By STEPHEN REGENOLD
In the high peaks of the Canadian Rockies, on snow, ice, rock and scree, climber Jaime Clarke has spent the past 12 months testing and breaking in a prototype set of Champion apparel made to manage almost anything the mountains near his home in Calgary, Alberta, can throw his way. The custom clothing and outerwear — developed by a Hanesbrands R&D team as part of a multi-year project that will cumulate this spring with an expedition to Mount Everest — includes materials not typically associated with the outdoors world.
“I don’t exactly get what’s going on in the socks,” said Clarke, referring to his prototype silk-weight socks, which Hanesbrands says it has embedded with a material that goes through a molecule phase-change in extreme cold to hold and retain foot heat.
Clarke’s test lab for the special socks, clothing and outerwear moved this month from the Canadian Rockies to Nepal. As a warm-up to Everest in April 2010, Clarke and a team of climbers, as well as several Hanesbrands engineers, this month trekked to the base of Mount Pumori, a pyramid of ice and stone straddling the Nepal-Tibet boarder.
A giant dome tent in base camp serves as an ad hoc lab for the Hanesbrands R&D team. Above, on Pumori’s sharp peak, Clarke and crew climb wielding ice axes and spiked boots, kicking and straining on a peak that juts 23,494 feet into thin Himalayan air.
“Pumori is our warm-up expedition, but it alone is no small feat,” said Clarke, who noted the vertical faces and avalanche dangers common on Pumori’s South Ridge Route.
From his boots on up, Clarke plans to put a dozen pieces of apparel and gear to the test on Pumori. Final tweaks to the Hanesbrands pieces will then be made by the R&D team this winter before Clarke attempts Everest in the spring.
Among everything he is testing, Clarke said the new Hanesbrands socks and base layers, which include wool-blend fabrics and hollow-fiber synthetic yarn, may get the harshest evaluation on Pumori’s high face. The next-to-skin layers are crucial for wicking moisture from the body. They serve as a foundation to the layered system of clothing and outerwear above.
For their feet, the climbing team — which includes Clarke, Americans Todd Craig, Scott Simper, and Sara Lingafelter, as well as a Sherpa team led by Ang Temba — will pull on Hanesbrands’ special two-sock concoction. The thin wicking sock with the phase-change technology goes on first. Its encapsulated material, Hanesbrands cites, changes from a solid to a liquid state to “store body heat and return the heat when feet start to cool by changing back to a solid state.”
Sock layer No. 2 will be either a wicking wool-blend fabric or a hollow-fiber full synthetic yarn, Clarke said.
Hanesbrands has a long history with base layers, which are the next-to-skin pieces formerly known as “long underwear.” In the 1950s, early summiters of Mount Everest wore Duofold base layers, a Hanesbrands product. But the base layers to be tested on Mount Pumori are far different from the pieces employed decades ago. The company says its current prototype base layers are among the “most technical pieces that Clarke will wear.”
Made with a synthetic blend of fabric that stretches and wicks, the company has created a set of seamless-construction tops and bottoms. They employ at least six knit techniques per piece to create “zones” on the fabric face. The surface is raised in certain areas for insulation and fit. In other spots, the zones are thin mesh wicking panels where the body needs most to breathe.
Next up, the mid pieces provide a body-heat-holding insulating layer. They are based on the company’s commercially-available Duofold Varitherm High Performance Wool base layers. But for Pumori and Everest, the mid layers, which are knit with merino wool and synthetic fibers, are a thicker and heavier weight, upping the insulating effect for high-altitude use.
A soft-shell system comes next, including a jacket and pants. Hanesbrands calls this layer the “workhorse” of the line because of its versatility. Clarke said he has donned the soft-shell pieces, which are three-ply-construction garments, in a range of temperatures and conditions.
Used within the Hanesbrands system, the soft shells are made to insulate and wick moisture. They are built with a stretchy fabric that is new to the market, the company says. Further, there is a “thermal grid fleece” inner layer Hanesbrands touts as capturing body heat.
The fourth layer, the hard-shell system, includes a jacket and pant for use high on the mountain. The shell, according to Hanesbrands spec material, uses a new two-ply, stretch-woven fabric. It is water- and wind-repellant but breathable as a result of micro-pores that channel vapor but keep water and wind out, the company says.
The final piece, a top-secret “summit suit,” will be publicly unveiled this January at the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City. Hanesbrands touts it as “one of the most technologically advanced summit suits ever.” It will incorporate technology never before used in the outdoors industry, the company says.
For Pumori, the suit is coming out of the lab. Clarke will get his first glimpse of a complete version of the elusive summit suit. “It’s been almost two years in the waiting to test it,” Clarke said.
En route now to Nepal and Pumori beyond, Clarke and crew are fully geared up. Clarke is looking forward to climbing high past the elevations where his hometown Canadian Rockies top out. “At high altitude, you’re at a heightened state,” Clarke said. “Everything is much more noticeable, you have an acute sense, and under that duress it makes you depend on your equipment even that much more.”
Monitor Clarke’s Pumori Expedition — and the gear tests that go along with the climb — throughout October and November at http://climbwithus.com/#/updates.