Winter season 2015/16 photo diary

It seems weird to be rounding-up my winter climbing season in mid-summer, but it was such a weird season that barely started, choked, and then somehow didn’t finish until mid-May. This post fits with that confusing timeline.

A false start

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A beautiful day but too much powder for climbing.

My first attempt at a winter day out was in January with an impromptu visit to a very snowy Lake District. Despite beautiful views and cold temperatures there was no chance of any proper climbing: way too much powder made for hard going and a buried route. So, a nice day out but no climbing just yet.

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Citronelle and marine makes a photo.

Winter training

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Descending Broad Gully

Next up was a day with mates from my club training some of the movement tactics that you might use in Scotland or abroad. We had fun on a line in Stob Coire nan Lochan over to the left of the corrie, moving together all the way. The next day the thaw arrived with a bang and we didn’t even leave the cafe – it was raining non-stop and 15 degrees in the valley. Time to go home.

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Leaving Coire an t’Sneachda.

My next Scottish trip was another training trip, this time with work. We had a good time pootling about in the Cairngorms and the weather was great. While on this trip I also managed to sneak in The Message with my boss, which was a fantastic day out. I’ve been winter climbing for about 7 years but had never done anything actually technical and this was a nice change. Bit of a workout for the arms and some mixed action.

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Awkward step on P2 of The Message.

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The steep chimney of P3.

The CIC hut

No sooner as I had returned from Scotland, I was straight back up (I spent one day at work and then went straight back up north). A friend had a spare space in the CIC hut and needed a partner. With a bombproof forecast and excellent conditions I couldn’t resist, and the journey up was absolutely worth it. Getting in to the car park at about midnight, we were at the hut at about 1.30 am and up at 5 am to get on the route… I’d wanted to do Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis for as long as I’d been winter climbing.

Tower Ridge was THE route for me: it was long, classic, in an amazing situation, and not overtly technical.

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Kate on Tower Gap.

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Me on Tower Gap (photo Copyright Philip Jardine).

Kate and I were confident we’d be fine on it, and in the sublime conditions we cruised the route. We found much of the route quite easy and agreed we’d have happily soloed all of it in those conditions but for Tower Gap, which is awkward rather than difficult.

Feeling confident, we went for North East Buttress next: it was a logical next step, another classic Nevis ridge and a chunk harder. However, Ben Nevis bit back: we climbed five pitches of loose, avalanche-prone and hideous terrain that just hadn’t thawed and refrozen in the same way as the rest of the mountain, before we abseiled off. We hadn’t even reached the first platform and the start of the route proper. That was a big reminder that if conditions aren’t right you don’t really have a chance. It was also a good lesson in subtle differences in aspect making a huge difference to snow conditions.

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Traversing more gearless crud.

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The inevitable retreat.

Another crack at NE Buttress

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Our abseil tat from the retreat three weeks earlier. When we’d left it the whole outcrop was iced up.

Three weeks later, now in March, I was back up in Scotland with Scott, who was chomping at the bit. NE buttress was our target, and the conditions could not have been more different to the month previous: the approach was now largely on turf and path, and the snow we found was sublime. We moved together for much of the route until the Mantrap and 40 Foot Corner. Every metre of the route offered something new: it was really special.

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Scott on one of the snowfields of NE Buttress. Very Alpine.

We did the route in good time and planned our next objective as Hadrian’s Wall, another super-classic and which we heard was in excellent condition. We got to bed early, got up early, and left the car park… to be greeted by rain. It was much warmer than forecast, much wetter, and not worth it. Half an hour after leaving the car we shook hands and turned round before driving home. A good decision.

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Awesome bit of ice in a runnel on NE Buttress.

Munro bagging

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Super duper views above Crianlarich.

My final Scottish trip of the season was a beautiful weekend climbing Munros near Crianlarich with some of my oldest and best friends. Snow conditions were good but the weather was exceptional: blue skies, cold temperatures, and bright sunshine. A great way to end the season.

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Views as far as the eye could see.

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The end of a great winter.

My last bit of winter

I spent the last bit of winter getting absolutely destroyed by the fittest group of guys I’ve ever been a part of. I was on a cycling ‘holiday’ in Spain where almost everyone was a very serious cyclist, including two semi-professional riders. High speed riding, huge hills, massive mileage… it was amazing, and a real eye-opener to what a bit of training and dedication can do. Another trip like that next year and another Scottish winter season like the one just gone and I’ll be happy!

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A self-portrait after a very hard day’s riding. My Paris-Roubaix.

 

Baselayer science

Baselayer science is more hardcore than a Pussycat Dolls video. It’s more difficult than reading quantum mechanics, in Chinese, while solving a Rubik’s cube using your nose. But, like a rhinoceros in ballet pumps, I’m going to dive right in, before these similes get any worse.

Why are baselayers important?

I’d argue that a baselayer is the most important clothing layer that you wear. Why? Because it’s next to your skin. You wear it all day long, unless you plan to go streaking, and comfort is measured at the skin level, not on the inside of your waterproof jacket.

A good baselayer can be used year-round and in every activity from cycling to mountaineering – there’s not many garments you can do that with.

A baselayer can be used for pretty much anything. Here's a 'running' baselayer going via ferrata-ing.

A baselayer can be used for pretty much anything. Here’s a ‘running’ baselayer going via ferrata-ing.

What is the job of a baselayer?

The classic answer to this is ‘to wick sweat away’. You could counter this statement by saying that merino baselayers – which have an excellent reputation – wick pretty badly. You could also argue that Helly Hansen’s classic polypropylene Lifa fabrics do not wick at all, yet a lot of runners still think they’re the best baselayers on the market. In short, I think wicking is a bit of a misnomer with baselayers. Here are the four criteria I think are important for baselayers:

  • They must keep you dry
  • They must keep you at a comfortable temperature
  • They should smell, look, and feel nice. They also need to fit (which is part of 1, 2, and 3).
  • They must be durable and easy to care for

Note that nowhere in that list is ‘keep you warm’ – a baselayer should not try to hold in masses of heat, as you can’t take it off easily in most situations (particularly if you’re female).

If you are too cold, you can put layers on top, but providing lots of insulation is the job of your midlayer(s), not your baselayer.

The classic boulder look of t-shirt and hat... you don't need a baselayer because you never sweat enough to warrant one.

The classic boulder look of t-shirt and hat… you don’t need a baselayer because you never sweat enough to warrant one.

Keeping you dry

This is where people will be shouting “wicking!! Wicking!!” …and they’d be… sort-of right. If a baselayer must keep you dry then it should allow direct evaporation of moisture from the skin to the atmosphere or into your clothes and/or it should be able to wick sweat from the skin. The level of absorbency of the fibre is also important – of the common fibres used in clothing, cotton absorbs the most water, wool next, then polyester, then polypropylene. If you are not exercising, and are instead sat at a desk in a comfortable environment, any of the above fibres will keep you dry enough, but if you start sweating more (maybe your boss arrives at your desk and tells you that you are fired; alternatively you leave your desk and run up and down the stairs for fifteen minutes) then the cotton will become saturated – the wet-t shirt look – as it absorbs huge amounts of liquid; the wool will also absorb a lot of sweat, thus taking a long time to dry. The polypropylene, meanwhile, even when saturated, will have only absorbed a fraction of the sweat, meaning it dries faster. Why is keeping dry important? Because it feels horrible to have wet skin, and wet clothing makes you cold (see here).

Under shoulder straps you are bound to get wet from sweat - if the baselayer doesn't absorb water in the first place, or wicks it asap to other parts of the fabric, then you'll be better off.

Under shoulder straps you are bound to get wet from sweat – if the baselayer doesn’t absorb water in the first place, or wicks it asap to other parts of the fabric, then you’ll be better off.

Direct evaporation is all about the air getting to your skin, and is a combination of lots of different factors including the type of knit used in the fabric, the thickness of the fabric, the way it fits… it is really complicated. However, the way I think of it is simple – a lightweight and open fabric will allow more direct evaporation of liquid from your skin. So, a Brynje-type mesh top will allow huge amounts of air onto your skin to transport moisture away super-fast, a lightweight Helly-Hansen top will do the same, but an ‘expedition weight’ baselayer weighing 300 g will not.

Wicking is a whole other subject in itself, but wicking (capillary wicking if you are feeling clever, and do feel clever, you deserve it) is the spontaneous transport of liquid that occurs when liquid would rather come into contact with a solid surface, than more liquid like it. Imagine the liquid to be like a group of desperate male blokes, who would rather spread out to meet women than keep each other’s company. What people forget with wicking is that there are two types – transverse wicking and planar wicking. Both are important, but one is useless without the other.

Remember, no matter how many clothes you've got on, it's the one nearest skin that impacts most on comfort.

Remember, no matter how many clothes you’ve got on, it’s the one nearest skin that impacts most on comfort.

Transverse wicking is the movement of liquid from one side of a fabric to the other, such as from your skin-side to the face-fabric side. This one is crucial, and is what keeps your skin dry in the absence of air flow. Planar wicking is what allows transverse wicking to work faster, moving sweat from high concentrations to low concentrations through the plane of the fabric (eg. from the armpit to the side of your torso), enabling more surface area to get rid of the sweat.

Small diameter fibres in a fabric lead to greater number of channels for sweat to flow through, and small channels between these fibres are more attractive than big ones, making wicking happen faster. Wicking is also sped up by increasing the cross-sectional area of fibres (fibres such as Coolmax are shaped almost like a key, with loads of notches along them). As a result, not all polyesters are equal, and that £50 baselayer might well be a whole lot better at moving sweat than the £3 one from Tesco (remember that the diameter of the fibre, the shape of the fibre, the coatings on it, the way it is knitted, and the weight of the fabric all impact on performance). In general, polyester and wool wick well; polypropylene less so.

So, to keep dry, let’s just say that a baselayer should allow for direct evaporation (it should be as open as possible), should wick (needs the right type of fibre), and shouldn’t absorb too much water (should be thin, lightweight, and not cotton!)

 

Keeping you at a comfortable temperature

This one is seriously hardcore, but bear with it (I told you it was a Pussycat Dolls video, didn’t I? This is possibly more like Rihanna and Beyonce starring in an advert for Cravendale). Obviously, to be at a nice temperature you shouldn’t get too hot, or too cold, and we’ll deal with them in turn:

Plenty of baselayers, all trying to do the same thing - keeping you dry.

Plenty of baselayers, all trying to do the same thing – keeping you dry.

If you risk getting too hot, wicking is bad. Yes, bad.

That’s because sweat that doesn’t evaporate is useless – it hasn’t evaporated so hasn’t cooled you down. Direct evaporation, however, is good, as all that sweat has evaporated and that cools you off.

If you risk getting too cold, wicking is good, as your sweat does not evaporate and instead moves away slowly. That direct evaporation, however, suddenly becomes a nightmare and you get too cold too fast as your sweat ’vaps away.

So, we’ve now got a position where the two things are in opposition! What do I do on a day when I might get too hot and too cold, such as any day out in the UK hills?!

The answer is that you can’t win, and therefore I’m going to argue that the most important criteria for a baselayer to keep you at a comfortable temperature is to use a thin one, thus minimising the amount of moisture it will absorb, reducing the chance of you overheating, reducing the distance that moisture has to wick, and also making your midlayers more useful.

Smell, look, and feel

Some synthetic tops get a really bad reputation amongst their owners, and perhaps amongst their owners’ families, for stinking. This is often justified. Merino wool, however, stinks far less often, and that’s because wool is amazing, nature’s second most incredible composite (after feathers). In short, no matter how fancy a coating is applied to a synthetic fabric, merino is the way to go if you want to wear your top for long periods. If I go backpacking my synthetic baselayers will be seriously offensive after 3 days; after 7 days I’d come back and probably not even bother washing my merino ones.

Look and aesthetics of a baselayer is down to your taste, and beyond the scope of this blog, but one point worth making is super-tight baselayers look better on people they fit – if they are super-tight because you are super fat it may cause offence. Also, no one looks good in mesh.

This is my dad. His Helly Hansen baselayer is much older than me: durable.

This is my dad. His Helly Hansen baselayer is much older than me: durable.

The feel of a fabric is important, and some people argue that merino fabrics feel itchy. I think that’s probably because you’ve bought a rubbish one. Prickle and tickle from fabrics result from stiff fibres sticking into you or from roughness on the fibre surfaces. British wool is coarser than merino, but merino is often as thin as synthetic fibres used in baselayers, so really shouldn’t be a problem. However, if you know that even fine merino feels itchy for you, then don’t buy it.

Durability and ease of care

This is where there’s another real difference between wool and synthetic fibres: wool is not as durable, and is harder to care for than polyester or polypropylene. I have synthetic baselayers that I have worn over 300 times and that look ‘as new’, yet woollen baselayers of the same vintage have holes at the cuffs and bobbled shoulders. Synthetics are also easier to wash – just stick them in the washing machine and they aren’t fussy, they dry quickly, and usually don’t mind being tumble dried. Merino tops tend to be picky on these points, but this is countered by their awesome resistance to stench, meaning they don’t need to be washed as often. If you are washing your merino baselayers after every wear I’d urge you not to – your bills, your clothing, and the environment will much prefer it if you only wash them when they actually need it (eg. stained, filthy, sweat patches, etc.).

Getting dirtier than the Pussycat Dolls. This baselayer's been shredded over the years yet is still going strong - synthetics will outlast most merino ones.

Getting dirtier than the Pussycat Dolls. This baselayer’s been shredded over the years yet is still going strong – synthetics will outlast most merino ones.

What baselayer should I buy?

Now at risk of repeating myself, I’m going to say your most important priority should be to buy a thin and lightweight baselayer, regardless of what activity you are doing. If you are going somewhere cold then use a thicker midlayer, or two baselayers. Beyond that…

Here's two baselayers being used - Helly underneath and merino one as insulation- it's doing the job of a midlayer.

Here’s two baselayers being used – Helly underneath and merino one as insulation- it’s doing the job of a midlayer.

If you are going to be working hard and sweating a lot – synthetic, as it absorbs less water than wool. Polypropylene or mesh polyester are possibly the best.

If you are going on a long trip without easy washing facilities – merino all the way, or your friends will disown you.

If you are going to be wearing the baselayer as your only layer all day – think of your friends; don’t go for that outrageously tight mesh baselayer. Also, if you’re in the sun, you can get awful sun burn (as demonstrated once by well known peddler, Chris Froome.)

If you are going to be wearing stuff over your baselayer all day – mesh! It’s the best on allowing direct evaporation of water from the skin and polyester meshes also wick very well.

If you have limited budget – buy the best one you can in a sale, and get a synthetic one as it should last for ages and will be cheaper at point of sale. Make sure it fits you and buy a colour that you actually like, or you’ll buy two and so spend more.

If I could only have one baselayer – I’d have a synthetic one with long sleeves and a zip to mid-torso, in a lightweight fabric.

My dream baselayer – synthetic again, with long sleeves and long zip, with a under-helmet hood, and weighing 150 g in a size medium. They’re rarer than hen’s teeth, though – mine was ordered from Canada by a friend of a friend. And, it is absolutely amazing.

This is the best baselayer that you can buy.

This is the best baselayer that you can buy.

Conclusions

I hope this has proven useful. Baselayers are really complicated, but it’s worth realising that wicking is not the whole story, and that each fibre has its place. I think if there’s one thing worth remembering, it’s that baselayers are there to keep you at a decent temperature, and to keep you dry – they’re not to keep you warm, as that’s the job of a midlayer. When it comes to buying time, think about what you’ll use it for, what sort of trips you go on, and whether you can pull off the mesh baselayer look…