Thursday, March 03, 2011

A cold winter: Happy Pants and "Layering."

February was a tough month to be an ice climber in Canmore, especially compared to 2010. In fact, the whole year has seemed colder and nastier than 2010 by a fair amount, especially February, when we normally expect things to warm up. In 2010 I remember walking into climbs and working out in the back yard wearing nothing on m upper body but a T-shirt regularly. That means the high temp for the day was often above freezing. Getting in and out of the Ghost wasn't too bad in general, but this year it's been routinely impassable without chains and multiple vehicles to yank the stuck one out. We rely on chinooks in Alberta to melt out the snow, and we haven't been getting them. The snowbank beside my driveway is head-high, which tells me it's been a really snowy, cold winter without any good chinooks. I've cancelled or just not even planned to go out on more days of ice climbing this year than I can ever remember; I'll climb down to about -20 or so, but below that it just stops being all that much fun. The highs have often been -20 this year; I shot a TV show in -35 to -25 temps, it was frigid silliness where the crux was just staying functional.

Now, usually when someone says, "It's a cold month!" the numbers show it to be pretty close to average. But I just spent an hour figuring out that it's been brutally cold this February, here's the story from Environment Canada's historical and climactic normal sites:

High Low Average
2010 +3.7 (!) -8.8 -2.55

2011 -5.2 -17.6 -11.38

Long-Term -0.4 -11.6 -6.0

So last February was really nice, and this year's was really cold. But the "funny" thing is that if you average 2011 and 2010 you get very close to the long-term average "normal."

Anyhow, if you, like me, have been doing some whining about the cold temperatures there is at least some empirical evidence to back that whining up. I suspect that if we did the same analysis for December and January they too would be cold; normally I don't pack my insulated "Happy Pants" with me automatically, but I have been this year regardless of what the forecast says. The Happy Pants are key items to climbing when the temperature goes below -15 or so. They really do just make life a lot happier. Put on a nice fat belay jacket and a pair of Happy Pants and it's like belaying in a sleeping bag, brilliant!

The cold weather has also made me re-evaluate my "layering" approach. I've been doing a lot more coaching, ice festivals and TV show work than usual, which means I'm standing around more. A month or so ago a friend of mine was visiting the house and warming up by my wood stove (love that wood stove!). I counted the layers she had worn for guiding that day; at least five. A lot of my guiding friends have been out in the cold weather guiding every day; it's what they do, and they work down to about -30. They also often don't have the luxury of moving fast. They can sprint a pitch to generate some heat, but the client moves at whatever speed the client moves at. A good guide around here moving at metabolic idle is still pretty damn fast compared to most visitors. So, five to seven layers to store every single bit of heat possible, and stay dry. Those layers don't come off until she's in a warm place for a long time.

I was also out at the beginning of the season with a friend of mine who works at Arc'teryx. I was mouthing off about "layers are idiotic" as usual, and he had a different viewpoint. He lives in a swamp (also known as the Vancouver/Squamish area), where the snow is wet and the rain of course more so. His view of layering was a base layer to wick the sweat off yer body, an insulation layer, and a protective layer. He routinely wore a jacket that I love (the Atom) for moving; I would die of heat stroke if I wore that jacket while moving for more than a few minutes. But he, like my guiding friend, tended to move in fits and starts, more like a downhill skier than a climber moving fast at a constant rate with relatively brief interruptions. He also expected his base layer to keep him dry; I don't, and regard sweat as a failure in dressing properly, or a good time to change shirts.

My whole view of "layering" is based on operating in two states: Movement, and not movement, and having those two states roughly balance each other. I normally wear a thin synthetic or (gasp!) even cotton shirt to the climb with nothing else or at most a soft shell over the top. Or maybe a light piece of insulation with no shell; we don't generally need "protection" here in the Rockies until we're actually climbing or skiing down. But you have to be moving fast enough to be really warm to dress like that. If you're moving fast with five layers on then you're going to waste water and energy cooling yourself. When I get to my climb or destination for the day I strip my shirt (there goes the cotton, leaves yer skin dry after you wipe it down, unlike a synthetic...), put on a nice fresh Ether base layer, then a thin piece of insulation, then some sort of shell usually. A belay jacket and happy pants top it all off for the "not moving" state. On/off, moving/not moving.

But when standing around at -25, well, you'll want a whole whack of layers, especially if you never get your engine firing on the approach or while climbing. Without that internal "burn" you'll have a hard time staying warm. But burn too hard in too much clothing and you'll be wet, and really, really cold when standing around.

All of this is causing me to learn a lesson I learn over and over again in life: There are systems and ideas that are absolutely right for some situations, but few systems are right or even good for all situations. We all get attached to our idea of what the perfect systems are, but they are the perfect systems for the world we operate in, not across all situations. V-thread or A-thread, cordellete or sliding X, clove hitches or knots, each has a "perfect" place. I will strive to be more open to different experiences from people who actually think and work in different places.

And it's been a damn cold winter. Today I was out skiing at -1, and it felt so luxurious, so truly tropical. I wore a light Ether shirt and a proto pull-over, no gloves, no hat, brilliant!!!! I really, really hope March is warmer than February for everyone. My Happy Pants are available for a low rental rate if not.