Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Expedition Prep: Insulated Jacket and Pants

When thinking of gear needs for an expedition to a cold mountain like Denali, my mind easily wanders first to thoughts of how to stay warm. The entire clothing system I'll be wearing works as a unit, but the "over-it-all" puffy coat and pants are crucial to keeping me warm when hanging around in camp, or for moving in the most brutal conditions.

I prefer synthetic insulation over down for climbing in the mountains. Synthetics maintain their loft and warmth when they get wet, which is often in the mountains. Less likely in the sub-freezing temperatures found on Denali, but a wet snow and moisture created by my own sweat could still present an issue for a 21 day trip with limited ability to dry things out. I also want these layers to be versatile for climbs in more moist environments like the Cascades. There's nothing out-right wrong with getting a down parka for this trip, especially one with a waterproof shell or the new waterproof down technologies, but that's just not my style.

Right now, I have an older Patagonia Micro Puff Hoody from around 2009 when it was being made with Primaloft One insulation. It's very good and has served me well for ice climbing trips in the lower 48, but only has somewhere in the range of 100g to 120g of insulation. I'll want the most I can get for the types of conditions that can be present in Alaska. What type of insulation is being used, and how much, determines how much warmth a layer can trap. For a diatribe on quality synthetic insulation you should check out this post on the blog Cold Thistle:


Dane makes some good points about clo value and efficiency that make you want to seek out Primaloft One insulated products. I tend to agree with him here, but I'm still willing to go with a jacket or pant that incorporates some of the "less efficient" insulation if its still performing well in the field. A great example of one of those products would be the Patagonia Das Parka.

Patagonia's DAS Parka
The Das Parka uses 120g of Primaloft Synergy throughout, and an additional 60g of Primaloft One in the torso. So that's 180g of insulation total in the torso which is the most of any synthetic jacket I've looked at from leading manufacturers. (Note: the number of "grams" cited by companies for insulation refers to how much a square meter of the fabric weighs. The more of something you have, the more it insulates.) As far as warmth the DAS really stands out as a great choice. OutdoorGearLab.com gave the DAS its Top Pick in a review of 20 insulated jackets, calling it "one of the warmest insulated jackets." Some features that could be improved include a hood with little adjustment that doesn't cover the face very much, and its bulkiness and weight coming in at 23.6 ounces. For these reasons its my number 2 choice for an expedition parka.

The Outdoor Research Chaos Jacket wins out as my top choice. It wasn't included in the OutdoorGearLab.com review mentioned above, and if it was I believe it would have beat out the DAS as the top pick. With 170g of Primaloft One insulation throughout the entire body of the jacket and 133g in the hood, it has the most insulation of the highest efficiency of any synthetic jacket on the market. Its a little heavier at 26.8 ounces but packs smaller than the DAS with the more compressible insulation. It's also $50 less expensive which is nice.

Outdoor Research's Chaos Jacket
As far as puffy pants go, there are many less options to chose from as this is such a specific item. I think I only found 8 models in total from all the brands I could find. Again I prefer synthetic insulation, especially for something I might end up sitting on snow while wearing. I'm at more of a toss up as to which option I'll go with as well. The warmest option will definitely be the Patagonia DAS Pants that compliment the jacket. They're filled with 100g of Primaloft One, but leave a lot to be desired in other design features. They have full side zips which is absolutely necessary to get on and off over boots and crampons, but the closure method at the hip and cuff are just small strips of hook and loop closures aka velcro. They're also quite light at 15.3 ounces, and every ounce counts, always.

Patagonia's DAS Pants

Due to the somewhat flimsy closures and lower durability I've also been looking closely at the new Black Diamond Stance Belay Pants. These use 80g of the less efficient Primaloft Synergy insulation, but use snap buttons at the cuffs and hips and also have scuff guards on the inside of the leg to protect against wear from crampons. The belt is also a nice feature. In reality though, I'm likely not wearing these while moving on the mountain because I'd overheat. Rather I'll be using these while hanging around camp and to add warmth inside my sleeping bag. For that reason I'm currently leaning towards the DAS Pants.

Black Diamond's Stance Belay Pants
Some points worth noting include that these are meant for some of the most extreme climbing conditions. Cold that can plunge to -40F and winds over 100mph are always a possibility on Denali. But there will likely be many nicer weather days, where these layers stay in the pack and don't need to come out. I'll likely be layering the parka over 5 or so layers, and the pants over 3 layers. For a puffy I'd actually climb a technical route in I'd be looking at something much lighter in the sweater category with something like 60g to 100g of fill so I don't overheat. But for the slower walking and lower exertion of an expedition to the extreme cold of Denali, these mega-puffys make sense.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Expedition Prep: A Series

I'm starting a new series on my blog focused on preparing for big mountain expeditions. I will be doing my first expedition to climb Denali's West Buttress this June as a guide with the American Alpine Institute, and there are many things I'm doing in preparation for climbing this 20,320' peak. Although most of my equipment and training from winter climbing and mountaineering in regions like Washington's Cascades and the Northeast have direct carry-over onto an objective like Denali, I'm still evaluating my equipment needs and altering my fitness training appropriately. I'll be discussing a new topic every Tuesday and Thursday.

Myself on Mt. Rainier, one of the best mountains in the lower 48 for high altitude training.

Look for my first post tomorrow on insulating layers: puffy parkas and puffy pants. Expect further topics to include training for altitude, crevasse rescue, mountaineering boot choices, sleeping bag choices, etc. I look forward to suggested topics and questions as well.