The Truth About Gloves
November 9, 2008
The glove is the interface between you and your tools and seeing as how your tools are your interface between you and the climb, it’s of vital importance to get it right. In a perfect world, gloves would keep you dry and warm in all conditions, be tough enough to last as long as your axes and be so dexterous even brain surgeons would wear them, but if this was a perfect world we’d all be like Sly Stallone and wouldn’t even need gloves.
Well, WAKE UP! This is not a perfect world. This is the world of hot aches so bad you feel as if you’ve got boiling Cola running through your veins, hands so numb you’ll pray for that pain and knuckles so torn and bust up you’d rather do 10 rounds with Mike Tyson than face another climb. This is the world of the winter glove, a world far from the marketing bullshit, where words like ‘waterproof’ and ‘shock-absorbing knuckles’ are as much use as those 50p life vests they stick under your seat on transatlantic flights. In this world there are no answers, only compromises, painful control or hot dull pump, one-shot skimpiness or unwearable indestructibility, the choice is down to you.
So in my usual style, instead of doing a review of all the hundreds of gloves out there, I’m going to rant on for a couple of thousand words instead. After I’m finished I hope anyone new to the game will have a better understanding of what is possible and anyone who’s been there and suffered, see some truth in my conclusions.
DEATH TO ‘WATERPROOFNESS’
When I used to work in outdoor shops, people would often ask me if I could recommend to them a pair of waterproof gloves. “You want a pair of waterproof gloves?” I’d reply, putting on my thoughtful font of all knowledge expression. “Rubber Marigolds,” I’d say, nodding my head, “that’s what you want,” adding that “the Italians used them on Cerro Torre this year don’t you know.” I’d point out that Marigolds are also cheap, lightweight and make you look like your mum and being yellow they show up well in photos. The usual response to this wit was the customer walking away shaking their heads, leaving me to drink my cup of tea and read my guidebook in peace. A less common but more worrying response was, ‘Do you have them in my size?’
Why do people ask for waterproof gloves for God’s sake? What do you mean ‘to keep their hands dry’? Are you insane? Have you ever been to the big bad outdoors? It’s a war out there - the only way to keep your hands dry is to buy a caravan. Sure you can use the word ‘waterproof’ if you’re thinking of using your gloves and mitts as water carriers, or sitting in a nice dry lab and dipping your hands in a sink, but in the outdoors?
You can buy 100% waterproof gloves, but no matter how expensive they are, all of them have one major flaw in their drop-lined, seam-sealed and die-cut design… they all have a dammed great dirty hole in them that lets the rain in. Where you may ask? It’s the one into which you’ve got to stick your hand.
The result of this design flaw is that you can’t keep the water out in the long term no matter how hard you try (and don’t try tucking them into your jacket sleeves - that won’t save you either). Another problem is that anything that keeps the water out will also keep the water in, meaning once your gloves are full up they’ll probably stay that way until you can drain them out. Saying that this isn’t a problem for long because unless your gloves are so well-protected you can’t climb in them, within a few routes you’ll probably wear some holes in them to let the water drain out.
This is the case with all gloves, whatever they are made from; Gore-Tex, Sympatex or plastic bag-tex, they’re all the same. The answer? Simple - just use them when it’s cold and water won’t be a problem. Erm, but excuse me… why do they still have to be 100% waterproof if they’re not going to be in 100% watery conditions?
I don’t want you to think I’m totally against any kind of weather barrier, I’m not. Handwear needs to stop wind, snow and slow saturation of the insulation, but I don’t think going ‘waterproof’ is the way to go personally. The word ‘waterproof’ gives an unreal expectation, increases cost, complexity, bulk and weight. Scrubbing that word off the design criteria may help to give us better handwear.
What we need is a new term. A term that will set glove designers and the end-user on a new course to design and seek out better winter gloves. That term is ‘Virtual Dryness’.
LONG LIVE VIRTUAL DRYNESS
Ask anyone why they like their gloves or mitts and the answer won’t be ‘Oh because they’re dead waterproof’. No, the answer will be that they like them because ‘they keep my hands warm. What this means is not just that the handwear is warm, but more importantly it remains so when wet and so feels dry. The best long-term use handwear (i.e handwear that lasts more than a couple of routes and protects you all day and in all conditions) have always been pieces that fitted into this dryness category. For years I used Buffalo mitts, finding that they felt dryer and warmer than full spec Gore mitts and gloves, especially when wet. Dachstein’s are another robust insulator, able to tackle any conditions even though they had no shell whatsoever and so attained a cult following. As you can see I’m talking about mitts here, the reason being that even with all our fabric technology you still can’t beat the mitt in almost all performance categories. The reason for this is skin contact with the shell is kept to a minimum (unlike a glove), with mutual warmth between the hand and fingers being the highest (again with a glove it’s at its lowest). Skin dries faster than fabric and can be the engine that powers the glove when left unrestricted.
‘Dryness’ is not about how dry the handwear actually is, but how dry it ‘feels’ (virtual dryness remember), with moisture retention on the skin or the fabric around is kept to a minimum, meaning low conduction of heat. This is an important point and a good example of this conduction can be found when wearing damp ‘Thinny’ liner gloves, in the fact that your hands are warmer without them than with them (good if it’s hot I suppose).
The feeling of dryness in wet handwear can only be achieved by low-density fabrics like fleece, pile and wool, with the more brushed fabrics being the best (Bi-polar, brushed polyester and fibre pile). These fabrics wick the surface moisture off your skin fast, warming the skin and so, in turn, drying out the fabric. If this kind of next-to-the-skin fabric is used and is backed up with a synthetic layer, then wet warmth will be further improved as less water will be held within the lofty fill. It seems that in the mad clamour for softshell clothing most manufacturers have forgotten about softshell gloves. So when you’re looking at handwear you need to ignore the impossible question of they will be waterproof and instead think about how dry they will feel.
GLOVE AND MITT STYLES
Fleece Gloves and Liners
I’ll bunch all lightweight and midweight fleece gloves together as those intended for use alone in mild temperatures or worn beneath thicker gloves and mitts in colder temps. There are several liner types on the market from the ultra-lightweight Thinny (a base layer for the hands) to full weight windproof fleece gloves. Of all the liners on the market by far, the best are Powerstretch models (TNF, Mountain Hardwear, Extremities etc), both as stand-alone gloves and as liners (most fitted liners inexpensive gloves are poor). We all (or we should) know how amazing Powerstretch is and on the hands it provides the perfect next-to-skin layer, keeping your hands warm when wet, wicking moisture and drying faster than a French Alpinist up a North Face. ‘Ski’ Gloves
Several climbing ski gloves have appeared on the market over the years, with the Extremities Winter being by far the best. The beauty of this design is its warmth, lower cost (due to lower complexity) and a fair degree of dexterity. You can pick these kinds of gloves up in a lot of Army and Navy style shops for not much at all, providing both great back-up and front line gloves. The dedicated climbing models should have the lining sewn into the finger ends and reinforcing at the fingers. If they haven’t, then avoid leading in them as once removed and the liners inverted, you probably won’t be able to get them on again (you can inject Superglue into the tips but this will puncture the membrane. The downsides are that most of these gloves have plastic-bag-tex liners, meaning they get sweaty. Luckily they make up for this by having brushed fleece inners backed with Thinsulate, meaning they stay warm when wet. These kinds of gloves can be slow to dry and after a few uses, the insulation in the glove will compress - lowering its dry and wet warmth. For many climbers, this is the type of glove bought at the beginning of each season.
Technical Shell Gloves
These are waterproof shells with a very thin brushed inner face fabric from companies like Outdoor Designs and Black Diamond. They are generally trimmer than full-scale modular gloves and work really well when combined with Powerstretch inners.
Promoted as the main winter glove type we should be wearing (over thinner gloves and mitts), this design comprises a breathable shell and a fitted inner fleece glove. The best models have a brushed fleece inner surface to the outer, which allow you to gain a great deal more dexterity and feel with the glove while still retaining some wick and warmth. Once you add the fleece liner many of these gloves become too cumbersome and thick so I would recommend fitting without the liner attached (the liner must cost a few pence by the looks of most designs). These kinds of gloves require them to fit well and for most people, 90% of the gloves don’t fit them (fingers too short/long/narrow etc) and so trying on as many designs as possible is crucial. Personally, I don’t own a pair of this category of a glove any more, but I know plenty of climbers who still believe this is the best compromise. Mountain Hardwear, Outdoor Designs, Lowe Alpine, Extremities, Marmot and Black Diamond make the best modular gloves at the moment, with several other companies making similar gloves, which are more suited to skiing and flower arranging.
Cheap, light and compact. Surprisingly effective when worn over other gloves and a good back up.
Cheap and cheerful hollow-fibre filled mitts have been around for years and are surprisingly effective as lightweight back up handwear (if you don’t want to carry a heavier, bulkier and expensive modular mitt. They also perform very well when wet (you can wring them out), but they are difficult to climb in because the insulation is slippery. Extremities have a number of cheap mitts in their walking range that fit into this category.
A tough shell with either a synthetic fill or fibre pile inner (or combination), these are the warmest things you can get on your hands. The problem with many of these designs is they are just far too thick (unnecessarily so), meaning you need to take them on and off all the time. One good trick is to wear just the shells over thinner gloves - saving the inners for when your hands get dead cold - which gives good protection and a surprising amount of warmth. Black Diamond, Mountain Hardwear and Extremities make the best modular mitts at the moment.
DURABILITY EXPECTATIONS AND PRICE
Look in the closet of any really keen winter climber and you’ll find pair upon pair of worn-out gloves they haven’t got around to chucking. Winter climbing, no matter what grade you climb, is hard on the fingers. You can trash a £100 Gore glove as fast as a Marks and Spencer’s ‘Thinsulate’ model if you’re into cold finger abuse. Manufacturers like Mammut and Marmot make by far the toughest gloves on the planet, but I’m sorry to say it’s like trying to climb in a knight’s gauntlet; they seem better suited to ski patrollers than climbers. The most sensitive gloves are also unfortunately the first to fall apart and I’ve had gloves that have fallen apart in the space of a single route that would have put me back a week’s wages.
The main wear points are the fingertips and the crook of the thumb. These areas have to be reinforced, with the fingertips requiring a sewn over reinforcing patch to stop the seams from wearing out. With all gloves, it’s well worth reinforcing all major wear points with seam grip and repairing damage before it goes too far. At the end of the day, you must balance price, performance and longevity when deciding what you are willing to pay.
ROCK HARD DEXTERITY
People who’ve seen slides of me climbing in winter in Powershield gloves often ask how I get away with such thin gloves. My answer is always ‘by being in absolute bloody agony’. When you’re pushing your limits, comfort is relative and with the need to juggle gear and axes, precision and dexterity become a priority. To gain dexterity in your gloves you must sacrifice insulation and durability. Insulation requires bulk and bulk lowers the sensitivity of the glove. Durability can only be achieved with robust and heavyweight fabrics. The more dexterity and sensitivity you require the more warmth and protection you must sacrifice. This leads to climbers battling up hard Scottish routes in Thinny liners or even bare hands - often wearing out both in the progress. The other problem with this approach is that in order to gain some advantage in ‘feel’, some climbers go to such extremes that in the end, they’re unable to feel anything at all.
Here are some alternatives:
Rotate several pairs of thick fleece gloves I’ve done this on several big routes, even in very cold conditions. I prefer non-barrier gloves (un-windproof), as these gloves tend to dry slower and be less warm than standard fleece gloves. Saying that I know a lot of climbers who love windproof fleece gloves and they are perhaps ideal for dry cold conditions. Layering up a Powerstretch glove with another thicker fleece glove also works well.
Don’t forget the wrists I’ve talked about wrist-overs before, but seeing as how your wrist is the area with the third highest heat loss on the body, it’s worth repeating. No one makes a good wrist-over, so you’ll need to make your own, with the best fabric probably being Powerstrech, which you can buy on the net these days from UK fabric retailers. Layering up your wrist-over with a thick fleece glove means your hands will stay warmer just that little bit longer and avoids that common cold gap when your hands are constantly held above the head.
Wear just retro fleece mitts I know this may sound a bit retro, but I honestly think that bog-standard £10.99 fleece mitts have a lot going for them. They are thin enough to be ‘un-pumpy’ (unlike Dachsteins) and worn with nothing underneath they dry fast and warm up quickly when wet. Fingers stay warmer and you can place gear pretty well without taking them off if baggy, (remember a good winter climber used to be able to open a Mars Bar with their Dachstein’s). If you need a lot of dexterity you can also just whip them off - set your gear and whip them back on again (if you’re handy you can sew a Velcro loop on them so you can leave them hanging in your leash). Last year in Patagonia I used a pair of Lowe Alpine High Five Fleece Mitts on most of the route, finding them far better than any glove for most pitches. The downside is that they fall apart faster than Mega Route X.
Powershield gloves Since companies like Black Diamond, Marmot, The North Face (see left) and Mountain Hardwear brought out their Powershield gloves (a tough softshell fabric) I haven’t worn a traditional mountain glove. For technical climbing, I don’t think they can be beaten at this time. That isn’t to say they are warm, tough and waterproof because most of the time they are just about adequate (i.e. your hands do get cold and wet and they do wear out in a season), but just about adequate while retaining high dexterity is all that I can ask for - and it’s better than climbing in bare hands.
I’ve had several partners comment on how many pairs of gloves I carry, only for them to borrow a pair mid-route because theirs are now useless or dropped. Every winter climber needs a good glove strategy and an army of gloves and mitts with which to carry it out. Here’s how to go about your campaign:
Wear thin liner gloves or just stick your hands in your sleeves or pockets. On most approaches, you’ll be walking fast and so your hands will get hot and sweaty. Walking in your climbing gloves only means you’ll be starting your route in damp gloves. These approach gloves can be stuck next to your skin once at the climb, so you’ve got a warm pair of gloves to put on at the end of the day.
Depending on what system you’re using you may have one or several pairs of gloves, with the number and type being dependent on the length and difficulty of the climb and the conditions. For a route like Postern, you may want to wear a thick pair of gloves for seconding and easy pitches and swap them for a thinner, more technical, pair for the crux. On a route like Point Five, you could wear mitts from top to bottom, while Logical Progression would probably require several coverings of Deep Heat. Whatever you’re using, try and always keep something back in case you drop a glove or mitt. If you haven’t got a replacement you’ll have to use one of your socks.
If your fingers are frozen remove your gloves and either place them as close to your skin (under your arms) to be put on once it’s your turn to lead again or replace them with a warm dry pair (the ones under your armpits become the dry gloves for the next change over).
Not having to change into mitts at belays is a real advantage for speed, but if you tend to use mitts at stances, get a pair you don’t need to remove every couple of minutes in order to fiddle with ropes and gear.
Descent and emergencies
Always carry some kind of mitt, because when the shit hits the fan it’s good to know it’s there.
My conclusion is that there are a lot of good gloves out there on the market, including 100% waterproof models, but no great ones (apart from Dachsteins but no one sells them any more). The only way to find a system that achieves a balance between all the competing elements is to experiment. Thinking out of the box rather than sticking to convention and being flexible in your approach to gloves is generally the best way to stay relatively comfortable.
Note: I’d be keen to hear from climbers out there who have systems they feel work well - so I can share them with the rest of us.