By Todd Rutledge
Keeping yourself thermo-regulated is important to conserving energy and maintaining your general well-being on an expedition. Technological advances in the textile industry have changed how we dress for the mountains and on Denali—we don’t need to follow the “old method” of piling insulated layers under a wind and waterproof shell.
Stretch-woven or soft shell layers can be put on in Talkeetna and often not removed until you get back to town (sounds gross, I know). Except for alpine skiing at our local resort and the occasional day of drippy ice climbing, I don’t think I’ve worn GORE-TEX pants in the past 10 years because soft shell fabrics are just that good.
On Denali, you can wear soft shell pants alone for much of the way to Camp 2 or 3, only layering underneath if it’s exceptionally cold. A pair of Merino or synthetic bottoms will work on most cold days. If you run cold or just want to have more options, bring a pair of light fleece pants to add more warmth for very frigid mornings. And you should definitely have a pair of puffy pants to put on top for summit day or the cold morning move up to High Camp. On late May or June trips, I will carry a very lightweight GORE-TEX jacket and pants to Camp 2 and cache them, as the lower glacier can experience wet snow or even rain as the season moves into June and early July.
On top, I’ve become a fan of lightweight hooded sun shirts on the lower glacier. You’ll undoubtedly notice that virtually all guides on the mountain wear them and for good reason—you can’t hide from the sun. As the temps drop, I wear a lightweight base layer and add a very breathable soft shell when moving in windier conditions. If it’s colder, I’ll add a light fleece hoody under the soft shell, and I always keep a puffy layer or two in the top of my pack for rests or belays. Instead of one thick puffy, which have become harder to find, I’m now a fan of two lighter puffy jackets, each weighing about 12 ounces or so. The “Double Puffy System” might be a little heavier than one thick puffy, but I appreciate how it lets me fine-tune my insulation to fit the conditions and workload of the day.
On summit day, all of that will be wrapped under my big down parka. For early season climbs, I’ll often add a synthetic vest to give me the extra warmth at minimal weight to ward off the colder temps. This is also a great layer if you “run cold.”
This system is a bit different from a traditional system in that my shell jacket is often buried under my puffy layer. While this might sound counterintuitive, my puffy has a windproof nylon shell, so why would I layer another nylon shell over it? I have talked to a couple of people who have used lightweight shells such as the Black Diamond Alpine Start Hoody and felt that they lost enough warmth that they did not appreciate the tip, which only drives home Dave Staeheli’s lesson of TRY EVERYTHING OUT BEFORE YOU REACH ALASKA! Personally, I will trade the slight additional warmth of a thicker shell jacket for the significant weight savings of the lighter shell, but you might not.
Highly breathable soft shell layers allow me to keep them on even when I’m working moderately hard. The lightweight wind shirt will keep convective heat loss at a minimum while I’m moving without me overheating. I can carry it in my pocket for quick changes without taking my pack off or even breaking stride. The end result is fewer layer changes, which keeps me moving more efficiently.
With this kind of system there is a chance that I could find myself in windy conditions, where I might need to pull my puffy pants on over my soft shell pants. I accept that by foregoing GORE-TEX I might not have the perfect layers for that event. My personal risk/benefit analysis tells me that I’ll still leave my GORE-TEX at home for much of the season.
Layer up and have fun out there!