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The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

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.


Bob said...

I agree. If they'd put a decent hood on the Zion, a winner for sure. Great cut, fit, material, comfort a little on the heavier side of things but with insulation.

Jesse in CO said...

Hi there Dane

This is off the topic of soft shells, but didn't know where else to pose the question.
I've read through a number of your down jacket reviews and was curious if you've had any experience with the Feathered Friends Helios Hoody? Could you offer any comparison between it and a Neutrino Endurance? Very similar specs, just wondering why you may lean towards one or the other.

Dane said...

Jesse, I did a review that included the Helious earlier. It is here:

RAB and Narrona both offer mid weight jackets imo than the Helious. As you will see the published specs from FFs aren't the reality. Make real comparisons and FF gets left behind with old technology and dated patterns imo.

brian said...

Great discussion as always Dane. What about the Acto MX Hoody? I switched last year after climbing in Gamma MX Hoody's and the first gen of the Venta MX for many years. I find the Acto breathes much better than any other softshell, and when it gets real nippy, i throw the Atom LT over it. No complaints other than the "trim fit" versus the "athletic fit" on the mx line.

Dane said...

Brian, as I mentioned in the first part of this Series, the Acto is considered a FLEECE by Arcteryx not a soft shell. It is hard to get a good definition on what is really available and what they should be called, soft shell, hard shell or fleece? But a Fleece typically isn't as wind proof or as water resistant as a hard shell or even the best soft shells. I think the Acto as good as it is....lives up to that reputation.

Toby - Northern Light Blog said...

Agree completely about the Zion's hood letting down what could otherwise be a superb climbers jacket. It is so dumb because the hood is a pretty serious hood otherwise - stiffened brim etc. and kind of gets in the way when it down as you try to take slings off over your shoulder etc. It's so close to be a really good hood - it just needs more volume. Such a fail, considering how close to being a success it is!

Andy said...

Hey Dane - totally second the comment by Brian about the Acto MX Hoody. I agree it's perhaps best to call it a hardfleece rather than a soft shell. But in terms of the fabrics properties and performance I find it similar to something like the Rab Scimitar you reviewed above. But better. Very breathable, very water resistant, amazingly durable, though not very wind resistant. Not too different from most stretch woven fabrics though I reckon. I too was a long time Gamma MX Hoody user, I find the Acto way better all things considered and it's the best hardfleece/soft shell I've ever used.

Unknown said...

Reading some old blog entries and wanted to let you know that Marmot has updated the hood on the Zion. I recently received a new Zion as a warranty replacement for a nearly 20 year old marmot gore 3 layer shell that I sent in for repair. They called me to let me know they wanted to warranty the product since the fabric was delaminating from the membrane.

I asked the rep about the Zion and specifically about the helmet. He told me the newest version of the jacket has been reworked and the hood now works with helmets.

When it arrived I tested it with my petzl brain bucket and sure enough, it fit with plenty of room. The hood on this is now on par with the alpha fl (Gore Tex pro version) that I originally purchased to replace the old marmot shell I sent in for repair.

TLN said...

I own a venta mx jacket and I'm pretty happy with it. Would you recommend geting a gamma mx or theyre quite close?
Can I put venta mx over gamma nx for any reason? Or I need to get different sizes for that?

Dane said...

Too similar of jackets for me to want to combine...

TLN said...

Thanks, you just saved me several hundreds ;)