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The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The People's choice! Shells?

Here is  a chance for you the readers at Cold Thistle to sound off.  Write 10 words, 10 paragraphs or 10 pages on why you think your shell (soft, hard or hard shell pile) is the best thing since sliced bread.   Climbing related comments are the ones most appreciated here ;-)  Send it to my email address and add a name if you want credit.  Photos are cool as well.   And I'll then add them to the blog in a "people's choice commentary"  coming up soon.

My turn to learn from you!  And while we are at it, you can educate the masses!  Or just remind me how bad that "last" review was.  As always I'll be adding a few comments on the newest shells that are showing up here @ Cold Thistle right now.  Below, Westcomb pulled all the stops for this lwt Neoshell.  Seems like a perfect piece for climbing to me.  Details below, but more later once I get a chance to actually climb in it.    Bozeman next stop!

The Westcomb's, Shift @ 12oz (actual weight) in my perfectly sized (for me), US men's large.  Hood fits a Petzl Meteor helmet easily.   Arms and shoulders fit me extremely well with room to spare.  Jacket is made of  stretchable 360 NP Polartec Neoshell.  I would call this one a very light weight, stretchable (some stretch to be sure), hard shell.  $400 retail.
A couple of online reviews from users and the industry here:
Westcomb sez:
360 NP Polartec® NeoShell® - Durable water- and windproof nylon weave, breathability and stretch performance.

20 SPI - 20 stitches per inch exceed industry standards by at least 2x. This higher SPI allows for a lighter, yet stronger fabric seam giving a lifetime of wear and tear while reducing weight as additional top-stitching isn’t needed.

Micro Seam Taping - Creates the thinnest waterproof boundary while creating a more pliable seam without the added weight.

Laminated Zippers, Waist and Wrist Hems - Super durable fabric adhesive affixes these critical areas, creating waterproof, stitchless, lightweight seams with weld-like durability and ultra clean aesthetics.

YKK PU Zippers - Provide smooth operation with watertight performance. Reduces weight by eliminating the need for storm flaps.

Articulated Sleeves - Integrated strategic pocket areas allowing for unrestricted movement.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Modern Mixed?

If you wnt to see the current definition take a look at Jon's recent blog post.  Outstanding effort!

More here in French and some good additional pictures.

Photo courtesy of  Jon Griffith's Alpine Exposures

Thursday, October 18, 2012

"Do No Harm"

"In 1991, facing declining sales, Yvon Chouinard applied the Buddhist principle ahimsa, or "do no harm," and commissioned an eco-audit of the company's operations. Following the audit, Chouinard made the risky decision to use only organic fibers in Patagonia's cotton products. Sales and profits rebounded. "Every time we've done the right thing, it's ended up making us more money," Chouinard says."

Here in the USA we are about to elect a new President.  No matter what your choice take the time to educate your self on the issues and then VOTE.  You only get one so make it count!

I find politics interesting and  seldom in a uplifting or enlightening way.  But what it does do for me on occasion (this election being one) is remind me of what is really important.  Like all my writing always remember my views may not be your views.  My concerns may not be your concerns.  

But here are a few thoughts on how we as a (climbing) culture influence the world.  The ideas should be important to all of us.

"Do No Harm."  Chounard's mantra for Patagonia and sustainable business model.

I don't often consider myself a business although in early Feb. every year I start doing my business taxes before doing my personal income tax.  When I look at the products I produce my intent is that the end result will last several generations.  Goods produced by hand and passed from father to son, many times over.  I am lucky to work in a niche industry that my products will hopefully see such a long useful life span.  

There was a first time I regretted producing an item from steel.  Not because it would last a 100 years or more.  And not because in the wrong hands it could easily cause great harm.  I regretted it because the steel I used that could have easily lasted 100 years would only last a few days....may be even only hours for its intended use.

I felt as if I was wasting a precious resource.  Which of couse I was, several in fact.   The resources were the energy, human and physical,  that it took to produce the finished product and the actual steel involved.  That product was a ice tool pick.

Instead of a tool pick that would last a short time in the grand scale while mixed climbing why not a custom knife that would last several decades so easily?  Same amount of labor, steel and energy involved.  But one was a throw away when done.  The other a simple tool and potential heirloom.  There ceased to a choice for me once I realised where my energies were really going.  No matter how much I like ice climbing...I don't like wasting our limited resources or my limited time on this earth.

That was  the first time I had asked myself, "Do No Harm?", as a business.  

I have asked myself that same question any number of times while traveling through environments that I knew were so very fragile.   Now I ask it more often in less easily identified environments at may be even greater risk.  "What do I want to do with my energy and time.  And what do I really want to do with an expensive piece of steel?" 

Don't get me wrong.  The blog is as much a shill for the outdoor industry and rampant consumerism as anything on the net...maybe more with the number of world wide page reads @ 1.25 million and counting.

I own 3 cars and seldom drive the one that gets the best gas mileage. (@ 30 mpg)   I currently own more climbing shells than two dozen guys could wear at one time.  So I am no Angel here that thinks they will save the world.  And believe me, I am aware of that fact.

But I look at the  increase in the climbing population and can still live with it.  Hopefully giving something back now for what I have gotten by being involved.  Glad that I was able to climb when and where I wanted to for the previous decades.  And lucky enough to get on rock and ice that had never been touched.  It is harder to find now.

New climbers have more to over come.  They will have to look harder and go farther to find the adventure I have.  But the adventure and the new stone is still out there.  They will need to look closer at who they choose to emulate.  Lance for example.  It was so easy to be a apart of the  excitment short term.

But Lance didn't climb.   Dave Lama does.  Remember the bolt fiasco on Cerro Torre?  Thankfully over shadowed now by a free ascent.

But weren't you at all curious and just a little annoyed at Red Bull for the sponsorship?    Red Bull has been in our community for a long time now.  And they have sponsored some amazing athletes and projects.  The debacle on  Cerro Torre was not one of them.  But I am not playing the blame game here.  Red Bull didn't add the bolts to Cerro Torre.  Dave Lama's crew did.  Saying other wise is like saying, "it isn't the people killing people"  "It is the guns killing people!

It is not the guns and it is not Red Bull.  It is people in both those instances.

But here is the rub.  And for me personally it is becoming a saddle sore.  We all know that there are things in the world that are poison to the human body.  Child obesity is rampant in every developed country in the world.  Alcoholism is another disease we bring about ourselves.  The cost of tobacco use is astronomical in the US alone.  The USA is the largest supplier of sugar in the world.  Red Bull is only a tiny part of that production line.

But Red Bull sells millions by show casing our sports and our professionals.

To the detriment of the kids that follow the exploits of guys like Will, Dave Lama or most recently
Felix Baumgartner's jump. 

Been awhile since JIm Bridwell did ads for Camel.
It might be the time to rethink "do no harm" and see what we can improve along the way.

Right after my morning coffee ;-)


Monday, October 15, 2012

Soft Shells..the end..finally! Part 4 of 4

Jack Roberts RIP 

I would have thought that of my 11 choices in soft shell jackets either insulated or uninsulated shells would have been my favorite.  One or the other.

Turns out I am a big fan of the newest technology like the Neoshell fabric used in the Marmot Zion.  The inexpensive REI "town and country" hoodless version I reviewed feels the same to me but offers  significantly less weather protection.   But the REI version still makes a darn good ice cragging jacket if you don't require a hood.  And while cragging I seldom require a hood.  My guess would be they are the same fabric without the Neoshell laminate in the REI version and a very good DWR that does an incredible job on the their fabric.

Given the right material, that is wind proof, 100% water proof and does in fact breath well enough for your own use you could cut your layering system by weight and bulk.

Neoshell I think offers a chance to do all that if a company like Arcteryx, OR or even Mammut would put some time and effort into a single package.  Single package as in "action suit" package.

Neoshell has me thinking how I could revise my layering system for the better.  But at the moment none of the options available jump out at me as a replacement.  Maybe a Neoshell Atom LT?

More on layering here:

Mark Twight's "action suit" is a reality in every serious alpine climbers kit.  The newest fabrics like Polartec's Neoshell or any of the better Goretex or Shoeller newest offers are now giving us a chance to design the ultimate "action suit".   Only Mountain Hardware seems to be up to the task at the moment  with the new Ueli Steck line of gear.   And they haven't covered everything or made any real innovations imo.  They have just done things better...not really different.  It is time for different!

I have one of the few pair of Neoshell Salopettes that I know of, and simply love them in the alpine.  Mating the right jacket with those pants is a priority for me.  So I am still looking for the ultimate shell.

There will be a time...when the action suit starts with your crampons....then your boots and then your "shell", boot sole to a head covering system.  "THE" suit will include an integral glove system, gaiters and different options for insulation depending on the temperatures.  Water resistance and breathability will be a given.  I've been climbing more decades than I like to admit to.  But a systems approach to our clothing is not all that far away in the grand scheme of things.

Viva technology!

This is on my blog list but worth checking out as well if you haven't already:

The Non Insulated Soft Shells (part 3 of 4)

Jack on Curtain Call in a Mammut soft shell.

It is kinda funny for me to sit down and write these reviews never knowing what the end result of all the testing will be.  I take notes while or immediately after using them.  But past that I don't keep track until I finally sit down to put it all together at my desk.   In some cases it might be months later.  In this case it has been on and off use for well over a year.  I do know that if I have a week off to climb and am out every day I gravitate to the gear I like the best.  That is most often defined by the gear I actually notice the least while  I am actually climbing.  If I am wet or cold or over heated I notice. The best gear you never notice, it just works.  Better not to notice.   
The Non insulated soft shells:

NW Alpine Big Four Jacket $235 17.5oz / 524 Lg
"Made from premium Schoeller Dryskin the Big Four Jacket offers excellent breathability and 3XDry Technology ensures superior water resistance."
This is a soft shell you will not notice.  Which is a good thing.  I also really like the price point.  Excellent hood, good length on the arms to keep the glove jacket gap closed.  Good length on the body to keep the jacket tucked into your harness.  The material is seemingly light weight so it doesn't get all bunched up under your harness.  It breaths well when you are really active and is wind proof enough that you aren't scrambling to get a belay jacket on at every belay to conserve body heat. It is a really simple climbing specific jacket.  NW Alpine is a new start up company that just keeps getting better with every production run and every product they offer.  Only down side on this one for me is the forearms are a little tight on their pattern.  But there is plenty of stretch in the current Schoeler Dryskin fabric they are using so the pattern wasn't a deal breaker for me.  One of the three or four "best" for climbing out of the 11 jackets I have included.  High praise when you look at the other price points.  One external chest pocket and two internal stretch glove pockets, one good sized hood with easy adjustment.  Two sleeves attached and Velcro adjustable cuffs.  All the stuff you need and none of the fluff you don't.  Nice bit of actual climbing kit.  There is so little of it available these days!
Rab Scimitar $190 22.7oz / 644g XL
"The Scimitar is constructed using 2 of our own Matrix DWS fabrics, these are non-membrane, stretch, double weave, soft shell fabrics which are highly wind and water resistant and come with a factory DWR treatment. The main body is Matrix DWS in 182g/m weight and the darker panels are a tougher fabric in 275g/m weight for abrasion resistance"
This is another soft shell specifically designed for climbing. Good hood design, certainly one of the best I have seen.   But it doesn't completely cover the vents on my Petzl Meteor helmet.  So while good it is not what I would consider a great hood.  But again it is "good".
"The Scimitar is a medium cut and has adjustable cuffs, hem and hood, plus hand-warmer and chest pocket plus there's a storm flap behind the 2-way front zip."
I might speculate on that "medium cut" comment.  Mine is a US XL  It is cut slim by any standard.  Tighter than the Arcteryx cut for sure.  I cna use a large Arcteryx for example.  I like the Scimitar and the cut except for one issue....again tight forearms.  So tight in fact that with nothing but a short sleeved T shirt on underneath this one I can easily tighten the seams just below the elbow with just a couple of unweighted wrist curls at my desk.  On a climb it was annoying and worse yet tiring.  On the upper arm even my puny re-attached biceps almost strain the seams there with just the same T shirt.  Add a mid layer and I'd be, well,  I'd be really unhappy.  I like to climb in as little clothing as possible but the Scimitar limits me to a R1 hoody at most under it. A Sherpa Merino wool hoody is even better.  That is good part of the year but is limiting as a winter ice climbing jacket.  You had better be able to run fast and jump high to (keep warm) and use this jacket a lot.  The up side?  The sleeves are plenty long and make the glove- jacket connection easily sealed and secure.  That is done well.  The heavier weigh fabric is on the outside of the forearms and upper shoulder and on the point of both hips.  This is a jacket to do some hard mixed in and not shy away from the off width groveling.  The jacket can take it and come out shinning still in one piece.  Plenty of stretch in the material as well so you likely not know you have it on while you sweat bullets on a crux.  I found the breathability really good in this one and the water resistant decent.  Water resistant enough to be a really good water fall cragging jacket even when it is wet.    It is not a rain jacket but it BREATHS really well and is good wind protection.  I have no doubt it was designed as a climbing specific jacket.  I really liked the fact that the extra material at the point of the hip will save this jacket some holes when you have a full rack of screws on your harness.  The hood is decent but could be a little better for coverage.  The arms are pretty tight...almost unusable for me.  But the stretchy material allows a little adaptation.  If the sleeves were a tiny bit bigger I would use this one a lot more.  If it fits you well I suspect you'd love it.
Patagonia Knifeblade on Carlsberg
And yes it is true..I have four orange soft shells each from different manufactures.  So keeping pictures sorted correctly is tough!
Patagonia Knifeblade $350. 20.6oz / 586g XL
"Polartec Power Shield Pro fabric with a tricot backing, combines lightweight weather resistance and incredible breathability."
This is a third jacket here designed specifically for climbing.  Mine is an XL.  It showed up here when I was 50# heavier and needed a XL!  Thankfully not an XL today if the sizing/pattern is reasonable.  At least I can generally wear and climb in anything now that is a US Large with no complaints. (I know that might be hard to believe as I write all this negative stuff about some really nice soft shell jackets!)  Reading another online review last year I caught their reviewer raving about this jacket.  At the time I was NOT impressed by the jacket or the review.  
And I should have been.  Jacket is climbing specific.  It is a pull over which I really like because of the simplicity.  But even back then the thing fit me like a sack.  Patagonia is known (at least known at Cold Thistle and my closet as a terrible fit)  as having some really funky patterns and sizing.  The Knifeblade has really long arms and a decently long body.  I think back now and realise that it was the first jacket I had seen (or would review) that had I'll call a "technical climbing specific" fit.  The Gamma MX had been my go to soft shell and while a great jacket for climbing it didn't have extra long arms or a extra long body as some of the newer jackets do now. 
Some how it seemed to work fine climbing though.  I never knew I was missing anything...not sure I am convinced now!
So when the written review I saw didn't mention either..long sleeves or long body I was thinking the author had simply been bought off by the "free" gear.  Call me cynical as I am still not totally clear on that.  But the Knifeblade jacket really is impressive in use.  See it in the store hanging on the rack or try one on and you may not think so.  I certainly didn't.
But given a chance in use, the Knifeblade really did shine though.  Remember I don't want to notice my gear?  I never noticed the Knifeblade from day one.  Day one for me and a Knifeblade was a nasty bit of water fall ice that was falling down around me.  1st pitch was sketchy but seemed doable.  2nd pitch plan was make it to a fixed pin at 60' and hopefully at least one decent screw on vertical ice.  I clipped the pin (actual BD knifeblade of course) while water was running down every where around me.  I wasn't sure my partner would have ice to climb on in a few minutes.  I jerked on the sling and out came the pin.  Quick! Bail time before I fall off!  Down climbing that disintegrating mess was the best lead I had last year.  Best lead in some time.   I had most of these soft shells I am writing about with me for that trip.  I ended up climbing a lot in the Knifeblade after failing on that climb.  It doesn't look like much.  Fit is dismal but the basics are all there and the fabric does everything they claim.  I like this light weight a lot.  It became my favorite cragging jacket of the bunch.

Outdoor Research Axiom $375 13.6oz / 386g Lg (soft shell?)*
"Outdoor Research jacket is made with premium 3-layer 20D Gore-Tex® ACTIVE SHELL fabric to block out rain, snow and sleet while letting body vapor escape to keep you dry inside."
Ya, OK, this one I *think* Outdoor Research actually lists as a hard shell. But trust me on this..if the Patagonia Knifeblade is a soft shell the Axiom is as well.  The Knifeblade uses Polartec Power Shield Pro.  The Axiom uses a even lighter weight  3-layer 20D Gore-Tex® ACTIVE SHELL fabric.  In hand and actual feel there is a noticeable but very little difference.  In use the materials seem to me every bit as capable as its competitor.  Although the Polartec material offers more stretch.  The Axiom has plenty to spare I think.  Worth noting here I am making a side by side comparison of the Knifeblade that I really like and the Axion.  I think the pattern, fit and detailing is better on the Axiom.  Mine is a size Large.  And while the Knifeblade XL fits me like a sack, I can't use a Large Knifeblade from Patagonia.  The Large is just too tight over all.  remember I said Patagonia sizing is "off" for me.  Good example here on the Knifeblade.  If Goldilocks's ice climbed she would like the Axiom, because it is "just right".  I like it too.  
The Axiom's sleeves have the extra length required.  I know long wonder if my arms are deformed with the Axiom as I can actually bend my elbows with a layer or two on under this shell.  (soft or hard?!)  And a trick Velcro closure on the cuff.  It really is "trick" and works better than most.  Simple but great design effort.  I like that the side pockets vent into the body of the jacket for ventilation if required.  I like the chest pocket.  And the length is long enough, but not too long to bunch up or get in the way without a harness.  As a shell this was one of the favorites last year comparing it to all the shells we (Doug Lee and I) tested.  It likely would have been a favorite for ice cragging as well...if I had bothered to take it.  It was a "hard shell"  after all!  So it stayed home on several trips this spring.  I have no clue what the durability of the Goretex  ACTIVE SHELL fabric is but as a cross over from soft shell to a full hard shell level of weather protection this is a stellar jacket.  It has the only hood that rivals (and may be betters) the Arcteryx hood pattern domination.  For anyone that wants to really cut weight (13.6 oz in a Large) and  needs full weather protection this is the only jacket in the review that will do everything I asked of a good climbing jacket and has sizing through out the pattern that is "normal".  I'd give my eye teeth to have this one in a stretchy and insulated  Neoshell for the added warmth.   Lacking that option I can certainly live with this one as my only climbing "soft shell".
I didn't put these jackets (all eleven of them) in any specific order when I started writing them up.  I just searched out Internet links as I wrote and dropped them in cut and paste.  This is the 10th jacket I have reviewed in detail now on this set of blogs.  And I find it really interesting that of the Axiom is the ONLY jacket that fulfilled all my requirements for a ice climbing jacket.  Sure there are things I'd like to see changed (or better yet a 2nd jacket in this style offered with insulated Neoshell, like the Zion) but the pattern, detailing and hood are so important.  Even the very best materials go to waste if you simply can't use the jacket off the rack to climb in because of bad design or pattern work.  When it all comes together perfectly, fabric and design) like it does on the Axiom, it becomes an easy choice.  The Axion ties with the Venta MX for #1 for the best of the bunch here.

Mammut Gipfelgrat Neoshell $450 (*discontinued) 29.5 oz / 822g Xl
"Lightweight layer of Polartec NeoShell; waterproof, windproof, and breathable"
Likely it was the Marmot Zion that made me think I could leap tall buildings with a single bound and defeat evil villains (big North Faces?) with only a casual glance.  Only the hood being unable to cover my super hero mask put an end to that thought with the Zion .  A few months later my one- off NWAlpine Neoshell actually had me thinking similar thoughts.  I got a Doctor's note to get me out of that one.  But may be it was the bumble bee look that robbed my super hero powers with the NWApine jacket and not just being scared!?  Because the NWAlpine is an almost perfect jacket.  Almost. 
The Mammut Gipfelgrat (thanks forthe spell check!)  Neoshell how ever brought all the super hero crap back to the surface of my warped little brain.  I forget the cold, the aching feet and the lack of water and sleep.  Put me i my favorite Neoshell salopettes and a "perfect" Neoshell jacket and there is not reason for me NOT to climb every and any objective...anywhere!
The Gipfelgrat is obviously Neoshell.  But it is not like the Neoshell in the Westcomb Apoc jacket.  The  Gipfelgrat uses a heavier and more elastic material.  Call it tougher for sure when it comes to abrasion.  But the jacket is also heavier.  Twice and more the weight of the Axiom and no question if you are on sharp Chamonix or Alaskan range granite the Gipfeigrat will last longer.
It is water proof they say.  And I know it is very wind resistant.  Sleeves and cuffs are good to go.  Hood again is very good maybe not as good as the Axion and a step down from what Arcteryx does.  But not a big step.  It is a good hood.  There are under arm zips. 
Let me stop there for a moment.  Do the designers ever really look hard at the fabrics they use?  Here is a jacket in a mid weight Neoshell that really doesn't need pit zips imo.  And they could drop some weight.  Fully featured with pit zips sure.  But no outside chest pocket.  A little more effort on the design side would have had stolen the show here.
Back on track.  No chest pocket.on the outside but there is one on the inside.  All the zips are water proof.  It is a jacket that could take a serious alpine  climber could take some serious abuse in.
It is heavy at 29.5 oz.  But using the right clothing system might allow you to drop a mid layer here and  no other shell required.   But the Gipfelgrat is by far the heaviest jacket here.  Even a couple of ounces heavier than the actually insulated Marmot Zion in Neoshell.  The Zion and Gipfelgrat better compared as "full featured" jackets than to the NWAlpine Neoshell version which is 7oz lighter in Neoshell.  
My take, and I'll get into the idea deeper in the last part of this comparison coming up next, is Neoshell has yet to be fully utilised.
Easy for me to say as the Gipfelgrat has been discontinued in a Neoshell version and is now using one of the new Shoeller fabrics I believe.   Don't quote me on all of that just what I was told by a source at Mammut and have yet to verify.
Bottom line on the Gipfelgrat?  I spent a year trying to get one.  It may not say much to you but I don't spend that kind of time on a garment unless I think it has real value.  Perfect?  Nope.  It is too heavy and way over built imo. But the details and pattern are right.  Another one that is very close but just missed the boat by a few feet.  That said it is the one jacket here I would take on a multi-day alpine wall where multiple requirement are required of a good jacket.    The Axion ties with the Venta MX for #1 for the best of the bunch here.The Gipfelgrat is #3 in my comparisons.    
But I could make a case for any one of these 3 jackets as being my 1st choice of the eleven  depending on your own priorities.  They aren't the only jackets out there of this quality or with well thought features.  Look around, ask around.   Buy what best fits you and your needs and of course fits you wallet.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Insulated Soft Shells (part 2 or 4)

Perfect conditions for a insulated soft shell.  I was using a Gamma MX here.

It was difficult to even start this commentary when you look at the eleven (11) jackets I am writing up.  My first thought was to do the group that I used the most and liked the best as climbing jackets.  I had assumed they would all be in one category.  Again a bit of an eye opener to me that wasn't  the situation.   I like jackets in both the insulated and uninsulated categories.  And I interchange them freely in similar weather conditions.  As I said previous these are the jackets I hand picked as the best for my own use.  But even I am surprised just how good all of them are when you get down to the tiniest details.


Arcteryx Venta MX $450.00 22oz / 628g in a XL

The Venta MX is an interesting jacket.  Definitely more than the Gamma MX Series which I thought was a "heavy" soft shell to begin with.  Not heavy in weight but "heavy" as in warmth and very capable in every condition.  The Venta weighs in at 4+ oz less than the Gamma MX which was until very recently my Gold Standard in soft shells.

"This hooded soft-shell incorporates two weights of Windstopper for easy mobility and protection from the elements. Light, breathable Windstopper is used on the torso and underarms, while warmer, more durable, stretch Windstopper is used on the shoulders, hood, and back." 

Arc'Teryx designates jackets designed for more severe weather with SV.   The Venta MX is designed for more mixed conditions and uses the heavier Windstopper on the shoulders, hood, and back for weather protection, but a lighter weight Windstopper for the underarms and torso.

I don't think you can get a very good perspective on the SV/MX and LT designations from Arcteryx unless you use a number of their garments.  Atom SV and Atom LT insulated shells as an example.
I have been told by an industry insider that *windstopper* is simply Goretex that is not seam taped.  I don't know how accurate that is but the Venta acts like a Goretex hard shell when shedding rain.  It is good at it.  It is not the most breathable jacket in these tests.  But it does breath well and is the only jacket here that offers pit zips. (which, personal preference, I really don't like)  While I don't like a pit zip it does allow better ventilation if it is required to dump both heat and moisture.   Arcteryx has the fit and the hoods simply DIALED on all their garments for my own use and body size.  Every other manufacture plays a distant second fiddle here on both counts of pattern and hoods.  How good are they?  The clothing I climb the most in and have for a decade now are all Arcteryx!  I have a few other pieces of clothing that I use on a regular basis but no single company dominated my climbing wardrobe as Arcteryx does.  And I generally pay retail for it!

That said the Venta was not one of my least favorite garments of this comparison.  It is very, very good but the Goretex fabrics used just aren't up to the capabilities of the Neoshell imo.   At 22oz in a generous XL the Venta is the lwt (by 6oz or more) of the more burly shells with Neoshell.  But then the Neoshell really is water proof and, imo, breaths better in use.  I am cutting some fine hair here, and compared to NW Alpine, Marmot and Mammut Neoshells only the NW Alpine hits the same weight as the Venta.  But the NWAlpine version is a very simple and basically "stripped" alpine climbing jacket.  The Arcteryx Venta is a fully featured, state of the art jacket sewn with articulated patterning, and gusseted underarms and detailed by the best in the business.  The Venta is hard NOT to like.  It does stretch, no doubt there.  The top pockets can also ventilate the jacket and are placed exactly where I want them.  I do like the fabric style cuffs of the Gamma MX better than the Venta's
Velcro tab seal however.  The "brimstone" color is really bright.  I like it.  The retail price is also $450.  Right at the top of the food chain, where it should be. 

Bottom line...I have to admit the Venta is a damn nice jacket even at $450.  There are no flies on this garment.

Roger Strong is a industry sales and a Arcteryx and BD sponsored athlete. Their video covers the Venta MX features as well as anyone has for climbing climbing specific features.


 Arcteryx Gamma MX $345.00 24oz / 684g XL

I have experience with several generation of the Gamma MX now.  And although I don't use one now as much as I have in the past I could easily go back and make it (old or new) my primary climbing jacket.  The Gamma MX breaths well, is a very simple jacket to use.  The cuffs, hood and sizing are  seemingly designed specifically for climbing.

PolarTec Power Shield was the original material used.  That technology has been replaced it with a new more flexible material.  The added fleece face inside the jacket's arms make ti difficult to get on and off.   The new Fortius 2.0 synthetic fabric insulates better for warmth, dries quickly.  A  DWR coating allows the fabric to repel light moisture. 

"Articulated arms and a trim fit keep this mid weight layer close to the body without restricting movement when you're alpine climbing. More versatile than your base layer and more breathable than your storm shell, this jacket will be the one you live in the most, even if there's a little light precip falling from the dark clouds above."

Again the cut and sewing on the Arcteryx stuff is really, really good.  Better than anyone else in this comparison right now.  But again it is not the jacket I now choose to climb in.  However in the last decade the older (and maybe not as good) Gamma MX is the jacket I have climbed the most in.  The newest version is even better than the last.

Gamma MX will stand up to some tough mixed conditions.  I used one here as well. 

NW Alpine Big Four Jacket in Neoshell $375 22.6 oz / 640g Lg
The water-resistant, breathable, and wind-resistant Polartec Neo Shell fabric delivers the *protection* of a hard shell with the breathability, mobility and comfort of a soft shell.

NWAlpine Big 4 Neoshell

I had climbed and skied in a couple of Polartec Neoshell garments last winter prior to this one off  two piece set Bill at NWAlpine sewed up for me.

They garments used in the picture above while on Professors Gully was my first day in them.  The pair are a set of NWAlpiniust salopettes and a Big Four zip front shell jacket.  The Neoshell material used was supplied by Polartec, has a soft hand and a tiny bit of stretch.  The inner face of the fabric is a soft, short and plush.   I intentionally didn't seal the seams.  I was able to change the layering system I climb in by using a this Neopshell material.  That is a BIG change for me.  More about all of that in part 4 which will be Neoshell specific.

The Big Four Jacket is a light and minimalistic soft shell truly designed 100 percent with climbing in mind.   This one is made from a fairly heavy weight Neoshell, soft shell material.   The material is very similar to what Marmot used for their Zion Jacket, which is reviewed below.   The cut is long enough to efficiently stay under your harness and the sleeves are long enough to keep your wrists covered while your arms are above overhead. The jacket has one chest pocket and two internal stretch glove pockets.  There are no side pockets.  The forearms on this one are a little tight for me however.  I use it but the pattern could be better imo. As I mentioned...the Big Four is a simple, climbing specific design, with a well thought out and useful hood that a helmet will easily go under.  The second best hood design only behind Arcteryx imo.  The pattern of the jacket could use a little work yet but the price of the regular Big Four is really difficult to compete with.  Both are really good climbing jackets.   I haven't asked Bill @ NWAlpine if he plans of building the Neoshell version in any kind of numbers yet.  If he does this is a jacket you will really want to check out.

Marmot Zion Neoshell $385 27.5oz / 778g Lg
"The water-resistant, breathable, and wind-resistant Polartec Neo Shell fabric delivers the *protection* of a hard shell with the breathability and mobility of a soft shell."

Marmot doesn't say it but this one should be water proof with taped seams.  My call would be this is a truly "fully featured" jacket.  It is not quit as technical as the Arcteryx Gamma or Venta MX jackets but it is a darn nice jacket.  I really like how it fits and feels in my size large.  I don't remember if it was the Mammut or the Marmot Neoshell "soft shell's" that I first tried on locally.  May be it was the Marmot.  What I do remember thinking was, "this is the jacket that could change what I climb in for clothing."  And it was the jacket I REALLY WANTED wanted to use on a big alpine face.  If was the first jacket since the Gamma MX I'd used previously that I though might really get me back into a soft shell.  Mind you I wanted to be in a soft shell if they were light enough in weight and could keep me dry all the while breathing extremely well.  My previous experience with the Neoshell "hard shells" had convinced me Neoshell might actually make all that possible.   

Until actually seeing the Zion I had no clue the Neoshell process could be applied to any material.  Once that fact became obvious...all sorts of ideas started popping into my head for a new set of climbing clothing.  The Big Four jacket and NWAlpine Alpinist Salopettes were the first venture on the quest (this time) for a better set of alpine clothing. 

But with the Zion, one thing KILLS this jacket for me.  Everything from fit, cuffs pattern and feel are dang near perfect.  Easy even to find a color I like.  But the hood is terrible.  It simply does not fit a climbing helmet.  Worse yet is the fit is very close on a helmet as in "almost fits" so you might easily be convinced in a store.  But no way to zip up the jacket while using one.  Huge BUMMER here!   Glad I have the NW Alpine version to show me just how good the Neoshell would be in a climbing specific shell.  If you don't wear a helmet this would be a great jacket for almost any outdoor environment.

*Rab Vapour-rise Lite Alpine $175.00 * (*soft shell?) 11.7oz / 332g Lg

This one I am still not quit convinced is actually a soft shell.  But that is how RAB has labeled it so I have included it here.  If you haven't noticed it is also the lightest weight in ounces jacket I tested.  I have no doubt it can replace a number of the jackets listed but it won't be as durable.  It might well be warmer however and more breathable than many of them.  I'd call BS on the "soft shell claim because the Vapour-rise Lite is so similar to the Atom LT (another very good climbing jacket) but the shell stretches....where only the side panels offer any stretch on the Atom Lt.

RAB sez:  "For Spring 2012 we have taken everything we have learnt from the Vapour-rise clothing system and put it on a diet! The result is an incredibly breathable and weather resistant 'soft-shell' system that really works.  The Pertex Equilibrium outer fabric, when combined with the light tricot lining,gives you a jacket that is wind and water resistant and that offers fantastic moisture management that dries quickly and maintains a comfortable working environment.
Features that include rucksack and harness friendly pockets, a useful under-helmet hood that is unobtrusive when not in use, a 2-way front zip, adjustable cuffs and an adjustable drawcord hem make the Vapour-rise Lite Alpine an ideal all round mountain jacket."

Again this is another jacket with huge potential but not at the same party as some of the better climbing jackets listed here.  For me this one makes a good summer alpine rock jacket or even a super lwt run up Rainer or Mt Blanc.  For quick super lwt trips to the alpine, sans helmetrequirements this one really rocks.   But as a climbing jacket it is a VERY athletic cut in a group of very athletic cut jackets.  In other words it is tight and not made to take much under it.  I use it alone to run in.  But for once the forearms are not too tight :)  The hood on the other hand is...not one that RAB makes many mistakes on.  But this hood is too small for a helmet.  So my verdict on this one is, "A AWESOME 3 season jacket for lwt trips where you don't need a helmet. Or don't need a hood"  I included it because I think it really does have some serious potential once you figure out a place for it in your own adventures.  I have but it is not a go to ice climbing piece for me....yet,  Too bad because I think the Vapour-rise garments (and this one in particular) have the same or more potential as the Arcteryx Atom Lt.
Which is high praise indeed coming from me. 

REI Neo Jacket $125. (*no hood) 25.4oz / 722g Lg

Some might get a laugh on me for including this one.  But I paid for it and I like it a lot.  On sale it cost something like $65 for it plus WA. sales tax.   You could buy a lot of them for what a Venta would cost you @ retail.  I would imagine the Neo will last as long as the Venta will as well.  The REI warranty is certainly easier to use.

Although there is no hood, which is better in my opinion than a hood you can't use, the jacket wasn't designed as a climbing jacket.  It was designed to be a price point soft shell for "about town wear".  I have used it  for both and really like it in both arenas.  The first time I wore mine was on a date with my wife.  I thought I looked sharp...she allowed me that fantasy.  For climbing it is cut well.  The sleeves close with Velcro and are long enough and the body of the jacket is long enough to go into your harness and stay there.  Neither the sleeves or body are overly long or get in the way while in the car or running around town.  Seems almost perfect to me.  The fabric looks ot be the same as the material Marmot used in the Zion Neoshell.  Just no Neoshell, so it is cheap.  The DWR repels water like a duck's back and the thing breathes VERY well considering the insulation value if the lwt fleece backing on the fabric.

I like this jacket a lot.  And I like it for a lot of uses.  Spring skiing, a decent day ice climbing or off to town for a latte and dinner.  Multifunction and a very good price.  If you don't mind black or brown and have yet to own a soft shell you can use long into 3 seasons. this is a good place to start and see what you think of the idea.
The winner here by overall weight, stretch, and weather protection is the Arcteryx Venta MX.  Add the fact that the sizing, cut, pattern and details are typically impeccably Arcteryx and state of the art and it is a smack down even at $450.

Soft Shells.........finally! (Part 1 of 4)

Patagonia Knifeblade top and NWAlpine Neoshell "soft" Salopettes
The first parts to this review were written some time ago.  Sorry, life, among other things got in the
way on this one.  But it has been on my mind now for well over two full years.

The problem if you take reviewing gear seriously is the more you know, the more you realize how much you really don't know.  Which is OK, since damn few others know much when it comes to comparisons.  Those that do aren't making any real effort to write about it from what I can see.

Having an educated opinion worth listening to isn't the only problem.  Most that are worth listening to (myself included here) get jaded by free gear, or just as bad, and may be even worse, so much gear that you don't have time to make a proper comparison within any kind of reasonable time line.

But I have found that the majority that actually do know something worth sharing already are sponsored by or work for one manufacture or another.   They will most often have little or no current experience with  comparisons of other/similar gear.  I believe you can include everything from ice screws and tools to clothing and boots in that comment.

As an example, one of my favorite jackets included in this review took me almost a year ( I admit I begged for this one and eventually got a current sample for free.  The retail price was $450) only to see it discontinued this season.   Another jacket that is in a similar situation but now replaced by a better designed/tailored  jacket retailed for $385.  I begged and finally got this one as well.  I only ask/beg companies for products because I don't think the reviews would be fair without that particular product.  I really don't like asking.  Having to ask a number of times...well you can imagine my frustration with the players involved when that happens.   These days my last resort is to actually buy them with my own money and then only on a pro deal or on sale.  But buying gear at this point (which  has been a BIG change from when I started Cold Thistle 3 years ago)  is becoming less and less of an option. No more maxed credit cards at Cold Thistle!  I simply can't afford it financially.  More is not like I actually need any more of this stuff or want to horde climbing gear or clothing!  Trust me, I REALLY don't!

The problem now...and I know this one may be hard to believe,  is what to do with the gear after I have used it in testing.

30 year old Swiss soft shell salopettes
(hard faced wool/nylon blend)

OK, on to soft shells and how I use them or don't use them.  My first introduction to stretch soft shells was in a pair of Swiss salopettes.  I still think that pants are one of the best uses for a stretch soft shell material.  More on that eventually in a later blog article.  But generally in the past I mated my soft shell pants to a hard shell jacket.

9 years ago I was introduced to the Arcteryx Gamma MX hoody and pants.  At the time the Arcteryx Gamma MX salopettes and pants didn't seem all that impressive.  I already BTDT with pants.  But the Gamma MX Hoody was a totally different story.  I was convinced for a few year that I would never be without a Gamma MX Hoody.  I used one everywhere, water ice, mixed routes and bigger alpine objectives.

The MX cut the wind and was warm enough.  It would generally breath well enough.  But when I was working hard just barely well enough.  In the conditions I like to climb in (dry cold conditions, mid winter)  over heating and getting wet just isn't an option.  As I started to climb more often and get more fitness, with the Gamma MX as a top layer, I found one of two things happened.  I either went slow enough to stay dry and not sweat or I went at a reasonable pace and got wet from the inside.  That just wouldn't do.

To solve that problem I went looking for a more breathable outer layer.  The result of that search was the Atom LT and similar garments that I use now in its place.

So my biggest priority in a "shell" is that it breathes exceptionally well.  The second thing I want these days is it must have some stretch.  The more stretch the better imo.  I judged these shells as climbing pieces.  I used them in all of my activities and weather conditions.  But how I judged them was as climbing garments used in the typical conditions I climb in.  As always YOUR mileage may vary and this info is worth what you paid for it!

Arcteryx Atom Lt in spindrift
The conditions?  I make a real effort to climb in good weather, just not always perfect conditions.  I want blue sky, and as little wind as possible.  That doesn't always work out.  And if you are climbing ice or in the alpine, spindrift and running water are pretty common.  But  just so there is no confusion I don't climb in the rain intentionally.  I will however stand in a pouring water fall or climb through a torrent of spindrift if required.  Wet snow is always a potential hazard if you are out in fickle mountain weather.

Goretex hard shell at night in wet snow
 So  what I want from a soft shell garment first is breathability.  Then decent resistance to wind and water.  Stretch is always good and some insulation if it doesn't lower the breathability of the garment.  Short list not so easy to accomplish in one garment that you will use as a single layer.  
But it is getting more difficult every day to distinguish between  "hard shells" and "soft shells".  I use to know just by judging the *hand* (feel) of the material.  These days that may not tell you everything or anything if you aren't really paying attention and have an informative hang tag to read.   Some stretch and DURABILITY has been the calling card of a soft shell compared to a hard shell.  But these days durable fabrics can offer some stretch or none at all.  And what would normally be thought of as hard shell can offer stretch and durability way beyond expectations.  I can only write up what I get in my hands to test and use personally.   There are so many good garments out there, the ones I profiled here are NOT the end all of what is available.  But they are ones I really liked and not everything I had to review.   The best of what I have seen anyway.   Some of the jackets I tested here are actually no longer easily available.  And I have pushed the limits of what even I think is "soft shell" technology.  But as you will see the garments now over lap for function and use and continue to do so more with every new buying season.  If you don't see your favorite "soft shell" here,  feel free to add it to the comments section.
It is best I think to split the soft shell garments I tested into two categories, insulated and non-insulated.  There is a third category here I think that needs more discussion and that is Neoshell.  That will be in the last blog comments. Part 3 of this 4 part series.  (this is part 1)
But first let's wade through the "basic" soft shell technologies...insulated and non-insulated.  The term "soft shell" is by no means written in stone here.   Jackets like the Arcteryx Acto MX  FLEECE (not reviewed in this article but comments on the blog previous) blends these garments and their use even further.  Even writing the basic descriptions below of "insulated" or "uninsulated" or hard shell/soft shell is confusing for me with all these jackets literally at my feet and at hand.  But I would never describe any of the ones here as FLEECE. 
The Patagonia Knifeblade, the OR Axiom and the RAB Vapour-rise all make my generic labels confusing.  Neoshell can apparently be laminated to any material so just because it says "Neoshell".....does not mean you will get the same material (or the exact same functioning garment) from different companies, let alone the same company.  More on all this in the actual reviews.
The prices quoted are retail.  Look around on the Internet for more accurate pricing.
The insulated garments I looked at:
Arcteryx Venta MX $450.00
Arcteryx Gamma MX $345.00
NW Alpine Big Four Jacket in Neoshell $375
Marmot Zion Neoshell $385
*Rab Vapour-rise Lite Alpine $175.00 *  (*soft shell?)
REI Neo Jacket $125. (*no hood)
The uninsulated garments:
NW Alpine Big Four Jacket $235
Rab Scimitar $190
Patagonia Knifeblade $350. 
Outdoor Reasearch Axiom $375
Mammut Gipfelgrat Neoshell $450 (*discontinued)
This is a big review and for you to get the most out of it I'll be talking about the fit of each of these jackets in some detail.  Knowing how they fit me and how that might reflect on your own sizing requirements should help.  Knowing my current sizing will help you.
I'm 6'1", 188# with a 33" waist, 44" chest.  A 17"- 35" dress shirt fits me well with some comfort and 16.5"-33" is too small.  I can wear a men's Large and they will generally fit me a little loose.  For shell garments that I'll climb in I have generally been wearing XLs since I was in my early 20s.  They are loose, may be even baggy, but much easier to climb in.  Today's styles are typically sew with much better patterns than 20 years ago, with one exception that I'll get to in a minute.  For the better climbing specific garments you will see long bodies and a more trim fit.  They will tuck into a harness with ease and stay there when climbing hard with your arms up and doing athletic moves.    The arms are longer to keep you covered with no glove gap when reaching high.   RAB, NWAlpine and Patagonia have those two pieces of the pattern wired.  So wired in fact when I try those garments on I feel like a little kid in Dad's clothing.  The body is too long and arms are too long.... while in the store!  They are perfect for actual climbing however.  
The exception to modern patterns fitting me well is the circumference of the elbow/forearm.  For this one area both RAB and NW Alpine really cut their patterns tight.  So tight in a few of these garments I wouldn't walk out of the store with them.  
I am not Popeye!  If I were, I might understand this problem that is too tight of sleeves.  I took a moment to eye ball some of the Montana ice hardmen's forearms while standing in a vendor's both at Summer OR.  Hell, every one of them had bigger forearms than I do now!  I lost an inch of forearm diameter during last winter's chemo.  My forearms are now a measured 14" when pumped up in front of the TV.  Likely a bit bigger when sketched and pulling hard on lead!  I suspect you get the picture here.  Not everyone that climbs ice is a stick man. Damn few in fact.  Some of the manufactures mentioned here really need to go back to the pattern boards because of that mistake.  If the garment feels tight in the store it is going to really SUCK on a climb.
Enough so (as in SUCK) I generally play it safe and buy a XL.  But even that won't help on some of these jackets.  When cut well, like the Outdoor Research Axiom, or the Marmot Zion a size Large is fine for me to climb in with a nicely tailored fit.   Heed the warning and check your own sizing on the forearms before you buy.  Hoods are a totally different story as every company seems to have a different idea on what a good hood consists of.  That is another critical piece of the puzzle for pattern cutting.  Those two areas will be addressed specifically on every jacket reviewed here.
OK, on to the list.
Materials used, over all weight and size tested first.
Arcteryx Venta MX $450.00  22oz / 628g in a XL
Lightweight, breathable 520SNP is used on the torso and underarms to aid in temperature regulation
  • Heavier weight stretch WindStopper is used on the shoulders, hood, and back for added protection and unlimited range of motion

  • Arcteryx Gamma MX $345.00 24oz / 684g XL
    Fortius 2.0 synthetic fabric insulates for warmth, dries quickly, DWR coating allows the fabric to repel light moisture
    NW Alpine Big Four Jacket in Neoshell  $375 22.6 oz / 640g Lg
    The water-resistant, breathable, and wind-resistant Polartec Neo Shell fabric delivers the protection of a hard shell with the breathability and mobility of a softshell.
    Marmot Zion Neoshell $385  27.5oz / 778g Lg
    The water-resistant, breathable, and wind-resistant Polartec Neo Shell fabric delivers the protection of a hard shell with the breathability and mobility of a softshell.
    *Rab Vapour-rise Lite Alpine $175.00 * (*soft shell?) 11.7oz / 332g Lg
    Lightweight Rab® Vapour-rise softshell jacket using Pertex® Equilibrium fabric and lightweight tricot lining
    REI Neo Jacket $125. (*no hood)  25.4oz / 722g Lg
    4-way stretch fabric is soft yet durable, and with a Durable Water Repellent? finish, Neo resists moderate rain and wind while allowing breathability; windproof to 45 mph
  • Brushed fleece laminated interior feels great on cool days

    Non insulated:
    NW Alpine Big Four Jacket $235 18.5oz / 524 Lg 
    Made from premium Schoeller Dryskin the Big Four Jacket offers excellent breathability and 3XDry Technology ensures superior water resistance.
    Rab Scimitar $190 22.7oz /  644g XL
    The Scimitar is constructed using 2 of our own Matrix DWS fabrics, these are non-membrane, stretch, double weave, soft shell fabrics which are highly wind and water resistant and come with a factory DWR treatment. The main body is Matrix DWS in 182g/m weight and the darker panels are a tougher fabric in 275g/m weight for abrasion resistance
    Patagonia Knifeblade $350.  20.6oz / 586g XL
    Polartec Power Shield Pro fabric with a tricot backing, combines lightweight weather resistance and incredible breathability
    Outdoor Reasearch Axiom $375 13.6oz / 386g   Lg  (soft shell?)*
    Outdoor Research jacket is made with premium 3-layer 20D Gore-Tex® ACTIVE SHELL fabric to block out rain, snow and sleet while letting body vapor escape to keep you dry inside.
    Mammut Gipfelgrat Neoshell $450 (*discontinued) 29.5 oz / 822g Xl
    Lightweight layer of Polartec NeoShell; waterproof, windproof, and breathable
     As an after thought I found the retail prices interesting.  I intentionally picked these jackets for this review with no concern on their pricing.  It will be interesting to see how this all shakes out for "value of your dollar " on my "climbability" scale.
    The uninsulated garments:

    This review is a first in many ways!
    Garments for this review were donated by RAB, Outdoor Research, Marmot, NW Alpine, POLARTEC and Arcteryx.  Three of them I wanted bad enough I bought them myself.  I'll let you figure out that combo ;-)   Where you find it appropriate please support the companies mentioned here who trust and support Cold Thistle enough to make reviews like this possible.  Without them Cold Thistle would be little new content of this scope on new gear. 

    Next week's blog will continue the review with a detailed look at the first six "insulated" soft shells.