Layering strategies for alpine routes and bivouacs
What to wear? It’s the perennial question when packing for an ice route or alpine peak. When I plan my clothing and bivouac systems, whether for a one-day or a multi-day route, I use three principles. First, bring as few different items as possible. Second, manage moisture (I don’t mean rain, I mean sweat). Third, prepare for storms–rain or snow.
Climbers too often dress for the worst-case scenario, leaving you sweaty and uncomfortable in all but those conditions. Here’s how I decide what to bring:
The base layers, I always start with the same clothing uniform: lightweight soft-shell pants, synthetic briefs and a wicking synthetic T-shirt. The only time my base layers vary is when I’m in a winter environment; then I start with fleece-insulated soft-shell pants or long underwear under my soft-shell pants.
Mid layers Over the base layers, I add a long-sleeve synthetic shirt, fleece vest and fleece jacket. In colder weather I’ll combine some or all of these components. Some people choose a synthetic-fill insulation like Primaloft or Polarguard for their mid-layers, which works fine, but I prefer fleece because it holds up longer to wear and abuse.
Shell jackets and pants If rain or meltwater is a real concern, choose a lightweight hard shell. Many people are concerned with pit zips and other features. I steer away from these extras since I consider hard shells to be strictly rain gear, and if it’s raining, I’m generally heading down. Also, pit zips add weight to a shell and give the garment a stiffer feel.
If rain or meltwater isn’t a concern, I go with a soft shell. Many soft shells have become so breathable and versatile, even in rain showers, that I never bring a hard shell anymore except when I know that I’ll be stuck for long periods in the rain (and I live in the North Cascades).
Down vs. synthetic jackets The belay jacket is the final, optional layer. When I’m climbing or ski touring I always wear synthetic insulation as opposed to down. Why? When I put on my belay jacket after a lead, I’m almost always hot and a bit damp to start. The belay jacket not only keeps my core warm, but also draws moisture from my sweaty inner layers–down will lose its insulation abilities with just a bit of moisture, but not synthetic.
Gloves and mittens I am careful to bring plenty of spare gloves and constantly swap out wet pairs for dry. For example, on a long alpine route in Pakistan this summer I carried three pairs of gloves and a pair of mittens.
I stay away from anything that is fully waterproof–designs with waterproof bladders or taped seams tend to have poor dexterity and dry slowly. I apply a bit of soft-shell theory to my gloves: I count on them getting wet, and instead rely on materials that dry quickly by body heat.
Sleeping over When bivying, the down vs. synthetic question arises again. I choose down bags when: 1. I’m only out for one night, where it’s not a big deal if the bag is damp by morning; and 2. If I’m out for multiple nights but I know I’ll have opportunities to dry the bag in the sun (e.g. on the West Buttress of Denali).
I take a synthetic-fill bag when: 1. I am climbing for consecutive days without a chance to dry the bag; 2. I’m sleeping in a snow cave or a single-wall tent, which doesn’t pass moisture well when temperatures are below freezing; 3. I will be drying clothes in my bag at night.
Mate & Save Weight
A great way to save several pounds of extra baggage is to share a sleeping bag. To avoid the drafts common with simply laying the bag over you like a blanket, I use a homemade sleeping-bag extender, or as one partner wryly calls it, “the mating system.” To start, buy several yards of 1.1-ounce uncoated ripstop nylon from a fabric store and a zipper that is compatible with your sleeping bag. A #8 coil zipper fits most standard sleeping bags.
Next, cut the fabric into a wedge shape, three inches wide at the narrow bottom end and as wide as your unzipped sleeping bag on the top (about 55 inches). The long sides of the fabric should be as long as the sleeping bag, approximately 70 inches on most bags. Now sew one part of the zipper on each side of the nylon sheet, so it mates properly with the sides of the sleeping bag.
I place a 3/4-length closed-cell-foam pad underneath me for insulation, and toss a pack under my feet. You and your buddy can crawl into this extended bag and reap the benefit of each other’s body heat. If you’ve had a big day you’ll sleep like a baby no matter how badly your partner smells!