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The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The best Shell?

Eddie Bauer Frontpoint shell used where it belongs..going fast and light.




There were lots of questions as to what was the best shell from our field test.  I wasn't looking for the best shell so much as I was looking for the best fabric to use for a climbing shell.   Like me...some don't really  care much about a rain shell.

Until this test I had felt that the new stretch materials were all going to be a big step up on performance from the typical hard shell layers most of us have used in the past.  And at least for me, seldom satisfied with.



My first use of Neoshell in the Westcomb Apoc was a new experience.  The Neoshell I have used over the last year is a slightly stretchy, water proof ( I'm now confident in that ) and breathable material.   I used Neoshell as the "gold standard" on this test.   Although in the field conditions we had I am not sure there was a noticeable difference between fabrics like Neoshell, Goretex Active Shell or the Mountain Hardware Dry Q.   I'd like to pick a clear winner here but too many other influences on the fabrics themselves to simply do that.

In use my favorite garments always boil down to the features I like the best.  Great design work can often overcome a 2nd rate material.   Bad design work can and many times does completely over whelm what ever the magic fabric used might be. 

For a "hard shell", which is what I would classify all of these jackets, I look at weight first.

Outdoor Reasearch's Axiom jacket cut from a stretch water proof breathable version of *Gore-Tex’s Active Shell* 13.7oz Large


Westcomb's APOC jacket cut from Polartec's stretch waterproof breathable *NeoShell* 17.4oz XL

Marmot's HYPER jacket cut from stretch waterproof breathable technology, *MemBrain® Strata 100% Nylon Stretch* 13.4oz XL

Mountain Hardware's DRYSTEIN jacket cut from their stretch, water proof, breathable *Dry Q Elite* 18.7 oz XL

RAB's Neo Stretch Jacket cut from Polartec's stretch waterproof breathable *NeoShell* and 18.6oz XL

The Marmot Hyper is still one of my favorite shells listed here.  I has the most stretch of all those listed and  is the lightest.   It is also the least water proof.  So if rain gear is your priority then the Hyper simply isn't a good choice.  That said I have used it in some pretty good rain fall and not been disappointed.  But then admittedly I don't do a lot in the "rain".

But if stretch and light weight are important to you.  Nothing in this group compares to the stretch of the Hyper.  The Hyper is one of the first garments I would reach for a cold windy alpine climb for added protection.  But it is no rain jacket by comparison.  And because it is so light weight it isn't going to be very durable when it meets rock.

I trial run in the rain and I ride my road bike in the rain when my workouts require it.  But climb all day in the rain?  Not likely generally. 

OK, past stretch and lwt weight what else is important to me?   I want a hood that fits over my climbing helmet.  A double slider on the main zipper seems like a worth while feature.   Only the Mountain Hardware jacket from this test offered that.  Disappointing at best.

Pockets?   I'd like mess pockets internally to dry gear out in.  None of these jackets offered that feature.

Over size external pockets that  are made of nylon/Lycra mesh that work as vents are a better alternative than pit zips I think.   They are certainly easier to use for venting and are still useful pockets.

These three jackets all use that pocket technology.  Interesting to me that neither Neoshell garment we tested did.  And imo they should have.

Outdoor Research's Axiom jacket cut from a stretch water proof breathable version of *Gore-Tex’s Active Shell* 13.7oz Large

Marmot's HYPER jacket cut from stretch waterproof breathable technology, *MemBrain® Strata 100% Nylon Stretch* 13.4oz XL

Mountain Hardware's DRYSTEIN jacket cut from their stretch, water proof, breathable *Dry Q Elite* 18.7 oz XL

Technical climbing gear?  Only one jacket of this bunch was intentionally cut and designed as a technical climbing jacket in my opinion.  That is:

RAB's Neo Stretch Jacket cut from Polartec's stretch waterproof breathable *NeoShell* and 18.6oz XL

It has no side pockets, a brimmed hood and two chest high pockets instead of side "hand warmer" pockets.





But (and I had to physically  recheck this) my impression was this:

Outdoor Research's Axiom jacket cut from a stretch water proof breathable version of *Gore-Tex’s Active Shell* quickly became my favorite "technical jacket" for climbing out of this group.

Let me explain that a bit s it makes little sense when you look at the over all jacket features but haven't had the garments on.  The Outdoor Research Axiom jacket is cut from a *stretch* Gore-Tex’s Active Shell.   It is light weight @  13.7oz in a large size.  OR's Large size is a "tight large" on me.  So the garment feels trim while you are wearing it.  No excess material.  The side pocket design works as intended  and vents well.  They seem like vents not pockets. No extra bulk there.  The hood is great with a helmet.  The cuffs fit nicely with a tight, tapered Velcro closure.  The Axiom simply feels like a shell jacket I would like to climb in.   Not very scientific but there you are, my gut reaction to all of these jackets.  And there no bad apples here!   If I had to pick a favorite the Axiom would be it. 

 
When I did climb in the Axiom I used it over my base layer.  Typically that would have been a NWAlpine Hoody.  But for this trip I intentionally used Cabela's Polartec E.C.W.C.S. zip front.  Normally in the same situation I would be using a Arcteryx Atom Lt. over a base layer.


While my base layer was wet from the exercise the Axiom shell was always dry internally.  Every so often I stopped to check and was actually amazed at the performance of the design (good vents) and the Gortex Active shell.  But you can't even buy the AXIOM any where yet...so big help I am, right? 


My point here?  I really like what the Arcteryx Atom Lt is capable of for performance in the conditions (cold and dry) I typically climb in.  I tend to judge other garments by that kind of performance.  "Can they keep me both warm and dry?"

Every shell here listed above would need more than a simple hoody base layer as insulation to keep me warm in those conditions.  The rare exception is an intentional "solo speed ascent".

The Neoshell garments got a slight nod for breathability and rain performance from the entire team.  But again in my opinion neither of the designs we had available really take advantage of Neoshell for my own use.

I started thinking how cool a Neoshell Hyper or a Neoshell Axiom might be!

That is the hard part of taking a detailed look at gear.  It is easy to imagine even better combos of design and fabrics once you have seen a few at the cutting edge on design and materials . 

I can tell you what I think is the best glove, pant or ice tool depending on the conditions.  And I'll argue the small points with you.   Or the boot that fits MY foot the best.  But I don't use a shell often.  Past how well  they breath and transport your moisture from working hard I don't demand much of them.  Unless of course it rains.  So, the "best" really is your decision, not mine.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

So, subjective bests and jacket design features not-withstanding, can you say that any of these fabrics could be capable of fulfilling a soft shell roll while maintaing hard shell protection? Do you still feel you need to test the fabrics in dryer conditions?

Dane said...

The biggest advantage of any decent soft shell imo is how durable they are in nasty terrain like mixed limestone chimneys and the occasional off width. The best soft shells breath better than any of these "hard shells" we tested.

So at least for me, NO, none of these will replace the best a soft shells for breathaility and durability.

But just to be sure I have a soft shell test planned that will be coming up soon. We have to as the newest soft shells I have here now just didn't have a fair chance in last week's monsoon. A real Neoshell/ soft shell like the Mammut Gipfelgrat Jacket will be interesting. I am really excited about testing one asap.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e2oDL3Atank

http://www.mammut.ch/en/productDetail/101011080_v_0001_S/Gipfelgrat+Jacket+Men.html

Anonymous said...

Speaking of softshells I think you'd like this low-end underdog, it's cheap, durable and with those huge pockets it vents like crazy. http://www.backcountry.com/the-north-face-cipher-hybrid-jacket-mens
I know you test only fancy stuff but sometimes the price is not an indicator of functionality.

Alex

Ian said...

If you check Spadout you can get the Hyper for $120 plus free shipping...that's less than $20 more than pro.

Zorz said...

Dane, I fail to see why Gipfelgrat qualifies (in your eyes) as soft shell and not as "hard shell", since it's made out of NeoShell, just like Apoc.

Zorz said...

Tnx for the info, I wasn't aware of that also.

Looking forward to your review of the Mammut jacket.

Dane said...

Zorz.." fail to see why Gipfelgrat qualifies (in your eyes) as soft shell and not as "hard shell", since it's made out of NeoShell, just like Apoc."

The Neoshell fabrics Westcomb and Mammut are using in the Gipfelgrat and Apoc are totally different materials. The Apoc is more a "traditional hard shell" fabric. The Mammut version is what I think of as a soft shell like Shoeller. Huge surprise as I didn't know Polartec had different fabrics that were Neoshell.

More to come on that shortly I hope.

Ian said...

I assume NeoShell is really the membrane between whichever fabrics the OEM decides to use.

Anonymous said...

There is also the Marmot Zion, which is a Neoshell softshell. It is listed as far lighter (18oz) than the Gipfelgrat (28oz) Are there any other neoshell based "softshells" out there?

Dane said...

I doubt the Marmot is actually a soft shell. The Mammut actually is. Totally different fabics both with Neoshell.

JJ said...

Marmot is marketing the Zion as a Softshell. It does not have a traditional nylon feel exterior, but rather a SS feel and a microfleece liner.

Dane said...

Thanks Jon, I stand corrected, thanks. I wonder about the weights quoted. Soft sheel will never be lighter than the hard shell versions from what I have seen so far.

Zorz said...

Hey Dane, one question. Do you have any experience with the new Gamma MX jacket from Arcteryx? They changed the garment (Fortius 2.0 instead of Power Shield), so I'm wondering about breathability. It's probably better than before, since it's a non membrane fabric, but how does it compare to, let's say, the NeoShell? How good is the wind resistance?

Dane said...

I am working on a soft shell review currently. None of the soft shells I have seen (haven't seen Mammut's newest Neoshell) is something you'll want to compare to the hardshells here. None will be as water proof as we required on this particular trip.

Nothing I have seen yet is the magic bullet between hard shell and soft shell technology. A true Neoshell/soft shell might be that bullet. But have yet to get my hands on the Mammut piece.

But not sure I want all of that anyway. I want my garments to breath more and will accept the fact they don't need to be water proof.

Anonymous said...

I was just wondering if you have tried the Mammut Extreme Logan jacket. I was lucky enoug to find one at Sierra Trading Post for under $100, and have been using it fro a seasno now. It si a great jacket utilizing gore-tex pro shell, yet there is a surprisingly sufficient amount of stretch. It is very basic, but has good features as well as a good fit: large enough for layering but fitted enough to stay out of the way.

Dane said...

I haven't sorry.

dimitris melas said...

You have to include the Baltoro Guide Pro from RAB. Polartec Powershield Pro takes soft shell to a complete different level. It's waterproof!

Anonymous said...

have you check out 66 north snaefell jacket? seem hard to find them anywhere.

Dane said...

I have not. Too many jackets so little time.