YOU'VE PROBABLY HEARD A LOT OF PEOPLE MENTION LAYERING, but what does it mean exactly and how do you use it to your advantage? Winter activities require you to be extremely aware of your body temperature. You will use your clothing and layers to regulate your temperature. Too hot and you will sweat, which will cause your layers to be less effective, losing heat once you stop. Too cold and you risk frostbite or hypothermia. While the recipe of layering is tried and true, the ingredients will vary from person to person. Some of us run hotter or colder than average. Some have poor circulation in their hands and feet, or have difficulty keeping their core warm. You will most likely have to experiment a bit to find the right combination to fit you and the areas you climb in, or the type of routes you are doing that day. It’s not uncommon for ice and alpine climbers to throw everything into their car, then choose their final layering system at the trailhead once they have a better idea of conditions. Alpine rock, ice, and snow could all require different layering systems depending on how fast or slow you are moving, the distance or strenuousness of the approach, and the difficulty and style of climbing you are doing. Temperature, sun, wind, rain, and snow can all affect your layers, so knowing how to choose can help immensely. A system that keeps you warm and dry can make the difference between fun and misery, and it’s just as important to your overall safety as any of your gear.Below is a rundown of each layer you'll want to think about while outside:
- A superlight wind jacket such as the Kor Preshell is a great option for snowy or windy approaches since it doesn’t add a lot of bulk or extra warmth, but will keep you drier and less exposed to the driving wind.
- Softshell pants or jackets are typically much more durable, breathable, and stretchy than a hard shell and excel in situations where you are continuously moving or climbing mixed rock and ice, where you might need to do a lot of chimneying. They are generally water-resistant rather than waterproof, so aren’t the best choice for really wet climates. Softshells can be heavier and more bulky than hard shells.
- Hard shell pants or jackets will provide the best protection from the elements. Water, spindrift, snow, wind, and rain are completely blocked by hard shells, and many of the modern materials are more breathable than ever. It might be tempting to leave these behind, but if you are climbing in weather where you can't afford to get wet, a hard shell is your best option.
- For any outer layer, look for a hood that will go over the top of your helmet. Chest pockets are helpful to stash food, cell phone, or radio, as your harness or backpack straps will often block the lower pockets near your waist. For sizing, you want the jacket to be able to fit over the top of multiple layers, but still be trim. If it’s too tight, it can restrict your movement, but size it too big and it will bunch up and you won't be able to see your gear as easily. Make sure you can raise your arms above your head and not have the waist of the jacket raise up. If the waist raises, as you lift your arms repeatedly, the jacket can work its way out from underneath your harness, covering your gear and exposing your core to the elements. Ideally, the hem would go down past the bottom of your harness at least three to four inches. Cinches at the bottom can help slim down the hem and keep spindrift from blowing up the jacket.
- Look for low-bulk cinches for your wrists. These keep snow, water, and ice from entering your sleeves, but if the cinches are bulky, it can limit your wrist flexibility and add extraneous material under your gloves.
- For pants, look for options with good venting. Reinforced knees and seat can be helpful for chimneying. To prevent your crampons from snagging your pants, look for a taper at the bottom of the leg.
A crucial part of your cold-weather system, your hands and feet can be the first to succumb to frostbite and are not a place to skimp on. Your gloves often have the most contact with snow and water, so a well-built, durable glove is critical. One feature that will help you tell a glove designed for climbing vs. skiing or general use is the addition of the carabiner loop on one of the fingers so you can hang them from your harness by the finger. Hanging them in this way keeps snow and water from entering the glove. For ice climbing, you will typically use three to four types of gloves in a single day. On a wet or warm day, you can go through even more pairs.Tim Emmett, a Mountain Hardwear ice climbing athlete with ascents of some of the hardest ice and mixed routes in the world says, “As a general rule I usually have four pairs of gloves. One thin pair without a (waterproof) membrane for walking in. One or two thin pairs for lead climbing (non-waterproof for mixed or waterproof for ice). A warmer waterproof glove for seconding or belaying, especially if your hands get cold. If it’s 0ºF or less, it may be a smart move to take something really warm like a pair of Absolute Zero mitts for severe conditions. This system might seem like overkill but being able to wear dry gloves will have a big impact on your day and whether you complete your mission or not. A waterproof glove that is wet on the outside and dry on the inside will keep your hands dry, but your hands will lose more heat than if they were in a totally dry pair. Your hands are a crucial component for every form of climbing, so look after them.”
Just like your belay jacket, these are “instant warmth” for your hands. Once you reach the belay, switch out to your belay gloves. Stash your climbing gloves inside your jacket to keep them warm and to help dry them out. The Exposure/2™ Gore-Tex® Glove is a good option here. Depending on the conditions, temperature, and your own needs, these can be gloves or in really cold conditions, mittens like the Absolute Zero™ Gore-Tex® Down Mitt. You will be belaying and rappelling in these gloves, so a durable leather palm and reinforced stitching will help the durability. Once the leather is wet, the friction of the rope can do more damage and wear. Thinner gloves tend to fall apart quickly under these conditions, but a well-built belay glove will last much longer. There are typically two options people like to use for storing belay gloves. One is off your harness by the carabiner loop on the finger for quick and easy access on the route. This can be helpful on extremely cold days when you realize mid-route that the climbing gloves you have are just not warm enough or are already soaked from an extremely wet pitch. You can switch out mid-route if necessary.The other option is to store them in your belay jacket like Emmett. He says, “Keep your next pair of gloves close to your skin or tucked into your midlayer chest/stomach area so that they are nice and warm when you put them on.” This method will keep the gloves out of the elements but can be less accessible. One additional benefit of having them inside your jacket is that you can have hand warmers stashed inside the gloves to keep them extra warm. For the gloves in your pack, try to keep them easily accessible. The lid you your pack is a good place to store extra gloves as it makes them easily accessible and you don’t have to dig around in your pack to find them on route.