Gloves. They’re a tempestuous issue. Whether heading to alpine rock, powder or everything in between, choosing the right glove for the correct environment and activity is an incredibly personal decision. Dexterity versus warmth. Waterproof versus fast drying. Thick versus thin. There are a number of factors to consider when making a glove purchase for a specific activity. With this in mind, we’ve called upon Dave MacLeod, Pro-Team athlete and fellow glove obsessive, to impart some words of advice to help winter climbers everywhere to make an informed decision when it comes to glove choice this season, in this guide to climbing gloves. Dave, over to you.
The Glove Obsessive – Guide To Winter Gloves
As a mixed climber, I am by definition a glove obsessive. Any store that sells gloves – from outdoor to fishing to hardware stores will have me poring over their glove selection, looking for fabrics, fits and design ideas that feel good on my hands.
For winter climbing of all types, there are a handful of factors that determine which gloves to choose. But these are dominated by a trade-off (an apparent one at least) between dexterity and insulation. With traditional winter mountaineering gloves, the general rule is the thicker the glove, the less fiddly and precise work you can do with it. I’ll address this trade-off first, and then look at the other still important factors.
Thick Versus Thin
On steep mixed routes at your limit, it literally takes more energy to hang for prolonged periods from your ice tools in thick gloves. A tightly closed hand round the handles of the tools means more friction and less muscular effort. Anyone that’s ever tried a hard mixed route at their limit and failed will understand this basic issue. Then there is the difficulty in quickly and efficiently placing gear in thick gloves. These two factors are so important that they explain why mixed climbers trying the hardest routes will endure the gruelling pain of hot aches (or the screaming barfies for North American readers) multiple times a day on the hard routes. There is no getting around the trade off.
Or is there?
While working with Mountain Equipment on their new range of gloves, I started by bringing up two related observations. First, my background in physiology reminds me that the hand is designed to insulate itself on the palmar side. As a reasonably lean rock climber, when I had a DEXA body composition scan recently, the most obvious fat stores on my body were in the fat pads of the heels and fingers. The hand also has a thick ligament sheet across the palm (the palmar aponeurosis). Both of these help to insulate the hand when you touch a cold surface with the palm of your hand.
In contrast, the back of your hand has thinner skin, and doesn’t have the same fat and connective tissue padding as the palmar side. The blood vessels we need to keep warm in the cold are visibly obvious right underneath the skin. While the palmar side of your hand is resistant to extremes of temperature, the back is exquisitely sensitive by comparison.
My second observation was that while leading hard mixed routes in Scotland (where everything is plastered in tons of snow), I’d have a visceral worry response when approaching easier sections or ledges banked up with snow. Logically, it should be the other way around! The hard sections should be worrisome. But I realised the worry came because I knew on snowy ledges I’d be plunging the backs of my hands into snow, or clearing snow from ledges with one hand, while it piles up on the back of the other hand holding onto a placed ice tool. These were the points on routes where warm dry hands would turn to freezing damp hands which would be difficult to re-warm.
Taken together, this made me suggest that one way to circumvent the thick/thin trade off with gloves was simply to add more insulation to the back of the glove, where the thickness does not affect dexterity, but definitely does affect protection, and less on the palmar side to maximise dexterity but where the closed hand around the ice tool is less exposed to snow and already protected by the body’s own insulation apparatus.
This idea is now built into the Super Couloir and Direkt gloves. It is a simple design concept, and it works as well as I had hoped it would. So now my favoured gloves for winter climbing (Scottish or alpine) are the Direkt for the hardest pitches or drier conditions and the Super Couloir for the easier pitches up to Scottish VIII and all other parts of the mountaineering day such as belaying, moving on easier snow or dealing with foul winter storms.
As I said above, the insulative properties of the glove are by far the most important concern when choosing your gloves for a particular mountaineering activity. On the functional side (i.e. dexterity), the fit of the glove is important too. On thicker gloves, a pre-curve and careful design of the finger articulation makes a big difference. The frictional properties of the palmar surface are really important for a good grip and less muscular effort. It’s also important to buy the right size of glove.
This is a mistake I’ve made in the past myself. I’ve tended to err on the side of smaller sizes to avoid any excess glove protruding beyond the end of my fingertips, interfering with dexterity. However, it is crucial that when you close your hand around the ice tool, the glove is not too tight and squeezes your hand, closing off blood vessels, insulative air space around the hand and squashing the loft of the insulation material in the glove itself. I learned this the hard way and now choose large gloves despite being a small/medium in most clothing to fit my chunky climber’s hands!
Waterproofness & Glove Technique
Waterproofing is a further important issue. For most types of winter mountaineering and especially Scottish Winter, at least one pair of waterproof gloves are a critical piece of kit. Belaying almost inevitably means handling wet ropes which are covered in sticky snow. Even in cold, dry conditions, sliding ropes through your hands will melt snow and it won’t take too long to soak through a glove without a waterproof membrane. However, even waterproof gloves will eventually end up damp inside from moments when you have to take the glove off.
Obviously you should take plenty of care to minimise this by trying to dry your hand as much as possible before re-inserting it and not exposing the glove opening to the blowing snow. Placing the gloved hand into a half-zipped outer jacket before drawing your hand out can be useful to achieve this. But even so, the breathability of a GORE-TEX membrane or similar will allow some drying to take place during the day when you have warm hands so there is a temperature and humidity gradient to draw moisture through.