Glove Systems for Mountaineering and Alpine Climbing

A Seasoned Alpinist Shares His Secrets


Gentzel Coley

by Coley Gentzel

AAI Instructor and Guide

Planning for and acquiring the proper equipment for mountain climbing has sent more than one would be summiteer into a tailspin of frustration and doubt. In this edition of AAI's Expert Tips, we are going to talk about glove systems for alpine climbing.

Glove systems constitute one of the most perplexing areas of gear selection that face most aspiring-and even experienced-alpine climbers. No one system is "the right one," and personal preference plays a large role in selecting a strategy for keeping your hands warm and dry while maintaining the degree of dexterity that you need for your chosen objective. The notes below focus on glove systems for mountaineering; however, some of theprinciplescan be transferred to other outdoor activities such as alpine rock climbing, skiing and snowboarding, and ski mountaineering.

Rappeling in a storm in the North Cascades

Before we get too far into this discussion, let's explore some of the finer points of a material you will hear referenced in the notes below: fleece. Shortly after its introduction into the performance clothing line, it became a buzzword amongst outdoor enthusiasts. At the time, fleece was the best thing going since sliced salami and dehydrated meals. Since the birth of fleece, however, there have been significant changes in materials and technology that now make this once revolutionary material somewhat obsolete. If you still count yourself amongst the fleece loyalists, as I once did, it's time to let go. It will be for your own good, and you will never look back unless it is to cast a look of disbelief at your former preference for the bulky, sponge-like, non-windproof, fuzz-ball collecting garments. That said, fleece still has a few applications in modern clothing and equipment combinations hence its inclusion in the descriptions below. Just know that if you continue to stuff your fleece jackets, pants, and other garments into your backpack, lighter, more compressible, warmer, and more wind and water resistant options exist for the same or less money. I encourage you to embrace the new era of Primaloft and Polarguard.

Let's get started.

STEP 1 - Estimate conditions

To figure out what sort of glove system will work well, estimate the temperatures and conditions (readpotential for getting wet) that may be encountered on your trip. It's no secret that forecasting mountain weather and conditions is, at best, difficult. Your estimation will be based on some factors you will know and some you cannot know. Until you gain some experience with what works and what doesn't (and what you can get away with), take a conservative approach and err on the side of warmer and more waterproof.

STEP 2 - Consider your objective and the nature of the climbing

Consider what degree of dexterity and sensitivity is required from your hand wear for your planned climb. Generally speaking, the more technical and complex the climbing, the more dexterity (thin, form fitting gloves) will become a consideration. You will gradually get a better feel for this through experience and exposure to variable conditions. Unless you know what you can get away with, play it on the safer side (readwarm and dry) as opposed to using a higher performance glove that offers less protection.

For climbing where you will not need to manipulate carabiners, tie knots, and perform relatively delicate operations with your fingers, just about any waterproof and insulated glove will do. However, even most basic mountaineering ascents usually require several of the processes mentioned above, so having some degree of dexterity is necessary. With gloves that are too big and/or too bulky you will spend a lot of time fighting the gloves, and this will cost you precious time on the climb. In more technical situations, improper hand wear not only costs time, it costs a margin of safety. Ill-fitting gloves can lead to premature fatigue, create difficulty in placing protection and clipping into anchors, and cause instability while on technical ground.

STEP 3 - Choose a glove system

There are more makes and models of gloves out there than you can shake an ice axe at. Hopefully the steps above will help you narrow down the field a bit. Once you have a handle on the expected temperatures and conditions, and you know what degree of difficulty your objective will involve, do some research to figure out which makes and models may be appropriate. If you already own several pairs of gloves, this process will be a matter of determining if you have a gap in your system that needs filling or choosing the right combination.

When shopping for gloves, account for the all of the possibilities in a certain product category, and then compare things like weight, materials used, construction, and design functionality. Everyone loves to get their hands on new gear before they decide to buy it, but there are so many choices on the market you probably won't be able to inspect every good option firsthand. Patagonia, Black Diamond, Outdoor Research, Marmot, Mountain Hardwear, and REI all offer a range of gloves in different areas of functionality. Brands and models are discussed in the Sample Systems Chart below.

Think of this process as choosing a glove systembecause you may be using layers(a liner and a glove, or possibly a waterproof shell and system of liners), and because carrying only one set of gloves and liners is never enough. Your hands are your ability to function and take care of yourself, so a great deal of care should be taken to ensure they stay properly insulated and functional. Always take an extra system. The system you are wearing can and will get wet over the course of a typical day, and, if you are on an extended trip, it will likely be a while before they are dry again. For technical climbing and expeditions, AAI guides often take a complete set of extra gloves for all of the systems they plan to use except for expedition mittens.


Summer Glacier Mountaineering

Gloves used for sun protection in warm conditions

While approaching your camp or hiking during the day, you will more than likely need little to protect your hands. However, while traveling on snow it is always a good idea to have some sort of protection on your hands, even if temperatures don't dictate the need for gloves for keeping your hands warm. When trying to self arrest, use your ice axe, or in the event of a fall, your hands can get badly abraded by the snow or by pieces of gear, causing you to lose purchase on your axe. You may also find yourself in the position of unexpectedly rescuing yourself or others. A light pair of fleece, Powerstretch or Schoeller/softshell gloves will work well for this layer. For a pre-dawn alpine start, a warmer, mid-weight pair of gloves such as the Black Diamond Verglas, Black Diamond Ice Glove, or Patagonia Stretch Element Glove would probably be the warmest glove you will need. For a three-day climb on a peak such as Mount Baker or Mount Rainier in the Cascades, one (two, if wet conditions are expected) pair of lighter gloves and one pair of mid-weight gloves should be adequate.
The System: fleece/softshell and mid-weight insulated/waterproof gloves.

Winter Mountaineering

While climbing, skiing, and mountaineering in the winter, your hands are gloved almost 100% of the time. Snow tends to lend itself to melting and invading every possible orifice in clothing causing wetness wherever and whenever it comes into contact with clothing and equipment. For these reasons, and because of the usually very cold temperatures, it's good to have several types of gloves handy, possibly doubling up on one or more of them. For moving during the day or in milder winter temperatures, a heavier pair of fleece gloves or Schoeller gloves, like the Mountain Hardwear Windshear, Black Diamond Windstopper Tech, or Patagonia Windproof Gloves might be adequate. More likely, a mid-weight glove will be the choice for most activity, especially if you intend have your hands in the snow a fair amount of the time. A pair of lighter fleece or Powerstretch gloves will come in handy around camp for some light protection while cooking or handling cold objects. These are small, weigh nothing, and wear out quickly, so taking an extra pair is usually a good idea. When it's very windy, cold, or when your other gloves get wet, you should have a heavier pair of cold weather gloves (maybe even mitts, depending on the temps, such as the Black Diamond Guide Glove or Marmot Ultimate Ski Glove).
The System: light liner gloves or fleece/softshell, mid-weight gloves, and heavy gloves or mitts.

Expedition Climbing

Heavily insulated expedition climbers

For colder temps, climbing during the day, and for heavy snow work, you will want to have a mid-range glove with some insulation, waterproof properties, and durability. Models like the Black Diamond Ice, Black Diamond Guide Gloves, and Patagonia Stretch Element work well. A heavy pair of gloves such as the Black Diamond Guide Glove or OR Super Couloir will probably be needed for very cold temps when dexterity is needed, plus a pair of expedition mitts that will keep your fingers alive in extremely low temperatures or in the event of an emergency bivy. For tasks such as cooking and cleaning and life inside the tent, a pair of Powerstretch or light fleece gloves are perfect. These are small, weigh nothing, and wear out quickly so taking an extra pair is usually a good idea. A mid-weight pair of fleece gloves or softshell gloves can serve as a backup and serve slightly different functions like shoveling snow and setting up your tent.

Redundancy in a few of the glove categories is key as you will spend a lot of time in gloves and need to have a few backup pairs for when you get wet, the gloves wear out, or goodness forbid, you should lose a pair. Expedition climbing is hard on gear, and gloves are no exception. In reality, even a well-made and expensive pair will only survive one expedition climb. Towards the end of a three-week trip, most of gloves will have holes.
The System: light liners of fleece/softshell, mid-weight gloves, heavy gloves, and mittens.

Technical Ice or Mixed Climbing

Gloves for technical climbing must provide dexterity

In technical alpine climbing or ice climbing, some degree of warmth is often sacrificed for the sake of increased dexterity. In short, if you plan to climb higher standard rock and ice routes in cold weather, expect to have cold fingers and toes and get to know and deal with the "screaming barfies" really well (that's what you feel when your cold fingers or toes get the first rush of blood back into them causing extreme pain and making you want to scream and/or barf). An alpinist's ability to use their fingers and manipulate carabiners, ice screws, and rock protection is more than convenience - it can be a matter of life and serious injury or death. Take two pairs of the glove in which you plan to spend the most time.

For cold weather technical climbing, the Black Diamond Drytool Glove or the Black Diamond Ice Glove is an excellent choice. For an all-day alpine route with the possibility of getting benighted, take two pairs of your action gloves AND a pair of warmer gloves. This may sound like a lot of gloves and pack space, and it is. But this approach can save tremendous difficulty and the potential for frostbite. Here's why. If your first pair becomes wet and frozen beyond use you still need reasonably warm and dexterous fingers. Even with a second pair, by the top of the climb or the end of the day, your second pair may become frozen. With this system, you will still have your warmest and most comfortable gloves for the descent back to camp, sometimes well after nightfall when cold temperatures have set in. For technical climbing that involves rock and/or mixed terrain, leather gloves from a hardware store (insulated and un-insulated) can be an inexpensive and functional alternative to the more expensive options listed above. These can be slow to dry, but they last a long time and handle rock climbing well.
The System: Softshell, mid-weight gloves, and heavy gloves.

For time around camp, see recommendations under Expedition Climbing.

In Summary

Alpine climbing gloves with heavy wear and tear

There are some hard and fast rules of thumb when it comes to gloves:

  • one pair of gloves or liners is never enough
  • your gloves will get wet
  • your gloves will fall apart - probably sooner than you think.

Obviously the rate of wear will depend on the frequency and nature of use, but there are no gloves made today, nor will there probably ever be, that can stand up to the rigors of mountaineering for more than a season or two while maintaining their integrity and waterproof properties. Most active mountaineers find themselves having to replace their gloves every season, more often for activities such as ice and mixed climbing or expedition climbing. Remember, keeping your hands warm and dry, and also planning your system to give you adequate dexterity and sensitivity can save your hands, if not your life.

Bonus tip: Drying and waterproofing your gloves

There are a few tips and tricks you will hear floating around about how to dry your gloves and clothing on a multi-day trip, and you probably have a few of your own. While climbing, you can tuck your wet gloves in the chest pocket of a coat or in the cargo pockets of your parka. They will dry a bit while moving. This isn't recommend if wearing a Gore-tex coat because in order to dry, the gloves need to be able to breath and moisture needs a way out of your clothing system. At camp you can sleep with your wet gloves on the top of your body so that escaping heat goes through them (taking moisture along for the ride) before leaving your bag. You can also put wet items in a sleeping bag with a Nalgene bottle full of hot water (be sure the cap is screwed on tight!) and accomplish the same thing while you go about other business around camp. Wearing your wet gloves on your hands in dry conditions or while generating heat (hiking uphill) can be a quick and easy way to dry your gloves while in action. Be careful of drying gloves next to an open flame; more than one pair of fleece gloves has met their untimely demise at the hands of an eager climber with a powerful camp stove.

For gloves with leather or synthetic palms, treating the reinforced portions with waterproofing products such as Nikwax can increase the life of the glove and keep your hands drier longer. From time to time, the outside of soft shell or fabric gloves can use a treatment of a DWR (durable water repellent) such as Techron or Gore's Revivex. Be careful about washing and/or drying gloves with a waterproof and breathable rating because the waterproof membranes in these garments are not very durable. The washing process can break down certain portions of the membrane, causing your garments to leak.


Recommendations for glove systems

All recommendations for clothing and equipment should be taken with a grain of salt and weighed against your own research, knowledge, and preferences.

Glove Comparison and Summary Table

Manufacturer Light Medium Heavy Mittens
Black Diamond Powerstretch
Windstopper Tech
GTX Shell System
Dry Tool
Ice Glove
Patagonia Capilene Liners
Windproof Gloves
Stretch Element
White Smoke
Marmot Guide
Sharp Point
Alpinist Tool
Alpinist Pro
Ultimate Ski Alpinist
OR (Outdoor Research) Gripper
Super Couloir
Mountain Hardwear Powerstretch
Snow Pro
Elevation Absolute Zero

To fill in the gaps in your glove systems, check out AAI's Online Gear Shop or one of the many excellent outdoor retailers available in your area.

Click the link to see American Alpine Institute's alpine climbing courses.

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