Friday, 3 February 2012

Kaikoma prep (1) - Layers

As I'm currently prepping for my next trip - a 5-day excursion to the rather remote Kaikomagatake in the southern Japan Alps (Minami Alps) - I thought it might be interested to post a few snippets of what I'm doing and how I'm thinking.

I'll start off with clothing - one of the most important aspects to get right and also one of the hardest!

Climbing clothing, especially in the winter, has to do a lot. It has to keep you warm... or rather, comfortable, but I'll get to that in a minute. It has to keep you dry (or at least comfortable when wet, which is perhaps more likely). It has to be light and packable so that you can carry it all, but also robust enough to stand up to the rigours of climbing - if conditions get really gnarly you may end up climbing in EVERYTHING you brought along. That said, you don't want to be TOO warm. If you sweat too much (especially on the walk in) and wet out your baselayer, you're then going to be very cold as it dries off. So really you want to be just on the edge of feeling chilly, which is incredibly hard to accomplish and maintain...

Additionally, on multi-day trips, your gear has to do all that day-in, day-out for days on end. Stuff will get damp, stuff will freeze. You have to take great care to minimize this, but it's a battle and one you can't always be 100% perfect at, especially as you get more fatigued. So your gear has to cope.

Conditions at Kaikoma will hopefully be somewhere just below freezing during the day, dropping potentially to -20 Celcius or more (less?) at night. Conditions should be good (no precipitation, low winds), but you can't rely on the forecast, so it pays to be prepared for anything (realistically).

On my upper body I subscribe mainly to Mark Twight's idea of an 'action suit'. Essentially that is a baselayer and a softshell type jacket, which you do everything in. You regulate your temperature with zips and hoods to make it work for you. Then, when you stop (i.e. at belays or bivvies), you throw a big fat layer of insulation over the top to retain all that warmth before it seeps away and you get cold.

Kaikoma gear - left to right: R1 Hoody, R1 Vest, Ultimate Hoody, Nano Puff, Barrier Hood 

Yatsugatake gear - left to right: As above, but with Microlight Alpine in place of Barrier Hood

I start off with a Patagonia R1 Hoody, sized a little small for a snug fit. I love this thing - it's nigh-on perfect. Really breathable, wicks great and has a huge zip for venting. Good hood for under (or over, at a push) a helmet and the thumbloops stop the sleeves from going anywhere when climbing or adding more layers. 

Over that on this trip (as I did at Yatsugatake in December) I'll wear a Paragonia R1 Vest. I find the doubling-up of R1 retains a lot of breathability while upping core warmth substantially and cutting wind just a little. This combination works well for the walk-in, which can often get sweaty, and goes well under anything else for climbing. You can sleep in both, too. I will likely not remove either of these layers for the whole trip.

Topping off the 'action suit' on this trip is the Mammut Ultimate Hoody. I used to consider GORE Windstopper the fabric of the devil - not breathable enough due to the membrane, mainly. It's still not that great compared to Powershield and the like (let alone the newest generation of 'breathable' fabrics like Polartec NeoShell) but Mammut have a trump card to play with this particular jacket. It has HUGE side vents, running from the bottom hem to about the elbow on each side. They even zip both ways. The system is very similar to my beloved Montane Resolute Smock (a beefed-up Extreme - a well-tried design) and it allows incredible temperature regulation. If you seal yourself into it, you can be very warm, but if you really start to overheat you can throw those zips open and you get an enormous throughput of fresh air, blowing out any moisture and excess heat. Brilliant system.

The Ultimate Hoody isn't a perfect design - the hood peak is floppy and the handwarmer pockets are too low to work with a pack or harness - but the ventilation system makes it a great piece of kit (just in need of some refinement in the next generation!).

I prefer to divide my insulation layer into two thinner layers. I feel this allows for more mixing and matching to cover a wider spectrum of conditions for not much extra weight or bulk. My first layer is a Patagonia Nano Puff Pullover - this basically never leaves my pack no matter what the trip. It's seriously light and packable but provides incredible warmth. It's pretty robust, too, and of course being synthetic it'll not lose so much performance if it gets wet. I've heard this usage of the Nano Puff described as a 'belay sweater' and I think that's pretty apt - you can belay just in this if you want, or add an extra layer over it if it's really cold or nasty.

The final layer depends on the trip. Up at Yatsugatake I picked the Rab Microlight Alpine - a lightweight down jacket. It's really, really light and packs down tiny. Being down it offers much better warmth to weight than any synthetic piece. Again it's not perfect (what is?) - the hood is too small, for one - but I really like it nonetheless. However, down doesn't play well with moisture, and a 5-day trip makes it hard to keep things dry. It was ok at Yatsugatake because you could duck into the lodge and use their heaters to dry gear, but Kaikoma will be unsupported. Therefore I'm swaying towards the Haglofs Barrier Hood (a purebred 'belay jacket') this time - synthetic, a bit bulkier and heavier than the Rab downie but a lot less hassle. You really don't want your insulation to shit the bed mid-trip so I think this is a worthwhile trade-off.

On my lower half I'll be using what I used last time...

Left to right: Wicking boxer shorts, lightweight merino leggings, Aenergy Pants

Underwear will be a pair of Haglofs wicking boxers should keep things comfortable, with a pair of lightweight Cintamani (an Icelandic brand) merino wool longjohns to keep my legs warm even when standing around. I really, really wish both of these layers had a fly of some sort - lord knows it's hard enough when you're wearing a harness and gloves and doesn't need any more complications!. Maybe I'll modify them in the near future (or just buy some with...).

The top layer is a pair of Mammut's oddly-named Aenergy Pants, which are softshell pants really designed for ski-touring but are awesome to climb in. Really stretchy, protective enough and with breathable panels where you need them most (crotch region, back of calves). They have big zippered side vents too - essential for sweaty walks in. The integrated snow gaiter is something I'm never really sold on, especially with boots with integrated gaiters like my Scarpa Phantom Guides, but they don't do any harm on their loosest setting. I do wish they had grommets for a loop of cord under my boot - I'll probably stitch some loops on sometime although I've done some real snow slogs with no problems so far, so maybe they're not that essential.

Last time around I packed in a pair of synthetic insulated overpants for nighttime, but I never needed them. I think I might skip them this time - one less thing to carry!

Footwear is a whole other deal and I'll maybe make another post about that sometime soon. Likewise gloves, etc.

Obviously layering is a really subjective thing and what works for me may not work for you and vice versa. That's before you even consider where you're climbing, what the conditions will be, how long you'll be climbing for, etc. But hopefully this gives you an idea of one system - one that works for me in these conditions - and it might give you some ideas.

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