autumn in Tibet is like autumn anywhere – rapidly cooling, some moisture still in the air and oscillating winds both cold and neutral. only in Tibet it’s all exaggerated. the winds are colder, the sun is stronger, the difference between sun and shade is huge and the cold fronts huge. this means clothing needs to cover a wide spectrum of use, from sun protection to frosted tents way below freezing.
but first a rant…
current developments in fabrics and insulation have changed high mountain climbing clothing a lot, doing away with both the old standards of what is used, and how they mix. when the layers change so do how you layer them, and anyone saying nothing has changed since the 80’s simply doesnt have their eyes open. the old notion of a polypro baselayer, a fleece or pile midlayer then a Goretex shell on top and a huge down jacket at the end is now as relevant as plastic boots and leashes.
today, baselayers are about being warm by being dry, not by insulating. this makes them lighter by being thinner and having less density. the layers on top do any insulating required. contemporary baselayers function as well as sun layers due to their proficiency at drawing moisture off the skin. midlayers today dont just insulate, they provide a protective barrier as well by shielding wind and moisture whilst allowing excess heat to pass outwards. in the past what took 3 garments (base, mid, shell) now takes 2 and the result is more efficient, lighter and ergonomic (recall that every zip, seam, pocket and layer of fabric accumulates to compromise the end result – something to be said for elegant simplicity). shell layers now bear little in common with the hefty Gore garments of 10 years ago; they weigh less, they use less pieces, the bits like zips and fasteners are lighter and better, they stretch, and as part of a system of new fabrics they get worn much less, serving only as outlier elements. where the shell jacket was once the signature of the alpine climber, its now a secondary thing as the belay jacket comes to the fore, much to the concert of the companies.
ahh yes, the belay jacket, perhaps the symbol of all thats evolving in the alpine climbing and clothing world. both as an indicator of changes in climbing style and industrial development, the very idea of a specific belay jacket has taken a long time to solidify: partly because such garments are expensive to produce, partly because climbers dont turn them over like some other garments, partly because it took time for climbing styles to catch up and partly because the textiles to really make the idea work lagged behind the demand for them. like shell jackets, polypros and fleeces, not long ago insulated jackets were bulky and full of problems – to the point where it wasnt abnormal to simply leave them behind. as insulation got better and base and mid layers got more efficient, the demands on belay layers shifted and we now have garments that were mere fantasy once.
a well-functioning system has little barrier preventing moisture escaping from the skin and within the layers itself, only just enough of a barrier to stop wind sucking warm air away faster than demanded. when external conditions start to steal warmth too fast for the system to maintain, a shell is added as a ‘heat cap’. like the other layers, this heat cap is only as permeable as needed, aiming to capture the higher pressure inside the system as a force to keep cold and moisture out.
new fabrics dont just do the job better, they have better structural integrity that allows them to be put together in more ergonomic designs. only 2 or 3 years ago ‘cutting edge’ designs had dozens of panels of special fabrics that ‘body mapped’ for a garments demands. now as single fabrics have broader spectrums of function – and construction methods have evolved in parallel – garments are becoming more streamlined with less seams to fail and less bits to get in the way.
insulating, breathing, protective & ergonomic; fabrics have evolved to a remarkable state recently, altering the old definitions of how they worked together
this years clothing
as a next-to-skin layer Powerwool from Polartec is the latest thing. early protos last year in Tibet were a big success so this year it’s back. a firm stretch, stable wicking and drying and great as a sun layer, Powerwool creates a stable layer as the foundation of everything that goes over it, and unlike previous generations of wool or synthetic base layers suffers little with extended use, staying tight and odourless. in Tibet this layer doesnt get taken off, serving as protection from the sun, sleep layer and high output layer. it needs a full coverage hood, sleeves that cover the hands, large front opening and pockets for storing batteries and day food without freezing. usage time will be 100%
Alpha insulation, also from Polartec, is the obvious choice as a mid or light insulation layer. grams to insulation value it far exceeds any fleece or pile, and with a totally breathable structure paired with a mildly wind protected stretch facing covers a huge spectrum of exertion levels and conditions. tho Polartec was the first to market, Patagonia beat their marketing with an identical product, nailing effectively the notion of put it on, keep it on. this layer also needs a full storm hood – not least for breathing thru when sleeping, big stash pockets for things like gas canisters (ideally the entire stove base) and to fit snug under a shell or belay jacket. aside from the highest output periods or in direct sun this layer is expected to be worn all the time. usage time 80%
as the capacities for base and midlayers to deal with moisture soar, reliance on a shell declines in places like Tibet, with light and stretchy shell layers like Neoshell acting more as stabilizers than as full waterproof armor. shell layers today have little relation to their ancestors of even 7 or 8 years ago, when a shell weighed twice as much, insulated too much, didnt stretch and was seen as a near-constant layer. in Tibet this will be a sub-300gm layer with priority on the hood and sealing ability, ie to lock out snow and spindrift but also act as a simple windshell so no need for any insulating properties. usage time 10%
Tibet being cold the outer insulation is all important, and todays Primaloft Gold resolves what was the grail of insulation – the properties of down unaffected by moisture. Primaloft Gold combines waterproofed down with a blend of just enough synthetic fiber to minimize the extend to which the down collapses when wet, allowing warmth to circulate and push out the moisture that got beyond the downs nano proofing. unlike regular down, Primaloft Gold doesnt collapse when wet, the synthetic fiber alone retaining about 30% heat, enough to kickstart the down drying. for longer trips in tents and portaledges, keeping the slow invasion of moisture at bay is vital and as yet this is the best solution. this layer directly relates to survival and resilience – the longer it keeps its loft values to less cold-creep as we give in to the entropy of fatigue and loss of kcals. the garment needs a serious hood, to go over everything else, to seal out snow and wind and to store large things like 1L bottles. usage time 20%
for the legs Polartec’s Powershield Pro is the vanguard of softshell fabrics. a more breathable membrane and heavier weave creates a barrier that keeps snow out and lightly insulates without being too big a heat trap, requiring only a light Powerwool layer beneath. Powershield Pro has the durability to handle abrasion and the wicking and permeability to not get clammy. they need to be tough enough for climbing, warm enough for sitting around and ergonomic enough to sleep in. they want a high cut back, a long front zip and pockets for things like a knife. usage time 80%
combined and in action, these textiles create a microclimate that moves, breathes and protects far more efficiently and at a much reduced weight and bulk than what existed even 5 years ago. designs can be simpler yet more ergonomic, requiring less pieces and less space to stuff them into. in action the user has a greater range of comfort and movement. these are genuine improvements that may be little more than novelty on weekends out or from the comfort of large basecamps, but that come into their own with weeks of 24hr use when there’s no alternative available, ie real expedition use.
should you go out and spend big on the latest gear?
only if you do it properly. not all new gear combines the latest fabrics with construction, and its often the construction that sends up the price. also, a single whiz bang garment in a mix of outdated junk wont do what it says on the tin, meaning you may be better replacing that favorite old baselayer than getting the latest Neoshell jacket. garments need to be used integrated with the others in the system and unless you can lay down $1000 at a time to get the whole set it makes sense to just get the best when you can. this years latest development will be next years sale items so spending a bit each year means you will have a near-current system in 2 or 3 seasons. consider too your actual demands – producers will sell you the idea of Himalayan (or Greenlandic or Antarctic or Baffinesque) use but you may be able to drop a level back from that if you just climb weekends.
will the latest gear make any real-world difference?
realistically, for weekend and occasional holiday climbers, no. most use will be well within what the garments can tolerate and most issues will be comfort issues, not survival ones. functional differences begin to creep in the moment you have to carry everything (ie its about weight) and use it non-stop for more than a few days (ie its about durability of function). its a double edged equation because not only are you more reliant on less, but you have less ability to do something about a problem should it arise. a 20% compromise on insulation for a night out in Hyalite will be uncomfortable, but at 5000m in Tibet 4 days into a 10 day trip it changes the equation.
highly functional clothing allows you to plan around it. heading up a winter big wall with an all-down system is insane to the point of negligent, but advances in moisture-proofing down and mixing it with synthetic fibers means by day 5 you probably wont have found the limits of what a jacket or sleeping bag can go to. fabrics like Powerwool are more hygenic than some others, not to mention more team-friendly after a week without showering, and knowing it functions as a sunlayer means the transition from baking approach to chilling shadows at the base of a route wont require a change of tops. new midlayer textiles like Alpha truly can be left on almost all the time, meaning less messing about at belays and in tents when you have better things to do. add it all up and the minutes saved become hours and the grams saved become food, fuel and batteries – things that directly relate to safety and survival regardless of how well you climb.