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The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

Monday, October 15, 2012

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.


Taffy said...

Great info as always Dane. Any thoughts on how the Arc'teryx Alpha FL might compare to the Axiom?

Dane said...

Both are GORE-TEX® Active Shell. Dave Searle has written a guest blog post on it here.

Cold Thistle and "????" will get you far on Google's search engine ;-)

My other buddy Dave climbs and boards in the FL and swears by it. As I said over and over in the 4 part review..hard to beat Arcteryx patterns and detailing. The FL is $400 retail. The Axiom is $375. If nothing else the two combined give you a lot of color options. Worth reading the reviews here:

Gregor said...

Just a little correction. Correct name for Mammut softshell is GipfeLgrat (not Gipfeigrat). In german it means "summit ridge"

gipfel - summit
grat - ridge

Otherwise excellent post (as always)

Daniel Harro said...

Arcteryx Gamma SL hybrid is a nice jacket as well as being truly light weight at 13 oz.

I personally think "uninsulated shells" should clock in well under 14 ounces, anything heavier is too much. My Alpha LT hardshell is 13.5 oz.

Dane said...

Hi Ross,

I use a Petzl HIRUNDOS and the Axiom is just long enough in the body for me to tuck it under my harness and not have it come out on a full arm stretch while climbing. Zippers are easy to get at as they run top down.
Bottom of the pocket seam is at the top of my harness belt. But the pocket bottom is flat so ti on the same line as your harness. Totally unzip your pocket and everything will eventually just fall out. Not the best pocket design in the world but certainly useable. Still as a lwt it
is one of my favorites as I seldom use the side pcokets on any thing. I like chest pockets. Arcteryx SL and FL Series Shells are also good bets as is the Westcomb Focus, Shift and Apoc.

> Hi Dane,
> I'm in the market for a new >hard / soft shell and I really >like the design
> and simplicity of the OR Axiom - >however I have just one >concern....
> It looks from the pictures I have seen, like the Axiom has 2 pockets which
> would be inaccessible whilst wearing a harness. Can you tell me if this is the case and if so how you found it?

Anonymous said...

Hi Dane,

Have you ever tested the Rab Vapour Rise Lite Alpine Jacket? It's a superb wicking soft shell.


Martin said...

Hi Dane
In previous blog post you wrote about Marmot Hyper Jacket and I was wondering if you have used and tested it for ice climbing, and if you like it as much as before after you have tested more jackets?

Is it possible to compare Membrane Strata with Gore Tex Active Shell?
OR axioms vs. MArmot Hyper?

Dane said...

Marmot Hyper is not as water proof as the Goretex or Neoshell versions. Great in dry conditions like ice climbing but it is not what I would consider a real rain jacket which the others are. Call it water resistant not water proof. There is no real comparison in a pouring rain. You'll get wet in the Strata...there is a comaprison on that in a past review..try the fall of 2011 shell tests. Oct iirc.

Aging Viper said...

A few years ago Patagonia started using an "active fit" for some of their more high-performance pieces. I noticed it when I went from the old Krushell softshell jacket, which fit well in a large, to the Ready Mix, where a Large wouldn't fit over more that a base layer. Had to go up to an XL, which is a bit baggy on me. I like what I see in the Knifeblade, but assumed the fit issues would be the same. Oh well...

Unknown said...

Hello Dane! First time reader, I am very impressed with the reviews and info greatly appreciate it. They seem fairll unbiased from what I've read. So I was wondering about the Rab baltoro Alpine jacket I see that you didn't actually review the cold but it was in the original shells post I was wondering if you had any information on it or knew anything about it much as I am in the search of one. I have read reviews on it seems really well thought out. But I'm still not sure as I don't want to spend too much money on a new soft shell as I haven't climbed before. If you have any recommendations in the hundred fifty to two hundred fifty dollar range that would be great also something very breathable obviously is what I'm looking for um I did have some others I was looking forwards but wasn't quite sure I was told to check out your blog. I appreciate it look forward to hearing back thank you sir.