Nice title, huh? Yes, I actually do think the Norrøna Belay jacket is worthy of the hype but read on and you can decide for yourself.
When I went looking for a new belay jacket for myself this winter I had little idea what I was getting into. I had no doubt I could find a great jacket for my own use. What I didn't realise was just how good some of the jackets I would find were and just as surprising just how poorly designed some of the jackets I would find would be in comparison.
To be fair I was looking for an extremely specialized and technical piece of clothing. From conversations with manufacturers after publishing my thoughts on CC.com and here, I learned much to my surprise that a few of the manufacturers had no clue on how a "belay jacket" was going to be being used.
Some of the info I heard from manufacturers defending their products and designs would be laughable to anyone that actually climbs and used these jackets in an environment where the details actually do matter.
"Free" jackets given away by sponsors to climbers at the front of modern alpine climbing do not guarantee you a state of the art garment. A "free jacket" might well translate into one more plane ticket to the sponsored climber. Fair enough. "State of the art", as we all know, is not required to get up any mountain. But for us as consumers, it is still, "Caveat emptor!".
We already know most any garment that is warm will work at Hafner Creek or Ouray on a cold day. And as I was told, "that is who we design for, back packers and hikers, not climbers. They aren't a big enough market". OK, fair enough, design and build for the general population, after all that is where the profits are. But how about learning from the comments instead of whining when you obviously get caught with your pants down with bad design work for "climbers"? From the looks of their web site Norrøna is at heart a ski clothing company. Successful cross over designs are nothing new for the outdoor clothing industry.
Rather than detail the short comings of so many manufacturers that I looked at I'd rather take my time to give you the beta on one of the really good ones.
There are a few things that I get really excited about. Truly great design work is one of them. The Colt 1911, the Porsche 911, Jardine's Friends, the Chouinard/Frost original piolet, the Nomic, the Fire', the North Face Oval Intention and Gramicci pants (based on martial arts pants) are a few designs that come to mind and have already stood the test of time. They have all also generated a of host of clones, which is a compliment to the originals.
But clothing design and especially technical clothing design is not something I first think of when it comes to inspiration. The newest fabric mountaineering boots certainly are there but little else imo. But boots aren't clothing are they? Generally it is new materials that I get excited about. Egger and Monclear down and pile from Helly Henson, then GPIW (later Patagonia) in the early '70s. Francital jackets in the '80s. Shoeller material from Switzerland. Which I first used in the mid '80s and the innovation they created in soft shells that continues today. So most of the innovation in clothing I have seen is in materials, not actual design work. But to be fair I might well be naive to those more subtle changes.
The details and design work on Norrøna's down climbing jacket are obvious even to me.
Norrøna's web site sez:
"High power insulation in a compressible belay jacket
A careful creation of down and lightweight protective face/liner fabric built to prioritise insulation, breathability and movement whilst belaying. Its bulk-free properties allow excellent compressibility in stow pocket."
retail price $378.00
available in the USA only from Backcountry.com
The facts for a XL size:
31.8oz (factory says 24oz)
Insulation is a combination of 750+ down and 100g Primaloft 1
(Norrøna's 750 down means down fill power is 750 to 800 cu in/oz with the percentage of down cluster from 93-96%.)
Single slider main zipper
One internal mess pocket on left side (it huge at 9.5" x 12.5")
two side pockets, unlined construction is a combination of over laid and sewn through baffling (body front) and simple sewn through (back, shoulders and upper arms) 750+ down, along with 100g Primaloft 1 in the hood and the side panels, full length from jacket hem up and under the arms all the way to the cuffs.
The jacket's one, huge, internal, mesh, "stow" pocket.
If you have climbed for several seasons, you know when you try on the right size and style rock shoe, that it "fits". Same with a good pair of boots, a harness or the right size pack for you. For me the Norrøna was a fit...from the very first time I tried it on. I was trying on 9 different belay jackets and looking at the details of each over several hrs. I put on the Lyngen and immediately said to myself, "damn I could really climb in this one!" Not something I recognised in any of the others so easily. Including the jacket I have used the most while actually winter climbing! To be honest even though it was clearly a stand out in my selected group of jackets I only recognised a little of its detailing and a few of the more obvious features but still intended to return it to Backcountry.com none the less. The Eddie Bauer XV ($269 retail) in my review was almost 1/3 the Norrøna's price while on sale ($132.50) and a incredible jacket in it's own right. I have kept and used the XV and am happy with the choice. But in almost every way the XV is not in the same league as the Norrøna Lyngen.
I've come to realise the differences as old school materials and design work done at a very high level (the XV) for a specific kind of climbing and the Lyngen as new school materials and design work done at a very high level for cutting edge, modern climbing. But to be more clear on use, the Lyngen is what I would consider a medium weight belay jacket and not suitable for the coldest temps a XV would be used in. But it is darn close and while still a "big" down jacket in all ways it is more compact and easier to wear while technical climbing than my XV. Norrøna has gone high tech in the pattern and construction with this one and has an excellent amount of insulation for the temps a down climbing/belay jacket might be used in. My own use so far? This jacket is plenty warm even as a bivy jacket in all but the coldest Alaska/Canada temps. Thanks to its DWR coating the down stayed dry inside and out during a full day of climbing in serious spindrift. The Primaloft hood and turtle neck did get damp as expected running the zip up and down taking pictures or venting as required. And the fleece lined zipper closure collected some snow in really bad conditions. But both dried out easily once I was zipped up and on belay again. Conditions will have to be pretty cold before you'll be able to climb comfortably in this jacket. I've done 8 trips to the Alaska range and never used a jacket this warm, this light weight and compact up there. The Norrøna jacket is one of the most specialized, technical and useful pieces of down outdoor clothing I've ever seen. Given the chance I'd take it to Alaska in a heartbeat.
Here is how Norrøna describes their Lyngen line of clothing:
Ascend alpine steeps with lightweight ease, descend the peak with speed: lyngen jointly protects your aerobic climb and ski time. Tailored to alpine tourers, lyngen’s focus on total windproofing, breathability and flexible venting options, enhances your mountain tour commitment. "
Hate to think all that detailing is being wasted on just skiers :) Makes me a little nervous as well when they label their only down jacket as a "belay jacket".
I had originally intended to return the Norrøna and after a long overdue detailed inspection decide not to. Even though the price is pretty steep at $378.00. It wasn't the most expensive jacket in my search. The Arcteryx Duelly was @ $498. And the Duelly is a synthetic filled jacket! With the Feathered Friends down insulated Frontpoint in "Event" right behind it @ $429.
The reason the Norrøna won't be going back is its detailing and features. The complicated construction......double layered and sewn-through baffled down front panels, single sewn through baffles on the back, shoulders and top side of the arms. Primaloft 1 in the hood, turtle neck and full length under the arms and down the sides to eliminate bulk and protect areas likely to get damp in use. Someone who climbs, or as least listened well to some knowledgable climbers, was thinking when they came up with this jacket design. It is an extremely complicated sewing pattern, combinations of materials and worth every penny of the $378, imo.
A true climber's jacket?!
From a company that makes ski clothing?
Even though the jacket I am writing about here is not the jacket he used on Mt. Hunter I have to give the direct credit for me finding the Norwegian made Norrøna line of clothing to Bjørn-Eivind Årtun and his climbing partner in May of '09, Colin Haley. I'd never heard of Norrøna until I saw Colin's pictures and started a Goggle search online.
Colin's blog and his and Bjørn-Eivind's adventure from last year:
And a summit picture on Hunter with the "usual suspects" from Colin's web site.
I saw enough detailing in the photo and knowing where it was being used to want to see more. Dbl click to enlarge the picture and the one below for a better look.
Colin, Bjørn-Eivind and their partners are some at the leading edge of light weight, extreme alpinism. If you want to see what they are doing and how, take a long in depth look at their climbs, writings, blogs and web sites. They all have good projects coming up this spring! I'm inspired every time.
Copy righted Colin Haley photos used above with his permission
Back to the Norrøna Lyngen Down Belay Jacket.
Ok, first lets talk about down being used in a belay jacket. The first requirement of a belay jacket is warmth. Seems obvious. But equal to that demand....which only takes an effective level of insulation, is the requirement for a belay jacket to be capable of drying you out. Down belay jackets, no matter the outer shell material, SUCK generally for most climbing in the lower 48. Yes, I did say, " SUCK!"
Down jackets can easily get wet. Then they lose a majority if not all of their insulation property. And no way in hell you can dry things like gloves out in them as easily as you can with a synthetic jacket.
A Primaloft 1 synthetic jacket will dry your sweat soaked body, your inner layers and outer layers out quickly and efficiently with only body heat in any condition including a lwt rain. (DWR coatings not withstanding) All it takes is for you to continue to produce the body heat required to do so. In comparison to down, synthetics lose only a tiny fraction of their insulation properties when wet or even totally soaked through.
So why would anyone ever willing choose a down belay jacket? To be honest most knowledgeable climbers won't. They are simply too delicate in a world where not being conservative on clothing choices can be a serious mistake you'll have to pay dearly for.
For less money than the Norrøna, good synthetic and down belay jackets can be had from Patagonia, MEC, Outdoor Research, Eddie Bauer and MTN Hardware to name just a few.
But in a couple of places, like Canada in winter or Alaska in the winter or spring, down insulation makes some sense. Both places the Norrøna Lyngen will excel if you limit your diet of off-width cracks and nasty mixed chimneys. Nothing warmer than Down for its weight and its ability to compact/stuff into a small package. Weight and space are and have always been hard won commodities in cold weather alpine climbing.
Both environments (Alaska and Canada) are cold enough to not have to worry so much about getting the insulation wet from external factors. But you still have to watch getting down wet from your own sweat and getting your clothing and gloves dried out as required.
Gloves aren't as big an issue, keeping them dry in those environments, as they are in warmer climates. Hopefully the time your hands spend in the snow on steep routes is limited and because of the temperatures you aren't soaking them every few pitches like you might down south. And thankfully gloves are getting better every year as well.
Speaking of gloves? Many belay jackets have some sort of cuff closure or too tight of cuffs. You often can't get a thick pair of climbing gloves and your hands through the cuff opening without first removing the gloves. On this Norrøna the cuffs are a polyester blend of stretch knitted material that shed water and easily stretch to fit over a gloved hand going in and coming off. All the while the cuff still forms a good seal around the wrist with no maintenance required on your part. Another detail someone paid attention to on the original design.
You always need to manage your heat out-put on long routes and even more so when you are using down. It has to be cold out to force moisture from your body through your layers and out a down jacket without soaking the last down layer. The advantages of down? There have to be some right? There are two...the first is the down jackets are lightweight. Less for the amount of heat preserved than any synthetic and the second is just how small a down jacket will compress to carry. If you are climbing, the belay jacket might not be used at all climbing but will be used for belays, short rests and a bivy if required.
So we get the idea..."down is not the greatest idea for a belay jacket but it can work and has several advantages if you can take care of the insulation, right?" Right :)
Now take high quality down insulation and one of the best of synthetic insulations and add exceptional pattern making/cutting, current technology, modern manufacturing and real climbing details and I think you end up with an exceptional jacket.
The two areas you need really good insulation from a belay jacket when alpine climbing are the front of your torso and the hood. Your gut and head where you lose the most heat unprotected. And the two fastest places to lose heat. Fairly obvious right? Norrøna has used a dbl layer of sewn though insulation for the jacket front body and a Primaloft hood and turtle neck.
Fully quilted down is the warmest, lightest in weight and most easily compacted construction for a down garment. Double layer sewn-though baffleing is more wind proof and can be equally as warm if the insulation thickness is the same. Good move on the designer's part for the front body of the jacket to use a dbl layer of sewn through baffling and 4 layers of nylon here for additional wind protection. Primaloft 1 was developed for the US military as a replacement for down. It is currently the most efficient synthetic insulation available. It is a smart use of the Primaloft 1 in the turtle neck tunnel and hood as they are the likely places to get soaked by perspiration from breathing hard in cold conditions.
Both sides of the zipper opening are generiously covered with a soft nylon pile for comfort and to protect your face in harsh weather.
The hood and turtle neck tunnel will be recognized as true works of art for anyone that climbs in a helmet or can appreciate a good hood design in a cold winter storm. Hood fit, visibility and adjustment in or out of a helmet are exceptional. Easily one of the best hoods of the jackets I looked at in this group by a long margin compared to some.
The hood, visor and neck area.
Detail and adjustments on the back of the attached Primaloft 1 hood
Your climbing pack will cover the majority of your back. You also lose less heat through your spine area in comparison to your abdomen. So less insulation is required there while climbing. Norrøna chose to use sewn-through down baffling on the entire back of this jacket. I might have chosen Primaloft 1 for the same area and lost some of the heat retention value of the thicker and more compressable down when fully lofted. If they had used Primaloft in the back panel you would never have to worry about down compression or the down soaking through with sweat under the pack and losing all its insulation . Primaloft would dry easier and always breath well. The change might make it a good trade off.
The sewn-through down back panel and on the far right 100g Primaloft in a strong back light.
I think arguments could be made for either insulation in the back panel. But I am happy over all with what Norrøna chose, sewn-through down baffles, on the back and the resulting additional warmth without a pack and a jacket that packs smaller for the level of warmth offered.
The side pockets are unlined and while they will work as hand warmer pockets I am surprised that Norrøna resisted the temptation to add a lwt nylon fleece material or Primaloft and make the jacket as easy to dry as possible if ever wetted in the pockets. I think I would have used a layer of Primaloft 1 as the second layer of insulation here under the 1st one of down. It would have made the jacket easier to dry out overall and the pockets more user friendly in all conditions.
This is such a highly technical jacket just by design that it forces you to rethink how material can be used to best effect. I understand Norrøna's commitment to down insulation in this jacket. The design work shown by Norrøna here makes every other jacket I looked at seem like their patterns were draw up in the Stone Age. And a couple of those jackets, in down and synthetic, are truly exceptional belay jackets in their own right! I might want a few minor changes to the Lyngen but only because Norrøna has given us such a high quality and outstandingly designed piece to pick apart. One I would really like to see improved upon. I can't over emphasis just how good this jacket is, AS IS, in every single detail.
I would love to see the same level of commitment to a even warmer Primaloft 1 belay jacket from Norrøna. That is a jacket that would put Arcteryx's $500 "Michelin man"Duelly into prespective as a true belay jacket!
There isn't a manufacturer out there making bivy jackets that couldn't learn something...or more like a lot of somethings...from taking a close look at the Norrøna Lyngen.
OK, let's move on to the pattern. There is a workable articulated hood and articulated arms. Not just a nod and a wink at doing articulation in the pattern mind you but actually making it a major part of the pattern.
Add a radically tapered cut at the hem line and you clear a harness in front and cover your bum when required in back. Keep the bulk down with a smart combination of insulations and it is a hem line you can adjust easily for your own requirements.
A better view of the amount of articulation in the pattern and the separation between down and Primaloft insulation under the arm. That combo of insulation runs from the cuff on the sleeve to the hem on the bottom edge of the waist-line of the jacket.
Remember the idea of a belay jacket is to allow the owners to actually climb difficult lines in these jackets when required. The overall length of the Norrøna is actually easily adjustable and allows the use of a single zipper pull because the front of the jacket can be snugged and secured where required with your harness. So the jacket stays zipped while in use. The zipper chosen is not a weak attempt to make poor design and pattern cutting work better with a more fragile and harder to use dbl. slider zipper. The zipper is also backed with a stiff nylon tape on both sides to eliminate the zipper snagging on the almost silk weight shell material and works well to block any wind at the zipper as well.
The Norrøna is a climbing jacket, and wearing a harness is common, not the exception. Why would a belay jacket interfere with your harness or your harness interfere with your belay jacket? The answer is, it wouldn't, if your jacket was designed from the get-go to actually climb in, by anyone who actually climbed.
From my own testing there appears to be a very effective DWR coating on the external and internal shell material. Not the typical "lifetime" guarantee we are use to seeing in the USA. According to the US importer, Backcountry.com, Norrøna offers a 5 year manufacturer's guarantee on materials and workmanship. Worth noting Backcountry.com offers their own "iron clad, lifetime" guarantee to every product they sell.
The single pull and easy to use zipper.
The Norrøna on cold and windy winter ice...buried in spindrift...just where it belongs.
Hopefully you have had the time to read through my previous "heavy weight" belay jacket comparison. Now you'll understand why I ran out of time trying to write up every jacket on that list :) cheers!