Guide's Pick: Layering for Fall Rock Climbing

The coalescence of mild temperatures, perfect friction, and the lack of bugs makes fall the best season for rock climbing in the Northeast. And, if you’re lucky enough to call the Gunks your home crag, like EMS’s New York Climbing School Manager Eric Waldron is, fall sending season can last into December. In fact, Eric, an AMGA Rock Instructor who has guided in the Gunks for Eastern Mountain Sports since 2002, can’t remember a year when he didn’t guide a rock climbing trip at least one day this late in the season.

What makes the Gunks a great late-season climbing destination? The area’s south-facing cliffs get sun all day, thus helping keep the rock warm and creating what Eric calls a “radiator effect” that results in comfortable climbing, even on days when temperatures in the parking lot are in the 20s. However, as with many fall climbing destinations, it’s a challenge to have the right combination of layers for warmth while you’re racking up in the parking lot or sitting at a shady belay, but not be overdressed when you’re sweating through a crux or pulling a classic Gunks roof into the sun.

No matter if you’re heading out for an Indian Summer day in September or nabbing a nippy November day at the crag, Eric’s fall layering strategy will keep you climbing in comfort all throughout autumn.

Merino Tee

At the core of Eric’s layering strategy is a short-sleeve 150-weight merino shirt—a staple for soggy spring, sweltering summer, and frigid fall days. A layering system is only as good as its foundation, and a short-sleeve merino tee works great by itself on mild days in “Sendtember” and also pairs well with warmer layers for cooler days. At one point, Eric had only one of these shirts—thankfully, wool naturally resists odors—but he quickly acquired two and, before he knew it, had one for every day of the week.

Hybrid Insulation

Eric will frequently wear a hybrid insulation piece, like the EMS Impact Jacket, on top of his merino tee. Using a combination of insulation around the core and stretchy material in the shoulders and arms, layers such as the Impact Jacket (men’s/women’s) provide enough warmth when you’re stopped at a belay, but allow for free range of movement when you’re making the long reach for the jug on Arrow or jamming up Ken’s Crack.

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Stretch Fleece

No layering list is complete without the iconic EMS Power Stretch Fleece, and it’s no surprise that it’s one of Eric’s long-time favorites. Of course, Eric might be a bit biased. Over a decade ago, he was one of the guides who helped bring this favorite piece from the packs of climbing school guides to the shelves of your local EMS. It all began when some guides were asked to bring their most-coveted layers to the EMS design team. Every single one produced a threadbare, stitched-back-together prototype version of the now-classic fleece, and a legend was born.

Offering the same great freedom of movement, warmth, and wicking as the original, the EMS Power Stretch Fleece Hoodie is perfect for everything from chilly September ascents of Son of Easy O to December jaunts up Directissima.

Wind Layer

Fall in the Gunks often means that the sun and warmer conditions are only a rope-length up the wall away, but you never truly know what weather, including cutting autumn winds, is waiting up above. In the event of unexpected wind conditions, a small, lightweight layer that packs into itself—like the Smartwool PhD Ultra Light Sport Hoody—lives on Eric’s harness. Weighing virtually nothing, this super-light layer resists the wind and has saved the send train from derailing more than once.

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Puffy Jacket

In his 15-plus years of guiding in the Gunks, Eric has learned to avoid the crowds and the lingering in line they can cause. However, climbing a classic like High Exposure sometimes involves queuing up, and here, having a high-quality puffy pays dividends. Whether you’re waiting at the base of that must-do climb or taking in the view while waiting your turn on the GT Ledge, a puffy like the EMS Feather Pack Hooded Jacket (men’s/women’s) keeps you cozy while you sit tight and get psyched to send. It’s lightweight and sneakily warm, thanks to water-resistant 800-fill down insulation. Eric has been toting his highlighter yellow one around the Gunks for years and is proud to report that it has only needed one patch in its hard life.

Pants

While Eric’s long legs and thin waist are great for ticking classic Gunks routes, they make buying pants a challenge—that is, until he discovered the Kuhl Renegade. The all-season softshell Renegade comes in a wide variety of waist sizes and lengths, with combinations to suit climbers of all sizes. Stretchy construction, articulated knees, and a gusseted crotch offer more than enough freedom for casting out over the void and heel-hooking across iconic routes like Erect Direction.

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Under It All

For Eric, keeping his core warm is more important than the rest of him. Because of this, he wears significantly fewer layers on the bottom half of his body than his upper half. While Eric will wear Kuhl’s Renegade pants for almost every fall climbing day, he will occasionally pair them with a light- (men’s/women’s) or mid-weight base layer (men’s/women’s), like EMS’s Techwick, depending on conditions.

Risking too much information, underneath is a pair of wicking ExOfficio boxers. Eric suggests a new pair every day, despite the packaging claim of “17 countries. 6 weeks. One pair of award-winning underwear. (Ok, maybe two.)”

Approach Footwear

For fall footwear, Eric likes to wear a pair of sticky-soled approach shoes with Smartwool socks. While guides can cruise up Gunks classics in just their approach shoes, the increased traction benefits mere mortals while navigating everything from carriage roads to bouldery approaches. Lastly, although climbing in socks is a faux pas, sometimes cool fall weather calls for favoring form over function. Thus, it’s amazing how much warmer a thin layer of wool keeps your feet.

Accessorize

Speaking of thin layers, a hat like Smartwool’s The Lid easily slides under a helmet, keeping your head and ears warm on even the coolest fall days. As well, a good pair of belay gloves not only keeps your hands from getting beat up but also provides a nice touch of warmth.

To learn more about layering for fall firsthand, to brush up on your climbing skills, or to get a great tour of the Gunks, call Eric at the EMS Climbing School, New Paltz today!

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