“I can’t fucking do this! It’s too hard. I can’t get any pro!” Jens shouts from somewhere above me after 15 minutes of silence.
“I believe you. Bail if you need to. We can find another way,” I yell up to him, trying to mask my nervousness. There is no good ‘other way.’ If Jens can’t climb this pitch, I’ll have to. If I can’t, we’ll have to rappel the 2,000 or so feet that we’ve spent the whole day climbing, or try to traverse across the face to an easier route. With less than two hours of daylight remaining, neither alternative sounds appealing.
“I can’t bail; my last good piece too far down. I need the number one but I already used it.” I have nothing encouraging to say, so I stay quiet. A few minutes pass. “Ok, I got a nut in, and I’m gonna try to aid. The next nut is sketchy though, so I might fall!”
“Ok man, you got it.” I can’t see Jens, but I hear grunting 100 feet above me. The rope moves a few feet before snapping tight in my hand. “You ok?”
“Yeah. I’m just gonna have to do this. I have to make a couple of hard moves so watch me.” Five minutes
pass before the rope moves. The snowfall is picking up and the slanted granite walls on both sides of us funnel snow down the runnel we’re climbing like a 500 foot tall hour glass. I’m on a small stance that I kicked out of the snow half way up the runnel under the partial protection of a chalkstone, and have to constantly stomp and push snow away to keep from getting buried. The rope inches out for ten minutes and then stops.
“Hey Jens, maybe we should bail. We can traverse to Backbone Ridge and rap that,” I yell.
“Dude, I’m risking my life up here. This is dangerous.”
“Yeah, man, I appreciate that. I do. You’re doing fine. The rope is almost at half way.” It’s not too late for him to bail, but I try to sound encouraging. We’re shouting at the top of our lungs to be heard over the growing hiss of the wind, so this is no time to talk things over. Right now it’s all up to Jens. I’m beginning to get wet as my body heat melts the snow on my jacket, and the longer I stand still the colder I get. I dance in place, rub my arms and legs, and wiggle my fingers and toes. Now and then I have a couple of bites of an energy bar. Again the rope inches out. My thoughts begin to darken. It must be hard, I think, what if something goes wrong? What if Jens breaks a leg, and we have to bail in the dark? What if he gets knocked out and freezes to death, as you freeze waiting for him to move? Is there anything that you could do? How can anything ever take this long? We need to get out of here. What the hell is going on up there?
Jens following a pitch just before setting off on his long, difficult lead.
Jens has been on this side of things too. Only four months earlier, we had jumped the gun and ascended most of a route on this same face before ice had had time to form on the upper pitches. Near the top I led out, digging a near vertical trench through powder that stuck tenuously to the rock. I had to tap on every hold with my ice hammer to make sure that they were solid, sending a constant barrage of snow, rock, and ice down towards the belay. I took a lead fall when a hold broke; it would have been a long ride if the umbilical connecting my tool to my harness didn't catch me. Higher, I hung from a nut and ate an energy gel, surprised at how long it had taken for me to get only halfway up the pitch. Part of me wanted to bail at each decent piece of protection, but at the same time each one would give me the confidence to push a little further. I topped out four hours after leaving the belay, covered in ice from head to toe, only a few nuts remaining on my harness.
Eventually the rope begins to play out faster, and I know that Jens must be getting close to the ridge top. The wind blasts from all directions now, sucking the heat from my belay jacket and forcing snow into every crevice in my cloths. My body is shivering violently by the time I hear Jens’s faint “ooooff beeeelaayyyy,” but my mind is somewhere else. Through my red lens of my goggles I watch the scene play out with calm detachment. Gloves stiff with ice slap against each other a few times, then fiddle out the cams and nuts of the anchor and clip them to my harness. The gloved hands reach for ice tools that are mostly buried in fresh snow. Now I am stepping off the ledge, hooking a cam with the pick of my tool to pull myself around the chalkstone before reaching down to pull out the piece. The picks of my tools sink deeply into white, aerated ice with each gentle swing; the warming work of swinging my tools and kicking my feet gradually bringing my mind back into my body.
The ice ends at a step of smooth, vertical granite. I torque one pick in a narrow crack, while my other tool and crampons skitter on dime and quarter sized edges. Somewhere in my mind I register that the climbing is hard. It takes all of my focus, and I no longer notice the cold. Higher, I pull myself off the steep rock and into a deep trench that Jens has dug between the rock and a huge snow mushroom at the top of the runnel. I pull myself over the ridge, where Jens is standing in front of me in the swirling snow.
“I’ll lead if you want, or you can. Either way, let’s just keep going,” he says.
“I’ll lead. I need the warmth. I’m going to leave my puffy on. Just let me get my headlamp.” Through the snow, in the last light of the day, I can see the ridge rambling up toward the summit. I move as quickly as I can until it is finally almost too dark to see. I pause to push the button on my headlamp and for a moment the world in front of me is light again, but it fades to darkness. I try the button again. Nothing. It’s dead.
Jens starting a pitch about halfway up the route.
That was an excerpt from a story I wrote in the fall of 2011. In the end we made it to the summit after I followed a steep pitch in the dark without my headlamp, and then on the way down we got lost in a forest that we'd both walked through dozens of times before. The climb took place on Dragontail Peak in April 2011, just before Jens and I took off for an expedition in the Alaska Range. For some reason that type of climbing no longer appeals to me, but for a few years I based my life around it. But this post isn’t about winter climbing; it’s about something that my winter climbing years taught me a lot about: how to dress in order to keep your shit together when the weather seems to be working against you. I only included the story because it serves as an example of how vital proper layering is. If, during that long, cold belay, I had been covered in sweat from climbing the previous pitch with too many layers on, I probably would have ended up dangerously hypothermic. Similarly, if I hadn’t put on a thick puffy jacket before settling in for the long wait, I would have been screwed. People have climbed bigger, colder walls with much worse equipment, but those people are likely tougher than you and I.
Much of what I learned about alpinism early in my climbing years came from Mark Twight’s Extreme Alpinism. If you’re at all interested in alpine climbing, or even just spending time in the mountains in general, you should probably buy that book. Twight’s recommendations on layering have become the standard in the alpinism and mountaineering world, and are just as applicable for ski touring and hiking.
In short, while on the move your goal should be to wear clothes that will offer just enough protection from the environment, while not restricting your movement or allowing you to get too warm. The clothing components you wear on the move make up your “action suit.” This might be just long underwear tops and bottoms with some kind of weather resistant outer layers for ice or alpine climbing, or if it’s truly cold you might include a fleece or light synthetic puffy under your shell jacket. It might be just softshell pants and a tee shirt for spring ski touring. It could be a light shirt and shorts in the summer. The point is that you want to minimize sweating, while avoiding getting too wet from the weather, or too cold from the wind. When you stop, put a puffy jacket (aka belay jacket) over your shell, and maybe even puffy pants with side zips if you’re in for a super long, cold belay. If you’re expecting to get covered in snow as you climb or ski, bring a synthetic puffy so that your inner layers dry out a little as you wear it. The puffy will get damp from the drying layers inside and as snow melts on the outside, but a good one will still keep you somewhat warm when wet. Down, on the other hand, is useless when wet.
So that’s the basic principle, now I’ll go into specifics about layers that I bring. For a base layer any long underwear that’s synthetic, claims to wick moisture, and that fits will do. Ideally your top will be plenty long enough to tuck into the bottoms to keep the wind out. Fabrics that resist odor are ideal. I get whatever I can find on sale, and they always last a long time. A midweight fleece top and bottoms are nice for when daytime temperatures are dropping into the single digits. I’d like to try a one-piece base layer to keep drafts out, but they’re hard to come by. For ice and alpine climbing when I know that I’m going to get sweaty on the approach (which is pretty much always), I’ll bring a dry base layer top to put on at the bottom of the climb.
For insulation between the base layer and shell on cold days I bring a Patagonia Nano Puff Pullover. It
might be the best jacket I’ve ever owned. As warm as a heavy fleece sweater, but lighter and more packable, and long lasting. It has held up for seven years of heavy use. It’s stained and pocked with tears and melt holes, but I bring it almost every time I alpine climb or ski. I’m actually wearing it as I write this!
As far as shells go there are a few options. In spring-like weather I mostly use light soft shells because
they are much more breathable than Gore-Tex shells, but will block some wind and light showers. For winter climbing and skiing I stick to Gore-Tex because I live in a notoriously wet place. Snow here tends to melt on contact with anything warm. Generally I sweat too much to wear Gore-Tex while skinning uphill, so if it’s snowing while I’m skinning I’ll wear a water resistant windshirt, or just accept that my baselayer is going to get wet… Unless it’s really dumping. In the summer I’ll often just bring a water resistant windshirt if the forecast looks good, but Gore-Tex might be worth it if you expect to bushwhack through brush covered by morning dew. In the summer, or on spring days on the snow where sunburn is the main concern, a thin, lightly colored, long sleeved, hooded sun shirt might be a lifesaver.
I own a couple of puffy jackets. I have a light down jacket that works great if the weather is calm and in the upper-20s or warmer, and a big synthetic puffy for when it’s colder, or when I expect to get wet. It seems like these thick, idiot-proof synthetic jackets are being replaced by lighter, less warm options. If it weighs less than about a pound, it won’t be warm enough on its own in winter conditions. Maybe cold, wet adventuring has gone out of style? I didn’t get that memo…
I’ll touch on one more thing here. Be realistic about conditions, and wait for a good day. If you get to the base of a climb in the winter or spring and find that the route isn’t in good shape, or maybe that it’s colder than you expected, consider a change of plans. Similarly if you're going ski touring and it's dumping when you leave the car, be prepared to get wet. At some point when we were winter climbing a lot, Jens and I stood looking up at thin ice on the NW Face of Mt. Stuart on a frigid, windy morning. A year earlier we probably would have gone for it. It might have been fine, but we’d had a few close calls in the last couple of years, one of which involved a friend getting frostbite on a route that wasn’t in decent shape yet, so we decided to go find an easier route that we wouldn’t have to spend much time belaying on. On Denali I made us turn around at around 18,000 feet on one summit push because my fingers were numb and I could feel the onset of frostbite on my face. A day or two later a big guided party reached the summit in similar conditions, but everyone in the group suffered serious frostbite. Later that week, I didn’t even need to zip up my down jacket on the summit because the weather was so warm and calm. Be bold, get after it, but be realistic about what you're dealing with.
Jens (right) and I hanging out on the summit of Denali (20,310 ft) on a warm day in 2012.