Sunday, 11 January 2015

It won't make you climb harder...

Rocking the 'look' on the Grands Montets
May 1953: I'm walking in my brand new, thin, windproof jacket and trousers, made of cotton and Nylon. Underneath I have a combination of  light weight and heavy weight woollen jumpers and a hand knitted scarf made by my sister.

Fast forward to the late 1970s/early 80s and my choice of clothing today is my brand new polartec fleece, Rohan salopettes and 2nd generation Gore Tex.

And finally, we fast forward to today, 2015. I'm about to head outside, clothed in my new Hybrid base layer of Merino wool and synthetic material. On top of that, the latest synthetic mid layer that claims 'put it on, leave it on'. It's a little bit windy so I'll throw on my new Polartec Neoshell hardshell, or shall I put on my new softshell? I might have to open the pit zips if I get too warm. Actually, come to think about it, I think my mid layer might be too warm, so I'll put on the lighter gillet instead, down or synthetic? Or what about my fleece? Ahh but what if it gets a bit colder while I'm out? I'll throw my new, sub 300g down jacket with hydrophobic down, in a pack. Hmm, actually, the forecast says slight chance of rain, best play it safe and throw in my equivalent synthetic 'belay' jacket in too. While I'm at it, I'll chuck on my hardshell, full length zips and drop seat salopettes that I used on Denali...

...Right, where's the dog?

If you hadn't already guessed, the first example is the clothing worn on the first ascent of Everest. The second is an example of the gear worn by the likes of Alex Macintyre on his and Nick Colton's first ascent of the 'Colton-Macintyre' ED1 (VI,6) on the Grandes Jorasses and on his alpine style ascents of 8000m peaks. And I'm sure everyone can relate to the last example. What I'm trying to get at here is that, as per the title, no matter what you wear, it's not going to make you climb harder. Looking at the examples, would you attempt Everest today in the clothing worn by Hillary and Tenzing? Would you stand at the base of the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses dressed in the gear Macintyre and Colton would have worn? Lets go one step further, would you attempt the 1938 route on the Eiger dressed in the first ascensionist gear of tweed and wool? I doubt it. I know I wouldn't. But the question is why? They managed to.

What I'm trying to convey here are my own thoughts and opinions on today's gear and how advertising and marketing influence our decisions and thoughts on buying new gear. I'm going to focus on clothing but the same can be said for other gear such as ice axes, crampons, protection, boots and packs.
Do I look the part? Bristly ridge, Tryfan
So to begin with, I'm going to look at 'Self image'. In today's media, we are bombarded with images of top climbers pulling off some outrageous climb, whether it's on rock or ice. But we're also subject to guides and their day to day lives guiding clients. What they both have in common is 'the look'. As with any job, the way they are presented says a lot about them. They have to look professional. If anything, they have something to prove, that they are role models and influential to their target audience. We look at them as inspiration to climb harder. And in doing so, we try to acquire 'the look'. And with this 'look' comes elitism. Not with everyone, but with a very select few. You see a guide or your favorite sponsored climber, climb one of the hard routes on your wish list, and they're wearing Arcteryx, for example. You go out and buy the item of clothing your idol was wearing; "look at me, I wear Arcteryx, I must climb hard!" que bragging to all non climbers about how you struggled up the North Face of the Tete Blanche and got the pictures of you in your Arcteryx jacket to prove it. But who doesn't want to look good in their Facebook pictures, we all a need a good profile picture to show all our old school friends how amazing your life is right? Even if the picture is of you on Central Trinity, sporting your brand new, brightly coloured jacket looking 'really cool'. As I mentioned before, a lot of us climbers have the desire to climb harder and we all have routes and grades we want to aspire to, so will our choice in clothing help us to achieve these goals? No, but maybe the colour will. 
Red jacket, Black troos on Central Route (III) Cwm Idwal. Doesn't quite match last years colour scheme.
Lets take a look at advertising, promoting and sponsored climbers. The 3 that spring to mind for me are Uli Steck (Mountain Hardwear), Dave Macleod (Mountain Equipment) and Leo Houlding (Berghaus). They are the faces of these brands and are there to sell products. We see Uli Steck speed solo the Eiger and Annapurna South face, Dave Macleod climb XI 11 on the Ben, and Leo Houlding climb big walls on Baffin Island and Antarctica. All of them wearing clothing available to the general public. As you are all aware, this is how advertising works, we see, we want. I saw a picture of Leo Houlding wearing a down jacket on his latest adventure to Ulvetanna, If it's good enough for him in Antarctica, then it's good enough for me in the Alps, right?. So I'm a sucker to advertising, aren't we all? But on the other hand, what if we saw them in something else. What if we saw Uli Steck clad from head to toe in Regatta, Dave Macleod dressed in craghopper and Leo Houlding climbing in HiGear? Would we go out and buy these low end cheap brands because we have seen our idols climb hard in them? Or is the gear snob within us going to stop us?

Soloing Idwal stream (III) Cwm Idwal. Maybe it does make me climb harder...

Gear snob: Someone who only buys a certain brand or brands (brand whore) and avoids others like the plague. Yes, I am guilty of this. When looking for a new jacket or trousers, I mainly only browse RAB, Montane, Haglofs, Mountain Equipment/Hardwear, Marmot, Mammut, Arcteryx and Patagonia. And more recently Black Diamond and Jottnar. But why is this? Do I see brands like The North Face, Buffalo and Paramo as inadequate? Yeah pretty much. But in all seriousness, the way I see it is that it doesn't cater for my needs and preferences. The latter brands are more than adequate. We all have our preferred layering system and buffalo and Paramo doesn't work for me. Which brings me on to brand association and stigmas. What do I mean by this? If I said name a brand and the type of climbing you would relate it to, what would you come up with? Arcteryx and Patagonia: Winter/summer Alpine climbing? Mountain Equipment and Paramo: UK winter climbing? TNF: Highstreet 'pub'? Of course, you can use all brands for all types of climbing, but this relates back to the sponsored climber and 'image'. I personally wouldn't buy Paramo to climb in the alps with because I personally don't associate it with alpine climbing. But then again, I've taken inspiration from 'what to wear' articles in the past to help with my pickings. And then you've got the likes of the Patagonia Kit Builder and 'needing' different items of clothing for different conditions. These should be taken with a pinch of salt and what works for one person, may not work for another. A lot of these articles focus on new season gear, or top of the range, expensive, gear. And again, fashion and features to acquire 'the look' feature heavily.

'Mountain Ninja' on Dorsal Arete (II)

By now, some of you may be thinking "Target audience". Yes, these articles and types of clothing are targeted at a certain audience such as Scottish winter or alpine climbing. But here's a scenario which I myself have experienced: I'm in the market for a new layering system as my old one is worn. So what do I 'need'? Mid layer and a shell. What do I mostly do? Well currently I winter climb in the UK, BUT one day I 'might' go to the alps and climb in winter. Do some technical North Face route in -20 or ski tour. So I have a search online for alpine winter clothing, ask on UKC and before I know it, I've shelled out £500+ on a new superlight hardshell, new season synthetic mid layer and fleece and another belay jacket, this time a down one. Did I need to spend all that? No, clearly not. Could I afford to? Definitely not. And could I justify needing it? At the time, yes, but looking back I could have got by with my old system and just upgraded bits one bit at a time. I was sucked into believing that I 'needed' all those jackets via their, very well done, advertising and if I didn't have them, I wouldn't be able to climb as hard. I'm not afraid to admit this, and I'm sure others have felt the same or been in a similar situation. I was (still am a little) naive. I immediately looked at the most expensive and worked down from there. Is a £350 jacket £150 better than a £200 jacket? I doubt it very much. Again, this is all about image and having something to prove. Or maybe I'm just jealous that someone can afford the expensive Arcteryx or Patagucci atire.  And now, I've got 14 jackets hung up in my wardrobe, several of which I don't take away with me anymore as they're 'dated'. Ha, dated. New clothing comes out and all of a sudden old season clothing isn't good enough anymore. But it was good enough last season, what's changed? It's lighter? Got an extra pocket? Material has changed slightly? New colour? You still climbed just as hard and you 'looked' the part. But we can't be seen as going out of fashion now, can we? The mountain ninja look is sooo 2010.

Sporting the 'Mountain Ninja' look on the Cosmique Arete

So lets reflect back to the opening paragraph. If we look back, they didn't have a huge selection of different types of clothing to chose from. A woollen base layer, coupled with a few different weight fleeces and a shell jacket that wasn't even very breathable or waterproof, just enough to keep the wind off. Now days we are spoilt for choice:

Fleece (Jacket, Hoody, Gilet)
Synthetic (Jacket, Hoody, Gilet)
Hybrid Jacket, get the picture)
Down (All the above + different qualities and warmth)
RAB vapourise and Marmot Driclime type things.

All the above have their variations, whether it be material, insulation, down fill weight and power, weight, features, full length or 3/4 length zips etc. There's just so much to chose from, it's no wonder people refer to 'what to wear' articles and see what the pros are wearing and gear reviews around the web. What happened to the old school 3 layer layering system: wicking base layer, fleece and a waterproof jacket. This was adequate for many years. Well, things have changed and technology has improved. The clothing we have today won't make you climb harder...

...but you'll be more comfortable when you fail.

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