this is a big deal. possibly not for the last 75 years has such a cascade of new data for climbing been dropped into the lap of climbers. Tomatsu Nakamura‘s new book is a jaw-dropping compendium showcasing much of his lifes work spent cataloging the ranges north and east of the Himalayan divide.
East of the Himalaya: the antidote for complacency
the word ‘classic’ is far too used these days but this work of geography fits the description. East of the Himalaya: Alps of Tibet & Beyond is far, far more than a collection of photos and maps – this book is the gateway to the greatest areas of unclimbed peaks on earth. anyone who said theres little left to climb will be flattened by what this tome contains. even long term followers of Nakamura will be astounded by what’s within these pages, with levels of detail and a collation of data that puts the future of high altitude mountaineering all into one complete lot.
there are peaks in this book that defy description. the vast majority are unvisited, recorded from proximity by Nakamura’s peerless team that includes logistics providers second to none anywhere north of Everest. if you are excited by the glimpses of peaks you have seen in the AAJ, Alpinist, Japan Alpine News etc you will be awe struck by the extent of whats shown here. beyond mere photographs of alluring peaks is a library of maps that make this much, much more than alpine porn. East of the Himalaya is truly aimed at climbers and pulls together the topos, line maps, geographic data, cultural data and regional details expeditions can be based on. going thru the hundreds of pages of maps, plates and text illuminate a pandoras box of what is possible. despite the scope covered in the many hundreds of images and maps, what is here is only the edge of what is in Tibet.
be warned tho: the content of this book is way beyond the limits of roadside cragging. even the most open of these areas – places like Shuangqiao gou, Minya Konka etc – are serious increments beyond what is found in places like the Khumbu and even Baltoro. even to seasoned Tibet climbers much of what East of the Himalaya details is well beyond normal expedition parameters of the 21st century. even after nearly 20 years of iceclimbingjapan visiting some of the regions described in East of the Himalaya, much of what is shown is known to be significantly more heady – if not impossible – than what we have seen. the material here is genuine exploration.
note: despite being available at an astoundingly agreeable price, East of the Himalaya, isnt available in huge numbers. versions in Japanese, Chinese and English.
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
СОВЕРШЕНО ПЕРВОЕ В ИСТОРИИ ВОСХОЖДЕНИЕ НА БЕЗЫМЯННУЮ ВЕРШИНУ ВЫСОТОЙ 5207 МЕТРОВ В СЫЧУАНЕ (КИТАЙ)
we have no idea what this actually says – presumably a translation of the Alpinist site – nor if Yamagishi and paul know if there photos are being used, but its kinda cool – tho its not quite correct Paul & Ed are American.. .
>>>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.
not all ‘expeditions’ are actually expeditions. going somewhere well known, following a standardized timeline, to do something thats been refined into a process and to have a contingent of anonymous locals do the heavy lifting from points A – Z does not an expedition make. by default real expeditions are concerned with the unknown. that’s the whole point. when the objective isnt completely known then other factors like resources, timelines, risks, preparation and logistics juggle the unknown too. the nature of an expedition is to render a series of unknowns knowable. if almost every element is already known it needs to be called something else.
real expeditions are about doing things together in places they havent been done before
for an ‘expedition’ you prepare by reading books from the ‘Adventure’ section of the bookshop, following a 6 week fitness plan from FHM and once a month visit a gear shop with your list. you buy folding cups, titanium spoons, $400 sunglasses and anything with a stuff sack. along with your new boots and down pants, everything goes into a huge TNF duffel bag.
for an expedition you prepare by search obscure Russian sources for maps in cyrillic, patching your sleeping mat, running up hills with rocks in a pack and trying to order small-production gear from companies that answer their email once a month. even with light weight gear it becomes obvious you will be wearing your boots on the plane and smuggling on a 35kg pack cinched to breaking point as hand luggage.
on an ‘expedition’ you arrive at an airport and are met by a rep from the booking company and a few minor employees who shuffle your load to a company van and whisk you to a 3 star hotel where others dressed in expensive boots with huge duffel bags are shunting about the lobby.
on an expedition you arrive at an airport, everyone stares as you roll your own stack of bags out to a taxi, you hand over the name of the only hotel in town that accepts foreigners and assume you will be taken the long route. after 20 minutes of sign language and charades at reception you are shown to a room with no cable tv, and after the 3rd try on the phone get thru to ‘your guy in town’ an meet him in the lobby.
on an ‘expedition’ you spend the next day signing disclaimers, doing a tour of town then bond over dinner at a famous restaurant ‘where all the climbers go’.
on an expedition you spend the next day trying to find peanut butter, ziplok bags, snickers bars and instant coffee all over town. dinner is from the street stall across the road and you are up repacking and sorting muesli into bags until 2am
with no local industry catering to climbing the process of procuring expedition supplies is a matter of doing the best you can
on an ‘expedition’ the company van drives you to a village where the company bosses ‘cousin’ has a hostel. you eat a dumbed down version of local food and try the local hooch. there are stickers from previous eastern european and iranian groups on the windows and sit down toilets that still just empty into a hole. your room has hot water even tho the locals dont. everyone in town knows why you are there, where you will go tomorrow and when to expect you back. you talk mostly with other foreigners and marvel at the exotic places they come from whilst viewing the locals as entertaining.
on an expedition you drive in an overloaded 4wd until dark, then stay the night somewhere with no heating, electricity or food. the owners are uneasy about having foreigners around and their kids get sent down the road so you can have their beds. the police stop by and are polite but ask a lot of questions. that night you can hear dogs fighting in the streets. you piss in a bottle as the process of finding a toilet is the less-good option. almost no one in town sees you arrive or depart and those that do dont understand nor care what you are doing. having never seen foreigners before you have no common language to explain even if they did.
on an ‘expedition’ your gear all leaves town hours before you do and you start the approach along a well defined trail where kids ask for money, girls sell trinkets and signs from NGO’s adorn the trail side. you walk with the head guide who seems to know everyone they pass, and by midday has told you his life story. lunch is at another ‘cousins’ home. after a total 5 hours on foot you arrive at a small hotel / row of big yellow tents to be greeted with the local tea, a jar of Tang and popcorn. repeat 6 or 7 times.
on an expedition you are left on a lonely roadside with a promise of return in a specified time. your pack ways a lot more than you want it to, even tho you are aware it contains far less food than it really should. with a map printed off Google Earth you start down a valley before anyone sees you are out there, following goat trails. lunch what you can eat as you ferry gear across a stream. the day is done after 2 hours looking for somewhere flat for the tent. you eat rehydrated food, drink boiled water and sleep in your clothes. repeat for as many days as it takes to get to somewhere to use a basecamp.
keeping the psyche when plans waver is considered normal on expeditions
on an ‘expedition’ you follow an obvious path up scree, eventually coming to a fixed line that leads past the remains of Korean tents, rusted Italian cans and sun bleached prayer flags. further up the fixed lines are some other people, a mix of barely equipped locals with large packs, massively over dressed foreigners with tiny packs and the occasional european athlete-climber with huge boots and lots of logos. camps are on large ledges and set out according to company. your guide is already there, having arrived hours before where hed left his gear from his last trip up there a week ago. everybody is talking about ‘Dex’, recharging batteries, sat phone reception and Alpinist magazine. repeat until ready to summit.
on an expedition you take the wrong gully twice before getting the one you can see on the print out. after realizing most of your rack is the wrong size you run out full rope length pitches on just a few blades and the good ol’ yellow alien, trying to get height so you see above the colouir walls and try and locate yourself on the map. the first night is a bivy where you spend 3hrs melting ice and lay awake worrying about having enough gear to go either up or down. every gust of wind you worry is an impending storm. rather than repeat you decide the next day to drop back to base, get your shit together then try again.
when nothing is guaranteed simply getting thru the night is success
on an ‘expedition’ your problems consist of hygiene in a series of camps with dubious sanitary issues, charging batteries, rationing coffee filters, staying ahead of the guy you met last year who was fitter, finding new books to read and whiling away the boring excess hours before and after each days climbing. you play 200 games of connect four, watch 17 films with Jude Law in them, rearrange the rocks around your tent and twice visit the cooking tent to see how the locals do things.
on an expedition you spend as much time drying and coiling ropes, drying sleeping bags and patching tarps as you do climbing. you draw and redraw a dozen topos, dig out gravel to try and collect snow melt and reread the same out of date copy of the Economist.
‘sleep’ in a fragile bivy is the stage between stressing about tomorrow and exhaustion
on an ‘expedition’ nights are spent drinking tea and eating salami whilst discussing property prices and visa procedures in large orange tents. sleep is disrupted by flatulence, the sound of your tent mate typing emails and a snoring Slovenian in the next tent.
on an expedition nights seen as necessary evils, spent balancing a stove, melting snow, keeping gas, gloves, waterbottles and boot liners from freezing and eating whatever you can in the dark as you conserve batteries. thru the gaps in the tarp you watch the clouds move below you and only relax enough to sleep when you see the first light of day. the mornings are either depressing scrambles to stuff gear into a pack, or the best moments of your life as you watch the world from a place no human ever has.
expedition climbing is a series of successes, where every pitch demands working out and every high point is to new terrain.
on an ‘expedition’ summit day is a buzz of agitation. everyone has their camera batteries charged. the summit itself is amazing and a great group atmosphere. coming down you give tips to those going up and hug your guide as you exclaim how you dont believe you actually did it. with the job done its now just a matter of getting home, tho people still coming up the fixed lines slow you down. basecamp is beer, emails and giving away Clif bars.
on an expedition the summit doesnt come. you get close, but what you see on the print out and what is actually there is not the same. several days of stressful effort and nights of bad sleep, plus the dehydration, dont leave enough gas in the tank to take the risk of pushing further. as it is you may not have enough gear to rap all the way, so you down climb the easy bits. at the high point where you turn around you see dozens of other peaks. way below you can see the valley you need to follow to get back to the road. a near-miss on the way down convinces you to stop and bivy rather than push into the 23rd hour without sleep. basecamp is covered in a layer of snow and your food is all frozen. the next day is spent laying in the sun, the tiny trail of an airplane overhead is the first sign of other humans since leaving the road.
on an ‘expedition’ it’s a race back to town. the exotic local culture now gets in the way and a sense of familiarity and having summitted sets you apart from the newcomers you pass going in. you cant wait for cheeseburgers, sushi and real beer. the internet feels slower than on the way in as you search amongst your stack of emails for people to tell your news.
on an expedition theres the inevitable concern about when the 4wd will appear. as you wait you cook slices of salami to use up the remaining gas. all talk has been of how it could have been done better. the weight of the gear you left as anchors and the food you ate is replaced by the grime and damp that infuses everything. only 2 pairs of socks over the entire time has left your feet shriveled and a strange colour. when the 4wd arrives you simply force your full packs in and settle in amongst it. on the way out you stop to check other aspects of the peak, deciding you should have come from the north. you wake up as the headlights illuminate the front of some unopen-looking hotel as you pull in. a sleepy owner points up some stairs to a room with no tv or curtains. for a bed with no suspension its better than a sleeping bag.
the game’s not over till that vehicle returns to that lonely road and everything fits inside.
after an ‘expedition’ you arrive home with a tan and spend days telling people about near-misses and the amazing local culture whilst quietly mentioning how much it all cost. you dabble with thoughts about contributing to NGO’s, sponsorship the motivational speaking circuit and other ideas for incorporating it all into your daily life. the trinkets you bought get hung near the TV and your huge boots go into the purgatory between the garage and a for sale forum.
after an expedition you spend a month regaining your normal weight and getting feeling back to your toes. no one has much interest in a place theyve never heard of, that you didnt summit. the magazines have no interest in your story because without a summit or death it didnt happen and your photos only cover up to when the batteries died. the only souvenirs are some cheap flip flops you bought after losing your good ones and some currency no one will exchange despite the huge amount of it you have. it’s possible your boots will see another trip but you need to replace an entire rack of nuts, and people keep asking if you want to go to Everest next.
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.
for everyone heading to eastern tibet / western sichuan soon the news is great – the end of the monsoon is happening as we speak, almost a full month earlier than last year. this is when the continental weather pattern starts to override the SE asian pattern and brings cold dry air which means a shift from rain to snow and the freeze level drops about 1000m almost overnight. this is the weather we are waiting for.
see the drop: this is the modeled forecast for Siguniangshan, which is the closest peak with a forecast to where we are headed. conditions do differ a bit as Siguniangshan sits closer to the Sichuan basin so is still more moisture affected than areas further north and west – but the shift in conditions is plain to see. this is actually a fairly normal version, with last year being unduly late.
the next month should see conditions stabilize as ground temperature drops with shorter days and the early snow, eventually freeze level settling at about 3500m. climbing-wise this means the ice will already be forming and hopefully covering much of any unstable rock. it also should mean river levels will be a bit lower and hopefully a bit more snow on the ground to solve some expected water problems. the clearer air will help a lot with the mapping duties we have.
watching the forecasts over the next couple of weeks will allow us to fine tune things, but so far it looks like a very good season ahead.