on a recent trip i forgot to change over the heel bails on my crampons and found the straps too short for my double boots. no problem, i got the extra length by threading in 2 of the simple straps off my Cilogear worksack. true, any pack could have provided this, but from a Cilogear pack there was no need to fiddle or cut them off.
note the broken yellow bail and the metal D ring hooked round the tooth of the crampon
more telling tho, after a few hours into a 2 day trip i broke the binding (another story) and a 3rd simple strap saved the day, jury rigging for another 20hrs of climbing. the retention strap is one thing, but actually binding the hardest wearing part of a crampon to a boot for 20hrs of loaded climbing on rock and ice is several magnitudes up the scale. not only did it not need further adjusting, but aside from minor deformation there was no damage to the straps metal D ring.
makes me wonder what else simple straps can be used for…
heading into Zao Ice Garden. Photo John Price Photography
i first noticed large dyneema Cilogear packs being used by military in Central Asia. coming in pure white i assumed them to be some sort of winter warfare thing, and noticed some users daubed theirs in enamel paint to change the appearance. the dozens of dangly D-rings had an industrial look to them and the way the material wore certainly seemed to be some sort of other-industry derived. unlike the packs usually used, these things were very light. later i found the packs were actually available commonly, but were fairly rare. in part because they were very expensive. aside from a few top alpinists the only people talking about them were gear geeks and non-climbers startled by the price tags. a few places in Japan stocked a random selection – even more expensive due to importing and currency differences.
having dealt with high performance textiles a bit, different versions of Spectra/Dyneema/Cuben came up now and then, with Cilogear being a common example of left-of-field producers. other dyneema packs were about, but since times in Central Asia i wasnt seeing anything new on them, until meeting Cilogear’s front man Graham at the Bozeman Ice Festival in 2014. on a high octane tour of backwater Galatin county, Graham clarified the Cilogear dogma with inscrutable detail on all sorts of aspects of the packs. operating at an impressive level of nuance i got a look behind the curtain of the colour, the Dyneema and the price tags and came back to Japan 2 packs heavier.
tho Graham had sold me the Kool-aid it was +175 days of abusive use over the next year that made me drink it. over that time i hauled (as in actually hauled) them up granite walls, trained with them full of rocks, over-stuffed them most of the time, carried them to altitude, got them wet, frozen and filthy and generally made no effort at all to prevent them being damaged. i dont doubt that many other packs would have survived the same ordeal, but i seriously doubt they would have done so smilingly. with a selection of other packs, over time ive blown out the seams, torn out the features, shredded the fabrics, exhausted the shoulder pad foam, had the frames fail and been less impressed by the design and construction of enough of them to both not trust anything new and yet crave a solution to my load carrying demands. i found i usually went thru a pack every 200 days of use, ending with a failure that compromised the ability to carry 25kg loads. after 200 days using Cilo’s W/NWD worksack it remains unchanged from its original condition aside from a small hole where i melted it then fixed it with seamgrip.
i understand that many people find the prices offensive. i also understand that many people never carry serious loads for serious reasons for serious time. high on a Tibetan wall like we were in November, the ability to move gear is as related to mortality as helmets, shelter and food. the confidence in the packs we used was worth the price several times over; knowing they wouldnt fall apart, wet out, puncture, the straps fail or lose integrity day after day of using them as packs, pillows, snow bags, sleeping mats and storage. this may sound like hyperbole, but a high-functioning load bearing set up lets you do things you may not without it. personally i make price about the 10th thing on the list of factors.
the pain of heavy loads – whether yomping miles across terrain or carrying hundreds of meters up mountains – never goes but when you have the right tools it can be mitigated. and thats whats behind the curtain of Cilogear Worksacks. its easy to be distracted by the colour, the money, the material and the cult-like attitude, but after all that wears off its the once unrealistic loads that become doable, which translates into real time climbing.
Cilogear Worksacks: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts
Piece by piece:
the white Woven/Non-Woven Dyneema fabric is the star of the show and far, far more than a gimmick. that its light and tough is really a given, and the least interesting of its properties. the stuff is rigid so it never gets that limp, saggy form that results from compromised seams and stitching. retaining its integrity, a half packed sack stays solid on your back and lets hardware remain on the outside. the stuff doesnt absorb water. in fact it floats. this means the weight is barely affected when wet, and that it dries fast. moisture doesnt remain in the weave nor the seams and lead to rot and mold. at very cold temps (@ -20c say) it does feel slightly stiff. the stuff is waterproof. being a dyneema membrane bonded with a protective face theres no traditional fabric for water to permeate, nor is there a cheap membrane stuck to it – the material is the proofing. the stuff is easily fixable with common adhesives, not some silicone covered stuff nothing sticks too.
the internal compression strap is where its at, more than anything else this thing makes a difference. consolidating the load up into the pack this strap resolves load-stabilizing issues i never even knew existed. both compressing the interior and minimizing the ‘barrel effect’ by reeling in the lateral center of the load, weight sits closer to the part of your body best structured to carry it. it is as integral to load stabilization as the sternum strap, shoulder and waist stabilizers and external compression – and that no other packs seem to copy it is amazing.
the shape is a subtle but profound element in load bearing. despite the utilitarian name ‘worksack‘ these sacks are not simple tubes of material with straps on them. yet nor are they over-complex shapes easily compromised by incorrect use. wider at the top than the base, loads stack both intuitively and integrally. Cilogear knows compressible things like sleeping bags get jammed in the bottom, bulky things get stuffed in the middle and lots of jumbled things get stacked in on top and the shape exploits that making it easy to pack and load.
the frame is usually an unseen and esoteric part of a pack. we know what its for and esoterically how it works, but its usually not for us to meddle with – Cilogear reverses that. smaller packs have a folded sheet of high tensile, dense foam – the fold itself adding to its integrity – and larger packs have that combined with a composite board given form and integrity by an alu stay down its length. robust, basic and functional its easily the heaviest part of the whole pack and compared to most other packs, its clunky. but it works, protecting the back, coping with huge loads and maintaining form even when awkwardly loaded, which is where its seemingly over-designed form comes in – no matter how grim the load it wont barrel out.
the adaptable strap system maximizes on the frames resistance to barreling by better cinching down both internal and external loads. with a solid base to pull against theres much less of the formless squishing of a softer pack and the infinite possibilities of strap configuration reduces this further. various strap choices negate the problems of being confined to prescribed ways of loading – another problem most climbers dont know they are subject too – and that is a huge factor when it comes to serious loads. ive heard complaints about how much the dozens of metal D-rings must weigh, and if youre an ultra-runner theres an argument to be had (and they can be removed for those who care), but the function is easily worth the grams. its actually probably offset due to better loading options. for the wonky (over)loads of multiday climbing – extra ropes, portaledges, extra footwear etc – freedom from the standarized attachment systems is as important to load bearing as the frame and waist belt.
the grab handles make a large heavy pack manipulable. from lifting into vehicles to wrestling onto your back, sturdy grab loops front and back focus the stresses where its designed to be. more than one pack has been damaged due to unknowing helpers picking them up by gear loops, so for anyone on expedition a whole element of manhandling is resolved. front & back loops let you clip it to anchors more conveniently.
the stitching. when Graham says much of the weight is actually in thread it can be easily verified – the number of bar tacks in each pack is huge. all the straps and connectors, stress points and joinery is banged out in tacks, with several of the high-wear seams being double stitched.
the details. Cilopacks are not an endless list of features and gizmos. there are no spot-lit, show-stopping elements that solve all the worlds problems. what there is is a series of details that make the big factors like the material and compression systems function as well as they can. little tabs in the right place for hydration systems, reflective strips, crampon pockets, well-sized pockets, the angles of seams, the placements of joints. these things are found in every pack but against the background of the innovations on a Cilogear pack they have real affect.
alone any of these features is useful yet minor, but combined they mean more can be carried further with less energy – the fundamental baseline of real climbing. seemingly from the ground up Cilogear has addressed the need to carry loads under duress. other packs do it, Cilogear packs ignore all else in the drive to do it the best way possible.
are there problems? if we negate problems that no other load bearing system has solved either then, honestly, not many. ive broken every squeeze lock thingy on every draw cord so far, but that hardly rates. the ice tool attachment system isnt my favorite but it works without fault. some of the D-rings clink together when walking……im clutching at straws here. compared to the long lists i have of woe with competing packs its negligible, more so when weighed up against the pros.
at about 1/3 the price will the standard fabric Worksacks do the same job just as well? no, they wont. they will do a very good job, still better than the vast majority of packs out there for lumping real loads – which goes a long way to show just how good the suspension, compression, load bearing and adjustable elements are as standalone elements – but they are limited in their durability, especially when wet, and miss out on the endemic rigidity/non-stretch of the W/NWD that pulls all the other pieces into line. for a trip or two a year the regular packs will do nicely, but if a consistent capacity to move stuff in hard places is a foundation in your lifestyle the W/NWD versions simply do it better. when normal packs are showing signs of wear the dyneema is just getting worn in. seriously. knowing your pack will still do a dependable job after months of round the clock abuse is easily worth the asking price for anyone faced polar, big mountain, remote or working trips.
am i a convert? hell yes. and not just by lip service or wanky blog sycophancy. when the next opportunity came around i laid down a weighty stack of my own ￥10,000 notes to get 2 more – not because they needed replacing, but because i came to see the way a top shelf load bearing system changes what can be achieved and how id been blind to this. harking back to the military users i now get what they saw; not so much a burly pack to dump stuff in, but a carrying system that opened up options with their planning.
if $$$ equals better carrying of heavy loads, im sold.
should you pay the price? not if you dont carry more than about 25kgs over distance more often than not when you climb. anyone who regularly carries serious loads like a week+ of gear, big wall stuff, LPG bottles, work gear etc will know that $775 is a no-brainer to make it easier – about $10 every 2 weeks for a few years to nail a significant part of the climbing equation…sold. other packs will get you thru weekends and the occasional big yomp, and you will go thru 3 or 4 of them by the time the costs add up. for the weekend warrior that will never happen. personally i dont even think durability has much going for it – often enough you can limp home from a weekend with a damaged pack and the chances of blowing another are pretty slim. for that level of use im sure Graham will happily oblige and you wont be disappointed. BUT if the combined problems of robustness, loads, loading options and climbability all overlap and influence what your objectives are these packs are the best options going. if youve ever done the numbers of the weight:distance:ability:objective equation and not been able to crunch it, these packs can square a big chunk of the algorithm. its kind of nice not having to think about what i will use to carry big loads with for the rest of my days.
Mt Fuji as we do it is a single huge push up and back in a day. we start at the bottom and return to the bottom, hopefully via the summit. at its most streamlined its still a 10hr round trip, covering 2500m of vertical gain, and all of it is cold, wind-strafed and upwards. most trips take about 12hrs. add it all up and its a 4500kcal day.
the effort is a constant slow grind forwards and cold becomes the major factor. without adequate kcal intake the chances of topping out are small. now those 4500kcals dont need to be consumed on the mountain. with a 750kcal breakfast, another 250kcal snack in the car and 750kcals waiting for the return, theres about 2750kcals left and less again if you apply the idea that replacing at least 50% will get you thru.
lets say consuming 1500 – 1750kcals over the +10hrs is the goal.
800kcals of liquid energy + 1200kcals of salami, nuts and bars. chocolate coated coffee beans added for the hell of it.
to consume that amount of kcals in that time doesnt happen by chance. a couple of snickers or Clif bars and a bottle of water wont do it. to get it right means a constant flow of carbohydrate into the bloodstream, and after a while replenishment of fat and protein. efforts that long push well beyond what simple carbohydrate consumption serves, not to mention that amount of kcals in carbodydrate form is pretty bulky.
food works best when it is real as the balance of nutrients tells the metabolism and brain it is satisfied or not. gels are fine for a few hours, but aside from solidifying they throw the bodies sense of satiation. carbohydrates in the form of dense bread and quality bars contain a good amount of bang for the weight. complex sugars in the form of dried fruit comes buffered in fiber that makes the brain happy, slowly releases the sugars and gives the bowels something to work on. fats in the form of nuts trickle easily into the system with less of the digestive burden of saturated fats. and salami as a source of protein, extra fat and sodium keeps the body ticking nicely. along with being ‘real’, these foods can be easily found, and picked up 24hrs a day at Japanese convenience stores. 1000kcals from a balanced mix of these things is easy to throw together in a ziplok bag and fits easily in a pocket or top of a small pack.
liquid kcals can come in the form of weight gain powder, endurance concoctions or meal replacement drinks. dumped into a 1L sports bottle its easy to carry 750 – 1000kcals in fluid form. good liquid kcal mixes contain fat, electrolytes and protein in proportions close to what your body will need replacing. you wouldnt want to live on these powders, but for occasional use they fill a gap easily worth their refined natures.
those attempting the Asama-yama-Fuji double header will need to consume like this on both mountains, as fueling (after endurance training – but its too late by then) is the biggest factor towards both safety and success.
the recent trips in China/Tibet were at opposite ends of the expedition spectrum: minimalist & aerobic, and grinding & loaded. both trips had almost identical timelines, altitudes and temperatures, but engaged in different ways that had different effects on the metabolism. and just as each trip required very specific equipment, methods and timelines they also required very different eating.
when not climbing eat!
Trip 1: Mt Asura North Face, Alpine mixed
this trip was always about having minimal footprint, and as a team of 3 we had very efficient carrying-capacity. we also knew we would cover a lot of ground and need to consume a high-carbohydrate diet for constant fueling.
breakfast / 1000 kcals
consumed whilst gearing up: 1 cup of quality muesli loaded with seeds, coconut flakes, coconut oil and weight gain powder + instant coffee with butter
day food / 750 kcals
eaten as snacks at belays or brief rests, this was an equation set against time – longer climbing days pushed the envelope: salami, muesli bars, nuts + 1L water mixed with weight gain powder
night / 1200 kcals
eaten as leisurely as possible, usually in 2 installments: instant rice with coconut oil & Chinese meat sauce + soup with dried vegetables + weight gain powder + muesli bar + salami
at just under 3000 kcals a day i was consuming about 2/3 of what i was spending and in the end i came back with only 2 nights food remaining – the 2 nights i could barely eat from the effects of altitude. i was hungry but not crazily so, and probably could have extended the diet another 2 or 3 days before feeling it. i get the feeling beyond about 10 days the need for the enzymes, beta carotene and folate from fresh food gets critical (as also evidenced in the second trip).
eating properly is time well spent: simple food like a tub of cream cheese and a loaf of good bread goes a long way to keeping you moving forward
Trip 2: Se’erdengpu West Face, Alpine Big Wall
Big Wall style is slow. add +5000m of altitude, temperatures consistently below -5c, almost zero direct sun and only 2 climbers to carry the loads and it gets really slow. unlike Mt Asura where kcals were being burned moving fast, on Se’erdengpu the kcals were being burned shuffling slowly in the cold and moving big loads. for this we needed much more fat and ‘real’ food to make it digestible and we knew that with colder days we would make the time to cook properly rather than just boil water.
breakfast / 1000 kcals
1 cup muesli loaded with seeds and nuts OR wholegrain bread with cream cheese and bruschetta paste + weight powder + real coffee with butter + peanut butter
day food / 1200 kcals
muesli bars & protein bars + 1L water with weight powder
night / 1600 kcals
eaten leisurely: spaghetti with pesto, olive oil, salami, cheese OR laksa with noodles, coconut cream, coconut oil + freeze dried chinese soup + 1 square of chocolate + almonds + peanut butter
at nearly 4000 kcals a day we felt we were near the capacity of what we could consume compared to what we could carry and had time for, which was probably about also about 2/3 of what we were spending. being a slow style of climbing we werent burning at a higher heart rate like at Mt Asura. after coming down from the wall after 9 days we were hungry but again, not ravenously so. neither of us had lost our appetites, but we were wanting variation.
what made the big difference was 2 things:
1) the weight gain powder – the same stuff body builders use. drunk from a valve-topped squeeze bottle also like body builders use it keeps a good dose of carbohydrate, protein, fat and sugar trickling into the system. in nearly 20 days cold climbing at altitude i never once felt the sharp pang of being too depleted. what seemed to also help was a nightly dose of multivitamins, dietary fiber, magnesium/calcium, vitamin E & BCAAs.
2) having a cooking system capable of real cooking in the cold, ie a pot that could be cooked in and a stove that allowed gas canisters to liquid feed. this meant we could adapt our food as we needed to, adding and tweaking what we wanted rather than being slaves to the packet. it meant we could eat fresher, tastier food than what dehydrated allows.
a ‘real’ stove is the key to ‘real’food: being at the mercy of dehydrated food has its outcomes
what didnt differ between the 2 trips was minimizing the refined sugar – aside from a single square of chocolate each night on Se’erdengpu and what came in the weight powder, peanut butter and on the muesli bars (the latter we would have avoided if feasible) we carried no candy, no sugar to add to anything, no sugary drinks, no junk food – and we never missed it. if anything we avoided the hormonal slumps and peaks that seem to come with it and also seem to carry a sharper edge to the feeling of hunger.
we also took care to eat decent amounts of fiber to keep our systems moving (another reason to avoid refined sugar) and shat well the entire time – much more important than some people realize.
to do it again i will change these things:
1) scrape more refined sugar out of the daily intake, possibly making custom bars. keep a small amount of complex sugar snacks for when needed
2) more fat in the forms of mozzarella, cream cheese and salami
3) less coconut oil and whats carried take in a better container for the cold – it freezes too hard
4) more bread – it survives better than we expected and combined with cream cheese and salami is a better breakfast than muesli alone
5) more insulated water bottles and a larger pot to melt more snow more efficiently
>>>this information violates just about every warning issued by stove manufacturers, tent manufacturers and compressed gas manufacturers. we know that. we also feel that if you have the wherewithal to climb hard, cold routes you also have the wherewithal to manage other dangers. proceed at your own risk<<<
there isnt really a cold-specific stove out there. companies will say there is, and lots of stoves will burn in the cold, but set into the demands of high, cold climbing none tick all the boxes. its not enough for a stove to just burn at low temperatures and/or high altitude, it has to function for the realities of climbing which means inside a tent, being powerful, being as fuel and heat efficient as possible, being safe, being light weight, being tough and actually being able to cook – not just boil water. as yet nothing offered by the makers of stove systems does all that.
liquid stoves solve much of the power and low temperature issue. and thats it. they are heavy, dangerously cumbersome, suicidaly fire-hazardous and offer you a world of mishaps with toxic fuel. in a storm-bound tent they may melt water fast but compromise the tent as an environment of shelter. even the innovative design from Soto, that flares less, is still lacking. good in large base tents or snow shelters, taking one into a portaledge or single-skin on a chopped slope raises more problems than it solves.
canister stoves have come a long way in the last decade but still dont nail all the factors, tho they do come closer. the canisters can be inefficient in the cold, they can lack power, most lack the flame variability to really cook and some – most famously the Reactor – produce dubious levels of carbon monoxide. lighter and more compact they lend themselves better to cold climbing, but when it comes to turning ice and dehydrated matter into nutrients they lack the power.
winter after winter we had suffered the limitations of several different stoves, including Reactors, Jetboils, XKGs, Mukas, Whisperlites, Pocket Rockets and weird things from Snowpeak. not everything, but enough to see the problems were everywhere. so we sat down and made a list of the things needed and simply decided to hack it together ourselves. the lists were (based on things were had seen fail or succeed over the years):
safe. no flaring, no spillable fuel, safe levels of CO emission, low center of gravity
powerful. enough Kcal/h output to really melt snow
variable. we want to really cook as nutrition demands it
wind resistant. for obvious reasons
packable. light, compact, damage-resistant and easy to use
functional. hangable, canisters manageable in the cold, reliable to light, stable on the ground.
efficient. drain as much liquid gas from the canister as possible, burn as much of the available expressed gas, capture as much heat as possible
reliable. no flimsy bits, no complex components, no special ignition, few moving parts, adaptable to other pots
what wasnt on the list was;
expense. as a tier one bit of gear that lives depend on we will pay what it takes
gimmicks. after seeing all the little add-on bits of junk either fail or get lost we ignored them
brand loyalty. we figure if the big players can fill the gap then theres the right to go cowboy.
‘integrated’ designs. this stove would go round the world – it needed to work with whatever bits were available.
some factors were obvious;
the pot is half the issue. no matter how good the stove you need to an equal pot to harness it – it may well be a good pot does better with a bad stove than vice versa
‘remote canister’ stoves are the only real solution. they have the low center of gravity, canister manageability and damage-resistance. liquid stoves are bulky, toxic, complex and fiddly.
efficiency demands a preheating tube combined with a flux ring / exchanger system. not many canister rigs have this.
durability = simplicity. clunky, basic designs last longer – most systems fail due to damaging complex parts
enter the FRANKEN-STOVE (Mk I).
and this was the result, as tested over +50 winter days/nights, trying expeditions to altitude, a dozen fuel choices, the rigors of logistics and travel. elegantly simple, we used minimal skill and tools to build what far out-shines any other system. it cost – all up it could go at nearly $300 if you bought all the bits new – but if you measure value by performance its worth 10 x that.
the Frankenstove happily melting snow for 2 people at 4900m.
we took a Primus Eta Spider stove because it has the best Kcal/h output-to-least CO output available. this stove is so low-CO it makes Jetboil look dirty and the Reactor look like nerve gas. aside from that it sits low with a wide pot base, and has a remote canister to milk more gas. we usually have it hanging so the canister either sits under in in an inverted helmet, or by using a magnetic hook dangles from the bottom of the rig.
as a pot we (after lots of testing) scavenged an MSR Reactor pot. its heavy but the flux system is efficient, the clear lid fits well and allows a view of the water, and the long handle makes it good for scooping snow. its also strong and a decent profile being relatively wide at the base.
what makes it all pull together tho is our home-rigged wind shield/reflector that keeps so much heat from bleeding away you can put your hands right around it (ie same efficiency as a Jetboil) but allows access for lighting (unlike the Reactor/Windburner). this we made from a titanium UL cup-bowl thing, chopped a slot into it and punched a few vents holes. we sized it magically to fit perfectly inside the 3 pot stands and it slots in/out nicely. again, dozens of tests have shown it works. as an excellent touch, being titanium, it cools fast.
to hang the rig we bought, cut and swaged some thin cable, stuck one of those silly ‘S’ shaped novelty biners on the top and a tiny biner on each end that clips to the 3 stands of the stove. it balances well, but mishaps can happen especially in a tent being nailed hard by wind, so we string a bit of shock cord around it. the S biner was chosen because the top clips to the tent/branch/belay and the bottom clips to both the stove and assorted paraphernalia like igniters, spoons, knives, cups etc. its a little thing that goes a loooong way to making confined and dodgy living spaces manageable.
the Bialetti test: if it doesnt take a moka pot its not even in the running – a major Reactor fail.
to top it all off we use the Primus igniter thing thats long so you dont need to take the pot away to light – tho we have found every Piezo lighter to fail above 4100m for some reason.
it’s stable enough to take any pot you want, including the new collapsible silicone ones (tho the large size distorts a bit) AND vitally, it handles a Bialetti coffee espresso pot. we have cooked tagiatelli, laksa and chinese noodles in it perfectly, no damage to the pot and no cleaning/burning issues. despite digging snow with the pot there is no damage that affects its cooking. over the year of trialing it would have melted literally hundreds of liters of snow and ice.
it’s not perfect tho.
what failed was, unlike a Jetboil, Windburner or several other designs, it doesnt clip together. that would be nice. and with that it’s not holdable like a jetboil, so balancing the thing on your knee would be very sketchy. the other side of that issue is its the clip-together element that limits the other pots that can be used – either nothing will fit, the adapters are crap or the area to fit a pot is too small
stable on frozen, pebbly ground with a Tibetan wind blowing
and if you like that wait till you see Mk II. being tested now, early vectors point at being a remarkable 35% better across the board (power, efficiency, weight, function). stay tuned.
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.