You swing your ice tools into the brittle ice, your position precarious. You’re 2,000 feet up a 4,000 foot face of ice and snow, leading the crux pitch. Your last protection is a half driven ice screw forty feet below, the chances of it holding in a fall are slim to none. A fall is unthinkable and your focus is entirely on gunning for the next belay. In this position, the absolute last thing you want to worry about is what your clothes are doing. One doesn’t have to be in a precarious position like the above scenario to appreciate the importance of a good clothing system. Climbing up the South Side of Mt. Hood, the Disappointment Cleaver on Mt. Rainier or any number of less technical ascents require some thought into putting together clothing system that works. A lot has been written about these systems, and ultimately if you ask ten climbers what they wear you’ll get 70 different answers. Clearly you’re going to wear different clothing depending on the season, the type of climbing, the weather, etc. I personally like to keep things as simple as possible, so will essentially wear variations of the same basic system depending on these variables. What it really comes down to is spending time in the mountains and gaining and understanding of what works for you.
There are about a million different baselayers available today and sorting what’s what can be somewhat challenging. Merino wool baselayers have gained a ton of popularity in the last decade. They feel great against the skin, keep odor to a minimum and are environmentally friendly. They also tend not to dry as quickly as synthetics, will stretch and lose their shape after days of wear, and are extremely expensive. I tend to use wool for day trips ice climbing and backcountry skiing and then stick to synthetic for multi-day trips. I almost always start with a basic t-shirt on top and light weight pair of long underwear on the bottom.
For the top of the body I’m a big fan of hooded fleece shirts (like the NW Alpine Black Spider Hoody) for my next layer. A fitted fleece hoody with a half or quarter zip works perfectly. These types of layers are quite versatile and can also be worn next to skin if the wearer runs hot or plans to use it in warmer conditions. The half zip allows for superior venting of the core when working hard, and a fitted, under-helmet hood means that I rarely end up bringing a separate hat. If the weather is exceptionally cold, I’ll add a light insulation piece on top of my fleece hoody. Technology is improving in this arena and Polartec’s new Alpha Insulation (http://polartec.com/warmth/polartec-alpha) is a game changer in terms of the breathability of synthetic insulation. I tend to run hot, so usually I’ll stick with just my baselayer on the bottom, but again if it’s really cold, adding a lightly insulated active layer to the legs works well.
Nothing beats the mobility and breathability of stretch woven softshell fabrics. Softshell fabrics don’t have a waterproof membrane, so they won’t be water and windproof, but they make up for this with their vastly superior breathability. You’ll be a lot less likely to get soaked by your own sweat wearing a softshell jacket. If one is climbing in cold conditions in the Winter and Spring generally getting soaked by rain isn’t a concern.
I wear a softshell jacket and softshell pants as my only shell in almost all conditions where I will be working hard aerobically for any length of time. I still see a lot of folks who bring along a hardshell jacket in addition to their softshell.
Try to think of your softshell as your shell and dispense with the added weight of the second jacket. Sometimes you want a waterproof jacket. For example, softshell jackets don’t perform great when you’re being deluged by spray on a water ice climb. While older hardshell jackets claimed to be breathable, anyone wearing them while doing anything harder than walking the dog would claim otherwise. Technology in this area has improved vastly, and membranes like eVent (http://eventfabrics.com) and Polartec’s Neoshell (http://www.polartec.com/shelter/polartec-neoshell) make waterproof/breathable shell layers viable choice for aerobic activity.
The last piece of the system is an insulation piece. This jacket should be sized to fit over all of your other layers. I prefer a synthetic insulation such as Primaloft One (http://www.primaloft.com/en/performance/products/primaloft-infinity.html). You are almost always going to get wet one way or another while alpine climbing, and synthetic insulations maintain a good portion of their warmth even when soaked. In addition, these jackets are functionally quite waterproof (aside from the unsealed seams) and can be worn as an outer layer if the weather turns south. Insulated pants are also really nice to have for long belays, multi-day routes, etc. Ultimately there is not one clothing system that will work for everybody. The best advice one can give is to get out in the hills and experiment with what works for you.
Bill Amos is founder of NW Alpine, manufacturer of American made alpine climbing apparel.