5 Best Mountaineering Sunglasses

Photo: Chris Burkard | NL 6 Sunglasses

If you’ve paid any attention to the releases coming out of OR over the past week or so, you’ve likely seen the news that Julbo, the 125 year old French eyewear company, is putting out a series of brand new colorways for their tried and true Vermonter model.

We saw the old-school mountaineering shades get more than a few pieces of independent coverage, as well as placement on a couple of roundups from the Utah based convention. This made us wonder; what is the story behind these sunglasses specifically, and mountaineering sunglasses more generally? And what is responsible for the increased interest in these older style frames? The Vermonter model is far from the most advanced in Julbo’s line – in fact, they’re pretty vintage compared to others out there. Yet despite that, they’ve gotten a good deal of coverage at an outdoor equipment convention almost totally dedicated to the newest and most technical gear.

In an attempt to get a better handle on all of these questions, we took a dive into the world of glacier and mountaineering sunglasses. We looked at the history of these sunglasses, the science behind them, and even pulled together a quick roundup of what we think are some of the best mountaineering and glacier sunglasses out there today.

Right Image: Matthew Rutledge

The History

When we talk about the history of mountaineering sunglasses we’re talking at least in part about the history of the sport itself. As soon as madmen started climbing mountains, they began to encounter the blinding light of the upper atmosphere and the brutal reflections that bounce back off of snow and glaciers.

According to what a couple of the oldest companies claim, some of the first pairs of sunglasses made for the mountains were built in the late 1880s. Roughly 30 years after the beginning of mountaineering as a sport, as defined by Doug K. Scott in his book Big Wall Climbing. Some of the first sunglasses were made by Frenchman Jules Baud in 1888, the founder of Julbo. They were made at the request of crystal miners looking for eye protection for their treks through the Chamonix mountains. Not long afterwards, Cébé was founded with a similar mission – providing high altitude adventurers with sun protection.

It wasn’t until the 1950s, however, that Julbo released their iconic Vermonter shades. Now, of course, most contemporary glacier glasses look much different from these original models. With the advent of more flexible materials and plastics, glacier glasses increasingly adopted a wraparound style instead of the leather eyecup look. The kind of eye-cup sunglasses are a throwback to a period when outdoor wear was decidedly less technical – an understandable era to try and revive given that so often technical ability compromises style. Eye-cup mountaineering sunglasses look like something you’d be willing to wear either on the side of a mountain or out in the city. Although, that may not be the best way to use them.

The Science

Glacier glasses are much more than just an attractive (albeit odd) style. Every part about them are built for protecting climbers and mountaineers from the unique challenges of our earths highest altitudes.

Not only are athletes dealing with thinner air while up high on mountains, but they have less atmosphere between them and the sun. That means that ultraviolet rays have a shorter distance to travel and less air through which to be filtered before they reach the eyes of some adventurer high up on a mountain top. In the same way that folks are likely to get sunburned faster and easier when up on a mountain during a ski trip, these athletes are more likely to get lifelong eye damage if they don’t find good protection.

As if that wasn’t enough to contend with already, much, if not all, of that light is easily reflected off of the snow and ice. This makes it all the more difficult for mountaineers to find refuge from damaging rays.

As result, most lenses on glacier glasses are rated at either a category 3 or category 4 lenses according to European standards (the same folks that put the little ‘CE’ on all of your sunglasses). Category 3 lenses let through between 8% and 18% of sunlight (compared to the 18-43% of most shades) while Category 4 lenses let through between only 3% and 8% of sunlight. These strong lenses paired with the surrounding eye-cups or with the more modern wrap-around design make these the ideal tool for protecting your eyes on the mountaintop. So while these shades may look really cool – wearing them while doing much of anything other than working through incredibly bright terrain isn’t recommended.

Our Picks

Electric Road Glacier

For those who love the style but want something a little more versatile, this pair from Electric sunglasses is a really fun pick. The sunglasses feature two types of removable eye cups – either leather or perforated steel – and come along with a lanyard, carrying case, and adjustable arms. Perfect for rambling around on the road.

Purchase: $140

Julbo Vermont Classic

These classics from the 1950s were originally brought back to the market to celebrate Julbo’s 125th anniversary. Given the response, we’re betting that they’re sticking around for a while longer. You can pick these up in either Cat. 4 or 3 lenses with flash coating and varying colorations.

Purchase: $150

Dragon Allegiance Mountaineerx

This pair from the California based sunglasses brand offers up superior sun protection with an impact resistant frame and a customizable fit. The leather eyecups are built to easily be clipped on to the top and bottom of the frames while the removable arms provide for a secure and comfortable fit. Built for taking a beating – the material used in constructing these frames is 5 to 6 times more impact resistant that the standard polycarbonate used by most sunglasses companies. Category 4 lenses are available in either Red Ionized, Super Silver, or a Dark Copper.

Purchase: $140+

Northern Lights NL7 Solar

Julbo has their foot firmly planted in the technical hiking eyewear world, but dabbles in more fashionable specs. Northern Lights is the exact opposite. Marketed more as a fashion accessory, these sunglasses are still more than capable of providing the kind of sun protection you need while up in the mountains. Featuring a classically round frame shape and high quality Category 3 Aurora CR39 lenses, it’s an incredibly fun take on a classic pair of sunglasses.

Purchase: $300

Vuarnet Glacier 1957

To celebrate their 60th Anniversary Vuarnet has put out a special, limited edition release of their Glacier 1957 shades. Only 600 of these more aviator-like mountaineering sunglasses have been released. Each is equipped with ‘punched’ removable leather eyecups and category 3 lenses that come in either blue, green, or orange tints.

Purchase: $600