The belay parka, as I posted about earlier, serves a tried-and-true overlayer purpose. It’s simple and it works. But the concept doesn’t only apply to frigid temps and big puffies, like the DAS Parka (disclaimer: I work for Patagonia, am most familiar with their products, and so I use their names most often). Many companies make a light-duty, three-season-style insulated jacket – call it a Puffy Jr., Lil’ Puffy, Micro Belay Parka, whatever. Patagonia’s is the Nano Puff, and I think it’s the best piece we’ve made in years, and everyone I know who has one loves it. It’s become so popular that it spawned siblings – coming next fall: a full-zip version, a full-zip hoody, and a full-zip hard-shelled hoody. It’s surprisingly warm for being so trim, too – perhaps due to the PrimaLoft, which I babble about in the comments field at bottom of my synthetic-or-down post. Other companies make good similar pieces, as well – friends have versions that they love from Arc Teryx and Mont Bell, to name a couple.
Soon I’ll post some thoughts on what to look for, like full-zip or pullover, hard or soft shell, and down or synthetic (the only one with a yes/no answer in my book is the last: synthetic – more later).
I see these jackets as great transition pieces, having three overlapping uses:
1. Belay parka for relatively warm conditions (alpine rock climbing, for example), or winter/ice routes where you know you’ll be moving quickly. The downside to the latter, as opposed to bringing a full-on belay parka, is that if you get stuck at a long belay – say you encounter a harder-than-expected pitch that takes forever – you get cold. But if that happens, just keep it on and climb the next pitch in it (use #3, below) – something hard to do in the big full-on style belay parka.
2. Mid-layer insulation piece. They layer smoothly, and they’re toasty warm beneath a shell (layered under a shell traps even more heat) – typically too warm for me. I seem to heat-up quickly when moving (but cool off rapidly when stopped, so I quickly pull it on). We typically think of fleeces, like the R2, as mid-layer insulating pieces. These are just too warm for me for 99% of the climbing I do. I rarely wear my R2, though it’s an awesome fabric and I know lots of people love it. Just too warm for me. I’d get a Nano before an R2, because the former can do what the latter does, but not vice-versa.
For winter/ice/alpine climbing, I typically go with a base layer (Merino 1 or 2, short or long sleeve, depending), my omnipresent R1 Hoody, a pullover fleece vest if it’s cold, and then a shell. That system, varied in base layer and vest depending on temps, cover me for practically everything.
3. Insulated shell – just climb in it. Even if you’re wearing it over top of your normal shell, since it’s trim enough to still see your feet. I find myself in this “just climb in it” situation more often when swinging leads (versus leading in blocks) because you end up standing around belaying for two pitches in a row (after finishing your lead, then belaying your partner’s pitch). So, pull on the Lil’ Puffy after your lead, even if you’re still warm, to trap some heat before it escapes. By the time your buddy finishes his lead, if you’re cold, just keep the Lil’ Puffy on and climb in it.
This overlayer/light-belay-parka combo system works especially well in places with huge temperature swings throughout the day. I’ll sometimes dress for the warmest part of the day, but bring a Nano and a DAS (not overkill when you consider that the Nano replaces the standard mid-layer fleece, in which you’d overheat half the time). In Alaska, for example, even in a “warm” place like the Ruth Gorge – come to think of it, I’ve used this system there, on our routes on Thunder Mountain, and on attempts at the North Buttress of Hunter – in the middle of the night you might be climbing (and belaying) in sub-zero temps. Here, I’ll likely be climbing – lead and follow – with my Lil’ Puffy over top of my shell. Then, the day heats up and if you’re in the sun, you’re sweating like a whore in church. So I’m climbing in my basic system, not overdressed, and just pulling on my belay parka (either the micro/Nano or DAS), if even needed, when we stop. The alternative simply doesn’t make sense to me: add/subtract a mid-layer fleece midway up a climb. No way. I’m not going to partially disrobe midway up something, tuck in/out my layers under my harness, put the fleece in bottom of my pack where it’ll never again serve any purpose (unless I’m stuck out another night, in which case I’ll have to partially dis/re-robe again). It’s too much hassle, too slow, and you know that the minute you strip off your shell a torrent of spindrift will hit, reminding you that you should be rock climbing.
Which reminds me…one year ago right now I was at an incredible adventure cragging area called Frey, near Bariloche, Argentina. (And now I’m in Cody, Wyoming, about to get cold, wet, and scared ice climbing…nobody thought it possible, but indeed I’m dumber than I look.) We climbed for five straight days, amazing rock, and on our final day my friend Morgan Boyles and I climbed one of the best rock climbs anywhere: Siniestro Total. Nine pitches of perfect granite, cold in the morning shade, chilly at some belays, hard enough that you didn’t want to climb with a pack. I had a prototype Nano – it’s the yellow thing in the photos, packed down to nothing and super light clipped to the harness, then good enough warmth for belays, and trim enough to climb in. So good, ahhhh, Frey. Shit, anybody know if they have direct flights from Cody to Bariloche?