There are lions and roaring tigers, and enormous camels and things
There are biffalo-buffalo-bisons, and a great big bear with wings,
There's a sort of a tiny potamus, and a tiny nosserus too -
But I gave buns to the elephant, when I went down to the Zoo!
- AA Milne, When We Were Very Young 1924
In the received wisdom of winter mountaineering clothing the layering system is king, the elephant so to speak. And, if you've got any sense (according to the adverts that is) and not a few buns to spare, your layering goes something like this:- a thermal vest (£15 - £30), a thinnish polarsomethingorotherpull-over (£40-£100), topped by a nice Gore-tex jacket (£120 - £thesky'sthelimit) that keeps the under-layers dry - allegedly. Spare clothing includes a thickish polarsomethingorotherjacket (£50 - £l50), and for safety a really old smellyHelly - whotsit that you bought years ago at a discount price and can't wear out. Legs receive similar lagging at similar cost and there you are, £500- £1000 poorer but as snug-as-a-bug-in-a-rug, until you actually start climbing that is.
What happens then is something like this. You are walking into Ben Nevis. The weather is bloody as usual and you're f-f-f-freezing so it's on with the lot before you leave the car park. By the time you've gone half a mile you're baking - and sweating like the proverbial. Now Gore-tex ain't bad stuff and can generally deal with a fair litreage of vapour but there is a limit (especially when its outer coating is sodden) - and you've reached it. So its time to take off the outer layer; remove a rather moist inner one, replace the outer one and crack on because two other teams have just overtaken you while you were faffing around. And so on, until the foot of your chosen route, North East Buttress (the other two teams beat you to Tower Ridge and nothing else is visible/in nick). Now it's decision time - are you going to get cold on the stances and/or overheated on the climbing? I give up, I've never got this one right yet and I don't suppose that you will either, but for the moment you're a bit warm so you opt not to bother with an extra layer. Two hours later, after three-quarters of an hour on a belay ledge, you rather wished you had as your thin inner layers are definitely chilling and you with them, and so it's all change again only more difficult this time due to the harness and the slings and the belay and the frozen fingers and all. And so on to the top of the route, narrowly avoiding au impromptu bivouac at the foot of the Mantrap where the wind howls and spindrift lodges in every crevice and you shiver in your damp layers while your partner spends an hour or so discovering how to torque axes. By the time you have sweated your way back to Fort Bill, pausing only to remove several now sodden layers and replace the waterproof, everything is wet and your Gore-tex has all the comfort and allure of a very old dish-cloth. Never mind, you've got more spare clothes, and you might just get it all dried out by morning - if there is any space left in the drying room - which there won't be. What's more, after two to three years of such use you harbour distinct suspicions that your waterproof is not quite as waterproof as it was when you first bought it, your spouse has confined your thermals to the toxic waste dump and your polarbits are desperately out of fashion so it's time to start all over again. Sound familiar? It does to me because, in the words of the oracle, I've been there, done it, ticked it... too many times to remember.
But if layering is a white heffalump, just whom the heck should you give your buns to? Well, over the last two winters, mine (and I have to say a lot less of them) have gone to the biffalo-buffalo-bison and what follows is a brief appraisal of the Buffalo Double P System and how and why it works.
There are a number of variants within the Buffalo Double P system, but, for climbers, the essentials are as follows. A ‘Big Face' Mountain Shirt, Salopettes, and a ‘Belay' Jacket and lined hood. All the items are made from fibre-pile (remember that?) and Pertex, hence the 'Double P'. That's it. No thermals, no waterproofs, nothing. Stand by to be astounded!
The basis of the system is the Mountain Shirt. Put it on, next to the skin, with as close as fit as possible without it being overly restrictive. Side zips help here. The Big Face Shirt has a number of advantages over the standard model.
Firstly it is made of tougher outer Pertex and is thus more abrasion resistant and more windproof.
Secondly the hand-warmer pockets are set up high so that they are not interfered with by a climbing harness.
Thirdly it has an adjustable crutch strap, designed to prevent it riding up when stretching for a hold.
A number of potential customers say that they are put off the Big Face model because of this last feature, claiming that it looks uncomfortable. All I can say is that I have never found it so. In fact it is invaluable. One suspects that some of the doubters are actually worried about looking silly.
All I can reply to that is is that if looking silly worries you then do let me sell you a nice expensive layering system with lots of impressive badges on it instead.
You won't look silly but that doesn't mean that you aren't. Salopettes are best worn under the shirt so as to allow for downward drainage. There are two models. One has wear & tear patches (High Altitude), the other doesn't.
For climbing I would recommend the former as crampons can make a mess of unprotected Pertex, though the patches do prevent them drying out so easily. You definitely will not need long johns under these - now there's a challenging statement!
Photo: A great day for Buffalo! Walking out from the Shelter Stone after two bivis and a successful ascent of Route Major (IV, 5) on Carn Etchacan, Cairngorms. The climber is wearing High Altitude Salopettes, a Big Face Shirt and a Belay Jacket and Hood, and the weather was foul! By the time the Cairngorm Plateau was reached the Buffalo wearer was so warm he had to remove his Belay Jacket whereas his companion in "breathable" waterproofs was seriously cold despite having put his spare layer on. On reaching the car park, the Buffalo wearer was dry whereas the Layering Sytem user had to get changed as his under garments were soaked with sweat.
On the drive to Scotland you are almost, but not quite, too warm. For the walk in, that's it, leap out of the car and off you go, sweat pouring off you as you labour up the zig-zags. No problem. Just open the neck zip and tug down the underarm ventilation zips and voila! Instant temperature adjustment and no condensation. As I said, the weather is bloody, and at this altitude the sky is full of sodden sleet. But your tummy, despite being exposed to the elements, does not feel cold, and you do not feel wet (it should be pointed out that wearing any sort of thermal vest under the shirt may lead to overheating, particularly in milder weather, and also to a cold damp feeling in wet conditions). No-one overtakes you as you crack on to the foot of Tower Ridge. Climbing on the lower pitches is brisk and the only adjustment needed to your clothing is to zip up the vents and tighten up a tummy drawstring cunningly concealed in the hand-warmer pockets. At the Eastern Traverse the weather worsens and the going is slow. Time for the Belay Jacket. Pop it on right over the shirt. Never mind that the outside of the shirt is wet - the breathability and vapour transmission of this stuff makes "breathable" waterproofs seem like polythene sheeting. The jacket is short enough at the front so as not to interfere with your harness, and a tail at the back is easily tucked in. The attached XL hood will fit over your helmet. The wind whistling through Tower Gap hardly affects you and a few more rope lengths bring the summit plateau to hand, knee and cramponned boot. By which time you're warming up. Whisk off the Belay Jacket and head for the pub. It pours rain on you all the way down but surprisingly, though the clothing is not water-proof in the accepted sense of the word, you don't feel the least cold and are quite happy to get in the car without changing.
I personally, have used Buffalo in just about every type of winter weather the UK can throw at you. It has dealt with everything from 70mph+ wind to continuous torrential rain with no problem at all. By which I mean that I have always felt warm and comfortable. I have never needed more than two layers on my top half and one on my legs. And, despite every accepted mountain rescue team warning to the contrary, I never carry waterproofs in the UK in winter unless I'm nipping down the road for a newspaper. In addition to nine years of UK winter use, I have now used Buffalo for three winter seasons in the Alps, on an expedition to the Karakorum and two to Greenland, where I've found that the above clothing, together with a Buffalo Superbag and a pair of Buffalo Biviboots will cope (quite comfortably with bivouacs down to -10 C. Below that (-25 C) a third jacket and some extra leg protection would have been nice though the night was not totally uncomfortable. Moreover this system is self-sustaining, remaining useable indefinitely, with little regard as to how damp it is. But don't just take my word for it:-
Rick Allen (Latok 1990, Tien Shan 1991): "The most versatile mountain gear I have ever worn..., equally well suited to a day's bog trotting, a hard technical route and a 7000m peak".
Doug Scott (Latok 1990 and other expeditions too numerous to mention) "An excellent clothing system, ...exceptionally versatile in the widely fluctuating temperature. On Latok III, two bivouacs without sleeping bags were made bearable by the Buffalo gear".
Ally KeIlas (Nanga Parbat 1992): "Buffalo kit used was a great success ... above 7000m Belay Jacket on top of the Shirt proved excellent and more versatile than our down duvets which had become useless as result of a wet snow storm..."
Simon Yates (Latok 1990, Khantengri 199, Paine 1991, Cerro Torre, 1993): "Brilliant, wouldn't use anything else - you end up dispensing with a lot of layers and the whole system is lighter."
There are some drawbacks to Buffalo. Firstly the knotty question of underwear, the problem being that Marks & Sparks best regulation shreddies will leave you feeling distinctly soggy in the nether regions. What is needed are non-water absorbent knickers. A simple quest, but not as easy as one might imagine. Hamish himself makes Buffalo Boxer Shorts, available in a fetching purple, blue or khaki but I have always considered boxer shorts a fiendish device dreamt up by irate women to get their own back on lustful males who shower them with basques, peep-hole knickers and suspenders every Christmas. The bloody things simply aren't comfortable. I mean, I'm not boasting, but it always ends up one side or the other and flops about. Combine this with the crutch strap on the shirt and a Whillans harness and a right twist is assured! Alternatives are in the pipe-line so to speak. Firstly Buffalo Supporters, a sort of Pertex jock-strap that looks like it belongs in one of those shops with blacked out windows where persons under sixteen are not admitted - and I don't mean Ladbrokes. Luckily these are not available as yet (actually they are now). Alternatively, Sub-Zero have a thin thermal "Factor One" underpant available that suits either sex and is ideal, becoming only slightly damp by the end of a really wet day. Ladies have a further problem in the upper area where the ventilation side zips can reveal more than bare tum. If you are shy, a thin lycra sports bra does the trick. (Ladies should also be aware that the Shirts are available in a ‘‘ladies' fit'' down size 32).
On the plus side, compare these weights:
Traditional layering system …
Thermal Underwear, Softshell Salopettes, Light Fleece Pullover, Fleece or Synthetic Jacket, Gore-tex Overtrousers and Jacket - total weight (very approximately) 3.5kg
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Buffalo System …
HA Half-Zip Salopettes, Big Face Shirt, Belay Jacket and Expedition Hood - total weight (very approximately) 2.5kg
Numerous small adjustments to the design are constantly being suggested by Buffalo fans keen to see a good product improved. Many of these actually cancel each other out proving yet again that one man's meat etc... However, if you are adamant that you wish a pink map pocket or Velcro on the cuff set in the other direction then "specials" can be made to order - all you have to do is to decide whether it is worth the extra fee. The man to talk to is Hamish Hamilton, an inventor of inspired enthusiasm.
Once upon a time Hamish worked for Vango and in the mid-sixties gave tent design a quantum boot up the bell-end with the invention of the Force Ten. Generations of scouts, girl guides, outdoors groups and other innocent parties who have survived torrential storms, gales and blizzards in one of these orange wonders may be surprised to learn that the colour was chosen because it gave a much more romantic light for seducing members of the opposite sex than conservationally sound green!
Buffalo sleeping bags and latterly clothing arose from experiments to reproduce, in modern materials, Eskimo use of animal fur. The then relatively new fibre piles being used by HeIly Hansen and Javelin provided the perfect fur and a search for an up to date version of Ventile produced Pertex.
The big manufacturers were unimpressed however and, reluctantly Hamish chucked in the day job, sold up the house and put his money where his ideas where. Thankfully, it seems to have paid off - "from total disbelief to undisputed acceptance by thousands of people in five years" as the ads say. And if this article too sounds like a blatant advertisement,
I can only say that anyone who makes gear that works as well as, and costs as little as, Buffalo deserves a bit of free copy.
But, in my shop, I also sell thermals, polar thingies and lots and lots of very expensive Gore-tex. And I would make a hell of a lot more dosh by flogging you a traditional layering system than a set of Buffalo. So why am I telling your all this? Why am I promoting goods that I will actually lose me money? Well call me a sentimental fool if you must but I actually dislike the intense hype of our major mountaineering clothing companies and like the simple unpretentiousness of the Buffalo system. I like the anarchy of it all.
Damn it, the stuff proves what I have always suspected, that you don't have to look like something off the Clothes Show and earn a stockbroker salary to climb mountains in comfort in winter. I like that too.
Copyright: Stephen Reid
The above article by Stephen Reid, owner of Needle Sports, has been adapted from the original which first appeared in On The Edge in February 1993 and is reproduced by kind permission of the editor. You are welcome to download it for your personal use. It should be noted that Hamish Hamilton has now retired but that the Buffalo team continue to produce their excellent clothing with little change to his original designs. Having tried many of the "copycat" designs from other companies that have appeared in recent years, we are firmly of the opinion that none have matched the simplicity and ease of use of Hamish's originals.
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