I'm planning my first trip to the Alps this year and trying to decide on my clothing system. One of our objectives is to summit Mont Blanc as well as a couple of other >4000 m peaks. I've got my storm and booster layers sorted (Haglofs L.I.M. III Jacket and Jack Wolfskin Zenon down jacket), but seeking advice on what to wear for my active layer. I could go with a fleece and windproof jacket combination, but after reading your article on soft shells "cut the crap" I thought it would be better to just use one layer as my active layer. Would a single soft shell layer such as the Mormot Ether DriClime jacket be warm enough for the Alps in Summer, particularly on >4000 m peaks or would a thicker soft shell be advisable? Or even scrap the soft shell idea all together for the Alps and go with a fleece and windproof combination?
Any advice you can give me would be greatly appreciated.
Your ‘active’ layer for alpine climbing is there for two reason, the primarily one to keep you ‘comfortable’ (I’ll address comfort below) and to keep the sun off you. plus look cool and photos!
Alpine climbing is a sport of movement, with the aim to keep static time down to a minimum (if you’re doing hard alpine rock you’ll need to use your booster layers more). The best way to think about it as long distance running in winter. Yes it’s cold and snowy and maybe raining, yet you can run through the streets and on the hills in just shorts and a thermal top. If you stuck on a fleece and gore shell and thick trousers you’d be dead comfy for the first 5 minutes, but very quickly you’d blow up, slow down, get wet and chill and be unable to run. For steep alpine climbs and ‘trekking’ you’re looking at the same kind of approach: moving fast, not getting hot, not getting dangerously cold (women will need more insulation than men generally). It’s also worth mentioning that friction is also an issue, like long distance runs (half marathons and marathons), you should think about friction next to your skin (thighs, nipples etc).
The fabrics you choose to make up these layers need to be light, very breathable (both fleece and barrier layers) and stretchy, so you don’t feel too hemmed in. I’m a very big fan of Pertex/nylon tops and bottoms for alpine climbing, and keeping hard shells in your pack unless needed in order to stay more comfortable (less sweaty or hot). Light pants like Montane (I work for Montane so will stick to what I use from them) Featherlite pants over a base layer and a Pertex Lite Speed jacket over a long sleeved top (I use a Primo 220g as it’s wool (ish), has a long zipper and is comfy from +40 on El Cap to zero when moving hard, doesn’t smell yet dries fast compared to pure wool) and then a thin highly breathable fleece with a hood (think classic hoody), which for me is the Allez Micro Hoodie (very light and very breathable), or the warmer and tougher Power Up Hoodie. Layer this up and you have a system that will go from desert temps to sub zero temps while moving (you can add in a gilet and fleece arm warmers to boost it if you run cold), adding booster ands storm layers when needed. Note that carrying and using windproof trousers is a departure from using standard alpine legwear, which are far tougher and more applicable for rough and tumble climbing), but at 120g a pair of pertex pants are a much lighter package (size and bulk), and both dry faster and shed snow better than heavier duty standard pants.
The soft shell (driclime style) has a lot going for it, but due to the need to deal with high and low temps it needs to be inserted into a layering system combo.
Hope that helps.
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Andrew Kirkpatrick is a British mountaineer, author, motivational speaker and monologist. He is best known as a big wall climber, having scaled Yosemite's El Capitan 30+ times, including five solo ascents, and two one day ascents, as well as climbing in Patagonia, Africa, Alaska, Antarctica and the Alps.Follow @ Instagram