 hour approach using big muscles going up hill
  3. the climb has a few hard mix or ice pitches that require the belayer to stand around for a while
  4. we both sat out the afternoon under shelter due to conditions on the route, and then rappelled through the night during high winds and spindrift.

It is a true look at fast and light alpine layering where the climbing involves both a lot of movement, but then also some hard pitched-out climbing.

This is where its nice to have a smaller puffy like the Transcendent hoody that I am hauling up on the back my harness, and a larger one for belaying, like the parka Jimmy is wearing. I’ve got the OR Uberlayer on underneath my shell for this short pitch on which I’ll build a little heat, but its not too high-intensity.  Photo: Austin Siadak

I wore/brought with me a long-sleeve base layer -> a hooded layering piece from Brooks Range  -> UberLayer -> Transcendent hoody -> Axion hard shell.  On the bottom I wore long underwear under the Cirque pants.

While approaching the climb I wore just my long-sleeve base layer.  This way I didn’t sweat anything out while we moved up steep terrain with our big leg muscles, generating heat in the morning sun.

When I climbed led mixed pitches from the col, I threw on my Uberlayer and a hardshell (to block the wind just a bit).  The Transcendent hoody balls up small enough to stash nicely on my harness.

We then sat on our packs with a tarp over our legs for nearly 3 hours on our packs, drinking hot stuff. We all layered up, just warm enough to be comfortable.

We kept climbing and I dropped back to Uberlayer and gore-shell (now wearing the shell because as we moved up the route, snow and ice from the leader was dropped on me, so this kept me dry).

Finally, when we bailed at 11pm, I put all my layers back on, specifically with the Transcendent hoody underneath my shell.  We got walloped by spin drift for the next 7 hours as we decided.  It was really freaking cold when our softshells pants got soaked, but we kept hopping up and down at the belays on the descent, and fought each other over pulling the ropes to get in some extra movement to generate heat.

Overall, the layering kit kept me warm enough as long as I kept moving, particularly in the shade at night.  Had we stopped at all, it wouldn’t have been enough.

Maybe Austin IS a little cold in this photo? Its probably 7pm and the sun is starting to go down while Jimmy leads the first hard pitch of the Exocet chimneys.

Scenario 2 – Dragontail (Cascades) in the early spring in 12.5 hours

This is a very different scenario from the above.  We would be moving the whole day – no belaying, no standing around, only a few short breaks and a lunch at the top

  1. we again went really fast and light and didn’t bring any sort of bivvy kit
  2. climbing in the shade was cold, but once we started moving even on the north face, we warmed up quickly.
  3. here weight in particular was really important

I wore/brought with me a long-sleeve base layer -> a Ferosi soft-shell -> UberLayer -> Axion hard shell

The approach required starting at the car, and skinning up to the base of Dragontail.  Eric and I both did this in our long-sleeve base layers.

For the entire climb, Eric and I both wore Ferosi jackets (I let him borrow an old extra one I have).  For the high-intensity movement, where some snow might sluff on you from above every so often, an light active soft-shell like this was perfect.

At the summit, we both threw on the single insulation piece we had with us as we lounged in the sun.

We never used our hard-shell jackets.

Once again, we used movement on this climb to stay warm, and always left each rest, stance, or belay as we started to get cold.  If we stood around for longer, we threw on an insulation piece just for a quick few minutes to hold heat in. Stripping off the layers before we started moving helped to minimize the number of stops and transition times so we could go slow and steady for the climbing and approaching and still make a quick day out of it.

Matching the kit with the day

Now before you start dumping all those extra jackets and hats out of the bottom of your back, consider that being able to move fast on terrain is a prerequisite for packing for fast and light.  For a discussion on this, check out this nugget of a post from Marc Andre Le Clerc on cascade climbers.  A general lesson from his post and my discussion above is that being strategic about the layers you bring is yet another important skill.  It requires imagining what the day will look like and quantifying how all the different clothing options will fit together.  The awesome thing is that once you do this a few times, and then reflect on how it went afterwards, it becomes yet another unconscious skill that allows you to have a bit more fun.

Now seriously though, will someone remind me how to layer for the ski resort?


2 thoughts on “Layering for Alpine Climbing in Moderate Climates

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