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 2020).
The first balaclava I ever owned was one of those yellow woolly jobs all old school climbers seemed to wear (Martin Boyson still wears his!), which always seemed to hot…and somewhat itchy. Luckily powerstetch (well Patagonia Activist as it was called) came along, and since then most of my baklavas have been made from this great material.
The one big problem I’ve always had is that immensely frustrating phenomenon of balaclava creep, were you find it keeps slipping down over your eyes, meaning you’re forced to keep dragging it back by pulling at the back of the neck where it leaves you helmet. Another problem is it’s hard to find a balaclava that both stays out of your face when you don’t want it there, yet fits snugly without suffocating you!
Yet another problem is moisture from your breath freezing up, or being funnelled up into your glasses or goggles – both a real pain and greatly increasing the difficulty of navigation in stormy weather. On nearly all my balaclavas and neck gaiters I try to reduce this by adding a small hole to breath through.
For full on winter conditions it’s vital that your face remains protected, both to limit skin damage (frostbite, wind burn, hail rash), but also to allow you to operate with ease, after all if you’re buried inside your hood you won’t see much.
Goggles help in this respect, but very often the nose is exposed to the elements, which in a high mountain situation can easily lead to frostnip or worse.
For many years climbers have used neoprene face masks to increase face protection, but in my experience they are uncomfortable and claustrophobic to wear. So what’s the alternative?
Luckily a few years ago Mountain Hardwear brought out their excellent Flex balaclava (also often known as just plain Windproof balaclava), which although far from general purpose, remains a truly vital piece of kit for anyone who goes where things get wild.
This is kind of a balaclava/face mask, and due to very good pattern cutting, it works extremely well, fitting the head and face perfectly. The majority of the balaclava is made from Gore Windstopper (I’m not a fan of windproof fleece but in this situation it works well), with powerstetch panels at the mouth and ears (so you can still hear when belaying). The over all effect is great, and I never go out on a big route with a standard powerstrech balaclava (which I’ll wear as a hat in milder conditions), and my Flex balaclava, and I know that it’s saved my face many times in places like Patagonia and Alaska in winter.
The only modification I’ve made is to sew a clip in loop to one edge (you could just make a small cut in the fleece), add a patch of powerstrech on the inside of the nose to increase warmth when the fleece gets saturated by moisture.
The only drawback is that it seems Mountain Hardwear have decided to drop this great piece of kit for this winter (another specialist product that fails on the mass market), but there seems to be a lot of them around in the shops still. You never know, if enough people e-mail MH they may start making them again! If they don’t then I think the OR Gorilla Balaclava might be a good replacement.
Dear Andy, I sent your review of the Mtn Hdw flex balaclava off to a pal that works at Mountain Hardware. At the Autumn warehouse sale (I live in Berkeley just a few miles from the R&D) I scoured every box of seconds, samples, overruns, for a flex. Just like you said, they weren’t making them any more.
But I just got this email this morning from MH saying they were going to make it again. So THANK YOU for your review and suggestion to write them!
Here’s to the mountains, -mori
Andrew Kirkpatrick is a British mountaineer, author, motivational speaker and monologist. He is best known as a big wall climber, having scaled Yosemite's El Capitan 30+ times, including five solo ascents, and two one day ascents, as well as climbing in Patagonia, Africa, Alaska, Antarctica and the Alps.Follow @ Instagram