Squak Glacier Tour — North Face Wool Baselayer Review

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | May 23, 2018      

Leif Whittaker

Lunch break in Rocky Creek drainage.

Lunch break in Rocky Creek drainage. Photo by Fennwood Photography

A good way to test a baselayer is to hike fast on a hot day, sweat profusely until the layer is soaked, and then stop, lower the air temperature by 20 degrees, and see if you stay warm. On an overnight trip to Mount Baker’s Squak Glacier, I did that exact thing.

My partner, Freya, and I parked where the snow began about two miles from Schreibers Meadow trailhead. The early May morning was foggy and cool, a respite from the unseasonable heat Washington had been experiencing recently.

Snowmobiles jetted past as we skinned up the road. The whine of the engines dissipated and we heard the low-pitched whoomp-whoomp-whoomp of a grouse. My backpack, loaded with extra gear for training purposes, dug into my shoulders and hips, but it was not an unwelcome discomfort. I’d be on Denali in two weeks and needed all the preparatory suffering I could get.

The fog lifted as we made our way through the meadow and turned northerly, following Rocky Creek drainage rather than sticking to the summer trail. We stopped for lunch in the shade of a mountain hemlock. When we began hiking again I had an urge to push myself, so I gradually quickened the pace until sweat dripped down my forehead, washing sunscreen into my eyes.

Skinning up the moraine edge toward the Squak Glacier.

Skinning up the moraine edge toward the Squak Glacier. Photo by Fennwood Photography

Packing a heavy overnight bag, wearing the TNF baselayer.

Packing a heavy overnight bag, wearing the TNF baselayer. Photo by Fennwood Photography

Our primary objective was to camp that night and ski the glacier in the morning, but I also wanted to test some clothing and gear to see if they would work for Denali. I was particularly interested in a merino wool long-sleeve zip-neck baselayer from The North Face.

I’m partial to merino wool for many reasons and I wear it often, but I usually stick to brands that specialize in wool. In the past, I’ve found that merino clothing from larger brands with more diverse material and product lines isn’t as comfortable as clothing from wool specialists. In other words, all merino is not created equal.

However, I must say, the long-sleeve baselayer from The North Face is one of the most comfortable and functional merino layers I’ve used. The internally taped seams and bonded collar eliminate chafing, and a band of elastic in the cuffs and hem hold the garment in place and make it easy to roll up your sleeves if you need to cool off.

Little features like these do a lot to improve a piece of clothing, but the most important thing with merino is the quality of the fabric, and in that regard, this baselayer does not disappoint. It’s the perfect thickness for the foundation of a layering system, has zero odor, and is so smooth I wish they made underwear.

The North Face zip-neck long-sleeve wool baselayer.

The North Face zip-neck long-sleeve wool baselayer.

One issue I’ve noticed is that, after several washes, the fabric is showing a slight bit of fuzziness, but this is mostly an aesthetic concern and hasn’t affected performance. The forearm area has also become a bit looser than it was when brand new and it remains to be seen how the fabric will hold up to a month of frequent use.

Freya skins toward camp in the Metcalf Moraine area.

Freya skins toward camp in the Metcalf Moraine area.

Wool’s moisture control qualities became apparent as I charged up the Metcalf Moraine to the top of a snowy hill at about 6000 feet, where we planned to camp. I had been moving fast for two hours. The panel of my backpack was drenched with sweat, as were my feet, but my upper body felt amazingly dry. As a crisp wind picked up out of the east, I didn’t feel the chill of damp cloth on my spine. I stayed warm instead.

Our camp below Mount Baker’s Squak Glacier.

Our camp below Mount Baker’s Squak Glacier. Photo by Fennwood Photography

We built camp, cooked macaroni and cheese for dinner, and watched sunset paint the North and South Twin in brilliant gold light.

Sunset behind the South and North Twins.

Sunset behind the South and North Twins.

As night crept in, the wind strengthened. By 1:30 a.m. it was buffeting our tent with 40 m.p.h. gusts. On the windward side, I braced my arms against the nylon walls and held on.

At first, there were moments of calm between battles. The noise of the flapping, shaking tent would recede and I thought it was over. Then from the ridges above came the roar of a jet, and seconds later the walls were punched in again with more force than before. Soon the moments of calm were gone too and there was only incessant noise. After a couple hours I began to forget what silence sounded like. Maybe I shouldn’t have asked for all the suffering I could get.

At dawn, the blasts lessened but remained quite strong, and after a sleepless night, we decided to forego our glacier walk and focus on getting back to the car with all our equipment present and intact. One tent pole was irreparably bent, but we were otherwise whole. Denali prep? Perhaps.

Skiing with a full pack after a long night. Still fun!

Skiing with a full pack after a long night. Still fun! Photo by Fennwood Photography

We carefully packed up, made twenty fun turns on an open face directly below camp, and coasted down the drainage toward home. As we dropped below the walls of the moraine, the wind suddenly disappeared and we found ourselves in sweltering heat again. I stripped to my baselayer and kept going.

After this and several other trips with The North Face’s zip-neck top, it’s easily made my final list of clothing I’m taking to Denali. Let’s just hope I don’t take the wind with me too, as Denali from what I hear may have its own plans for that.

Specs for The North Face Wool Baselayer L/S Zip Neck:

  • Fabric: 148D 145g/m2 100% merino wool
  • Bonded, low-chafe collar
  • Low-profile overlock for improved comfort
  • Internally taped raglan seams
  • Integrated, bonded thumb-loop cuffs
  • Bonded drop-tail hem
  • Sizes: S — XXL
  • Average weight: 230 g (8.05 oz)
  • Center back: 29.5″
  • MSRP: $130
  • Shop for The North Face baselayers here.

    (Born into a family of tall and loud mountaineers among the glaciated spires of the Olympic Mountains, guest blogger Leif Whittaker blames his lack of skiing talent on his high center of gravity. He has twice climbed to the summit of Mount Everest and he currently works as a climbing ranger for the USFS on Mount Baker. His first book, My Old Man and the Mountain, was published in October 2016 by Mountaineers Books.)

    (Thanks to Freya Fennwood for permission to publish her beautiful photos. Check out her website for more of her stunning images.)


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    10 Responses to “Squak Glacier Tour — North Face Wool Baselayer Review”

    1. Dave Field May 23rd, 2018 2:32 pm

      It would be nice to hear how the fabric holds up over time in terms of durability and in maintaining shape. Its been my experience with Merino garments that a couple percent nylon can really help with durability. The 100% Merino garments I’ve had from the specialty guys work great when new but within several wearings can develop small holes and stretch weirdly. As well, too much synthetic can affect breathability and anti-stink performance.

    2. XXX_er May 23rd, 2018 2:58 pm

      same ^^ here, I must have at least 5 different brands, so IME wool just doesn’t hold up like plastic does but wool doesn’t smell either. So I will buy the cheaper merino t-shirts to go closest to the skin and I cover the rapidly developing holes with something poly

    3. Lou Dawson 2 May 23rd, 2018 3:19 pm

      Hi Dave, we’ll try to do that for you, in fact, I’ll suggest to Leif that he does a blog post when he returns from Denali that covers pros and cons for all gear they use. Lou

    4. Nate Porter May 23rd, 2018 7:26 pm

      Lou, has any of the Wildsnow crowd tried Brynje base layers?

    5. Paul Diegel May 24th, 2018 10:45 am

      I much prefer wool base layers to plastic, but am having a lot of trouble with moth damage. Freezing all the wool in my house now and then seems to help, but my wife and I continue to lose favorite pieces occasionally. Anyone out there with a good solution?

    6. Matt Kinney May 25th, 2018 10:40 am

      I’ve been wearing the wool Ibex Indie Hoodies for what seems like forever….everyday having gone through 7 of them in various earth colors. Bummer about Ibex recently going out of business..oh noo!. I have to find a a new “blankie” shirt and this might work.. A hoodie is a must in a base layer shirt IMO.

    7. Jim Milstein May 25th, 2018 11:37 am

      Agree with Matt about need for a hoody base layer. Just got a new one from the local Voormi shop (HQ’d in Pagosa). It uses both synth and wool yarns in some secret sauce combo. The medium size is fairly ample compared to the usual. Have only used it a few times so far. The Voormi people claim it’s good for hot weather too. We’ll see.

    8. wtofd May 25th, 2018 2:29 pm

      Paul Diegel, on the east coast we use cedar closets or chests. You can buy cedar discs if you don’t want an entire closet/chest.

    9. Jim Milstein May 25th, 2018 5:58 pm

      Another way to eliminate moth damage over the non-ski season: Seal the wool items in plastic bags and then put them in your cyclotron or linear accelerator for a few seconds. Quick and easy.

    10. Leif July 10th, 2018 9:21 am

      Hi Dave and others, The wool baselayer did pretty well on Denali. I swapped between it and a poly sun hoody for the entire 20-day expedition, so I would say it had at least 10 days of hard use without a washing. The fabric on the arms toward the cuff stretched some, making it a bit saggier than it was out of the box. The rest of the garment seems to have retained its original shape, which is on the looser side for a baselayer. No holes yet, but I doubt wool moths would survive the freezer of Denali 🙂 Hope that’s helpful!

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