Layering on Denali

13 August 2013

By ephrat

There are a myriad of challenges to layering properly on Denali:

  • There are times when the sunlight radiating off the glacier generates immense heat
  • Five minutes later you might be in a whiteout
  • Or you might fall in a crevasse
  • At night it can dip to -20
  • It's often windy
  • Clothing is heavy and you have to carry all of it day after day, so you only want to take what's absolutely necessary

In this post I'll describe my complete layering system, what worked, and what didn't work.

A Flexible Layering System

Due to the variable conditions often found when hiking and camping in the winter time, it's crucial to have a flexible layering system that lets you easily adapt to your surroundings. Here I've broken down my system by region of the body. In general, I start with lighter layers and work my way up from there, the only exception being wind protection.

Upper Body

As a woman, the first layer on my upper body is usually a sports bra. I then like to wear a form-fitting tank as an undershirt. This serves two purposes: if it gets really hot I can strip down to just the tank, and if it gets really cold I have extra, draft-free protection around my core. On top of this I wear a long-sleeve midweight baselayer, usually a Smartwool crew. I especially like Smartwool for extended trips since it doesn't stink nearly as badly as my synthetic alternatives.

For crisp days on the trail, my next layer is a warm vest. I prefer one with some sort of wind protection, such as softshell or light down rather than fleece. This layer works to keep my core warm while preventing me from overheating as I hike.

The next layer up is a lightweight fleece. I recently started using the Patagonia R1 hoody, and this has to be one of my favorite pieces of clothing! For the weight, it's surprisingly warm. The hood is really form-fitting, and when you zip it up all the way it essentially becomes a balaclava! It's also super cozy and stretchy, giving you a large range of motion.

When it's breezy out, I like to wear my next favorite item: the Patagonia Houdini wind jacket. This thing is incredible! It weighs only 4 ounces, does a fantastic job blocking wind, and breathes insanely well. I don't go anywhere without it.

It's rarely cold enough that I have to wear it while hiking, but next in line is my Patagonia ultralight down jacket. Again, it is super warm for the weight. I also like its low profile, making me feel less like a giant poof ball.

Last but not least is my puffy. The big fun, folks. This is the single article of clothing that I trust to keep me alive when the mercury drops. It also feels like you are wearing a giant cloud, which is just awesome! Aside from containing a boatload of high quality feathers, one feature I look for is an integrated hood. This is crucial for staying warm when the weather turns nasty. Some parkas also have an interior pocket for a water bottle, which keeps it accessible and from freezing. I personally don't like a lot of bulk around my chest, but that's just me. The jacket I settled on is the Eddie Bauer Peak XV. This is a sweet jacket for half the price of comparable jackets from other name brands. And it's incredibly warm. I wouldn't hesitate to take it with me on Denali again.

Lower Body

Layering for the lower body is a little simpler. For some reason the body seems to be less sensitive to variations in temperature than the upper body. Unless it's crazy hot, I typically wear a pair of midweight long underwear. I have the Smartwool ones and the new version of the Capilene 4 from Patagonia, which is supposedly expedition weight. I find they perform about the same.

On top of that I wear either softshell or hardshell pants, depending on what I'm doing and conditions. For Denali I skipped the softshells all together. My hardshell pants are made with Goretex and have full side zips. The Goretex makes them highly wind resistant, and the side zips make them easy to slip out of and into my next and perhaps favorite layer: my down pants!

I have a thick pair of down pants that I like to wear around camp. These also have full side zips, which means I can change into them as soon as I get to camp without having to take my boots off. On Denali I also brought a pair of thick fleece pants, but I think I only wore them once, at the 17k high camp. They are heavy, and it's debatable weather they're worth the weight.

Head and Hands

To protect my head and face, I brought a warm hat, a dorky sun hat with flaps that reach my shoulders, a lightweight balaclava and a heavyweight balaclava. I also brought an awesome expedition headband from Patagonia, which I probably wore more than anything else. It keeps my ears and forehead warm while letting my head vent. I only wore the heavyweight balaclava on summit day and while sleeping at high camp. It's definitely an essential item.

For my hands, I brought five different types of gloves: light and heavyweight liners, softshell gloves, heavy snow gloves, and expedition weight mittens. The liners are useful for doing chores around camp when you need more dexterity, and the softshells are great for hiking when it's not too cold out.

My hands tend to get really cold, and the mittens seen to work much better for me than the gloves. The only downside is the poor dexterity. On our way up to Denali pass, one of the more technical sections of the route, I had my right hand in a glove so I could clip and unclip the rope quickly, and I had my left hand in a mitten. It looked silly, but who cares?

With the weatger changing at the blink of an eye on Denali, I found that I constantly needed to change gloves in order to keep my hands happy. Since efficiency is really important on a climb like this, I always kept an alternate pair clipped to my harness. This way I could swap gloves as needed without having to stop and take off my pack. This also meant I could address cold fingers right away rather than wait for a safe and convenient time to take a break.

Feet

When I first started out, I would get blisters on virtually every hike. It didn't matter what shoes I was wearing, or how many bandaids I would preemptively place on my heels and toes; I would always go home with a blooming garden of bubbles on my feet. Until one day, someone told me to try pairing liner socks with my hiking socks. That day changed my life! I've hardly had a blister since.

For winter trips, I wear a thick wool sock. I like the Smartwool ones or the REI ones. Underneath those I wear a pair of Merino wool liners made by REI. They are reasonably priced and just wonderful. I can wear these for several days without needing to change them.

The boots I used on Denali are the La Sportiva Baruntse. They are a fantastic pair if boots that climb really well. I never had the immerse heat molded, and I find them to be extremely comfortable.

At camp I wear a pair of down booties, which I think is one of the best inventions ever! I even wear them to bed when it's really cold.

And finally, I have a pair of 40 Below overboots. These are essentially a thick and heavy neoprene sleeve for your boots that add extra warmth. Unfortunately they are pricey, and Denali is one of the only mountains in the world where you would need them. On top of that, you really only need them on summit day! Ah well, such is the price of keeping your toes. One thing you can do with them is wear them over your down booties for extra warmth.

What Worked

I was really pleased with my layering system. The pieces that stand out most for me, though, are the R1 hoody, the Houdini jacket, my down booties, and my down pants.

More Importantly, What Didn't Work

Fortunately, I did a lot of research and experimentation before the trip, so there was very little that didn't work for me. The only two things I didn't end up using (not even once!) were my warm hat and my Goretex jacket. The hat was kind of a surprise to me, as the temperatures definitely dipped well below zero on several nights. However, I wore my R1 hoody every day, and the hood provided plenty of warmth for my head (especially when combined with the hood of my puffy when hanging around camp at night). On extra cold nights I ended up sleeping with my balaclava on, and so I never really had occasion to wear my hat.

I decided to bring my GoreTex jacket along to wear during extra windy days. What I didn't consider is that when it's windy, it's really cold, and so I will already be wearing a puffy, which blocks the wind really well. Further, I don't really like wearing the jacket since it breathes horribly, and I often get tons of condensation on the inside of the jacket. Wet layers = a big no-no!

Tip for the ladies: about two or three days into the trip I decided to ditch the sports bra for good. The straps on the bra were rubbing too much on my collar bone from the weight of the pack, and my skin was getting really raw an irritated. Since my undershirt is pretty form-fitting, it provided plenty of support for me and I didn't miss the bra a bit!

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