What to wear for a day's winter climbing is a source for endless debate, and everyone will have different ideas about what constitutes the ideal system. What is undebatable is the end goal - being warm, dry, and actually able to climb, in a range of temperatures and conditions. That means that the basic clothes I wear never change, whether it's 0°C and sleeting in New Zealand or -30°C and dry in Canada.
- base layer
- hooded thin fleece
- thin merino hat
- one-piece thermal bib
Then add, as conditions require:
- medium weight down or primaloft (underneath the shell if really cold)
- an outer layer for leading - a windshirt (if warm and dry) OR softshell (if cold and dry) OR hardshell (if wet)
- hooded medium/heavyweight belay jacket (a large enough size to go over all other clothes you'd wear for the day, and dextrous enough to climb in if it's super cold)
- one-piece thermal bib
- softshell or nylon trousers to keep the one-piece dry and add more warmth
- hardshell trousers if required
- gloves, one good leading pair, one seconding pair, one pair of belay mitts
- balaclava or buff type thing
- gaiters if snowy
Avoiding sweat is the key. Sweat gets your clothes wet and will freeze you when you stop moving at a belay. That means for most walk-ins you just wear your base layer, thin hoodie and one piece. You should be on the cold side of comfortable on the approach if you want to avoid sweating.
The advantage of one-pieces (e.g. OR 'Radiant Hybrid Suit') is no snow gets down your pants when you raise your arms and lift your jacket. They also mean that you have somewhere to put the gloves you aren't wearing so they can dry out and stay warm without falling through your jacket. The hoodie is important so you can keep snow from going down your neck but without the excess warmth, weight and sweat of wearing your shell for the walk-in. I have an Earth Sea Sky 'Vertical' hoody which is absolutely my favourite bit of clothing. Macpac is releasing an NZAT-tested hoodie similar to this one sometime in 2015. The Patagonia R1 and Rab Powerstretch are also meant to be good. Any good synthetic or merino base layer top is fine, e.g. Macpac Geothermal or Arcteryx Phase AR. I don't bother with leggings now that I use a one-piece.
When it's your turn to lead you need to make sure you can actually move in the amount of clothes you are wearing. You also don't want to sweat too much - you should be cold at a belay wearing just your leading gear. For mild days the the Macpac Sonic windshirt is great, or any good hooded softshell or hardshell for when conditions get more grim. The lighter and stretchier the better, for when you need to perform fancy gymnastic manoeuvres.
Picking a good belay jacket is also important - down is generally warmer for the weight but if there is major precipitation I usually take a hooded primaloft Macpac Pulsar jacket. Make sure the hood is big enough to go over your helmet. Most of the time if I've been wearing a hardshell for climbing the belay jacket goes on the outside - firstly because your belay shouldn't be in a spot where you are getting wet, secondly this saves time changing layers and thirdly this allows your inner layers to stay warm rather than transferring their moisture to the belay jacket and then everything becomes wet. However on a big mountain trip with lots of precip or constant spindrift you might have the shell on the outside. Be flexible. This year a new Denali-tested version of the Macpac Equinox down jacket is coming out which will be extremely warm, dry and light (I'm wearing one in the picture with this article).
Gloves are almost impossible to get right for all conditions. In NZ I have found 'Ice Ninja' gloves ($15 from hardware stores) to be adequate for warmth in NZ and dextrous for leading. Once they are wet, forget about it. You either need heaps of pairs or be able to dry them at night. In really cold temperatures or if it's wet you need something with a water resistant leather palm and a bit more insulation, e.g. BD Punishers. OR make some good ones as well. For mitts you simply cannot beat old-school dachstein-type boiled woolen mitts (see the picture). They are totally snowproof on the inside (although the outside may develop a coating of snow), warm to -30°C, and resist hours of belaying and abseiling. Find them in second hand stores or wherever. Norsewear used to make good ones. I always have at least three pairs of gloves and at all times I am wearing one pair and two are down my front underneath my one-piece. This keeps them warm and does actually slowly dry them out. Simply never leave a pair of gloves out in the air or in your pack if they are wet - you can say goodbye to them for the rest of the day once they turn into rock-hard lobster claws.
Another important consideration is keeping your boots dry. I almost always wear a fairly thin woolen sock to avoid blisters but this means cold feet if your boots get wet. Buy boots with integrated gaiters, or purchase a pair that fits well and has functional understraps to hold them down. Plugging steps in powder snow on an approach can ruin your day's climbing if you allow snow to get into your boots.
So good luck, stay comfortable and warm and you may just feel a little better when it's your turn to lead a crux pitch!
Warm and comfortable after an hour's belaying in -25°C at Maligne Canyon, Jasper, AB Canada.
Meanwhile, on the same day: Dan Joll tops out after leading a WI4 pitch in base-layers, Macpac hoodie, one-piece and Macpac Sonic windshirt.
In NZ: before a cold, shitty day's climb - I've gone with the primaloft jacket inside the softshell for mixed climbing - firstly because it was super cold and secondly because a pitch of mixed climbing will destroy almost any down or primaloft jacket!