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Undressing Everest

May 29, 2013

To commemorate the 60th Anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary conquering Mount Everest we wanted to take a minute to appreciate the unsung hero of extreme mountain expeditions: the clothing. While skill, training, gear and a hearty dose of luck are all vital ingredients if you want to reach the world’s highest summit, without proper attire climbers could never overcome the extreme temperatures they experience in the “Dead Zone”. Below we take a brief trip through time to see how clothing has changed over the past eighty years, and discover that traditional materials still have a place on modern expeditions.

Outer Layer
Climbers reach the summit of everest.  [1]

Today, many Everest explorers choose full mountain suits  to protect them from the elements that batter them during a high mountain ascent. Such a suit is composed of the Gore Windstopper Insulation Shell and a goose down body.[1]

On May 29, 1953 when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay stood on the top of the world, they wore a thin, lightweight and windproof “cotton wrap, nylon weft” exterior to protect them from the mountain’s fierce winds.[2] 

During the mysterious 1924 Everest ascent by George Mallory and “Sandy” Irvine, the two explorers’ outer layers were made from gabardine, the traditionally worsted wool fabric made famous by Burberry’s original trench coat. Though it is unclear whether Mallory and Irvine ever conquered Everest, Graham Hoyland observed during his own 2006 Everest expedition (which used garments similar to those worn by Mallory) that the natural fibers worn by the duo in 1924 would not have prevented them from reaching the summit.[3]

Mid Layer

Like the modern mountaineering suit, today’s mid-layer is also composed of synthetic material. Many Everest travelers' mid-layers consist of compression tights made from PWX FLEX fabric. PWX FLEX fabric claims to support muscles to create efficient movement and reduce fatigue.[4]


Sir Edmund Hillary Tenzing Norgay at their Everest campsite.  [2]

Back in the 1950's, Hillary wore a Shetland wool jumper produced by T.M., Adie and Sons of Voe, Scotland under his mountain suit. This natural wool, custom-made jumper provided great insulation, breathability and warmth during his historical ascent.[5]

Beneath their gabardine exterior, Mallory and Irvine wore eight alternating layers of silk, cotton and wool. According to Mary Rose, Professor of Entrepreneurship at Lancaster University in the UK, Mallory’s layering of silk and wool confirmed his clear understanding of clothing materials. She concludes that “It was quite an advanced system; the silk gave wind-proofing and the silk and wool layers moved off each other so it was quite easy to climb in.”[6] After testing the layering system for himself, Hoyland , who previously summited Everest in modern synthetics, concluded that unlike the unforgiving stretch and unpleasant smell of modern day clothing, Mallory’s custom ensemble felt like a cohesive piece when walking.[7]

Base Layer

George Mallory and his team prepare
for the 1924 Everest Expedition. [3]

Today, when summiting Everest, the layer closest to your skin will likely include a synthetic material, although softer wools like merino have led a resurgence of natural alternatives. But if you don’t like the “harsh synthetic sensation next to your skin”[8] that Hoyland expressed after his expedition what do you do? Unfortunately you will have to go back even further than 1953 to find the answer as Hillary used synthetic long underwear. It seems that even in the 1950’s the synthetic craze had already begun with Duofold’s revolutionary fabric that was reported to “wick sweat better than coarse wool”.[9]


Graham  Hoyland in a replica of George
Mallory's Everest gear. [4]

When we travel back to 1924, we learn that Mallory and Irvine’s most intimate layer was all-natural. During their ascent, Mallory and Irvine wore cotton leggings made with a tuck stitch. This stitching created a honeycomb affect that is ideal for trapping air and creates phenomenal insulation next to the skin.[10]

Natural fibres have played an enormous role in the history of Everest mountaineering. With modern technology it is easy to shun natural fibres as antiquated, but as Graham Hoyland found, with proper knowledge, natural fibers can rival the most advanced synthetics. In fact, the natural look can even turn heads. During his Everest journey, Hoyland recalls: “All the other climbers thought the jacket was stylish and wanted to know where they could buy their own versions of the clothes!"[11]

In conclusion we believe it’s time to take inspiration from nature when celebrating natural wonders like Everest. After-all mother nature often knows best. In fact, it might be time for a new natural fabric to enter the mix, so keep watching this space for updates.

 

If you are interested in reading more about the clothing worn by Sir Edmund Hillary and George Mallory during their respective Everest expeditions, you may enjoy the following articles:

Everest Climbing Gear: Hillary to Hilaree

Clothes of 1924 head for Everest

 


[3] Ainley, J. (n.d.). Retrieved from BBC News: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/5076634.stm

[6] Ainley, J. (n.d.). Retrieved from BBC News: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/5076634.stm

[7] Ainley, J. (n.d.). Retrieved from BBC News: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/5076634.stm

[8] Ainley, J. (n.d.). Retrieved from BBC News: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/5076634.stm

[10] Phillips, V. (n.d.). Retrieved from BBC News: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/4470522.stm

[3] Image courtesy of: Phillips, V. (n.d.). Retrieved from BBC News: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/4470522.stm

[4] Image courtesy of: Ainley, J. (n.d.). Retrieved from BBC News: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/5076634.stm