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The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

Sunday, October 14, 2012

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.


    Gear:30 said...

    Awesome, Dane! I've been looking forward to these posts for a long time. I have only used about 1/3 of the jackets you are reviewing but have wondered about all of them. Thanks!

    knut said...

    Hi Dane,
    Another great post in a great blog.
    i am curious about the mamut gripfelgraf jackeg. But You dont say much about it.. Not So good in your opinion ? I Have been disappointed regarding getting wet in softshell jackets and was hoping this migth do the trick..

    Dane said...

    Knut, this is the first in a 4 part series on the soft shells I mentioned here. I have something to say and get into more specific detail on each one of them in the next three blog comments. The Neoshell garments, because of how impressed I am with all of the base Neoshell fabrics (all different) will eventually get written up twice. So more to come...don't panic ;-)

    wanderlust said...

    Do you have any experience with Paramo or similar stuff like Furtech?

    Quite a few people like it, because it is very breathable and can be waterproof if re proofed every now and then. It does not offer stretch and is also to warm for summer.

    There are tons of information at Furtech's blog:


    Andrej said...


    Which softshell would you recommend:
    - Arcteryx MX
    - Arcteryx LT

    I am asking just based on material durability / performance and features / ...

    How durable Arcteryx MX jacket is with F 2.0 material?

    rockmonkey1977 said...

    Hi Dane,

    I'd also be really interested to hear your opinion on Paramo gear. I read your blog regularly and value your opinion- i've read so many other peoples opinions but its hard to know if they're objective as you can't know how much other gear they've tried...

    copper said...

    You mention that the Gamma MX is no longer your number one choice. What is your number one now? Thanks!

    Dane said...

    Dude, you might want to actually try reading the reviews.."I like this light weight a lot. It became my favorite cragging jacket of the bunch."

    Imagine how annoying I might find a question like that Cooper? Let me save you the effort...VERY ANNOYING.

    Andrej said...

    @Dane: I can see that you are using Patagonia Piton Hybrid. Can you please tell me how does it handle and how good it is for layering? Any other similar product which would you recommend? Thanks

    Dane said...

    Andrej, the Hybrid is unusal. Good at layering, good as a outer layer short of a full on rain or wind shell. I really like this piece. It has replaced my R1 Hoody and I am using it as a outer layer. Weird combo but exceptional and useful imo. I don't own anything as versital right now. This one was a huge surprise because it looks like a lot of garments and out performs many of them with no cost comparisons. Take a look at the Piton's review here.