Working in winter conditions

Now that winter is coming, I thought it would be a good thing to read again a post from last year: working in winter conditions.

I'll post the text again:

A reader sent a question regarding how we work on winter conditions, what kind of gear we use.

I'm an alpine climber and a big believer of layering. Layering is very important not only to maintain a healty body temperature across multiple temperatures and during exertion, but also allows you to adapt the kit to the ever changing conditions in the field, especially in winter.

I separate winter conditions in two: normal winter conditions and extreme winter conditions.
On normal conditions, temperatures are cold but not extreme. There is snow, but it's not necessary to use crampons or snow shoes. Wind can turn this normal condition into an extreme one. Extreme conditions are when you can't have exposed skin to the elements, too cold. Or the wind brings the chill factor way down. Snow and ice build-up require the use of either crampons or snow shoes and special gear needs to be used.

Usually on winter I layer as follow:

  • Base layer: Top: Patagonia Capilene 2 (mild winter) or Capilene 4 (extreme temps or high altitude). Bottom: Capilene 1 (mild winter) or Capilene 3 (extreme).
  • Mid layer: Patagonia R1 (mild conditions or during cold exertions) or Patagonia R2 (extreme temps). Both pieces breath very well.
  • Outer layer: Top: Patagonia Ascentionists jacket sofshell (on clear days or mild snow or rain) or Patagonia Super Pluma jacket (on torrential rain or extreme winds). Bottoms: Patagonia Alpine Guide pants or Patagonia Triolet pants on full on conditions.
  • Belay jacket: I also carry a Patagonia Nano Puff Hoddie (on normal conditions) or a Patagonia DAS Parka (on extreme conditions) to throw on top of everything I wear if I stop and need to keep the heat on.

To finish the layering system I have two different sets of gloves, socks and shoes for the two different conditions.
On normal winter conditions I wear a pair of mid or heavy weight merino wool socks (either Patagonia or Darn Tough) and on extreme cold I go with a Patagonia Capilene liner sock under an expedition weight Merino socks (heavy weight and super warm). I carry two pairs of either sock. The idea is that at night, when you go to sleep, you remove the socks you wore during the day, put on the clean pair and let the other pair dry inside the sleeping bag. Repeat the next night.
For shoes I also have different pairs for the two different conditions. On normal temps I wear a pair of Asolo full leather, lightly insulated Goretex mountain boots. They are not alpine boots but they are great for overall winter activities. They keep the feet dry and breath well. On full on conditions or on the mountain, I wear a pair of La Sportiva Nepal Evo GTX. After trying different mountain boots, I found these to be exceptionally warm, comfortable and durable.
Finally the gloves. This is an important piece. You want to remain dexterous but you also want to keep your hands warm. On normal conditions I usually don't wear gloves, however if it's a little too cold or wet I go with a mid level, GTX glove like the OR Gripper glove or the Black Diamond Pilot, and in full on conditions I wear a thin liner under a Black Diamond Enforcer glove.
For the head I usually wear a fleece lined beannie for normal conditions and a wind-resistant fleece beannie for extreme conditions.

Now, I left the gaiters out for a reason. I hate them. They make me sweat, they are an annoyance when you need to remove the boots quicly and they add weight to your kit. Yes, when you are out there every little gram or ounce count. What I do instead is to attach elastic shock cord to the bottom of my pants (Patagonia pants have loops for this purpose there!) and I use the pants own end as gaiters by putting the elastic cord under by boots.

The system now works as follow. I go with the least amount of layers. I know I get hot quickly so I rather be a little cold for a few minutes knowing that as soon as I am moving I will be fine. usually this is a base layer and the R1 or the base layer and the softshell jacket. If I stop and need to maintain the warmth, I put on my puff jacket on top of everything and I remove it when I begin to move again. I carry on my pack the mid-layer and the jackets.

If I get too sweaty and my base layer is too soaked for it to dry fast with the body heat, I have to change it. It is important in winter to be as dry as possible. A good base layer is designed to get the sweat out of your body and into the mid and outter layers, drying as you go with your body heat. However, sometimes the base layers get soaked too much. Change them. The same with socks and gloves. It is important to have your feet and hands as dry as possible, otherwise you can get frostbite even on milder temperatures.

You can see below a video by alpine climber Steve House, where he describes his layering system for the first alpine style ascent of the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat in September, 2005. It's an old video but the principles stand and they are similar to mine.

I hope this helps.