14 April 2013

Antidote to Grimness

The art of doing things that look grim in photos is to do them in such as way as to reduce the grimness to a level that they’re actually secretly quite comfortable (although you’d never want anyone to know that).  This may seem like a con, as knowing your mountain heroes were in fact as gnarly as a man sat by the fire in their slippers, but when you’re in any kind of life threatening environment (cold, wet, windy) then anything less will see you in serious trouble (a normal body temperature of 34.4–37.8 °C only needs to drop 2 °C to enter a hypothermic state).  I’d soon realized this once I started winter climbing, but it only really struck me as true when I once asked Borge Ousland how he coped with the temperature and high humidity when skiing to the North Pole in Winter.  He listed the gear he had, which was about the same as you’d have camping in Snowdonia in Winter, but then added “I hate to get cold, in fact I’m a total wimp” (the trip took 60 days, and it was night all the way, with temps down to -45 degrees C).  In the mountains this ability to go into hostile place while being a wimp comes down primarily to knowing what to wear, and how to use that clothing as effectively as possible. 

The ‘go too’ solution for dressing for cold conditions has always been the layering principle:  a base, mid and shell system providing protection over a wide variety of conditions.  For super cold temperatures, where your cardio will be low, you can dress more like an Inuit, with one layer of thick insulation next to the skin, that can be used to dump heat fast when moving, or closed up when static (this is a pure soft-shell system, as found in Buffalo PP and Montane Extreme).

If you’re undertaking hard cardio in extreme cold then layering is the only way to go for men (woman can make a pure soft-shell system work as they sweat less), a system that will often be nothing more than a base layer and a windproof layer over the top, creating your classic micro climate. Even at the top end of the scale of high energy output and cold, say skiing hard, pulling a pulk to the South Pole (temps in low minus 20’s, with very strong winds) this can be enough, and even here care has to be taken not to overheat.

When I first began to take winter climbing seriously I looked at what the approach to gear that polar people took, as they were working hard in super cold temperatures.  At first I wanted to know how you stayed warm, but in almost everything I read no one ever talked about warmth, but only how to stay cool!  It seemed that if you could stop your base layers getting wet with sweat, then staying warm was easy, something that anyone who’s slogged up to the CIC, and race to the bottom of a popular route, only to stand around all day at belays, will attest to.

In the early days of my climbing I wore Buffalo gear, just pile and pertex, with nothing over the top and nothing underneath, a perfect system for staying cool in super cold temps, as you vent straight to your skin, and any moisture that cause heat loss was soon pushed from contact with your skin (pile has a very low surface contact area, with just the pile tips touching you). This system was great, but fell down as I moved into warmer alpine climbs, were just a base layer and a shell were needed, and so I moved to a layering system, saving shelled pile (THE only real soft shell) for pure grimness.

Entering the world of layering at a late stage, I wanted to crack it, but my first forays into clothing didn’t go well, as I lacked the skill needed to dress properly (with shelled piled I’d got lazy), and I was often too hot, then too sweaty, then chilled, and then downright miserable.  Many times I heard my self saying the words of someone who hasn’t got a good handle on their clothing, saying ‘Right - we need to get going, I’m getting cold’ - which translates as ‘I’ve sweated my bollocks off, and now I’m drenched in freezing sweat”.

To begin with I focused like a lot of people do on my shells, trying to get more breathable fabrics, or ones with fancy zippers that would allow me to dump the sweat, but it made no difference.  Taking layers on and off sounds great in principle, but in reality it doesn’t work.  The system is flawed.

Here are the things you need to understand about layering:

A.You will get hot.
B.You will get sweaty
C.You will be uncomfortable

Now what makes a difference to comfort is how far on the hot, sweaty, discomfort spectrum you travel, and that’s where experience and good clothing comes in.

First of all you’re going to have to ‘man up’ (or ‘woman up’) and put up with straying outside the boundaries of comfort.  When ever you do this then your brain will trigger anxiety, warning you that you’re in danger, but with experience you should know that soon you’ll be moving back into the safe zone.  Translated into the real world, this means setting off from your car on a super cold morning and feeling chilled, but after five minutes your micro climate beneath your shell is comfortable (were as your mate who put on all their clothes has turned red). 

The ‘belay jacket’ principle fits right in here, and borrows something form the Inuit style of dressing, throwing over one big thick layer over what is basically your ‘mountain skin’ - to stop you loosing the micro climate you’ve established that keep you comfortable (energy output is accelerator and decelerator of your comfort equilibrium).  Something that easy to stick over the top of everything, rather than finding a fleece which has a lower warmth for its weight, and needs to be put on under a shell (which will result in you loosing all your micro climate once you expose yourself to the wind).

I also recognized that the most important layer in your system was your base,  after all a house is only as good as its foundations.  The base layer often seems to be the layer that gets the least amount of attention, even though it has the greatest burden, having to keep you warm, keep your cool, wick the sweat, stop moisture getting to your skin while not irritating, chaffing, and ideally not smelling - while looking sporty and trendy.

Early one I worked out that the best base layers for me were the ones that had a high loft for their weight, with an open weave of fibers trapping plenty air having a better ‘warm when wet’ feel then denser fabrics.  If you have a ‘warm when wet’ fabric then you have a wider margin of comfort, as you won’t notice when the fabric is damp (sweat or outside moisture).  Some (but not all) wool underwear has always worked very well in this respect, one reason why its popularity has grown, with the synthetic base layers now being spun to create the same kind of performance.  The bottom line is the more air in your base layer, the better, as air can’t get wet (from within or without), and is a great insulator (its the air in a down jacket that keeps you warm, not the feathers).

And so I started to look for the best base layer out there, trying just about all the fabrics on the market (I was working for High magazine as its gear editor at the time), and most performed pretty much the same (many were just Polartec fabrics or copies of polartec fabrics).  Then I started looking at what Arctic and Antarctic people wore, as they were probably asking the most of their base layers than any other group I knew off.  And almost every single one used the same base system: Brynje Super Thermo from Norway.

Now I’ve mentioned this is the past, but I was sponsored by Patagonia, so always felt it wasn’t good to rave too much, but seeing as I’m not with Patagonia now, I’m in the clear.  Brynje is both the underwear that Edmond Hillary wore on the summit of Everest in 1953 and what Borge Ousland had on when he reached the North Pole in the winter of 2006, and what just about every polar traveler has worn since the second world war.

I finally got my hands on a set of this mysterious underwear (you couldn’t buy it in the UK then, but Nordic life imports it into the UK now) when I climbed in the Adirondacks in 2006, picking it up in a cross country ski store (another sport that asks a lot of base layers).  To begin with I was a bit disturbed how basic li looked (my set was white - which didn’t help), being nothing more than string underwear made from prehistoric Meraklon (100% polypropylene), which I hadn’t seen since my Survival Aids shop days (I believe Meraklon is the oldest synthetic base layer out there).  Worse of all the stuff made you look like a pervert or a member of SHADO!

But I tried it out in the Adirondacks and then in Colorado, when I had a crack at soloing the Diamond in February (twice!).  What I found was that why people use Brynje was it just coped better than any other fabric with sweat, as most of the surface area of the top was simply air, while the Meraklon could not absorb any moisture at all.  This meant you just stayed dryer and warmed, and could wear less, and any moisture was soon pushed out into your secondary layers.  Mixing this base layer, with the belay jacket concept and a R2 style fleece (such as the Patagonia hoody), and a pinch of ‘manliness’ and I was sorted.

I really put the base layer to the test a few months later when I skied across Greenland, doing what that polar people did, and wearing only this base with a shell over the top (pertex wind-shirt and trousers), finding that when active I was comfy down to -34 °C.  I was sold on the concept.

Since then I’ve been wearing Brynje underneath my other kit on every other mountain trip, as well as my emergency warm up/storm gear on big walls (I carry a base layer, a t-shirt and LS top in a dry bag), as well as when kayaking (wearing a dry suit you always get damp), and I think it’s the best system there is.

Why doesn’t everyone use it then?  Well I could see why this January when I went out to Norway to train for a proposed South Pole trip this year with Karen, her brother Simon and my mate Mike.  The idea was to ski 100km around the Hardangervidda plateau.  Berghaus supplied much of the kit, but I stressed that no base layer - even a free one - would be as good as Brynje.  Karen wouldn’t wear it as she said it looked uncomfortable (she obviously needed to ‘man up’) but Simon and Mike said they’d give it a go, taking along a set of top and bottoms.  Once out on the ice neither man wore the Brynje, using instead their old base layers, or in Simon’s case an R2 style top next to his skin.  The temperature wasn’t that cold, and we were working hard pulling pulks, and so sweat was a problem.  It was only on day 3 that both Mike and Simon started trying the underwear, putting on one piece to start with, but by the second day they had on the lot.  Just as I’d found six years before, all of a sudden their comfort range from too sweaty to getting chilled was expanded, meaning as a team we could go faster, stop longer, and sweat our arses off a little bit less - all while still looking like hard-men (and woman’) in the grimness (not that it was).

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