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The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Part Two: the Soft Shell intro

Liberty Cap '78

Like most of us that lived through the wool, pile and polypro phase of climbing clothing I was thrilled to see the US versions of Sheoller fabric being produced and introduced in to 4 way stretch climbing garments.

We can all thank Polartec for that and more as climbers and skiers.

My last Shoeller specific garment was a pair of alpine bibs that was a wool and Lycra blend.  I bought them in Banff at Monods in '85 .   Amazing piece of clothing that I dearly loved and still have.  I used them ice climbing and for skiing.  But I never took them into the alpine.  Not enough stretch and the weight was more than I would have preferred.

Gortex and Polarguard @ 20K' in 1988

Enough good things about them to really like the idea and material used, but enough lacking in design and materials that I used them on a limited basis instead of full time.

Besides reasonable weather protection I wanted two things from my "soft" pants at the time which haven't changed over the years, light weight and good breathability.

Enter Polartec's Power Shield garments.  I used both a Gamma MX Hoody, the Gamma MX pant and the Gamma Salopettes a lot from 2003 to mid 2008.

I  had thought Polartec's Power Shield was the best climbing fabric I had used at the time.  It is still one of the best imo I just use it on a much more limited basis now.

Cold, dry and clear.  Perfect conditons for the MX and Power Shield.

In cold weather (-20C) in the Columbia Icefields I've used the a Gammx MX Hoody and Gamma Salopettes a number of times.  Generally with a R1 layer or stretch pile under both and been happy with the results.  In the Cascades I have used a lighter pant and the Gamma MX hoody in wet and barely freezing temps, until the jacket soaked through and I added a light weigh Primaloft belay jacket to get me dried out and keep me warm.

After spending more time in the Cascades one season than I did in Canada (what was I thinking) I came to the conclusion that Power Shield garments were too warm and too heavy.  The fact that you couldn't get them dried out in the field with out donning a Primaloft layer over them made me start looking for a Primaloft garment I could use as my only outer garment  and still climb in.  The end result of that search was the Atom Lt.  Not Primaloft of course but 60g Coreloft from Arcteryx it seems to work  just as well in a lwt garment like the Atom Lt.

The Atom Lt is a an incredible cold weather climbing garment with an RI hoody or something similar under it.  I've been in one for 3 seasons now and still impressed.  It is super light and warm without ever being too warm in winter conditions.  My friends are becoming converts to the Atom Lt and its mate the SV over layer as well.

The obvious Atom Lt vents

There are two down sides to the Atom Lt for climbing though.  First it isn't totally wind proof.  The stretch side panels which allow you to climb hard in the jacket also make it a little chilly in a good breeze.  So you still need wind protection and a puffy for when it gets cold or windy.  The other is the outer shell material is fragile compared to even some of the lack luster soft shells available.  You don't want to do a lot of rock or mixed climbing on limestone in an Atom Lt.

Nano Puff over and Atom Lt in the wind, great combo.

So what I am still looking for is the "holy grail" in climbing soft shells.  Hard to identify..but like porn you'll know it when you see it.

Here is my list of the "best" features of a soft shell.  Although I have yet to see one that will fill the bill.

Under 20oz in a large
Super breathable
totally water proof
4 way stretch...a lot of it
a few well placed pockets easily usable with a harness and pack
a helmet compatible hood
good wrist seals
athletic cut, but long enough to tuck into your harness
inner liner you can easily layer over wool or R1 style hoodies
warm enough to climb in mid winter with a single R1 weight layer under it.

The up coming soft shell review will hopefully tell us just how close the new Goretx and Primaloft fabrics are to my "holy grail" wish list.

They'll have a lot to live up to.


jeremy said...

If you think about it there is a theoretical limit to how "breathable" a WP fabric can be due to relationship between waterproofness, breatahbility and pore size. Pores need to be a certain size in order to keep water (of a certain pressure) out, which limits breathability.
Polartec have already found the pore size limit for a 10,000mm WP fabric. The way forward now is going to be maximising pore density, which is going to require stronger and more resilient materials and more precise manufacturing.

Anonymous said...

You make Atom Lt really attractive but I just can't force myself to buy Arcteryx, it feels too glamorous for outdoors with it's nice fit and perfect design. Do you think a 100 gram Primaloft vest under a windshirt would give the same amount of warmth while being just as versatile? Did competitors come up with a similar jacket that you consider a worthy substitute ?


Rafal said...

Re: Alex. "too glamorous for outdoors with it's nice fit and perfect design"

Um, wow dude. If those are the sole reasons you're not using Arcteryx, what do you recommend instead that has crappy fit and shitty design? The Atom LT is incredibly affordable for what it is.

The only competitor I know of is the Patagonia Nano Puff series, but they have crappy fit and a pretty shitty design. Come to think of it, might be the one you're looking for.

And on to my 2 cents...

Recently picked up an Atom SV as a light belay jacket and I've been blown away with the breathability. So much so that I've got an Atom LT coming to couple with a Gore Active Shell jacket to see how that combo works. Should be fully windproof, waterproof and breathe extremely well.

Not really a softshell combo by any stretch of the imagination, but if it breathes as well as it seems upon first impressions, it'll be my go-to setup for any climbing that doesn't involve extended rock or mixed sections. Still need to find something that'll fit the "not torn to shreds in a pitch" requirement.

Dane said...

thanks Rafal, my thoughts exactly :)

Dane said...

Forgot to add,
Mammut and Marmot both have a real soft shell made with Neoshell. That is the direcion I expect to go as a armored soft shell climbing combo.....if should laugh off Canadian limestone. Like water off a duck's ass ;)

Dane said...

Alex, a 100g vest is't any where close to a 60g "shirt" weight.

100g is jacket weight and doesn't breath as I require for hard climbing. Only the Lt's vents make that possible. Which is why the 60g Nano stuff gets used as a windshirt over the Lt. That and the Nano's terrible fit in comparison.

NotMessner said...

When you are climbing in an Atom Lt, then the wind kicks up in intensity, have you tried countering the wind by wearing a Pata-Gucci Houdini wind shirt over the Atom Lt?

Dane said...

Yes just as likely to have it under though as over depending on how you start out and how hard you are working. Typically a Squamish instead of the Patagucci version.

Nanos work even better over the top if you want just a little more warmth. By the time you feel the need in an Lt...a bit more is usually welcome.

Dersu said...

Dane, so I gather that you like Marmot's Zion jacket? Will it be included in your Softshell review?

Dane said...

Dersu, I do like the Zion. Hopefully I'll have both manufactures, Neoshell, true soft shell versions in the field tests.

Anonymous said...

I would add a Montane Prism jacket to the mix of lightly insulated jackets. All sorts of neat detailing all over the jacket.For more details check here:

Dane said...

Nice! I want one :) Just had sizes shipped to the house from Backcountry, Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Kind of want to see the Norrona soft shell jackets thrown into the mix. The falketind flex1 or 3 looks well made and designed.

Anonymous said...

Rafal and Dane,

I do own a Nano Puff and I love it's shittyness))) If I bought an Atom lt I'd end up wearing it around town not wanting to shred it, the Nano is ugly enough for destruction, don't know if this makes sense to you.


Jay said...

Kind of off topic here, but has anyone tried the Marmot Variant Jacket? I'm rereading Twight's book again, and it seems to be a production version of some prototype gear he was playing with. Light synthetic insulation in the front and Power Stretch everywhere else for good movement and to let your pack insulate your back.

Dane said...

I've seen it. Good idea but may be a little dated now compared to what else is availabe now and what system you use.

Kevin L. said...

I used the Mountain Hardware Cohesion Jacket last winter on burly cold, or burly cold/wet days and absolutely love it. What I don't love about it was the weight and bulkiness. I just picked up a Marmot Variant and feel it'll make an excellent belay jacket - it's lighter and more packable than the Cohesion Jacket, plus the zippers are all seam-taped. I would venture to say that the MH Cohesion jacket is warmer, and I've used it alone during a couple open bivies. I think I'd want either a nano puff or down sweater beneath the Variant for extremely cold outings.

Kevin L. said...

I'm sorry, I was referring to the Mountain Hardwear Alcove jacket, not the "Cohesion Jacket".

Rafal said...


I don't understand your thinking at all. Just for fun:

Nano Puff Hoody $259 retail (in Canada)
Atom LT Hoody $225 retail (in Canada)

So the better fitting, better performing, better constructed and better designed garment is cheaper yet you'd rather trash your more expensive Nano?

Even the Atom SV Hoody, which is more windproof and much warmer thanks to its lack of stretchy side-panels, is only $275...

Unless you've got access to Patagonia pro-deals but not Arcteryx ones, this line of thought makes no sense to me.

Besides, it's only the first scratch that hurts, the rest just add character!

Anonymous said...


I got the Nano on sale for 120$ but the cheapest Atom hoody is 180$ on ebay. There are no websites that are allowed to ship Arcteryx outside US and Canada and this kind of attitude towards customers really annoys me, in Europe the price for Atom is 280$ and it's rarely on sale.


Dane said...

"I would add a Montane Prism jacket to the mix of lightly insulated jackets. All sorts of neat detailing all over the jacket.For more details check here:

I bought a couple of these. They run small and aren't easily vented or a good replacementfor the Atom Lt. Big reason is the hood will NOT go over a helmet easily or fit well when it does. I would get very limited use from the Prism so they are both going back for a refund.

Dersu said...

Dane, I've read somewhere that Marmot's Zion doesn't have a helmet compatible hood. Is this true?

Anonymous said...

I was suggesting this jacket more as an alternative to the Nano puff than a replacement for Atom Lt hoody.Atom Lt hoody is very specific jacket that has yet to be equaled. But unfortunately the fit for me is quite off. Either the arms are too short or the body is too baggy( I have tried sizes M and L ).
The hood on the Prism jacket was design to go under the climbing helmet,but they have changed that this year.
What are your thoughts on a Pertex & pile combination.I have been using it for years and for a cold, windy and dry conditions I haven´t found anything like it.

Dane said...

Zion will easily take a helmet under the hood.

"The hood on the Prism jacket was design to go under the climbing helmet,but they have changed that this year."

that would be good. The ones I got wouldn't take a helmet.

Ian said...

How does the Marmot Hyper fit compared to the Marmot ROM?

Nicolai said...

The Arc'teryx site claims the Atom LT hood fits under rather than over a helmet. In your photos it seems to fit fine over your helmet. Can you confirm that? I feel like ice would accumulate in the unused hood while climbing; can you explain why you chose the hoody rather than the jacket version?
Many thanks for your highly informative site!

James said...

Dane, it seems to me that a softshell jacket trades waterproofing for breathability, so while neoshell is stretchy, it's still completely waterproof, making it a hardshell. Have you tried Patagonia's Knifeblade pullover? I'm not a huge fan of them normally (except for the R1), but the new stuff this year like the Northwall jacket and Knifeblade pullover seem like incredibly well thought out pieces and could give you exactly what you're looking for. The knifeblade has welded seams and the powershield pro fabric has a 5m HH that should give you that waterproofing you want while providing around 50% more breathability than neoshell. Just my two cents.

Dane said...

I have both the Patagonia Knifeblade and the new Northwall pants. I'll tell more in the up coming soft shell review. But Neoshell in a true soft shell versions will be something different I think. And may be not what you suspect.

Dersu said...

How's the test coming along? When can we expect some reports?

Dane said...

Likely in Jan.

Erik W said...

Dane!... it's time for my 5yr old Gamma MX hoody to hit the retirement rack, otherwise known as the front closet... where performance wear goes to be washed (man that thing stinks) and thereafter worn to restaurants and bookstores. So I'm definitely looking forward to your review coming out next month.

Here in the Rockies, we don't get much in the way of rain or even wet snow, so waterproofing isn't as important to me as breathability and windproofing. And a hood's ability to take a helmet. That was one of the nice things about the Gamma Hoody, it could accomodate my long neck and a high profile helmet pretty well. But not all jackets are like that. While many hoods will go over a helmet, a good deal do so only by lifting the shoulder fabric off your actual shoulders (which is a pain in the neck, literally, when the shoulders are pinned down by your pack).

I see in your pics that you wear a Meteor III, which is itself a high profile lid. As part of your review, could put a note as to how roomy the given hoods with your helmet combo?... i.e., tight fit, lots of room, no pull on shoulders, etc. It would be helpful.

Thanks again for all your work on this.