How to Dress for Mountaineering & Ice Climbing

How to Dress for Mountaineering & Ice Climbing

January 9, 2024 fmg-adminAlpine & Ice Climbing Guides' Tech Tips

It’s nearly winter, and I have started to gather my equipment together for my annual migration to New England for ice climbing and mountaineering.  It’s second nature now, but packing for a mountaineering objective was overwhelming when I was first starting out. I’m gonna share my systems with you all- I hope to clarify and simplify all the stuff that’s needed to be comfortable in the mountains.(let’s’ be honest- there are plenty of ways to suffer. Poor kit choices shouldn’t be one of them)

new hampshire ice climbing

One important note when you are assembling your kit: Have your detective hat on when looking at gear. I’ve noticed a trend in the mainstream outdoor gear industry-street style is now being integrated into the design ethos of the kit. Ask yourself, Is it designed for the mountains or is it designed for Starbucks? Speaking of trends, Some of these same companies are also using the bleeding edge of climbing to influence design choices. The $900 ultralight Dyneema backpack or tent may be super useful for a trip to the north faces of the Himalaya, but for a first time kit that’s nowhere near necessary. All that happens is the high speed kit wears out and breaks fast! DO you need BD’s ultralight cams? Probably not. Sure, they’re sexy, but they wear out faster, are more expensive, and weaker. Fitness and intelligent kit selection play a bigger role than buying the latest and greatest toy.

Okay. With that soapbox out of the way, let’s dive in.

I roll with a 5+3 layer system for my clothes(not including underwear): Baselayer, Fleece, Sweater, Shell, Parka on top, and baselayer, softshell, hardshell on the bottom. I’ll cover extremities later.

Each Article of clothing has a specific job, and my goal is to have it all work together in a bunch of combinations- whatever kit gives me the most options is my best option. Let me describe it to you:

Baselayer(LJ top)- primary roll- moisture wicking and next to skin comfort. I keep this layer as light as possible, and i need it to be synthetic. I rock a hooded shirt for this layer in my system. I am slower to have a Merino wool top; it doesn’t dry off as fst as I’d like it to.

Fleece- active, breathable insulation that keeps me warm when moving in moderate conditions. Keep the fleece light; I especially like the gridded fleece options for active fleeces. I like a hood on this layer. Patagonia R1, or the like. My wife has a New Balance hoody she got from TJ Maxx. It’s just as good as the high end brands, and it was 16 bucks.

Sweater-Light, insulated jacket(I prefer hoods) that works in 3 roles- active outer layer in cold, dry temps, heavy midweight insulation layer under a shell in cold weather, and a micro parka for stop and go activities in mild weather.  Without going to deep into specs, 60g-80g synthetic insulation or down baffles 1-1.5 inches apart.  Having a hood on this layer let’s it work as that micro parka.

Shell- 1 of 2, either a softshell or a hardshell. I reserve hardshells for whenwind is blowing above 25MPH, or it’s actively raining/snowing. If I need a shell in any other context, I’ll use a softshell/windshell. Windshell is great for running, backpacking, and dryer activities(living in my pack for most of the trip). The softshell comes into its own when it’s my primary outerlayer- think ice or mixed climbing, alpine rock climbing, or anywhere subject to abrasion. I’ve used The Patagonia Houdini, but any running wind shell will work well. Softshells- I’ve used several, the old OR Ferrosi is a good choice; my current winter softshell is an Arcteryx Gamma Hoody

Hardshells have a pretty significant downside- Internal moisture. I run pretty warm, and I sweat through hardshells if i’m moving at all. I tolerate the Gore-tex if I actally need it.  They are also more expensive, and fragile compared to a softshell.  They hold a lot of heat, and no matter what the marketing department says, they don’t breathe very well.  However, when I need it, I really need it. No other tool will do the job like a hardshell. I’ve used options from Rab, Outdoor Research, and Arc’teryx in the past. They all perform similarly; the biggest difference is the fit of the garment.  I use the forecast and the duration of my objective to determine whether I bring one or both of my shells in my pack.

Parka- This layer is probably the most specific piece to alpine climbing and mountaineering, and it’s one place not to comprimise on performance. The parka is both a particular type of jacket, but it’s also a role that any of my jackets can occupy, depending on my activity.  Climbing has a stop and start rhythm to it, and I need to dress such that I don’t overheat when moving, but I don’t freeze as soon as I stop. The parka is the solution to my mountaineering woes: its a fully insulated, oversized jacket that can A. fit over any of my other layers and B. keep me comfortable (thus safely functioning) once I stop moving.  Insulation can be either synthetic or goose down. I prefer synthetic insulations for most of my techical parkas for their ‘knock-around’ durability. I have a down parka that was essential on the West Buttress of Denali a few years ago, but I’m not often encountering -25*F temps in the lower 48. Back to synthetics- sure, they are a bit heavier for a given warmth, but they still insulate when they are damp, and if I tear them on a branch, I don’t lose all my insulation to the wind (It’s happened to me. Things got very serious very fast when I lost a bunch of feathers to a branch). Its also cheaper than Down. 

Characteristics that make a parka, a parka: 

1. An insulated hood. It’s essential to trap all the heat leaving your neck.

 2. Oversized (either by design, or you buying a size up from your regular clothing size) to trap the heat coming off of you. 

3. Ideally, a double separating zipper. This is especially useful if you are belaying with it on, it enables access to one’s tie & clip in points for partner checks.  

4. Big internal pockets to store spare gloves, snacks, and other odds ‘n ends (ski skins for you skimo freaks out there) out of the cold. 

I’ve used a bunch. I have a Patagonia DAS parka that’s eleven years old and still going strong. I use an Arcteryx Nuclei SV for technical objectives, and a Feathered Friends Khumbu parka when things get arctic.

Below is a sample matrix of how I layer for different temps and levels of activity. This all assumes fairly good weather, without heavy/wet preciptation. Your mileage may vary.

Ambient TempWarmBaselayerBaselayerBaselayerBaselayer
Mild chillBL+FleeceBL+SLBaselayerBaselayer
Moderate ColdBL+ fleece+SweaterBL+FLBL+SLBL+shell
Considerable ColdBL+Sweater+PKABL+FL+SLBL+FL+SLBL+Fleece
Extreme ColdBL+FL+SW+PKABL+fleece+Sweater+shellBL+SweaterBL+Fleece+Sweater

My lower half is similar, but simpler:

LJ bottoms- I only bring these out if the temps are below 20* F, or if I’m going to be stationary for most of the day (toproping ice on a north facing crag), synthetic or wool. I’m a fan of Icebreaker merino stuff. I like wool on my legs, less so on my top. 

Softshell pants:  something synthetic, with pockets, and maybe a reinforced kickstep for crampons. Find what fits; trim legs work better to avoid catching a crampon.  I avoid insulated pants for this active layer. The OR Cirque is a reliable choice. 

Hardshell pants- Often, I bring the lightest hardshell pant I can find; it stays in my pack most of the time anyways. Key note: I want them to have full length or ¾ length side zips so I can put them on over my softshells and boots. OR Foray pants are what I’ve used for a decade or so.

Parka pants- I have a pair of synthetic puffy pants, but these are by no means necessary for an entry level mountaineering gear list. Once you buy them down the road, get synthetic. They are gonna get caught on things.

It’s a lot, and we haven’ even covered gloves, head layers, or footwear.  

Buying new stuff is fun, but it’s expensive. Dig through Ebay, Geartrade, your local outdoor consignment store, or last years colors for deals. Assembling a kit takes time; trust the process. It’ll pay dividends once you find the right tool for the job.  Climbing brands are reliable, but don’t be afraid to look towards other outdoor(think running/fitness brands) for your fleeces, shells, sweaters and baselayers.  There aren’t too many non-climbing companies that offer a parka. That’s a bit of an investment, and I’d save money other places to throw down for the best tool for the job.

Once you have this stuff, USE IT. Mountaineering isn’t an A+B=C sport. It requires nuance, self knowledge, and anticipation of the next leg.  Go for a hike with your stuff and see how it all works together- look at the air temp, and pay attention to what layers are needed to move without sweating. You may be surprised.  Do the work beforehand, so that when it’s nuking on Mt. Washington, and we are taking a five minute break at Split Rock above treeline, you don’t have to wonder what to wear. You can grab the correct layer, get it on and zipped up, with mental bandwidth to focus on other important things-like hydration and fueling yourself.

Dan Riethmuller, AMGA Certified Ice Instructor and Apprentice Alpine Guide

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