What to Wear at 12,000 Feet

Although I started skiing soon after I started walking, I had taken a 5-year hiatus until my recent trip to Telluride. My aprés-ski wardrobe strategy was pretty low maintenance, but what to wear on the mountain required a little more thought. Here, clothing crosses into the realm of equipment, where performance–or lack thereof–can affect not just the wearer’s comfort, but their safety as well.


I know of one family where the four kids were required to dress entirely for a day of skiing the night before they hit the slopes, so that each child had a distinct pile of clothing to put on in the morning with utmost efficiency.

Here’s what would have been in my pile for the past week: neon wool socks, Icebreaker merino leggings and undershirt, second Patagonia Capilene long-sleeved shirt, wool (with 2% acrylic) turtleneck sweater, polyester fleece neck gaiter, nylon fleece-lined mittens (not warm enough), a North Face nylon shell and lined nylon powder pants. Although the general color scheme has changed a bit, this is more or less the same layering strategy I’ve had since I was a student of the Snow Bunnies ski school as a toddler, with the addition of one major accessory: a plastic helmet. (As The New York Times reported in last week’s Style Section gear test, some resorts require them now.)

If this sounds like a lot of crap to put on, that’s because it is. It’s sort of ironic that what should be a simple pleasure–essentially succumbing to gravity to slide down snowy mountains–requires so much gear. And if you think ski-bums are all laid-back hippies, just engage one in a conversation about what to wear, and watch how dogmatic they can get. I thought I was going to be thrown out of Telluride Sports when the guy in the ski boot section saw my stretchy ski pants that went inside–inside!!!–my boots. No wonder I had sore shins and frozen toes. Poor circulation, he diagnosed, and shook his head. The next day I wore baggy powder pants, a sexy ski bunny no longer.

But he was right. Although this might be a sweeter photo in stretch pants, I’m not sure I would have made it to the top, and in this case, the scenery is not wearing spandex.

But there is a tension–and I’m not just talking about tight pants–between outdoor clothing companies and the natural settings their garments are designed for. Just look at that list of what I wore for a few March days in Telluride, and imagine how much clothing would be required for more technical expeditions. I’m lucky most of my ski clothes are hand-me-downs, but eventually it seems no amount of Scotch-Guard can make a worn-out shell waterproof, and many fabrics that keep warm against water and wind are synthetic and non-biodegradable. It seems a bit hypocritical to consume these materials and the resources they require for production to appreciate the great outdoors, but the companies that make these clothes do a pretty admirable job of confronting the contradiction head-on.

Yvon Chouinard, image from Malibu Magazine

Yvon Chouinard, who founded Patagonia, wrote a great book with a silly title about this very topic, and how he reconciles his roles as an environmentalist and a businessman. It’s a thought-provoking read for anyone who has ever wondered how to humanely run a business…or even simply wondered what to wear. But, the simple answer, at 12,000 feet? Layers.

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1 Comment

Filed under closet case study

One response to “What to Wear at 12,000 Feet

  1. Drani

    Dress like an onion! (In layers.)

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