In 1988 preparing for my first big-league alpine climb, I did months of research by phone calls, browsing reviews and asked many questions of manufactures to find the perfect light-weight alpine sleeping bag. They all recommended fairly close to the same thing. With my choice made, I laid out a load of cash for a high-end down bag complete with a Gore-Tex shell. When this beautiful work of art arrived at my door step, I knew I had made the right choice. It was fluffy light and stuffed so small. Over the winter I spent many cozy and warm tent-bound nights testing my new love.
Spring 1989 finds me two days up the climb when the weather turned Alaskan and we had to dig a bolt hole. The temperature warmed during this low pressure system as rain, sleet and snow fell. For three nights I laid there as water ran through our snowcave which seeped into my bag. I shivered colder and colder.
The fourth morning arrived with blue skies and not a moment too soon. As I picked up my down bag to stuff it in it's sack, it had soaked up so much water I actually thought the seams would rip. We continued on and I carried this severely heavy-water-soaked sponge for near 24 hours till back in our base camp. My down bag was now frozen into an iceball. I laid my bag across the tent in the sunlight every day to dry but for three more nights I slept inside this cold damp and frosty sponge. Even after arriving home, my down bag stayed wet for another four days.
February ten years later, I was alone spying for new cicles deep inside a secluded river canyon. While climbing around a deep swirling pool, I lost my footing and plunged into the icy cold current of the Alaskan river. After many struggling and terrifying minutes, I finally climbed onto the safety of the river bank. My clothing and everything in my pack was completely soaked. Ice was encasing me as I could not generate enough heat to keep me warm and dry my clothing. I decided to crawl inside my soggy Primaloft sleeping bag thinking I was in real trouble from the uncontrollable shivering. Within minutes, I had the shivers under control, and minutes later I was warm and relaxed enough to trickle charge. Back home, I hung my bag and it was completely dry by the next morning.
I was second guide on a spring mountaineering course which had a total of six clients; two couples of two and another pair, to keep a 3:1 client to guide ratio. Gear requirement policy allowed down to be used. On the first day of the course, we were greeted by a low pressure system that was dumping 10cm size snow flakes with the temperature around 32F and a stiff breeze was blowing. We skied for about two hours into the hills and our first lesson plan was to dig snow caves down low due to the snow loading then base our training from the caves as the weather allowed. We were about two hours into digging our caves when during client check, I noticed things did not look right with the young lady from the youngest couple. She was shivering uncontrollable, had blue lips and was incoherent with her speech. She was wearing a down jacket with a Gore-Tex shell that was soaking wet which had wicked water from the down into her under layers and her skin was cold and damp. I called “safety” and we immediately went into safety mode. We directed that two stoves start boiling water while placing the young lady under my Silshelter with her partner holding the shelter up over her head while the other female undressed her. We erected a tent, put my Primaloft filled jacket and pants on her and slid her down inside my Primaloft filled sleeping bag inside the tent. She had a cheap down bag inside her pack that was also very damp from the heavy wet snow fall. We placed hot water bottles around her and after about 45 minutes she could talk and start sipping hot soup, just as we were about to send safety runners, a guide with the strongest client back to the trailhead and help. We did two hour rotations with her through the rest of the night till she felt warm to the touch and finally woke to relieve herself around 4am. We had to cancel the rest of the course due to their wet down gear that would not dry in minimal time in the wet climate to be used for the rest of the course. I am sure it took days to dry it at home in a warm dry environment.
We debriefed the event back in town and came to several conclusions. The biggest factor to the hypothermic client was allowing the use of down. They were the only couple using down while digging and rooting around in the snow caves and standing in the heavy wet snowfall. Their down jackets and sleeping bags were damp with her down jacket saturated with water. The other clients with synthetic filled gear were damp but none of them had issues with being cold and wet. All of the synthetic gear was dry by the next morning with the down jackets still soaking wet after hanging overnight in the tent. Her jacket dripped water for most of the night. The policy of hourly client checks was too long in the inclement weather. Severe hypothermia set in within the hourly client check. We discussed the event among the other guides and safety review board and their comment was seasoned climbers would not of went climbing is such inclement weather or taken better control of protecting themselves and down. My counter point was, yes but if climbers were already on route when the wet snowfall or even rain began to fall, and a belayer had to endure hours on belay duty to reach a suitable ledge draped in a down belay jacket, then build a snow cave, the climber and his down would be subject to the wet weather for quite some time. There would be no issue if using synthetic gear. There was still doubters but the in the end, the consensus was down is not the preferred gear for alpine climbing and a policy review would take place on allowing down on future courses.
Primaloft fills all my insulated gear because the alpine environment is harsh and wet, I fully understand "Why No Down"!
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