Clothing for bigger climbs
09 November 2008
Note: Many of these articles are very old, and although the technical information is still relevant the equipment mentioned may not be (for example a Stormy cooker was state of that art in 1995, but not in 2021).
The words big wall climbing generally conjure up images of hairy assed aid climbers wailing on pegs day after day up some gnarly big wall, and have no relation to what most climbers do in the UK. In fact many UK climbers actually participate in big wall ascents without ever realizing it, as a big wall doesn’t necessarily have to be a multi day affair, or involve bashing away with a hammer.
So first off what is a big wall? Well you could argue that a big wall is a climb over a 1000 meters in vertical height, but there are plenty of classics walls that are way smaller – such as the regular route on Half Dome – or routes that take over a day (or a grade VI route), but again sub 3 hour ascents of routes like the Nose have sort of knocked that on the head also!
For me a big wall is any climb where you must commit yourself in order to succeed, and where you must bring together technique, fitness and strategy in order for that commitment to pay off. A wall could be a hard 300 metre sport route in the South of France, or an easy 2000 metre scramble in Norway, or even your first multi pitch rock route in the UK, meaning it’s relative to the climber not the cliff. The number of people doing these kinds of routes increases every year, from modern mega pitch sport lines in the alpine regions, to desert adventures in Jordan, Morocco and Turkey, through to good old fashioned exploration of the Greenland fjords, and our own remote crags. These routes fulfil the desire of UK climbers to go beyond the multi pitch climbs the UK has to offer, and pitch themselves on a much bigger canvas.
As you can guess big wall climbing is also not about bashing in pegs, in fact if you can avoid doing the “whack and dangle” thing, things will be much easier, and you’ll feel even more like a true wall climber. Free climbing is the way to go, as this makes things simpler, faster and more fun.
One aspect of any big wall climb is the need to be prepared for the climb. This isn’t cragging, and although you can often get away with that attitude, you’ll eventually find yourself in bother some day soon - probably dressed in your Hawaiian shirt when a storm hits half way up your route! So this months gear is dedicated to the clothing you need for this type of climbing, giving some ideas on what to wear, both for ‘training days’ on multi pitch climbs in the UK, and for when you transfer those skills to the bigger climbs abroad.
It’s easy to take a laid back attitude to clothing when the sun’s shinning in the valley, donning those tired old cotton stone monkey tights and ratty ‘J-Rat’ T-shirt for your 20 pitch climb. Sure you’re not stupid, you take along a fleece for if it gets cold, but that’s all you need. Ten pitches higher the wind begins to pick up, cooling you down in your sweaty cotton. No probs – on goes the fleece. The only problem is that the wind’s cutting straight through it, forcing you to try and find any shelter you can at the belays (you try coiling the rope over yourself but its no good). The first drops of rain come a pitch later, and for a minute or two you’re amazed how the fleece stops the water penetrating, but very soon your cotton layers are soaking it up. As the rain increases you pray for your partner to hurry up, sure now that the only option is to rap down. By the time the first raps made you’re shacking, hands feeling wooden and useless, you take off your T-shirt and throw it into the storm so that the fleece is next to your skin, but as you look down at the nine pitches you have to go you wonder how you’ll make it?
The importance of a good flexible clothing system for wall climbing can not be underestimated, both in terms of comfort and enjoyment (being warm on belays, or when to temperature drops), and maybe most importantly when things go wrong, such as storms, benightment or when forced to climb into the dark (a much better option then the latter). Having a good system often gives you that bit of confidence you need to go that extra pitch necessary.
Clothing for these situations differ from most of areas of climbing (mountain, alpine, winter), but through the process of selection and use it’s possible to learn a lot that can be transferred across into those other activities.
First of you need clothing that fits well – meaning it’s cut for climbing – not sitting in coffee shops but high steps, splits and 9 foot dynos! Well cut clothes are clothes that you’re unaware are well cut – they simple fit. Badly cut clothes, like jackets that rise out of your harness everywhere you reach up, or trousers that flap around so you can’t see your feet, will be in the forefront of your mind. This is not good.
Things to look out for when buying:-
Tops: No or minimal lift at the hem when raising your arms. Sleeves that can be rolled up for ventilation. Zippers that are easy to operate with one hand. Long enough hem so the top can be tucked in to your trousers. Hoods that move with the head. Pockets that are placed where they can be accessed when worn under a harness.
Bottoms: A trim fit in the lower leg so you can see your feet (may have a zip in the lower leg). Any fly must zip from the bottom and the top for when wearing with a harness. The waist must be low profile to avoid pressure points when worn under a harness.
After the fit the most important thing is what you wear performs – meaning it performs its bloody socks off because that’s all you have (most climbers won’t have a sack full of other clothes to put on). Cotton clothing is fine when it’s worn alone when the suns shinning, but when things get grim it’ll only make things feel even grimmer. Get it right and you’ll be amazed how far you can push your clothing – for example a few weeks ago I had a go at a winter solo of the Diamond in Colorado (4267 m), wearing on only a pair of Patagonia guide pants with a pair of merino and Brynje string meraklon bottoms underneath. As long as I kept moving my legs felt warm and toasty even though the temperature was below -20ºC! This is a good example of building a system that works, balancing each components strengths and weakness.
Performance means having fabrics that don’t allow you to chill when you’ve sweat like a pig all the way to the belay, repel the wind, rain and sometimes snow, and keep you warm enough when things get chilly. This sounds easy, just stick on a normal layering system right? Well no, this is a high aerobic stop and go activity, where everything needs to be light, compact and flexible, because you’ll be carrying the minimum of baggage. The aim is to get a system that works for both high activity, yet has some enough residual warmth for when you’re no longer moving. These fabrics also have to balance weight with robustness, after all you don’t want you clothes to wear out half way up the climb!
Ideal fabrics should be:- Light and not too thick, fast drying and wicking (crucial), with a low density so they remain warm and comfortable when damp. Stretchy fabrics are generally good in this respect. Windproofing is crucial, but this is better achieved by a separate featherweight windproof fabric (either worn separate or integrated into the clothing), rather then a membrane – which may well reduce some of the features mentioned in the first paragraph. Breathability is paramount. Grippy rather then slick fabrics are preferred if possible, as they provide more cohesion when climbing ‘full body’ features like wide cracks and chimneys (a nice pair of tweed breaches!).
What you need to focus on are clothes that give a high return for their weight, where their design allows them to provide the right amount of warmth over a broad range of temperatures – meaning the fabrics work in partnership with the design of the garment, meaning good venting, pockets, hoods etc. For example a 200 weight fleece is one of the most hopeless pieces of gear you could take on a climb. It’s too hot when worn in still weather and worthless when the wind picks up. It’s also bulky when not worn, and takes up a great deal of space if you carry a small pack. Compare this to a shelled micropile top like Montane’s Duality smock or the Rab VP trail smock. This type of top is light, compact and low bulk. It’s wearable in both warm and cold weather due to it’s high breathability (combined with a thin base layer you can operate from the desert to well above the snow line), and it’s both windproof and shower proof. The cut is designed for climbing, with a long body and a trim fit, plus the hood greatly increases your comfort when things get cold (you don’t have to carry a hat – which is another less thing to worry about).
Base top: The ideal base layer is a thin wicking long sleeved zip necked top. The sleeves can be rolled up and the neck unzipped when it’s hot, and done up again when the temperature drops. The fabric (merino, Power-dry, Capaline, wool/polyester mix) should stop you chilling, and will also provide some sun protection – which is crucial in these days of global warming. I’m a big fan of hooded tops with finger loops (to keep your wrists warm), but there are very few on the market, as hooded tops are seen as being un-commercial (there are quite a few tops with thumb loops though). Unless it’s very cold you’ll probably not wear long johns, making do with your trousers. Don’t forget your underwear though, and these need to be thin wicking fabrics as well, as they will reduce chafing when worn under a harness. On the subject of chaffing it’s crucial that all your lowers are without large seams, or extensive areas of elastic, as they will seriously lower your comfort when wearing a harness.
There are tons of great base layer tops on the market, but two to look out for are the Macpac Interwool core zip and the Ice Breaker tech top. I’d love to see a bit more flair in base layer tops, but at the moment most manufactures remain pretty conservative. Rab and Montane have some new base layer pieces coming out soon so fingers crossed.
After your base top layer the most important thing to get right is your leg wear. Most climbers won’t carry any other layers for the legs, so this layer has to do a lot. The main thing is that is has top be weather resistant without being too hot, lightweight while still be tough, and most important of all they must fit well. I’ve used tons of different bottoms, with many not delivering on there promise long term, either falling to pieces or not keeping me comfortable when they got damp. The gold standard in leg wear fabric remains Schoeller dryskin extreme, which is all but bullet proof (they are more then worth the price), weather resistant, and comfortable to wear in a broad temperature range (uber alpinist Kevin Mahoney wore his Schoeller guide pants on the Thalay Sagar and the Moose’s Tooth in winter!). Companies like Mammut, Patagonia and Cloudveil all make excellent Schoeller pants. There are also several other stretch woven fabvrics on the market that aren’t made by Schoeller which are also very good – but I tend to find that the branded stuff tends to work best long term. The other option is lighter weight microfibre style fabrics, which can feel cooler in hot weather, yet still remain tough and lightweight. There are tons of new fabrics on the market (Arcteryx have a very good range of modern pants), so it should be easy to get something that works, and of course there’s always the classic Ron Hill – which although as cool as your granddad body popping, still remains one of the best bits of leg wear around.
Montane has a couple of good pants in there line (in fact Montane are currently one of the best companies around for state of the art kit), with their Terra pants being ideal for this kind of thing (they also do Terra Converts, which change into shorts – ideal for hot approaches and climbs). Mammut Champ and Patagonia Guide pants are highly recommended if you want something that will survive anything, while Mountain Hardwear has a lot of good pants for climbing, with their Escalade being one of the best – made out of super tough Kanvas (their 100% nylon fabric). Berghous’s continue to produce simple rugged gear with their Fastrek pants, and at under £40 they’re a steal, and tough to boot. Lowe Alpine have also got a couple of good pants in their line in the shape of their fully specked Omni and Paradigm pants, made from Stormweave a fabric not dissimilar to Dryskin. There are tons and tons of great trousers on the market, so just make sure they fulfil the criteria of good mountain clothing, and most importantly they fit well.
With your base top and pants you should be able to climb comfortably in hot to moderate temperatures, but in order to be able to operate when it gets colder, or the weather changes you’ll need a secondary layer.
This can either be a single layer garment – such as a soft shell, or two garments – one windproof and one insulating. What type you choice is a matter of choice as both have prose and cons. Whatever you chose it should be wearable when active, which means you shouldn’t get something too insulating, as you’ll just sweat your bollocks off. The ideal is something that can vent well but can be slowly shut down as the temperature drops. If you’re expecting really cold temperatures then you should take a third high loft piece of clothing (this is rock climbing remember so you’re limited top how cold you can climb as your fingers will end up freezing otherwise).
The best combined layer on the market is as I’ve already said a shelled micro piled jacket, and although they’re being edged out by ‘hard fleece’ membrane tops they are still the way to go for high aerobic sports. This isn’t to say that all those lovely looking welded seamed windproof fleeces are crap – only that as I said at the start they don’t work their socks of to keep you comfortable quite as much as the low tech option…yet. Make sure the top you get has a slim hood (don’t expect to wear it over a helmet), and you can roll up the sleeves. There are a couple of micro pile Schoeller tops on the market, which are worth a look at, being tougher then the lighter tops, but at the expense of higher weight and a lower drying time.
A split system will comprise of a thin fleece and a windproof, and at the moment the best fleeces are made from stretchy fleece like Power stretch or Power shield (this is basically power stretch with a closely woven windproof outer). Yet again make sure they can be vented, and endeavour to search out a top that features a hood and thumb loops. Over this the shell of choice is a ultra light Pertex shell, which will cut the wind, repel rain, accelerate the drying time of the fabric (as it will pick up moisture from your fleece) all in a tiny package that will fit in a pocket.
If it’s a bit too cold for your clothing to handle (or you’re a bit of a wimp), and you don’t want to be wearing your booster layer, then a great product the have is a lightweight Gilet (or body warmer to you and me), made from either lightweight fleece, or my favourite, on in the synthetic puff variety, as they are lightweight, windproof and low bulk. Being sleeveless they provide warmth without restricting movement. Carrying a second windproof will also improve your insulation for very little weight, and Montane make a Vapour Gilet made from Pertex that works really well over a base layer when anything more would be over kill (lightweight pertex pants also work well at improving warmth and these can be worm either over or under your trousers (if you need more grip).
With all these tops the windproof element is crucial, both for the obvious reasons, and because it means you don’t need to put your shell on – which if it’s lightweight will get trashed!
The one stop shop tops include Rabs VR trail and Montane’s Duality smock and Buffalo Techlite top. Fleeces that deserve a mention include the Haglofs Triton Hood, Lowe Alpine’s Ninja hoody, Arcteryx Gamma MX Hoody and Rabs new Powershield hoody. Windproof shells include the Montane’s excellent 180 smock (180 grams with a wired hood!), Rabs Quantum wind top and Patagonia Houdini. Again there are loads Of tops on the market, but only a handful that really stand out.
As you can see I’ve kept storm gear separate, as I feel that wearing a waterproof shell as part of your clothing system is ineffective, as it both gets trashed, you overheat and in return you get cold. If you’ve chosen your clothing well then it should be able to cope with a shower, or the odd wet pitch, meaning you could risk it and go without a shell. But if you’re heading up on a very long climb then you have to have a better barrier, as eventually even the best clothing will saturate and you’ll get hypothermia. You have two choices for wall shells. One is to get a very light and compact breathable waterproof, and keep it in reserve until you really need it – or when you want to boost your insulation. For this there are loads of shells on the market, with many being very good. The other option is to go for a low tech non breathable ‘emergency’ option, that’s cheap, lightweight and only put on in a real emergency (your other layers should help to make up for the lack of breathability by keeping you warm). If you sure that things are going to get wet then it’s also worth taking waterproof trousers, but these will probably need to be of a more heavy weight variety.
There are tons of excellent lightweight shells on the market, from all manufactures with stand out products being Montane’s Air, Rab’s Durillium, Marmot PreCip jackets to name but a few.
If it’s baltically cold and your fingers are still up for some climbing, then you may need a booster layer for when things slow down…or stop. The best booster layer around is the lightweight synthetic duvet, made by almost everyone these days. You can either go lightweight and take just a gilet, or go the who hog and get a hooded model. It’s important that the shell remains compact so you’ll carry it, and I’d aim to get something that packs away to the size of a chalkbag.
Carry a thin pair of gloves (powerstretch offer the best weight/performance), and if your top doesn’t have a hood then carry a thin balaclava. Don’t forget your feet, and on long routes it’s worth fitting your boots with thick warm socks, both for warmth and comfort. One good trick in order to keep your feet warm is to wear leg warmers (yes that’s what I said), which are worn around the ankles to improve warmth, and then can be pulled down over the boots when belaying if it’s cold. These are usually made from a very thick pair of socks with the foot cut out –but if you’re feeling in the mood you could always nit yourself a pair!